Life is getting quite hard for Asian (looking) people in western countries, not only because of the new coronavirus, but also the escalation of pre-existing discrimination that had spread across the world even before the novel coronavirus has become a pandemic.
News of Asians getting assaulted on social media are unfortunately not exceptional cases, but reflect an intensifying racist aggression against Asian looking people. If you are an Asian living abroad, you might have heard more frightening news in your social circle, like your friends and acquaintances having experienced name-calling, refusal of stores to provide services or milder physical assaults happening randomly and unprovoked on the streets. A few months ago, Asians still led relatively normal lives. No matter if you are a Hongkonger, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, or Thai, etc., people greeted you with a “Ni Hao” or “Konnichiwa,” whichever they saw fit. Now they don’t even make this elementary mistake anymore, since you are all Corona.
When many far-right extremists justify exclusivism by accusing immigrants of invading Germany without the intention to adopt German language and culture while exploiting a sizable amount of social resources, do they actually care about who we are? Or what these “foreigners” do in “their country”?
In order to practise my German speaking skill and therefore better integrate into German society, I once participated in a language exchange meet-up group regularly for 2 months. Unlike the left majority I encountered in the activism events we organised to support the social movement in Hong Kong, those who joined the language group came from diverse backgrounds, among which, some could be AfD supporters. I was quite surprised to hear an East German telling me that AfD wasn’t as bad as many people described, and their proposals had been distorted by the media. Frankly, the reason for my amazement was his kindness to someone who could only speak broken German like myself, and he obviously enjoyed exchanging stories and perspectives with foreigners in this multi-culti environment. Apart from that, he didn’t hesitate to show his appreciation by telling me how he had no problem with “immigrants like me.” “I can’t agree with my country spending money on people who never want to contribute and blend into German society, unlike you. Your German is good.” Thanks for boosting my self-confidence, but my German was not good, not better than many other foreigners.
By saying how decadent some of the immigrants are, and how they have become a burden on German citizens, the exclusivists act as if they know those shameless foreigners in person and that they don’t simply judge people by their look. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is a particular occasion, on which I can prove that I was not just being over-sensitive to the reason that many of those arguments are just excuses for an irrational insecurity about the changes happening in their community. They don’t know who they hate, they are hating a myth created by themselves. If they hated Asians only because we brought the virus to Europe, they wouldn’t have provoked us and to be in contact with the virus.
We are Corona. Before we could show them our professions, our language skills, our hard work, our characters, our personality, all they see is our Asian appearance. Speaking perfect German is not effective against racism any more than wearing a mask during a pandemic outbreak.
Right after the news about the outbreak in Wuhan came out, many Asians started to react by buying sanitiser and surgical masks. We call this precaution, a sensible act in itself, which many westerners consider an overreaction. Germans laugh at Asians for labelling themselves sick by wearing useless masks in public areas, ignoring the fact that wearing masks can prevent those who are infected from spreading viruses, in other words, a way to fulfil mutual obligation and civic duty. Studies suggest that the incubation period of the novel coronavirus can be as long as 14 days without showing any symptoms, which means we might not be able to judge during the period. In contrast to creating fear, various studies of the SARS epidemic showed that mask-wearing created intimacy and trust in the face of danger. Masks indeed is not 100% effective, so is everything else, but it will lower the contagion rate by capturing droplets, which is a main way to spread the novel coronavirus.
Ironically, when the confirmed cases in Germany and Italy have skyrocketed to more than 650 and 4500 respectively, people started to panic and complain about those who had prepared themselves and called them hoarders of medical resources.
The pandemic will eventually be over, but racism, I am not so sure.