Waking up on March 13, 2020, Alex Kim, a then-sophomore high school student, did not know what the next 24 hours had in store for them. They couldn't guess that school would be canceled for two weeks— yay, extended spring break!— or that it would eventually be canceled for the rest of the school year. They could not have predicted that they would not see anyone for months to come, save for their family living in the same house. And, of course, they could not have imagined that they would be part of a recurring phenomenon in American history: xenophobia.
Kim was first introduced to COVID-19 in their journalism class, where their science-fiction enthusiast teacher gave daily updates on how the virus was unfolding in the Eastern world. However, busy with completing work for the coming period, Kim tuned out the news, too focused on finishing calculus homework to give much of their time to events that seemed so foreign. After all, having been raised by American-born Korean parents, Kim identifies more with the Western culture they had grown up with than the Asian traditions of South Korea. Soon, though, they would learn that the rest of the world would not see them the same way.
They watched as the United States President repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the "China virus" and "Chinese virus." Kim shared, "Being Korean, I was not as targeted by the language of Trump, but it hinted at the underlying racism that still exists in America. Asian Americans and Asians, in general, are not welcomed in this nation. At the slightest issue, we are back to the Chinese Exclusion Act, back at the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II."
Kim was not alone in their beliefs. Quickly, the controversy spread as people denounced or defended using the terms "China" and "Chinese" virus. President Trump came out early on in the pandemic to defend his choice of words. CNN reports that, during a White House press briefing, Trump argued that his language was not racist; instead, it was accurate.
"China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them. That was false. And rather than having an argument, I said I had to call it where it came from. It did come from China. So, I think it's a very accurate term," he said.
Yet, as disheartening as it may be, this is not where the name-calling ended. Soon, new terms arose, including the use of the phrase "kung flu." Having no geographical reference as did the last term, "kung flu" would not be safe behind the same defense as the "China virus." Still, on multiple occasions, Trump refused to condone the phrase, or even to withhold from using it himself. During his Tulsa rally back in June, Trump used the term "kung flu" as he talked about the many names used to refer to COVID-19. His words were met with applause and cheers from his followers, and he appeared comfortable with the choice of words, using them again just three days later at another public event.
The anti-Asian sentiment has trespassed the barriers of language. In April, the Berkeley News reported numerous racist actions towards Asian Americans, from demanding Asians to "go back to China" to spitting on them and refusing medical care from staff with "Asian appearances." Moreover, the organization Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate, which formed at the start of the pandemic to record anti-Asian attacks as a result of the virus, reported that in the eight weeks from March 19 to May 13, it received 1,843 cases of self-reported incidents. Over half of these came from California and New York, where Asian communities are dispersed throughout the states.
Kim, in response to the information, said, "It's not surprising. You know, we hope as a community that people will understand that we are as innocent as them and that this is not the time for divisive racial attacks, but it's not what happens. People are trying to personify the virus; they want to point at somebody and say, 'You are the reason I have to wear a mask. You are the reason people are dying. You did this.'"
"In reality, I remember when my dad was laid off from work, and the fear that ran through us when we heard one of his co-workers' family members contracted the virus. We thought that maybe he got sick. Luckily he didn't, but it goes to show that we aren't the villains of the story. We're just people trying to get by as well as we can."
Kim is not the only young Asian-American going through similar troubling experiences. On September 17, Stop AAPI Hate published a report providing both data and personal accounts of anti-Asian sentiments over the last few months. Interviewees ranging from 13 to 17 years old recounted events in which people shouted anti-Chinese remarks, including blaming China as the virus's source and mocking Chinese dietary habits. Other events included people being physically aggressive towards them and moving away from them in public places,
However, while some people worry about the future of Asian Americans, there is hope lingering in the air. The same day the report on the anti-Asian attacks on youth was released, the House of Representatives passed H.Res.908 - Condemning all forms of anti-Asian sentiment as related to COVID-19, a bill that moves to call on public officials to "...denounce any and all anti-Asian sentiment in any form."The bill, while not receiving universal support, was backed by Democrats and Republicans.
Representative Judy Chu from California suspected that those who voted against the measure did not want to put blame on President Donald Trump for his anti-Asian American racism. But she and many of her colleagues believed the President deserves the criticism. "We feel that Trump stoked the flames of xenophobia by continuing to call it the 'China virus,' the 'Wuhan virus' and even 'Kung flu,' despite the fact that it was pointed out to him many, many times that it was the thing that fanned the flames against Asian Americans in this country." Still, the bill marked a shift in federal attitude: one that was willing and ready to move past the divisive language used during the pandemic to, instead, stand in solidarity with everyone during these challenging times.
Yet, the race for racial justice still seems like a game of two steps forward, one step back. In the days following the passing of the bill, Representative Grace Meng from New York, the original drafter and advocate for the bill was met with racist backlash from US citizens across the nation. In a series of voicemails left to her following the passage of H.Res.908, Representative Meng suffered through countless insults and threats, calling her a "fat slob," a "dumb*** motherf***ker," and calling her bill "baloney." Meng shared a short clip of these voicemails on her Twitter page on September 25 with paralleled behavior from President Trump throughout the pandemic.
The shocking experiences that Asian Americans suffered through as a result of the pandemic prove that the nation is not done healing from the worst disease of all: racism. While there are subtle advances across the country, there is still room for sweeping changes that will protect all races and finally put the United States on a path to racial equality.
Kim closed our talk with a firm piece of advice. "Get educated. Learn. Understand. There is no bill that will help [the nation] if we as the people don't take the time to understand the roots of racism, its long term effects, and its modern-day forms. This moment needs to be a turning point for America, the pivotal year that will be written in the history books because, as it stands right now, history isn't looking so good."