Amid the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, San Francisco entrepreneur, Celine Tien, stepped into a Los Angeles nail salon for her birthday manicure.
Upon her arrival, the nail technician asked her, “Are you China-Chinese?”
After Tien told her that she was originally from Mainland China, the nail technician went on a racist rant.
“‘You know, we are scared of you Chinese people… Chinese people, I don’t like you, you are so bad, so bad and so gross,'” Tien recounted in The New York Times.
Tien was later interviewed by ABC7’s Dion Lim about her experience, and sadly the Facebook commentators were dismissive, and if not, more offensive than the nail technician who initially insulted her.
“How much did you pay her. What makes her half assed story worth reporting when other people have it way worse than her experience.”
“This is really newsworthy?”
“i love you long time virus or not”
As of this writing, there have been more than 1,500 reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans as a result of xenophobia due to COVID-19. Women are three times more likely to be attacked than men. The FBI has issued a warning about the surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Yet, when people speak out about their experiences of discrimination, it usually falls upon deaf ears.
You don’t have to scroll too far to see comments like these on articles about hate crimes or xenophobia. People seem quick to dismiss news reports of Asian Americans being verbally and physically assaulted, or even use the comment section as a stage to continue the attack from the comfort of their keyboard.
This behavior of denial and gaslighting of crimes against Asians is overwhelming and, frankly, perplexing.
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It’s left many of us wondering, “Why is it so hard for people to hold compassion for Asian American victims?”
To understand the way Asian Americans are being treated now during the pandemic, we must first understand how Asian Americans were treated throughout history. Systematic oppression, dehumanizing stereotypes, underrepresentation and politics are possible reasons why so many people are gaslighting us today.
The Model Minority Myth
For the longest time, Asians have dealt with the model minority myth. We are often portrayed as a monolith of brainy, law-abiding, good-at-math robots who hold a higher level of success than the general public. The danger of this perceived achievement is that it downplays the inequalities that Asians actually face.
Unsurprisingly, it is believed that the model minority was not constructed to compliment Asians or celebrate them, but for political gain. Evidence suggests that the myth was constructed due to America seeking China’s alliance to fight against imperial Japan in 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law that ever banned an entire ethnic group of people from the United States. Ellen Wu of the Los Angeles Times explained that fearing their alliance may be in danger because of the exclusion law, America sought to “strategically recast Chinese in its promotional materials as ‘law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us.'” After World War II, the idea of Asians being able to achieve the American Dream was also used to drive a wedge between minorities. According to Kat Chow of NPR, the effect of the myth was to minimize “the role racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial/ethnic minority groups — especially black Americans.”
The model minority myth is damaging and portrays Asian Americans as one dimensional. It may cause people to believe that the Asian minority as a whole has achieved “the American Dream,” and therefore undermines the hard work, trauma and discrimination that we deal with. Some people who truly buy into the myth may be so convinced that they simply cannot accept that Asian Americans are being attacked in broad daylight due to COVID-19 xenophobia.
Asian Representation or Lack Thereof
People may not fully articulate Asian struggles because they don’t see those stories told on screen. Stories, let alone Asian faces were barely present, and oftentimes the ones we did see were created to further reinforce harmful stereotypes. Asians actors have not historically played leading roles in Western media until a few years ago. Before “Asian August” in 2018 and the success that came from “Crazy Rich Asians,” Asians were typically cast as sidekicks to White protagonists or demeaning stereotypes meant as comedic relief. There were rarely Asian stories told in Hollywood, but there was a lot of Long Duk Dongs and yellowfacing.
The struggle of being an Asian immigrant is a common experience lived, but it’s not one that we get to see on the screen. Instead, what we are presented with are oversexualized dragon ladies, sexless background nerds and broken accents. “Crazy Rich Asians” was an amazing milestone as it was the first film with an entirely Asian cast in 25 years that earned many accolades. However, the film focused on the story of the rich and elite and not of the working class. Some who watched the film may think that every Asian person lives such an extravagant lifestyle. However, Asians have the largest income inequality of any racial group in the United States. According to a report by Pew Research Center, Asians in the top 10% of income distribution earn 10.7 times as much as the poorest. The bottom 10% make under $12,500.
We are slowly seeing a shift in Asian narratives. Alan Yang’s Netflix film, “Tigertail,” is an emotional drama based on his own family history. The film follows a Taiwanese immigrant whose marriage and hopes disintegrate as he “achieves” the American Dream. His feelings of pain, anger and isolation strain his relationship with his family. It is suggested that his daughter suffers from intergenerational trauma, a common phenomenon of immigrant children, and unintentionally ruins her own relationship as a result. Another Netflix film, “The Half Of It,” which follows a queer Chinese American teen named Ellie, also gives us a glimpse of her father’s story. Ellie’s father, who was once an engineer, cannot get hired in such a role in America due to his inability to speak fluent English. Ellie’s father suffers from depression after the death of his wife and places all his hopes and dreams on Ellie to succeed. The story of Asian immigrants and their children is finally making waves in the media, but we still need so much more of it.
Dehumanization of Asian Women
Asian women haven’t always been treated as humans in film and literature. They are often used as giggly sexual objects for White protagonists and aren’t illustrated as sentient, equal human beings to characters of other ethnicities. Think of the line, “me love you long time” from “Full Metal Jacket” and characters such as “Fook Mi” and “Fook Yu” from Austin Powers.
The idea of Asian women being submissive sex objects can be traced back to a violent history of colonization and rape due to Western imperialism.
According to “White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence” by the Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, the exploitation and commodification of Asian bodies are connected to past military presence in Asia, especially during the Vietnam War, the Philippine-American War and World War II.
“Western societies often view Asian societies as less developed and sophisticated, and therefore inferior. These perceptions of color the interactions of U.S. servicemen and Asian women, a problem ‘further exacerbated by the sexually denigrating stereotypes of Asian Pacific women.’ Filipina sex workers, for example, frequently report ‘being treated like a toy or a pig by the American [soldiers] and being required to do ‘three holes’- oral, vaginal and anal sex.’ The systems of prostitution perpetuated around U.S. military bases in Asia reaffirm the West’s perception of Asian women as sex objects. In these contexts, Asian sex workers are registered and tagged like domestic pets, further relegating them to a less-than-human status.”
These men went on to spread their ideas of the hypersexualized, submissive Asian women stereotype. One of the early literary depictions of the docile, dainty, Asian woman can be found in French writer Pierre Loti’s 1887 novel, “Madame Chrysanthème.” The novel follows a White man who travels to Japan to take a wife. The protagonist describes his ideal spouse as a “little, creamy-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes. She must be pretty and not much bigger than a doll.” Jin Hyun points out in her piece, “Dear Men With Yellow Fever, You Aren’t Flattering, Just a Little Rapey” how Loti’s description is more fitting for an object or a pet, not a human woman. This dehumanized image of Asian women went on to inspire other East meets West tales such as “Madame Butterfly” and “Miss Saigon.”
Women are reported to be three times more likely the victim of a hate crime. Physical and verbal assaults have been committed against the elderly, young students, and women out alone. It is plausible to say that the social inequality that Asian women face from dehumanizing stereotypes can be connected to the discrimination they are facing during the COVID-19 crisis. Since Asian women have been historically treated as less-than-human in the past, it makes it easier for perpetrators to justify their deranged actions.
Politics and the Media
The rhetoric of how China is covered in the media is not the same as other countries. When covering how both China and Italy had shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, the New York Times had some strong, biased words.
When speaking about China:
“To fight the coronavirus, China placed nearly 60 million people under lockdown and instituted strict quarantine and travel restrictions for hundreds of millions of others. Its campaign has come at a great cost to people’s livelihoods and personal liberties.”
However, when speaking about Italy:
“Italy is locking down Milan, Venice and much of its north, risking its economy in an effort to contain Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak.”
The media outlet illustrated quarantine as a heroic effort for Italy. They claim that their lockdown was a sacrifice for the sake of Europe. On the other hand, China was vilified and their lockdown was described as an attack on human rights and a danger to millions of people.
Anti-Chinese sentiments in the news are not new. For lack of a better word, the way in which COVID-19 has been covered is an absolute shitshow. When the virus outbreak started, so did headlines that screamed “Wuhan” and “bats.” Feature article photos displayed ordinary Asian wet markets as well as American Chinatowns. A video went viral of a travel show clip which shows a young woman eating bat soup. The dish was coined as a “Chinese delicacy” while in fact the video clip was filmed in Palau and there is no such dish found on Chinese menus. Might I add that smoked bat is actually served in Florida, but I guess people only say it’s “dirty” when a Chinese face is attached to the headline. The media was so hungry to brand the virus as something foreign and Chinese, that they sensationalized reports, spread misinformation and perhaps played off the West’s buried fear of “yellow peril.”
To this day, there is no confirmed data of how COVID-19 started. Scientists believe it is likely that the virus originated in bats, but according to the Guardian, that’s all they can really be certain about.
Donald Trump repeatedly referred the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” despite the disease being officially named as COVID-19 by The World Health Organization. Trump ignored countless politicians who corrected him, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Incorrectly labeling the virus as “Chinese” encourages xenophobia and endangers the safety of his own Asian American citizens. A White House official called coronavirus “the Kung-flu,” a joke made at the expense of tens of thousands of lives lost. A 7-year-old second-grader shared that her classmate told her, “I don’t like China or Chinese people because they started this quarantine.” A 6-year-old Texas boy shopping with his father and 2-year-old sibling had his cheek horrifically slashed open because the assailant “thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus.”
In the media’s effort to blame China for coronavirus, the ones truly blamed were Asian American citizens.
How Can I Help My Fellow Asian Americans?
How can we help our Asian American citizens and stop the cycle of gaslighting? Be an ally. Being an ally does not just mean being not racist. It means speaking out against racism when it happens. Staying silent when someone says something potentially harmful can be complicit and encourage the perpetrator into thinking their words are not wrong. It is not funny when anyone says “Kung-flu.” It is harmful to label COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.” Wet markets are not what they’re illustrated to be in the media. They’re an integral part of Asian communities, and they’re similar to farmers’ markets or Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. Stop misinformation, correct it and encourage others to do the same.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
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