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Column: Being Asian American during COVID-19

“Do you ever feel like you’re treated worse because you’re Asian?” my oldest friend asked me the other day. A straightforward question, but one I had to think about. I’ve grown up in a non-diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles: 84.2% of the population is white, 6.5% Asian, and even less representation of other ethnicities. Unfortunately, it would make sense if I had experienced some different treatment. On the other hand, one of my school’s core values was diversity, so how could racism exist there? Sarcasm, of course.

I was sure I had been on the receiving end of some pretty targeted jokes, but I did not feel immediately comfortable in labeling them as racist. However, as I replayed these situations in my head I realized that they in fact, were. I was previously unsure for one reason: too often, racism against Asians is dismissed and otherwise accepted as humor; crude jokes at the expense of my people. I began to consider my history as an Asian person, remembering all the times I had experienced this disguised prejudice.

In 7th grade, I had a crush on a boy who was, like me, half Asian though not Korean, unlike me. One day, a couple girls spotted me talking to him and spurted out, “That’s basically incest.” I didn’t get it. I thought to myself: What? Why would that be incest if we’re not even related? Then I understood that the punchline was our distant racial relation. Everyone laughed.

In 9th grade, I was at a fair with some classmates. I remember waiting for a ride in line behind two men who were speaking Mandarin, when the boys I was with started laughing and making fun of their accents. One turned to me and said, “I bet they’re talking about eating dogs. Don’t you guys like that stuff?” Everyone laughed.

In 11th grade, I was at a party when I overheard a group talking about a girl I knew. She was beautiful and she happened to be hapa, like me. I heard them snicker, “Sure, she’s pretty. For an Asian.” Everyone laughed. 

When COVID-19 became an issue in the United States, it is safe to say many people were scared. Asian Americans were scared for a unique reason. The racial undertones of the coronavirus, or as President Trump so carelessly called it, the “kung flu,” brought a new wave of attacks against people who look like me. 

I remember speaking to my mother before Los Angeles went on lockdown. She told me about a friend, originally from Hong Kong, who had an upsetting encounter at her daughter’s basketball game. When her friend went to sit down on the gymnasium bleachers, she ran into another teammate’s mother.

They were not good friends, but friends nonetheless, who had not seen each other in quite some time. My mother’s friend leaned in for a hug and the woman decidedly stepped back, refusing the gesture. Though the “stay six feet away” regulation was not common practice yet, many would give this woman the benefit of the doubt amidst the pandemic. Maybe she was just ahead of the game and trying to stay safe. However, when the woman went to join other parents on the stands, a notably white crowd, she welcomed hugs with open arms. This woman was not reserved or trying to be universally corona-conscious. She was just racist. 

Only two months after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, over 1,800 racist incidents had occurred against Asian Americans. In St. Louis, a restaurant hung a COVID-19 virus piñata for their customers, with a stereotypical Asian caricature displayed on the front. In more violent cases, an Asian business owner in Los Angeles received a warning posted on his storefront that read, “Go back to Japan…. We are going to bomb your store if you don’t listen and we know where you live,” according to the L.A. Times.

Three teenage girls physically and verbally assaulted an older Asian woman, using an umbrella to beat the woman’s head, claiming she had the virus, according to the New York Post. The list does and will continue to go on. 

Racism towards Asians is not new to America. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning the immigration of Chinese to America, mostly in fear that they would take too many American jobs. The act was not repealed until 1943, the year after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 became law, which called for the forced relocation of around 100,000 Japanese immigrants and their American-born children into internment camps across the West Coast.

More recently, a 2019 lawsuit was filed against Harvard for discriminating against Asian American students in the admission process. The largest factor was Harvard’s assessment of applicants’ personality traits, which significantly favored white students, and rejected Asian American students.

Federal Judge Allison D. Boroughs ruled in favor of the school, disappointedly concluding, “It is possible that the self-selected group of Asian Americans that applied to Harvard during the years included in the data set used in this case did not possess the personal qualities that Harvard is looking for at the same rate as white applicants . . .” These are just a few examples of historic discrimination and now, Asians of all nationalities must deal with the repercussions of a virus that happened to originate from China. 

My next words may sound cliché, but I am desperate to get my point across. I am American. English is my first and only language, I celebrate Thanksgiving, watch the Super Bowl, and participate in countless other American traditions. I am also Korean.

My go-to meal is Tteokbokki, my grandparents carry thick accents, and my eyeshadow will never look quite the way it does on my white friends’ eyes. I am an Asian American. I am not your scapegoat, your punchline, or your subject for which to spew slurs. That should be enough.

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