It’s Spring 2007, and my father is frowning. An uncomfortable shifting from across the table, and, for a moment, a silent room.
“Where did you hear that word?”
“The kids at school, are they nice to you?”
The term “Third World country” meant little to six-year-old me, but my father’s response is burned into my memory. I’d seen him cheery, willing to offer a warm squeeze on the shoulder or fill the room with full-bellied laughter after one of his own jokes. I’d seen him angry—mostly when I didn’t do my Chinese homework for weeks at a time. But I had never seen him uncomfortable. Despite his best attempts at building me an American opportunity, to be supportive and raise me well, he was grappling with the fact that he couldn’t shield me from the First World.
It’s Summer 2018, and I’m watching one of the best debaters in the world attack our flag, rather than our arguments.
“What would Team China know about religion? Their country banned it!”
She concludes her speech with a sly grin, like there’s a joke between the non-yellow people in the room that I just don’t get. I do my best to smile, breathe, and give my speech as I normally would.
It’s March 2020, and I’m on Facebook being gently reminded that “the Chinese always think they’re special” and that we “PRCs” aren’t welcome in the West. I’d commented under a Foreign Policy Facebook post about the strange and unscientific use of the term “Wuhan Virus” to describe the novel coronavirus, and was kindly told that I should off myself to prevent further spread. Perhaps I should have gone to university in China instead of spreading this “dirty disease” with my presence in the U.S.
It’s April now, and my father is concerned again. He’s warning my sisters and I to stay inside as much as possible: “Only go out to get essentials, and don’t go too often. Wear masks. Wash your hands. Stay far from people if possible. Be safe.” He’s worried about COVID-19, but he’s also worried about the virulent spread of a hatred I’ve known since 2007.
As the novel coronavirus leapt from distant headlines to our cities and homes, so has a boiling wave of anger. Ethnically Chinese individuals are being harassed, spit on, kicked, punched, and shoved in front of moving traffic. The “Stop AAPI Hate” website created to document incidents of coronavirus-related discrimination in America has received over 1,100 reports in just two weeks. I don’t even want to think about the number of cases that have gone unreported.
Yet our fear isn’t statistical—it’s personal. I’ve had friends yelled at in public, told to go back to “their country,” told to stop eating cats. These are sons, daughters, friends, and parents having to think about whether a trip to the grocery store would place them in physical peril. Imagine a stranger standing over your child, spitting, fuming, and screaming at them to “go home.” Or people moving away from your parents when they sit down on the subway. Imagine having to sit down with your nephew and explain the word “chink” for the first time.
In this sense, Chinese Americans today are left homeless. We don’t have a genuine sense of belonging: a feeling which is built through human interactions and compassion, a knowledge that you have a place and a people to call your own when the sky seems to be crumbling. And without the respect of our fellow citizens, the government-issued IDs we hold are little more than ornamental paper. So how do we rediscover our belonging?
Entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang believes he can offer a solution: we roll up our sleeves and prove ourselves.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Yang wrote that, “We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”
Yang looks to history to support his argument, referencing Japanese Americans who proved their patriotism by serving in the U.S. military during World War II. But this faulty historical example demonstrates precisely why his argument is misguided. Would “stepping up” or serving the U.S. military really have made life better for 110,000 Japanese Americans who were being placed in internment camps, and many more who were facing abhorrent discrimination? And even if this were possible, was it every Japanese family’s responsibility to volunteer their boys to war just to avoid being forcibly relocated? The “solution” of proving oneself is not only ineffectual. It’s a form of victim blaming that leaves behind any Asian American unable or unwilling to fulfill the model minority stereotype.
But let’s skip the labels: Yang’s article misses the mark on the source of racism, then and now, and fails to capture the ideal which should unite us as Americans. To distill America into three colors is to miss the point entirely. I am not American because I donate, volunteer, speak English fluently, barbeque sausages after church on Sundays, or run around the flag each morning chanting the Pledge of Allegiance. My identity is not something I have to “embrace and show” through elaborate ritual. I am American because I am an American.
I believe that Yang wrote the op-ed in good faith, with the intention of providing a way forward for Asian Americans in difficult circumstances. But the form this message takes has an unconscionable subtext. When Yang says that Asian Americans have to “show without a doubt,” to “demonstrate,” our American-ness, he implicitly creates an imaginary checklist of entry requirements that only exists for us. This just means that the xenophobes are right; that our skin color, our cultural heritage, and our funny-looking last names do, in fact, mean we are less fully American. We’re the ugly ducklings, the unwanted step-children who have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and earn our citizenship. We have to prove that we deserve not to be spit on or yelled at. This is a strange advocacy, especially coming from a man whose flagship policy was a universal basic income. If every citizen deserves a monthly check, why doesn’t every citizen deserve to be treated like an American?
More importantly, though, nationality shouldn’t matter. The premise of the article—that people should only be treated decently because they are American—is itself troubling. We shouldn’t be drawing a divide between “First World” and Third World” citizens. This virus doesn’t discriminate based on nationality. Why should we? We all brave these stormy seas together, as humans.
There is some chatter about how we shouldn’t have sympathy for “the Chinese” because they brought the virus to us. Literalist sticklers who surely earned top marks in school are eager to remind anyone and everyone that “the virus came from China! It’s only accurate to call it the Chinese Virus! We need to hold China to account!” And, to an extent, they have a point. I’m perfectly happy to recognize that shortcomings in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) administration contributed to the virus’ transmission to humans, as well as its ability to spread further domestically for some period of time.
But we need to remember that the Chinese government is not the same as the Chinese people. The phrase “Chinese Virus” employs a cruel sleight-of-hand, redirecting valid critiques of a government toward the judgment and fear of a particular group of people. It may seem compelling to try to put a face to a faceless enemy, but it’s illogical. The disease is a virus, not a people. To insist on “Chinese Virus” means that you don’t truly believe there is a difference.
I happen to think that the literalists are self-contradictory as well. Those who are most vehemently opposed to the CCP for authoritarian and cruel practices should be the quickest to view the subjects of such a government as victims, rather than enemies. The average Chinese citizen does not spend their time munching on a bat’s ear while coughing on babies and lying about coronavirus. The average Chinese citizen is a person like you, with a family and hopes for education and an interest in preventing a global pandemic. They’re worried about their job, or about teaching their younger siblings while school is out. They’re missing their friends, and they’re caring for those who have been infected. They matter too. So to the politicians and the glib literalists, you’re factually as well as morally off-course.
We’re all struggling in new ways to cope with this virus. We are rightly thinking of our businesses which will shutter, our parents who are vulnerable, and our children who won’t get to finish this year’s classes. And we are all making sacrifices to preserve what we can of our lives. But this unfortunate reminder of our mortality should serve as a reminder to live compassionately.
In the words of Seneca the Younger, “At any moment now, we shall spit forth this life of ours. In the meantime, while we still draw breath, while we still remain among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity. Let us not bring fear or danger upon anyone. Let us look down on damages and wrongs, insults and carping criticisms. Let us bear with greatness of mind our short-lived troubles.”
We’ve fought far too hard for our lives to waste them on hate and division. All of us—American or not—need to be kinder to each other. We should give without expecting, offer support to those who are silently struggling, smile when we cannot hug, and build communities that feel like homes. We should remind our peers and governments that we are all victims of these tribulations. We can’t let this faux blame game win. In the age of social distancing, standing together has never been more important.