Despite what Trump says, my Chinese students are not the face of this virus

Long before most of the US population, it seems the coronavirus was in my proverbial backyard.

An urgent knock came on my office door in mid-February. I opened the door to find one of my students with tears pouring down her face. Just moments before, she had been told that her parents, who lived in China, had succumbed to Covid-19. She would not be able to return for their funerals. She’s an only child.

Chinese people are enduring coronavirus like everyone else. Don’t traumatise us further | Yang Tian

As I would soon learn, this was only the beginning of how this virus has impacted my students, most of whom are from east Asia. They now feel stuck in an environment where they often feel unwanted, with nowhere to go anytime soon.

When our own president injects such blatant racism into the Covid-19 conversation by calling it the “Chinese virus” – it’s no surprise that my students are having to deal with xenophobia.

I instruct and develop classes for international students at the Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles. Over eight weeks, we help them improve their American English skills and teach them how to manage pressure and survive graduate school in the US Most of the students are only here for this program while their families stay behind in China.

Many of them are isolated here – they’re in the US alone and they won’t be able to return to their home countries anytime soon, they are worried about loved ones back home, and on top of all of that, they are experiencing renewed racism.

It started before the school closed, with my students sharing stories in class about how some people on campus were giving them dirty looks, whispering, sitting as far away as possible from them. I wanted to believe these incidents were the result of college student immaturity, despite the reports that had come out about similar racist behavior. Clearly, I was in denial. Then suddenly, it was in my face.

After our final face-to-face class before, 20 or so of my students and I decided to have one last hurrah at a local pizza parlor since we wouldn’t be seeing each other again for a while. At the time, restaurants were still open and we were still allowed to gather in groups of 100 or less. I had taken students to this restaurant many times before without incident for end-of-the-term celebrations – parties for completing milestones in our program, and simply for them to get a sense of US dining culture.

This time was different. The host asked us to wait, though only a couple tables were occupied. Then the manager – who is also the owner – came out, gave our group the once-over, and said that I (a Caucasian woman) could stay, but the others had to leave. I could not understand why, and asked over and over what the problem was; I thought maybe the restaurant’s safety or sanitation had been compromised in some way. My students understood the true reason why before I did. It was one of those moments where my white privilege was obvious to everyone but me.

I began to argue with the manager, so angry I could hardly get the words out, until one of my students gently pulled me back and said it wasn’t worth it.

Rather than making a scene, my students suggested we try another restaurant. Again, we were denied service even though there were only a few people in the place. This happened four times before we finally found a Chinese restaurant that would seat us. This place was actually quite full, with other east Asian diners. I couldn’t help but wonder if the same injustice had happened to them at other restaurants in town, but regardless, I was glad these diners had a safe place to go.

The owner, who’s from Shanghai, stopped by the table to thank us for coming in. We thanked him in return and told him what had happened at the other restaurants.

He shared that business started tanking back in January when people learned where Covid-19 originated. He was even being denied service at local grocery stores, gas stations, car washes, cafes and farmers’ markets because workers either assumed he was a carrier or blamed him for the pandemic because of what he looks like.

To this day, I’m still hearing stories from my students – we have been Skyping regularly – about how people walk in the other direction when they see them. Sometimes strangers get aggressive and say things to them like: “This is your people’s fault.” They’re afraid to walk into places like Walmart or Target because of this. I fear for their safety beyond the coronavirus itself.

One student, whose husband and kids are here in the US with her, just told me a story about going to a PTA meeting at her son’s elementary school. She and her husband sat in the back corner of the room so as not to upset or alarm other parents – it has happened so often, they have come to expect it. She told me other parents approached the person running the meeting and asked for “that Chinese couple in the back” to be asked to leave. Thankfully the request was not granted, but my student was still deeply upset by it, understandably.

We are all having to go into isolation because of Covid-19, through no fault of our own. But many of us have family, friends, co-workers and other members of our community to lean on as we approach the unknown. Now, simple human interactions like visiting the grocery store or even driving down the street and seeing another human face are a treat.

My international students are even more isolated and vulnerable than the rest of us. They are in a country that’s becoming increasingly hostile toward them. Everyone in every part of the world is fearful of this infection and how far it will spread, of how many people it will affect. The one thing we have control over right now is how we behave and how we treat other people. Basic compassion, empathy and kindness for our fellow human beings – right now, this is what we can and should be spreading.

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