Asian New Yorkers Worry the Coronavirus is Behind a Rash of Bias Incidents

Reports of racist slurs and even violent attacks stir concern that Asians are being unfairly targeted.

By Yuntong Man and Caroline Chen

A week ago, Helen Wang, a Chinese graduate social work student at Columbia University, got on the 1 train on her way home from work. She found an empty seat and sat down. Beside her was a non-Asian woman. Another Asian girl also sat down next to the woman. After a few minutes, Wang said, the woman glanced at them nervously, took off her scarf and used it to cover her nose and mouth. Two stations later, when a seat emptied across from where the woman was sitting, she got up and moved.

Wang, who wasn’t wearing a mask at that time, believes that the woman didn’t want to sit beside her because of something to do with the coronavirus, though of course, she can’t prove it.

“When things like this happen, you can’t ask her why she did that,” Wang said in Mandarin. “It felt like you didn’t have the evidence to prove that she was covering [her face] because she suspected that we were Chinese or we carried the virus.”

“It made me feel like she was discriminating against Asians,” she added. “I felt really uncomfortable.”

This was not the only time Wang says she has felt she was a target. Recently, several classmates asked her straight out if she had the virus. She said that she understands people’s fear and concerns about getting sick. “But asking me if I was infected upfront is really strange. I didn’t know how to answer it,” Wang said.

As the coronavirus spreads globally, anxiety is starting to spread among New Yorkers—and many Asian New Yorkers and Chinese students like Wang have reported incidents of bias and open hostility against them, especially if they’re wearing a protective mask. A video that went viral even showed an Asian woman, who was wearing a mask, getting beaten by a man with an umbrella on the subway. With reports like this, it’s not surprising that some Asians in New York have said they are even worried about their safety.

“Wearing a mask may be politically more dangerous from the consequences of not wearing a mask against the virus,” said the woman who videotaped the incident and asked to remain anonymous.

Yet, while Asians have clearly been the targets in some incidents, other reposts are somewhat murky and may not necessarily have their roots in either fear of contagion or anti-Asian prejudice at all. What’s clear is that people are on edge. Some worry that the more these reports are publicized, the more panic they are going to provoke in the Asian community.

“It’’s hard to define whether this is discrimination, because there are cultural and habitual differences. When people here see a mask, they do relate it to being sick,” said Lara Ren, a Chinese graduate student studying social work at Columbia University. She got yelled at by a passerby recently, who called her “a fucking Chinese.” Ren was not wearing a mask at the time. However, when she has worn one, she says she has noted people that looked at her strangely. “They’re like, ‘Stay away from me,’” Ren told NYCity Lens in Mandarin.

The tension is palpable and visible. The video of the woman being physically attacked in Chinatown’s Grand Street subway station went viral on social media on Feb 2nd. In the video, the attacker, swinging an umbrella, shouted racist slurs as he beat the woman with the mask in the station. “He starts calling her a diseased bitch,” the Chinese American neuroscience student at New York University who shot the video, wrote in her Facebook post. She removed the video from public view two days later because she was concerned that it would trigger unnecessary anxiety among the Asian community.

While it was still public, the video was shared widely on WeChat, a giant Chinese social media platform. Some witnesses disputed the student’s version of events, saying that the woman wearing the mask started the fight. The student who took the video said those accounts are not accurate, noting that the woman wearing the mask was out of the sightline of other people when the skirmish started.

The video is “a very amazing conversation starter,” the student said, but she believes the attack was a one-time incident, not a new norm that Asians and Asian Americans will experience. “I don’t want [the video] to be an object of fear.”

The incident caught on camera is not isolated, however. Many Chinese foreign students are also reporting other apparently virus-related discrimination on their campuses, challenging authorities at their universities to address the concerns.

On Thursday, there was a buzz of conversation on Twitter about an incident involving a psychology student at the New School. She was physically assaulted near the school without any clear reason, except that she was Asian, according to Michael Pasek, a New School postdoctoral researcher who posted about the incident. The New School responded quickly.

“We are deeply concerned by this incident. This kind of behavior has no place in New York City, one of the world’s most dynamic and diverse centers,” the New School said in a statement. “We’re working closely with the student to make sure she has all the support she needs.”

Two weeks ago, another Chinese student, Shenqi Zhai, a computer science major senior at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, found her and her roommate’s name tags burned when she returned to her dorm on campus. Zhai is convinced that coronavirus fears caused what she believes is a racially-biased incident. She and her roommate were the only ones who had Chinese name tags on the floor. No other tags were burned.

The burned name tags of Shenqi Zhai and her roommate at Columbia University East Campus Residence Hall / Photo by Shenqi Zhai

“Now it’s just name tags,” Zhai said. “Who knows what’s coming next?”

She reported the incident through her residential assistant the next day, she said, but the university’s bias response team did not get back to her until 11 days after she filed the complaint.

When she finally got a response via email, Zhai felt the wording implied that the university did not believe it was a bias-related incident. She then asked the Columbia University Chinese Students and Scholars Association to intervene on her behalf.

A day later, Columbia’s administration arranged for university staff to discuss further actions with Zhai. According to Zhai, Melinda Aquino, the university’s associate dean of multicultural affairs, offered to switch Zhai to another room and mentioned an upcoming educational poster campaign, which Dean Aquino didn’t go into details with her.

Calls to the associate dean requesting comment were forwarded to the college’s media relations office, but it has not replied as of 1 p.m. Saturday.

Zhai feels the university’s response has been inadequate. “They’re not making an effort to find out who did this,” Zhai said.

Incidents like these have yet to cause a wide stir of public objections within the Chinese community, but people are clearly sensitive. When a Wall Street Journal opinion column article appeared on Feb. 3 with the headline, “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” it sparked large scale protests among Chinese globally. The well-researched article discussed the financial market’s downfall because of the coronavirus outbreak. Yet, many Chinese people became indignant, arguing that the article’s title referred to their ancestral history in the mid-19th century when the Qing dynasty lost the opium wars to Great Britain. The wars caused the secession of Hong Kong and marked the darkest era of early modern China.

While open hostility has enraged many in the Chinese community, some are fighting back, gently, trying to make the point that just because someone is Chinese it doesn’t mean they are virus carriers. Junhao Harry Zhang, the founder of New Vision, a video production company, decided to tackle New Yorkers’ coronavirus paranoia by creating an anti-bias video with eight others.

“We can’t stand mainstream media’s public discrimination,” Zhang said.

In the video, two Chinese people wearing face masks hold signs with phrases including “humans against virus, not against each other” near New York landmarks. Cameras stayed far away while the two volunteers waited for strangers to interact with them. It was quiet at first, but soon, dozens of people from all races formed a line to hug the two sign holders.

People line up to hug a Chinese volunteer with a mask on during the anti-bias video filming. / Photo by Min Lin

After being posted on Sunday, the video has already received more than 276,000 views on Weibo, a Twitter-style Chinese social media platform, and more than 4,000 views on Vimeo.

The video demonstrates that not everyone blames Chinese people for the spread of the virus. But it’s hard to deny that some people are genuinely frightened and sometimes their actions may be interpreted as biased or hostile towards Asians when they are not intended to be.

Last Tuesday, Pirashth Balasegarathnam, a Lyft driver, for example, put a surgical mask on minutes before he picked up his passenger from JFK Terminal 1, the terminal where most Chinese airlines land.

“Where’re you from?” Balasegarathnam asked his passenger, a Chinese student who was sending a friend home. Right after the passenger clarified she hasn’t been to China for a while, Balasegarathnam took off the mask and apologized.

“I’m just scared,” Balasegarathnam said. He got the flu from a passenger and just recovered three days ago. “What’s going on in China seems very severe and I can’t afford to be sick again.”

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