Ebola, SARS, MERS, and now the coronavirus (COVID-19) — for each of these viruses, the Western media identified an entire racial group as scapegoats for the outbreak.
History has a cruel way of repeating itself throughout the decades, but as time passes we tend to forget its consequences. For the Asian American community, the past few weeks have been a rude reminder that as perpetual foreigners, our communities are still extremely vulnerable to prejudice, stereotyping, and racially targeted hate crimes as long as there’s a convenient excuse available. Sadly, this is far from the first time we have been subjected to such treatment.
Recently in Australia, Canada, the US, UK and other European countries, the virus has been referred to as the “Chinese virus” and used as justification for xenophobia and discrimination against East Asians.
There have even been reported incidents of physical assaults in New York, US and Sheffield, UK. This form of violence against East Asian communities has also been encouraged on social media with some users calling to “burn down” China to put a stop to the epidemic and calling the death of Chinese patients “natural selection.”
Reports of racial discrimination against East Asian college students have also been frequent with the University of California Berkeley announcing on their Instagram account that anger and “Xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” were normal reactions to the outbreak. Several universities around the world have also asked East Asian students to quarantine themselves and refrain from leaving their rooms, regardless of whether they had recently visited China or not.
Even children were not immune to this racial discrimination as playground bullying increased and an anonymous email was sent to several parents of children attending a New Zealand primary school, which stated, “Our Kiwi kids don’t want to be in the same class as your disgusting virus spreaders.”
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Despite our centuries-long presence in the United States and many other Western countries, this stereotype of being somehow less civilized, unsanitary, and foreign has plagued Asian communities for generations. When comparing the language used to describe the current panic regarding the coronavirus and the bubonic plague in the 1900s, it shows just how little has changed since then.
While we know today that the spread of the bubonic plague was largely due to rats carrying infected fleas, health officials disregarded this scientific evidence and instead turned the attention onto Chinese residents in San Francisco. Fearing that the plague could be transferred through food or open wounds, they ordered disinfection campaigns, running carbolic acid through the sewers. In actuality, this flushed out the rats living in the sewers which helped the disease to spread more rapidly.
Meanwhile, as anti-Chinese sentiment and Sinophobia grew within America, the first drastic measure taken was to quarantine Chinatown. Even worse, in Honolulu, Hawaii, officials isolated an area occupied by roughly 10,000 people and sprayed the homes of Chinese residents with carbolic acid, throwing out their belongings and forcing the residents to shower at public stations.
Things escalated further when officials made the decision to burn down the home of a Chinese plague victim which quickly spread out of control to surrounding areas, burning for 17 days and displacing 8,000 residents, mostly of Chinese and Japanese descent.
Similar to today, Chinese Americans were plagued by dog and rat-eating stereotypes even in the 20th century. Vintage advertisements portrayed them to be barbaric, sub-human caricatures and media portrayal was hardly any better.
An 1854 article from the New York Daily Tribune referred to the Chinese as “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception, without any of the higher domestic or social relations,” and stated that “every [Chinese] female is a prostitute,” and “the Chinese quarter of the city [San Francisco] is a by-word for filth and sin” — a statement that just about summed up the hostilities that had built up within White American communities towards their Chinese neighbors.
The fact of the matter is that foreigners and outsiders have historically been represented as sickly, savage, and contagious. It’s a linguistic tactic that is used to justify the inhuman treatment towards a minority ethnic group and has been successful for centuries.
As Gregory B. Lee, the professor of Chinese and Transcultural Studies at the University of Lyon wrote in his research, “In true Orientalist fashion, anything positive about China was projected into its past, while its contemporary population were deemed decadent, decrepit and sickly, and unsuited to the challenges of modernity.”
This belief was and still is most applicable to newer immigrants who are seen as the most suspicious, different and the dirtiest as they have had the least amount of time to assimilate.
This same notion continues today, where various traditional cultures are seen as exotic and fascinating while modern-day Asians are seen as morally degenerate and biologically inferior. We can see this especially in the language in which Asian cuisines are described, primarily Chinese food.
In 2019, a Caucasian woman opened the doors of her restaurant “Lucky Lee’s” with no real knowledge of Chinese cuisine. The restaurant was meant to provide a “clean” alternative to the “oily” and “salty” traditional Chinese dishes which would make people “feel bloated and icky the next day.” Her restaurant shut down after just eight months. However, her attempts at opening a “clean” Asian restaurant are not isolated by any means. There are constant efforts to somehow “civilize” or “fix” Asian foods in order to make it safer for consumption.
This distrust of Asians and Asian cuisine shows up constantly also in the form of supposedly “well-meaning” jokes. In 2015, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee tweeted, “I trust @BernieSanders with my tax dollars like I trust a North Korean chef with my labrador!”
Asians will eat your pets, they will eat anything — this racist view is frequently present in memes and comedy. However, it’s a clear extension of the hatred and xenophobia many hold towards Asians, only thinly veiled as a joke to avoid accusations of racism.
Relating to the world’s current panic over the coronavirus, we can clearly identify that media outlets are attempting to exploit this same stereotypical view of Asian cuisine being uncivilized. Through the spread of inaccurate news and images of Chinese markets and bat soup purposely circulated to trigger reactions of disgust and horror, Asians became the latest scapegoats once again.
Additionally, these events can have lasting psychological impacts, especially on children. Jex Wang recalled how she processed the worldwide panic over SARS in 2003 in her article on Gal-dem, “It’s a lot for a nine-year-old child to scrub their own skin in the shower every night until it is raw, hoping to wash off the ‘germs’ everyone around them had convinced them they had.”
And this vicious cycle is likely having similar effects on Asian children today.
The coronavirus, and by extension Asians all over the world, have been portrayed as existential dangers to the Western world. If we know one thing for certain, it’s that racial stereotypes don’t die. No matter how safe we think we are as the “model minority” the coronavirus is yet another reminder that the idea of the “Yellow Peril” lives on.
At a time like this, we begin to see cracks within our own Pan-Asian communities as well. Disappointingly, there have been Asian Americans who resorted to displaying signs stating that they were “not Chinese” in an effort to avoid discrimination or harassment.
However, we shouldn’t be so naive as to think this recent spike in xenophobia has anything to do with China vs. the rest of the world. Simply, it has become the latest excuse to express hatred and racism towards the Asian communities, regardless of where they are actually from.
This latest outbreak should also serve as a reminder for Asians that whether they like it or not, we are seen through a Pan-Asian identity outside of Asia. When one of us succeeds, we all benefit but when one of us suffers and becomes targeted, the rest of us often do as well. This mixture of different Asian cultures should be celebrated and supported, not shunned.
What’s important now is that we don’t try to distance ourselves from Chinese Americans, which is shameful and extremely cowardly, but support each other, have sympathy, and stand up for every member in our community as this issue affects all of us. The hatred towards Chinese nationals has little to do with the actual coronavirus outbreak as its effects are barely felt outside of Asia.
Currently, the bigger threat to our society is racism and it would be beneficial for all of us to remember that.
Feature image (left) via ABC News, (right) via Hawaii State Archives Digital Collections
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