‘Reality is hitting me in the face’: Asian Americans grapple with racism due to COVID-19

Rumors that the virus originated in China has placed undue stigma on Chinese Americans and other Americans of Asian descent, writes Rob Buscher.

Rumors that the virus originated in China has placed undue stigma on Chinese Americans and other Americans of Asian descent, writes Rob Buscher.  (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rumors that the virus originated in China has placed undue stigma on Chinese Americans and other Americans of Asian descent, writes Rob Buscher. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Conversations about race and racism in the United States tend to focus on anti-Blackness and white supremacy. At times, this binary has obscured anti-Asian racism from public view.

However, in the past months, coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked dramatically nationwide. In the last two weeks of March alone, 1,100 incidents were documented by the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center. These incidents range from verbal assault to violent attacks, such as the March 14 stabbing of a Hmong American family in Texas and an April 5 acid attack on a Chinese American woman in Brooklyn.

Rumors that the virus originated in China, coupled with President Donald Trump terming it “the Chinese Virus,” has placed undue stigma on Chinese Americans and other Americans of Asian descent.

Italy, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have all surpassed China in the number of known COVID-19 deaths. And studies have shown that the majority of East Coast infections can be traced to individuals who recently traveled to Europe.

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Nonetheless, Asian Americans continue to face racial profiling, bias incidents, and racialized acts of violence related to the pandemic. With the exception of one incident that was reported on March 4, where two Asian American students were attacked in a SEPTA station, anti-Asian hate incidents in Philadelphia have largely consisted of verbal abuse, ethnic intimidation, and vandalism.

Chinese American Alice Leung, who’s the owner/chef of Northern Liberties’ Soy Café, recently experienced this first-hand when her storefront was spray-painted. Leung recalls, “I came to work like normal and saw graffiti on the door. I didn’t think anything of it, just got some alcohol to wipe it off and, as I was scraping it away, I realized that it said “Chink”. I thought, this is crazy, it’s a racial slur! In the midst of the pandemic, people are doing that?”

Leung, whose mother lives in Brooklyn, where a number of anti-Chinese attacks have recently occurred, warned her to be careful. But Leung never thought it would hit so close to home.

“I just thought we, as a human race, had progressed beyond that, but it’s very sad that the reality is hitting me in the face.”

Chinese Americans faced a great deal of xenophobia during the mid-to-late 19th century, as Chinese laborers began immigrating in large numbers after slavery was abolished. While not comparable to the horrors of slavery that African Americans endured, Chinese Americans were also required to attend segregated schools, per Jim Crow laws, and were frequent targets of lynch mobs.

As pressure mounted from the white working class, who believed their livelihoods would be jeopardized by Chinese labor, Congress passed a series of anti-immigrant legislation that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which later expanded to all persons of Asian and Arab descent in the Immigration Act of 1924.

Chinese people were banned from immigrating to the United States until the Magnuson Act of 1943, which allowed limited numbers of them into the country as an allied nation in the Second World War. However, it was not until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that national quotas were eliminated completely, and persons from Asia were able to resume immigration en masse.

Of the more than 18 million individuals of Asian descent currently living in America, nearly two-thirds trace their lineage to those who immigrated after the exclusionary laws were lifted. Although microaggressions are common, many younger East Asian Americans I’ve talked to say they’re experiencing blatant racism for the first time in their lives.

Carol Li is a Chinese Canadian student at the University of Pennsylvania in University City. She has experienced two instances of racial abuse since the coronavirus outbreak.

“I was walking down 40th and Chestnut, wearing a mask with my friend, when a white man, probably in his 30s, rolled down the window of his car and yelled, ‘HAHA, YOU HAVE CORONAVIRUS’ at us while pointing. This happened right after the St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl at City Tap House that should have been cancelled for social distancing. A few days later, a black man on the sidewalk looked at me and said, ‘You probably have coronavirus.’”

Blaming China for the origin of COVID-19 has resulted in a hyper-awareness of race not just for Chinese Americans, but for Americans of many East and Southeast Asian ethnicities.

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Leona Pongparnsana, a Lao American who works as a delivery driver for Uber Eats, recalls an incident of bias on March 20 at a South Philadelphia business.

While picking up an order, a clerk screamed at her for opening the front door of their business. Moments later, she said she observed an older white man pick up his order from inside without incident.

“I felt angry, sad, and rejected. I was upset that I could not stand up for myself,” said Pongparnsana.

Pongparnsana remembers another incident, this one at the ACME supermarket on 19th and Johnson. Customers were actively avoiding her and there was a specific interaction with an elderly man that left her upset.

“I was moving around two men who were coming out from a nearby aisle. There was a third gentleman, who was walking in front of me, perhaps in his late 70s. When I tried to move past him, he turned around and jumped back at the mere sight of me. He placed his hands up in front of his face and tried to back away from me. He looked as if he was terrified and made a startled sound. It seemed like he thought I was going to hurt him somehow. I was stunned, yet again. I had a face mask on as well.”

On March 31st, several Asian Americans in the Fairmount neighborhood received a variation of last year’s mysterious ABBA letter, which encouraged Philadelphians to burn themselves alive in a metal furnace.

The letter had been modified with the words “bat” and “pangolin” added to the text. An excerpt read: “This is to inform you that all the bat ate since first grade is alive in your body, especially the dead animal remains or meat since it was Cooked alive and is alive in your body… The only way I see for you to save yOurself from the every which a way of being burned alive. That’s scheduled is to become a solid pangolin statue by place yourself under aNesthesia and mixing your body with melted metal then re solidifying the metal or seal yourself in cement.”

Vietnamese American KhanhMy Vuong was alarmed after her boss shared the letter with her. “My boss emailed me the letter this morning. She’s a 74-year-old business owner living in the Fairmount area. If you read all the odd capitalized letters, it reads CORONAVIRUS.”


The copy of a derogatory letter addressed to local Asian Americans circulated the Fairmount section of Philadelphia on March 31st. (Courtesy: Rob Buscher)

Graphic designer Quynh-Mai Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who lives in Chinatown North, shares the steps she’s taken to protect herself.

“I’m fortunate to work from home and I rarely go out. When searching for essentials, I wear a mask and a scarf on top, so I don’t trigger unwanted attention. I also wear a Phillies hat, as an advertisement to strangers that I’m a local Philly person, not a ‘foreigner’ with the ‘China virus.’ I latch visible hand sanitizer to my belt loop to give the impression that I’m vigilantly “clean” and on the other loop, pepper spray. I even carry a taser, just in case. Every time I put this outfit on, it looks like I’m going to a rave, when really I’m just trying to stay alive.”

To avoid unwanted attention when in public, Quynh-Mai, a local graphic designer, wears a mask and a scarf. She also wears a Phillies hat, as “an advertisement to strangers that I’m a local Philly person, not a ‘foreigner’ with the ‘China virus.” (Courtesy: Quynh-Mai)

Nguyen suspects COVID-19 related bias was the reason her father on April 4th was recently denied dialysis treatment at the Lancaster General Hospital, where he was escorted out by security after he refused to leave. Another recent incident involved a repairman who came to fix Nguyen’s heater. She claims the repairman told her landlord that she was sick and he wanted to get out of the apartment.

These incidents are also spreading into the suburbs. Vietnamese American photographer Ted Nghiem says he experienced two separate confrontations this month. On April 2nd, Nghiem was walking his dogs near his Cherry Hill home when a stranger had verbally assaulted him.

“This middle-aged man wearing a MAGA hat started yelling that I caused coronavirus and needed to get the f**k out of here.”

In a separate incident on April 8th, Nghiem said he was spat upon by a man outside of the Cherry Hill public library.

None of these incidents have been reported to the police. In fact, underreporting of hate crimes is common across all communities, but particularly in Asian American and Asian immigrant communities, which further obscures the true severity and frequency of these occurrences.

The Philadelphia Police Asian American Advisory Committee has been working with the Philadelphia Police Department, alongside other city and state law enforcement agencies, to encourage more trust, but it won’t be easy.

Cambodian American metalwork artist Vanny Channal offers his take on why Asian American communities are distrustful of the police.

“We don’t call the police. When I was a youngster, and we first came to America, my parents didn’t know any English. When stuff would happen, they would come and make our people feel stupid because we didn’t understand the language, you know? In general, the relationship between us and law enforcement hasn’t been established.”

Channal witnessed his own incident of coronavirus-related racial bias while picking up schoolwork for his daughter at Northeast High School. He saw a group of middle-aged African American women yelling at an Asian man in a mask.

“They started yelling, ‘what the f**k you got that mask on for? You’re the one who brought this shit over here motherfu**er! Trump don’t want you guys here, you guys are fu**ing disgusting. You motherfu**ers eat dogs and shit.’”

Channal is originally from Long Beach, California, and has experienced his share of racism. But he’s concerned about the impact it’s having on his wife and daughters.

“For me, I’m sort of used to it, but now people are more open about it. What’s going on with Trump, he’s making it okay. It was rare for me to see people be that open about it and collectively agree on how I guess they feel about us. Which was crazy, because for people who have been oppressed, for people who have been judged, you wouldn’t think they would do that to other people.”

Despite this rash of incidents, many members of the local Asian American community are actively working to channel their energy towards positive efforts. On March 31, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation donated 27,000 surgical masks to local area hospitals on behalf of the Chinatown business community. Responding to a question about what motivated the donation, PCDC Executive Director John Chin wrote: “The business owners in Chinatown wanted to help because they know that the doctors and nurses are really the ones who will take us out of this crisis … the hope with the donation of the face masks was the message really is we’re all Philadelphians, we’re all in this together.”

The Main Line Chinese Cultural Center has also donated about 30,000 surgical masks to area hospitals.

On March 27th, Kris Mendoza’s production company, Maestro Filmworks, launched the Behind the Masks Campaign, an initiative to produce cloth masks for health care workers. In his open letter to the creative community, the Filipino American filmmaker wrote: “I am calling on everyone in the creative community to come together to make 1 million masks. In a time when we are all dispersed and separated in our own homes, we can come together in a way we have never done before. If you’ve found yourself in the same situation as I have, with jobs going away and the near future looking bleak, join me in making a difference, so that years from now, when we all look back on the COVID-19 era, we can rest easy knowing that we took a stand and did something that matters.”

Homemade face mask. (Photo courtesy of Kris Mendoza)

The Korean American Association of Greater Philadelphia created a similar Make a Mask Campaign and have delivered about 5,000 masks to local hospitals to date.

On April 4, Taiwanese American chef/owner Han Chiang of Han Dynasty launched a GoFundMe campaign to supply front line health care workers with much-needed N95 masks and gowns. Chiang plans on matching all funds raised up to $50,000, along with food donations that he has been delivering to the hospitals when dropping off medical supplies.

Like others in the Asian American community, Chiang acknowledges the importance of maintaining community relations as a factor in keeping Philadelphia safe for the Asian American community. Speaking about the difference in attitudes between Philly and New York, Chiang says, “All my Chinese chefs in New York are very afraid to leave the house. I would say probably 30% is because of the virus, but 70% is because of the hate crimes. They don’t want to catch public transportation and get beat up on their way to work. But my Philly chefs are a little different, they are still working.”

Asked what inspired this fundraising focus at a time when his own businesses are suffering, Chiang responds, “I want to help out our society. The hospital workers are fighting on the front line for us right now and if they die, we all die. But in general, I just want to help people.”

Visit the resource list created by Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office for more information on reporting a hate crime in Pennsylvania.

Rob Buscher is a filmmaker, freelance writer, arts administrator and current Board Chair of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival.

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