March 11, 2021 | Feature
a hidden front
racism in the pandemic from an asian perspective
For the majority of the U.S. population, March marks a year since the beginning of the pandemic. For me, a Chinese international student studying in the States, the chaos began in early January, when news of COVID-19 was still just an internet punchline next to more pressing issues, and the rest of the world went on with their lives as usual. Most Chinese international students tried to suppress our worries and carry on with life as usual. We shut our mouths, lowered our heads, quietly hoarded masks that we dared not wear in public, and curled tightly inside ourselves so none of our concerns would spill out like a shameful secret.
Narratives and surveillance camera footage of hate crimes stick to my senses like stubborn afterimages, imprinted in my mind. Asian-American students were bullied at school for a cough, a Chinese woman was chased and beaten in the New York subway for wearing a mask, the car of a southeast Fresno family was vandalized with graffiti that read “fuck Asians and Coronavirus.” The list goes on.
But these reports—of high school bullies who pointed and shouted “coronavirus,” men who repeatedly struck an Asian woman with an umbrella, bolded curse words that needed to be redacted in photos—are only part of the story. The camera captures the moment of action, then slowly pans away. What happens then? What about the acts that don’t fit such simple narratives?
These early-stage pandemic feelings resemble my overall experience in the States. In my small New England prep school, Chinese students and the rest of the community maintained a polite distance from each other. Partially as a result of this distance, I experienced no overt acts of racism throughout my four years in high school. But not ending up in the hospital is a low bar. Racism takes many forms. Slurs or being shoved in the streets are obvious, but there is far more that lies beneath the surface. There is the haunting uncertainty, like being trapped in my middle school insecurities again, ruminating over every word and social cue: Are they gossiping about me? Is that a vile joke, or am I just overreacting? Up until the slur drops unmistakably, or the punch smashes solid to the face, anything could be a joke that I am too slow to grasp.
In February 2020, after being called “coronavirus,” filmed, taunted, and having his headphones snatched away from him, Pawat Silawattakun, a 24-year-old Thai man in the United Kingdom said, “It didn’t feel like a robbery at that point, it felt like bullying, a bit of messing around.” It was only after he chased his attackers and ended up with his blood all over a traffic island from a heavy punch that he knew it was a violent hate crime.
But before we see blood on the pavement, we dismiss all the light nudges and halfhearted jokes as overthinking. Anything from being excluded from a conversation to direct shunning can be the result of non-racial reasons, and jokes such as “How are you not [insert any other Asian’s name]? You two literally look identical” can come from good-natured ignorance. My mind swings back and forth between a state where everything is about race and a state where nothing is. On the one hand, I replay videos of hate crimes, memories of shunning, and microaggressions in my head whenever I walk into a public space. But on the other hand, I feel reluctant to shatter the self-consoling filter that I too often place upon my surroundings, for it is so much easier to gaslight myself than to admit the heft of race. In the brawl between these two mindsets, a new kind of creature is born: a hyper-sensitive being that plucks at its own feathers in unrelenting self-doubt. It overreacts to the slightest movement, denies its own instinct, and condemns itself as the source of the problem. This denial is further exacerbated by the predominance of the black-white binary in discussions on race, creating a facade that Asians are not, and will not, be subject to racism.
This is a side of racism that Cathy Park Hong tries to highlight in her collection of essays, Minor Feelings. “The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I am overshadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport.” The problem is that “most white Americans can only understand racial trauma as a spectacle,” she writes. “The white high school students parading down the hallways wearing Confederate flag capes and the graffitied swastikas. What’s harder to report is not the incident itself but the stress of its anticipation.”
In my case, the stress of anticipation manifests as excessive defensiveness. A year before the pandemic started, I attended a high school art portfolio review, an event where students talk to art school representatives and present their work. This was during the peak of my artistic confidence, and I was eager to present myself as a likeable candidate. I even made an effort to compliment the purple pen that a representative handed me to fill out my information.
I was just starting to feel like I was becoming a cool, quirky art student when I was struck by one of the first questions the representative asked me: Did I have good grades? It was a reasonable and completely innocuous question, but in my head it rang with the “thrum of fear and shame, a tight animal alertness” that Hong writes about. I became immediately conscious of my glasses, my unstyled black hair, and the various “Joyce is a diligent student, but she is very quiet in class” comments on my report card. At that time, I didn’t realize my self-consciousness was centered around race, but it cannot be clearer in hindsight: I thought she was trying to figure out if I was just another Asian nerd who couldn’t do art.
My brain processed these twisted interpretations faster than a jump scare, and I heard myself say, “Yes, sadly,” with a passive-aggressive tone.
A pause. She tilted her head slightly to the side. “Why did you say ‘sadly’?” She looked genuinely confused. “I’m sure you worked hard for your grades.”
Her puzzled gaze choked me up. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know why I was so ashamed about having decent grades, or why I’d braced myself for an insult before anyone showed any sign of launching an attack. The portfolio review was a fiasco. I stumbled through the rest of my portfolio presentation, all the while fighting back angry and embarrassed tears. I couldn’t even lift my head up to look at her face out of shame. When we were finished, she shook my hand and apologized for whatever she did that clearly upset me, then she gave me the purple pen I said I liked.
Then she had to apologize again for upsetting me even more with that gesture.
While these anecdotes may show my personal tendency to overthink as much as they reflect the subtleties of racism, my fears are still based on experience: walking up to someone with my identity held in outstretched hands and expecting them to twist it into something else entirely.
On my first visit to a therapist, I tried to tell her how hard I found it to open up and be completely honest with myself. As the message traveled across the office, it became something mostly, if not entirely, attributed to the “quiet, reserved” culture I grew up in. Do I feel homesick? Yes, she said, then that might have something to do with the cultural shock that you are going through. You know, it’s very common for Asian international students to find it hard to adjust.
My interjections to these assumptions felt as awkward and useless as my attempts to sit upright in her saggy, oversized couch. It’s my own fucking problem and not my culture’s, I wanted to yell at her calmly analytical face—but she was a trained therapist. What if she saw me clearer than I saw myself? My determination wavered, jumbling my words into a sad, powerless lump of pulp that got me nowhere. I gave up and sank into her sofa. This is when the real twisting happens: when I am no longer certain whether I am being misinterpreted or being seen, when my identity becomes shapeless and hesitant, but obedient to fill in whatever form she gives me.
This amalgamation of anger, shame, and doubt is what I think about when I look at the rampant xenophobia during the pandemic. I am not only saddened by the obvious crimes, but also the intensified distrust of both others and oneself that fuels these self-lacerating mental games. Anyone who has seen the recent footage of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai-American, being shoved to the ground must have felt that pound against their hearts as his body smashed into the pavement. What struck me most, however, is how he raised his frail arms to his chest in a surprised motion of self-defense seconds before the impact. It struck me because the act was all too familiar—it is the gesture of someone grasping onto their last hope that it is all a hoax, causing the gesture to linger awkwardly between self-defense and meaninglessness. That meager hope persists until the last possible second, until the fear of misjudgment is overtaken by the fear of death.
What more can I say without stumbling over my words again? The hidden impact of racism on the individual mind is obscure but extensive. On this one-year landmark in the long struggle against the pandemic, I ask you to look at the surging number of hate crimes against Asians and look beyond the incidents themselves. Look closely at the shifting glance, the suppressed word, the arm that hangs in mid-air—that is where the action really is.