In 2009, my family made the foolish decision to visit Canada. While there, locals were sure to cast great distances between themselves and my family out of fear of catching what was then a newly discovered infectious disease — the American virus. I was confronted with a myriad of angry protestors sporting picket signs that demanded Canadian schools to suspend their American students. Soon, the hashtag “#NoAmericansAllowed” flooded social media and storefronts around the world, from Britain to France to Japan. “You filthy Americans,” declared our taxi driver when our trip ended, “living amongst pigs. You deserve this.” His voice showed no sympathy for the estimated 575,400 people worldwide who would die from the American virus that year.
A few years ago, I was walking home from school when I passed out on the sidewalk. Later, in the Mount Auburn Hospital emergency room in Cambridge, MA, I was diagnosed with the European virus. In those few months, with the European virus at its infectious peak, people who read my name — Jia — before putting a face to it assumed I was Italian and panicked. People who heard my name — which most pronounced like Zsa Zsa — assumed I was Hungarian and panicked. Thank goodness I wasn’t actually European. “Europeans,” I heard a classmate scoff to my British American friend. “You eat snails, maggots and sheep heads — no wonder you brought the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera … and now this European virus? You deserve it.” Never mind that smallpox and the like happened in eras of limited technology and medical knowledge. Never mind that all groups of people, Europeans included, consumed foods that others found unusual. Never mind that Europeans were far from solely responsible for spreading a global pandemic. This classmate’s tirade emanated no sympathy for the millions who had died — 10,000 Americans in the past few months alone — from the European virus.
If you thought I made all of that up, you are absolutely right. I may have just pulled off the biggest fake news stunt in The Amherst Student’s history. There is no “American virus,” only the novel N1H1, widely known as the swine flu. There is no “European virus;” we call that seasonal influenza, or more colloquially, “the flu.”
Generally, and for good reason, we did not wield xenophobia upon the two aforementioned groups simply because a global pandemic erupted or originated in their countries. But as we Americans like to say, it’s the thought that counts. I ask you to take the bigoted scenarios I described above and reimagine the ethnic Chinese — rather than Americans or Europeans — as their targets and the “Wuhan coronavirus” or “Chinese coronavirus” as their instigators. If you do that, the fake news suddenly becomes very real.
I am a Wuhanese American. In 2004, I immigrated to the United States from Wuhan, where the novel 2019 Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was first identified. My maternal relatives — dozens of them, uninfected — are quarantined in Wuhan. With the quarantine in effect, public transportation, gas stations and other public functions have completely shut down. Hospitals are so busy that even a call for an ambulance will go unanswered.
Wuhan is a bustling city known for many feats including its cuisine, cherry blossoms and architectural prowess. Wuhan contains 50 percent of the world’s long-span bridges — drive across the Yangtze River Bridge during the day and you’ll see greenery weaving amongst ancient and modern architecture for miles. Yet, in the past month, Wuhan has become a cage which my immediate family cannot enter and my extended family cannot leave.
But if they could, where would they go? To Hong Kong, South Korea or Vietnam, where businesses have barred ethnic Chinese from entering their premises? To Canada, where thousands of parents have signed petitions to ban Chinese Canadian children from classrooms? “Stop the spread and quarantine yourselves or go back,” one Canadian petitioner recently told The Guardian. To the United States, where institutions like the University of California Berkeley are telling its Instagram followers that “normal reactions” to the coronavirus outbreak include “anxiety,” “worry” and “xenophobia?” Or should my relatives go to Australia, where The Herald Sun referred to their plight as “China Virus Panda-monium?”
Should they depart for France, where newspapers invoke warnings of a “yellow peril,” a derogatory term dating back to 19th-century U.S. and European immigration policy that actively excluded Chinese? At various points in time throughout the United States’ long history, Chinese Americans have been denied citizenship, barred from public schools, driven from their homes in mass expulsions, hung, beaten and burned to death in lynchings across the United States. Racists wielded some of the rhetoric that has rapidly re-emerged as of late, that people of Chinese ancestry “deserved” this because they were unsanitary, law-breaking and governmentally corrupt. Should my relatives go to France, where these racist historical underpinnings are exalted?
Rationality is one thing — quarantine and provide treatment to the ill. Racism is another.
So perhaps it is best that my relatives are confined to their own homes. Or perhaps not, because when they open their computers to peer into the rest of the world, do they see what I see? On Twitter, the hashtag #ChineseDon’tComeToJapan is trending. On YouTube comment sections, viewers plead to “keep the Chinese in China until this is over” and proclaim that “if the Chinese stopped torturing and eating endangered wildlife, none of this would have happened.” “Build the wall,” one Mexican YouTube user wrote. “We don’t want the virus to go to Mexico.” In one video’s comment section, a top commenter demanded that “[the Chinese] should just stay in their own damn country.” In response, another wrote that “honestly they deserve to get infected for eating dogs.”
When I try to reason with these individuals, others throw red herring arguments at me about President Xi Jinping’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. I always welcome condemnation of human rights abuses, but I will not tolerate doing so in order to justify xenophobia. America is no stranger to this tactic.
In World War Two, many used the Japanese Imperial Army’s war crimes in China to justify the internment of Japanese Americans. Yet we ignored the Rape of Nanjing and its consequential pleas for aid until Pearl Harbor drew us into the conflict ourselves. In the Chinese Exclusion Era, Americans ranging from politicians to plebeians censured Chinese immigrants as pimps and drug dealers who abused their women. And these same women, often servicing white men in California brothels, would be burned to death in dozens of mass expulsions as soon as a sexually transmitted disease surfaced in among white communities. Imagine the irony in simultaneously criticizing the Chinese government for human rights abuses, while denying ethnic Chinese of their human rights through overt demonstrations of xenophobia.
I am Wuhanese American. I speak Wu Han Hua, a dialect that neither you nor — I imagine — Xi Jinping can thoroughly understand. Wu Han Hua’s vocabulary differs from Mandarin’s in many ways, but our word for the United States is the same: “mei guo” — the “beautiful country.”
Those of us that make it to Beautiful Country are never taught that we and our ancestors made it beautiful. They gave their lives building gleaming rails running from coast to coast, gave their bodies to bullets in nearly every military conflict in American history, gave us the valencia orange and the bing cherry, the birth control pill and the mapping of HIV, the wireless microphone and deep-focus cinematography. But it is not because they made Beautiful Country beautiful that they deserve to be treated as human beings. It is because they — we — are human beings.
And what beauty will my nieces and nephews from Wuhan find if they should one day immigrate to my Beautiful Country, which legally and casually and for centuries on end called them a “question,” a “fever,” a “peril” and now: a virus?