the simultaneous newness and long history of East Asian hate

Image by Yoshimi Kato

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“There is a suspected outbreak of an unidentified infectious disease in Wuhan”, CNN wrote in a news alert I received whilst travelling in Asia last January. At the time, only 440 cases had been confirmed in China but it was spreading quickly. What was just as contagious – if not more – was the racism that followed.

I came back to the UK in February last year before the first national lockdown. No quarantine rules had been put into place at the time, but I couldn’t bear the guilt if I knew I had spread it unknowingly, especially since I travelled back from a coronavirus hotspot. After self-isolating for a couple of weeks, I went on a night-out with my best friend, who’s also Chinese. I can’t begin to describe how I felt when people were physically distancing themselves from us, almost forming a human border. You might say, “You’re overthinking, it was probably just a coincidence”, yet the looks of not just fear but disgust were pretty hard to miss.

On the way home, we passed two guys at a traffic light. They spat at us, coughed, and whispered all sorts of slurs. We’ve all heard it before.

“Kungflu.”

“Bat eaters.”

“China virus.”

Wearing masks before COVID was and still is very common in most Asian countries to protect yourself from air pollution and others around you when you’re ill. Going to the supermarket in the UK with a mask on at the very start of the pandemic triggered a lot of stares. One woman held her nose as she passed my friend and I. Surely, you should be more afraid of those who are bare-faced than us. As you can imagine, this made it even harder for me to leave the house, in fear of what people would think when they saw my eyes above the mask. 

Discirmination and hate crimes have exacerbated after the COVID-19 outbreak, which has been used to reinforce xenophobic beliefs. Asian people are targeted with derogatory language and hate speech in both traditional and social media as well in public. Prominent political figures addressing COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus” only fuelled this discrimination further. But it’s nothing new for us – it echoes the likes of Prince Phillip saying that “the Cantonese will eat anything that has four legs and is not a chair”, all the way back in 1986.

We bear the consequences of these stereotypes, which, once internalised, take laborious efforts to correct. We are generalised into an easy target, regardless of our true citizenship, immigrant status, mixed ethnicities. Nuances that are forgotten, but are important demarcations between our incredibly diverse cultures, languages, lifestyles and so on.

The deeper I dug into the issue of East Asian stereotypes intensifying with COVID-19, the more I discovered the underlying racism towards East Asian women in particular. The so-called “compliments” that we too often receive are embedded in sexual stereotypes that ultimately diminish and belittle us.

“You’re pretty for an Asian girl.”

“You’re seducing me with those eyes.”

“Where are you from? You’re so exotic.”

For East Asian women, racism and sexism are inseparable – attacks against us are often steeped in race-related misogyny and confused with sexual “otherness”. The worn belief that we are “submissive in public” but “hypersexual in bed” traces back to the Page Act of 1875, when the United States banned East Asian women from immigrating. They also didn’t allow residents to apply for citizenship if their labour was perceived as “immoral” or “coerced”. It was based on the assumption – endorsed even by the American Medication Association at the time – that “inferior” Chinese women could infect the “superior” white race with their “germs”

The oppression and simultaneous fetishation Asian women face still face every day, today uncannily recalls how COVID-19 has been pinned on China. It’s not just extremely disappointing, but downright dangerous that mainstream media is still complicit in perpetrating institutional racism against East Asians, by playing to clickbaity stereotypes stemming from a long history of anti-Asian hate. 

Especially when COVID-19 is a pandemic, beyond just one city, we should be investing in alleviating the worldwide crisis and preparing for something similar in the future. Not stirring even more unnecessary division, with language such as “infecting others” to imply intentional transmission, or terminology emphasising blame and dehumanising minorities by intertwining them with sickness. If you ever come across a misconception, about COVID-19 or East Asian women or otherwise, I implore you to speak up – so that we could be another inch closer to righting history’s wrongs of stereotypes against East Asians.

Article by Joey Guan