Asian American Voices

Asian American Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Metropolitan subway train in China. Photo taken by Gauthier Delecroix.

For nearly seven months, COVID-19 has consistently dominated our news stories but a majority of mainstream media continues to ignore how the virus has fostered and exposed anti-Asian xenophobia and racism. PBS reported that Asian Americans worldwide have experienced hate crimes and increased social and racial hostility when the virus became a political argument.

Soon after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States, blame against China and the Chinese government initiated in the media, largely because of politicians and partisanship in the United States’ government. 

UW student Katie Hardie recalls her first encounter with anti-Asian racial hostility. “Republican senators are calling it the Chinese virus, the President started calling it the Chinese virus,” Hardie said. “It seems like we need someone to blame because we don’t want to blame ourselves.”

Sijia Yang, assistant professor at the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication, conducts research on how the messaging effects of media persuasion combined with social influence affects how individuals view and understand their environment. 

Yang said the early impacts of how journalists covered COVID-19 and discriminatory comments on social media created a joint impact on Americans and how they perceive Chinese people and the Chinese government.

“You noticed examples of Asian faces wearing masks and using that as a major picture in their news stories,” Yang said. “These kinds of visual cues and reflecting Asian faces, all of that I think will have consequences in people’s understanding of this issue and their attitudes and behavior and opinions towards Chinese people, including Asian Americans.”

Additionally, Yang recognized how our political climate encourages persistent racism and discrimination in our community. When President Donald Trump first tweeted and used derogatory terms to describe COVID-19, there was an increased search for similar terms that followed on Twitter and social media in general. This correlation was then associated with higher rates of national instances involving racially hostility.

According to Yang, this behavior and language used by politicians especially affect those who strongly identify with a particular politician or political party and is even more prevalent as the United States approaches the presidential election. 

“On one hand we’re dealing with a pandemic. There’s a lot of blaming going on and who should be accountable for it,” Yang said. “There’s also this political dynamic, saying this is the enemy and we should fight against that enemy. Those rhetorical strategies, unfortunately, will play a role especially during an election year.”

Yang described a close encounter with racism in Madison where one of his graduate students reported an incident to his department. The student and her boyfriend were in their car when a woman in the car next to them rolled down her window.

“The woman started cursing at them and shouting to go back to your country and things like that. I read a lot about this in news from other sources but this is the closest encounter to me,” Yang said. “I think this made me really aware that these types of issues and incidents are real and they do exist.” 

Hardie shared stories from her peers around campus and in their communities too. A group of students refused to go to a Chinese restaurant, joking that it had the virus and her friend witnessed a threatening letter on a Chinese neighbor’s doorstep after they got COVID-19. Hardie also received a message on social media saying she brought the disease to the United States and she should not be in the country anymore. 

Yang urged individuals across all racial minorities to take these events as an opportunity to seek allyship and build a better future for everyone.

“Historically, the Asian community hasn’t been put on the front stage when talking about discrimination and racism but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It’s just taking a different form,” Yang said. “I think it’s important to recognize that racism can exist for different kinds of minorities.”

Cui Li, owner of Poke It Up in Madison, immigrated to the United States about 10 years ago. She has seen the constant coverage of COVID-19 in the media since March and was affected by the nation-wide shut down soon after. 

“The shutdown made everybody’s lives difficult. Even now, many people don’t have jobs and restaurants have permanently closed,” Li said. “This is scary and has affected everyone, even children. I hope it passes soon. I know many people view China in a negative light but we’re all trying to survive.” 

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has become politicized, she directed attention to the fact that every country, including China, has experienced deaths and have been negatively affected by the pandemic. 

“All we can do now is come together as a community and take preventative measures to help each other as a human race,” Li said.

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