We’re Self-Centered: Coronavirus and Conceiving Asian America


Author’s Note: Asian America is not a monolith. In this article, I speak from my experiences as an Asian American and my conversations with others around me. When I write “Asian American” in this piece, I am focusing on Asian Americans who are, visually or otherwise, coded as Chinese Americans.

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My mom was born and grew up in Huangshi, a city about an hour’s drive from the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan. Parts of my family live in what is now the quarantine zone for the virus. In this zone, all forms of public transportation are shut down, including subways and the public bus. People are encouraged to stay home to avoid exposure to others. The Lunar New Year break was extended for many companies and schools, and many employees are still encouraged to work from home. However, my aunts work for the city’s electricity plant, which cannot stop its operations, especially in these times of crisis. Every day they leave their homes and go to work having to find ways to get to work when there is no public transportation available.

In the past few months, a flu-like virus originated in China, commonly known as the “coronavirus,” and has escalated into a national emergency that caused international alarm. The virus originated in Hubei, a landlocked province in central China.

I was at Tufts when I first heard about the coronavirus outbreak. I remember the news felt very distant, seeming abstract and far away. Despite the fact that I was at home in China only a few weeks before, I somehow felt like the virus did not have much to do with me. Me, who is at a private university in a suburb of Boston and who is planning to live in the US after graduation. 

A few days later, I called my parents and heard about cancelled flights, missed work days, and repeated visits from local health officials. The picture slowly came into focus; I realized that my family was possibly in danger and that the virus was seriously impacting their lives.

Then came a mixture of anxiety and denial. At first, I suppressed the bad thoughts and tried to ignore the news. When I finally decided to look into the issue, I could not figure out which news sources, Chinese or English, to read or trust. 

I was devastated to realize that the coronavirus outbreak was being used by American media as justification for racist attacks on Chinese Americans and Asian Americans. The coronavirus acts as a convenient vessel for the reproduction of antiquated ideas of yellow peril—the idea that Chinese people are contaminated, a contagion capable of shaking the foundations of the US empire. Also at play is the framing of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, outsiders who are bringing the virus to the US. This reinforces the image of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans as foreigners who will never truly belong to the US.

There is a false narrative that there is something intrinsically sick about Chinese people that made this outbreak an inevitability. People online are wildly circulating unsubstantiated claims that the Chinese lifestyle, with its bat soup and “wet” markets, led directly to the virus. People in the US feel comfortable policing Chinese cultural traditions and what Chinese people can or cannot eat. All this is in support of the moral argument that Chinese people are deserving, culpable even, of the pain and suffering that they are going through. (The irony is palpable, for the US is a nation that was founded on a land whose indigenous peoples died en masse from diseases brought by the first European “explorers.”)

Even in progressive Asian American spaces where people confronted harmful tropes such as the yellow peril and perpetual foreigner, and denounced acts of xenophobia and exclusion, I felt like something important was missing from the discussion. Why was there no conversation about how to support people in China who most needed help? Why was my family not included in their construction of Asian America?

A defense I have heard from Asian Americans is “don’t be racist towards me, I’m not even from China” or that “I haven’t even been to China in years.” I see these statements as the embodiment of a dangerous strand of assimilationist ideology. It is a pattern for Asian Americans to push away their Asian identity in order to secure the privileges of being pseudo-American. This reflects a problematic submission to the false doctrine of Western superiority. Why do we need to distance ourselves from our sending countries in order to be seen as fully human? As Asian Americans, we are forced to repeatedly denounce our connection to the foreign, so that we are not considered a foreigner, contagion, or state enemy.

As Asian Americans, we should not be fooled by false doctrines of Western superiority or satisfied with conditional promises of belonging. The rejection of one’s connection to Asia does not guarantee a sense of belonging. For Asian Americans, assimilation into white society means the violent erasure of their sense of self and identity. Also, even as they attempt to assimilate into mainstream white society by taking up US culture and language, achieving US citizenship or accruing social capital in the form of education or wealth, Asian Americans are not accepted into American society.

Assimilationism is also harmful because many in our community are left out when Chinese Americans and Asian Americans reject their connection to China. This mode of thought places people on an axis of foreign versus native, and declares that only those who are “native” have a claim to humanity.

As a Chinese person living in the US, I feel tremendously privileged to be included in the anti-racist discussion about coronavirus. But it is painful to realize that so many Chinese nationals, like my family in Hubei, are left out of our definition of community. For immigrant and diaspora communities, the line between the citizen and foreigner is often blurred. It is a tremendous injustice to draw these violent boundaries that exclude the people that we love and care for.

On coronavirus, Asian American apathy towards Chinese nationals signals a problematic form of assimilationism. By accepting the premise of assimilation, we create deep fissures in our communities and leave behind those who are most vulnerable. 

In discourse around coronavirus, I see the ways Asian Americans have displayed not only the internalized doctrine of Western superiority, but also internalized belief in Orientalism and Asian inferiority.

Anti-Asian racism, as it upholds white supremacy, operates via the systematic Othering of Asians along the axis of nationality and race. Coronavirus has been an opportunity for Americans to criticize Chinese people for ways of life are different from what is viewed, in an American context, as proper and legitimate. There is a biased condemnation of the culture and eating habits of Chinese people. It is through upholding an artificial division between Us (Americans) and the Other (Asian people, in this instance) that white America ensures the continued subjugation of Asian bodies in and outside of the US. 

I am disheartened to see these Orientalist ideologies are also echoed in Asian American spaces. I have heard Asian Americans say that it is “unsurprising” that coronavirus originated in China, because of how “dirty” Chinese nationals are. When Chinese people are getting sick, the response is that they are somehow deserving or culpable.

Furthermore, it is crucial for the US imperialist agenda to denounce not only the Chinese people, but also the Chinese state. It is central to the empire-building project of the US to denounce foreign entities, in order to reaffirm its own legitimacy. Coronavirus is cited as evidence of the failures of “authoritarianism” compared to supposedly superior systems of Western democracy. Instead of supporting a country in crisis, the outbreak is used as an opportunity to denounce the Chinese government. This government sanctioned Sinophobia leads to deepening resentment of the Chinese state and individuals at a critical juncture for international support and aid.

Imperialist ideologies are compounded with the racist arguments against “bat-eating” Chinese people, contributing to an image of China as the land of bizarre people living under an erratic government, morally depraved and beyond rescue. Chinese people are dehumanized, and people in the US reproduce Sinophobia in a time when China is most in need of empathy and support.

The ways Asian Americans reproduce Orientalism signals the depth of internalized racism and trauma. As Asian Americans, we need to recognize that when we repeat Orientalist tropes, we are reproducing our own oppression and the oppression of Asian bodies everywhere. Racism transcends state boundaries—as Asian Americans, our liberation is bound up with those of Asian bodies everywhere. When Asian Americans, and especially Chinese Americans, fail to stand in solidarity with Chinese nationals, it reproduces and legitimizes the climate of apathy in the US towards the victims of coronavirus.

Asian Americans are also reproducing a supposedly scientific and factual paradigm of disease control that, in reality, serves to reinforce systems of oppression. Foundational to a “scientific” conception of disease is the idea that certain bodies are disposable and not worthy of resources or care. Pseudo-scientific ideas of health and disease are used to justify indifference towards the victims of coronavirus, and are used to support discrimination along racial and national lines.

It is important for Asian Americans to acknowledge that rhetoric around disease control in the US is racist. Being Asian American does not automatically preclude us from reproducing racist ideas about disease control. I have heard Asian Americans say that they are “healthy” because they are “American.” We should be wary of defending ourselves as “healthy” and “clean.” When we say that, who is implied to be the opposite? Who are we accusing of being “dirty” and “contagious?” 

In an age where patterns of racism around coronavirus are spreading much more aggressively than the virus itself, we as Asian Americans are also choosing to distance ourselves from the source of contagion. We have to ask ourselves, what do we mean when we talk about health and care? Whose health are we talking about, and to the detriment of whom?

I am not criticizing Asian America for having conversations about microaggressions and racism they experience day to day. In fact, I think those conversations can be important sites of self-determination and healing. I am, however, criticizing Asian America for the absence of conversations about how to take care of those who are most vulnerable. I am asking, who is included in the community we call Asian America? Who do we relegate as the Other? Who do we consider truly human, deep down?

Can we imagine a transnational theory of Asian America that does not abandon those who are most vulnerable? I can imagine an alternate universe where when Asian Americans address the hostility and xenophobia that they experience in the US, while we also acknowledge that the people who are most impacted by racism are also those who are most impacted by the disease—namely, people living in China. When Chinese Americans reject their connection to China as a tactic for self-preservation, we are condoning casual Sinophobia and the rejection of care from those who need it the most. At the same time, we are condoning rhetorics of confinement, the strengthening of borders, and policies of exclusion.