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To be honest, I didn’t believe that the virus could come to America. When it first appeared in Wuhan, China, and later spread rapidly and killed thousands, I still didn’t believe it would come here. Not America. I admit I had a “white-superiority” kind of mindset, which is so stupid in hindsight. As you can see from my last name, I am not white. I am Chinese American. I am a world of both. I am also a world of neither.
Viruses don’t discriminate. When later it spread to neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea, I started to worry. But it was only until the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the virus as a pandemic that I seriously started stocking up on food and other essentials. I was initially reluctant to stock on food because I thought it would be alright here. I even scoffed at all the Asian people in my community panic-buying rice at Costco to the point that they sold out. I’m still not sure why I felt that way though. Perhaps, I was too afraid to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.
Last week, I finished stocking up on food and essentials, and this week, I’m focusing on building a home gym with the limited money that I earn. My job as a cashier at a Hong Kong-style BBQ joint is on stand-by for now, so I have tons of time at home (hence this article). However, I am still conflicted. One part of me feels it’s a social obligation for me, personally, to support Asian businesses during this time when a lot of people are fired, sent home without paid-leave, or just hurting in general, but another part of me feels that social distancing is also a social obligation to those around me. For now, I think the best measure is to wear a face mask whenever I go outside. But that also comes with its own set of dilemmas. Practicing social distancing measures includes wearing face masks in public spaces, but I’ve identified hostile spaces and non-hostile spaces from my experience.
Earlier this week, I went shopping for last minute bread and soap. I wore a face mask. I entered Dollar Tree and later Walmart. It was early in the morning, so there weren’t a lot of other shoppers in Dollar Tree, but the few that I encountered gave me weird looks. All of them were white. None of them wore face masks. In particular, a teenage girl stared at me. We made eye-contact. She broke away first. I wanted to stand my ground as a Chinese-American even though I was scared. I wouldn’t say I was scared for my life, but I was scared of discrimination, insults, jeers, perhaps even denying access into facilities. I was scared they thought I had the virus.
I’ve also wondered why white people don’t wear face masks. Is it because they can’t find anymore? Or is it because they think only sick people wear them? Or perhaps I live in an area that is not too affected, yet? (for context, this region is going up to 200 cases). I am not sure. But this creates a foreignness in me for them and in them for me. My face mask makes me a novelty in that space, and their lack of face masks makes them a novelty for me. Thus, both parties are uncomfortable. To expand, this is similar to the immigrant experience. I am a foreigner in a white space, which makes it hostile for me because I am scared.
Another thing that white people do that confuses me is that they stock up on food and essentials as well, but they don’t wear face masks (?). Entering Walmart, there is no toilet paper, bread, cold medicine, pain medicine, pads and tampons, water, cheese, milk, and even pork. I understand that they are getting ready for quarantine/social distancing, but when they are outside, shouldn’t they be wearing face masks? Just in case? To protect themselves first and foremost but also to protect those around them.
Above are the hostile spaces that I’ve identified, and I dub them “white spaces.” You guessed it! Non-hostile spaces are “Asian spaces.” Let me explain. Immediately after I shopped at Dollar Tree and Walmart, I went to pick up my girlfriend, who lives about twenty minutes south of me, in a town where there is a big Asian population. There are about five or six Asian supermarkets in that area. We went to two of the Chinese ones. Most everyone was wearing face masks. Even the market employees and food-court employees. I felt much safer. Nobody here would accuse me of being sick. Everybody is protecting each other. I won’t deny that perhaps it is because I have entered a familiar environment, which makes it seem less hostile to me. Because everyone is wearing face masks, and I am as well, that means I do not stand out. By not standing out, no one will notice me. And of course, blending in is what Asians do best. Here I am, a Chinese American living the immigrant experience.
About the Author: Karen Zheng is a first-generation undergraduate student currently attending Dartmouth College. She is studying English and Creative Writing. You can follow her on Instagram here.