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The Isolation of Being Chinese While COVID-19 Racism Is Infecting Our Country

While I was walking past, I heard some students look at me and say, “We should stay away from those teachers because they have the coronavirus.”

I am Chinese. I have not been to China in almost five years. I have never been to the city of Wuhan where the coronavirus (COVID-19) — the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system — originated. Yet I am being blamed for a virus, something that last time I checked, does not discriminate.

I did not want to hear what the students said, but I did. Needless to say, I was distraught. I have heard students say to their Chinese friends that “it’s their fault” for the virus spreading to all areas of the world into the pandemic we are now in.

I’m not the only one facing xenophobia and racism due to the coronavirus. Last month, the BBC reported that a 23-year-old man from Singapore was brutally attacked by two teenagers and told, “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country.” Many Asian-owned restaurants and grocery stores are facing unprecedented drops in customers and profits, causing some to temporarily close down. Twitter is full of posts from Asians facing discrimination in their day-to-day lives.

As a scientist, I can safely say that a virus does not know the color of your skin, the background of your family or what your culture is. Viruses cannot tell what you look like or where your family origins are from, because a virus only recognizes the four letters of our genetic code – A, C, G, T – and proceeds to infect whoever and whatever has such a code.

It is quite frustrating and isolating to feel as if the entire world is coming down on you because the color of your skin, or because you are of the same ethnicity as where the outbreak began. I will admit that I had fears in participating in the 2020 LA Marathon for fear of being outcasted or discriminated against because the color of my skin. While I was sick myself (not with the coronavirus, just under the weather) and chose not to participate for sake of my health, I cannot say it did not cross my mind that participants would want to avoid me and others who look like me.

I have gone shopping for the bare necessities in the past few days at Target and Sprouts and felt eyes staring at me, eyes following me because I was one of the few Chinese shoppers still milling around. Last I checked, I did not ask for this virus to spread to over a hundred countries around the world. Last I checked, I did not ask for the virus to jump from animals to humans and wreak havoc around the world. 

I am grateful that I have a supportive work environment where I am able to block out what students say in passing and the things I hear circulating around campus. I am lucky that I have friends who understand that it is not my fault that I am Chinese and that still wish to see me and interact with me day in, day out. They are the heroes in my fight against the discrimination I have faced for simply being who I am.

If this were a few years ago, earlier in my fight against my mental illness, I would have caved and isolated myself. It is already damaging and discouraging to assume that because of the color of someone’s skin they are responsible for the spread of a virus. It is even more damaging when you add on mental illness to that.

As a scientist and educator, I have been urging my students to not think in such agoraphobic terms by creating a blanket statement that “all Asians are the cause of the virus.” I urge my students to think about how viruses cannot determine the color of the skin of someone they want to infect. I urge my students to consider what it would feel like if they were the ones on the receiving end of the discrimination and racism, of how they would feel if they were shunted to the outskirts of society because simply of who they are. 

It’s scary to know that your job is on hold, that your livelihood is on hold because of a pandemic spreading around the world. There is no need to add racism and fear into all this. The coronavirus is not a “Chinese virus” or an “Asian virus.” A virus is a virus. It is a non-living entity that causes havoc in all living beings it infects. A virus has no mind to select who it wants to target.

I urge you to understand we are humans on the receiving end of this racism and fear. We are human with feelings and lives that have been affected by this pandemic as well. A virus is a virus. Please do not use it as an excuse to isolate and further marginalize those of us who are already marginalized in the world we live in.

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Unsplash photo via Hiep Duong