February 6, 2020

YANG | Salting Wounds — Accounts of Anti-Chinese Xenophobia at Cornell and Beyond

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She was on the TCAT returning home, browsing through her phone. Suddenly, she registered harsh tones directed towards her: “Is it safe to stay around you?” Jarred, stunned, she did not even look up until the person had left. Now, she vaguely remembers his appearance, identifying him as a male. She was not wearing a mask. It doesn’t matter if she’s wearing one or not.

She is Chinese.

This is only one of several alleged racist incidents your columnist has collected in the past week, each interaction targeting Chinese students as a result of the global health crisis caused by the Wuhan Coronavirus. The same student also encountered uncomfortable treatment in her interaction with an Olin staff member while checking out an item. Recalling the event, she said that while the staff member treated people in front of her normally, he was especially cautious in front of her, sanitizing his hand immediately after returning her Cornell ID. Another student, also Chinese, alleged that while in search of apartments for next semester, a few landlords expressed refusal to meet in person because of their concern that she could have the virus.

This comes at the heels of Monday’s development regarding the potentiality of Coronavirus at Cornell. The tension, even within the Chinese community, is certainly high. The news dominated the Cornell Chinese social media, instantly adding to the constant news bombardment from China on the latest public health crisis, with each bulletin worse than the one before. The Wuhan Coronavirus, since its emergence in December, has reportedly claimed 493 lives, with 24,447 confirmed cases, alongside 23,260 potential cases; it is not your ordinary flu. The severity of the situation is tremendous. As it is now spreading beyond the original Hubei Province, with six more provinces having 500-plus cases, every Chinese student that I know of, regardless of their political affiliation or prior interest in news, is now constantly grilled on the latest development. Now, it is their family and friends back home whose health is at stake.

It is particularly saddening, however, that the Chinese are now facing an increasing crisis of racism in America, in addition to the excruciating pain of our own nation’s suffering. University of California, Berkeley apologized for including xenophobia as “common reactions” to coronavirus. Colleges around the U.S. reported similar increases in xenophobic remarks: Some reports included details of students posting their attempts to avoid Asian classmates to social media. In fact, similar remarks are already on Cornell’s Reddit thread. A chief complaint I received while writing this piece is that many of my Chinese friends are now afraid of wearing the mask because they don’t want to be treated differently by other Cornellians. While the Center for Disease Control does not at this point recommend wearing face masks, I struggle to tell my fellow compatriots how they should behave to avoid racial attacks. Why can’t all other Americans heed to the CDC’s other counsel? “Do not show prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus. Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have 2019-nCoV.”

On the international level, the U.S. government has implemented travel restrictions on any foreigner who had been to Mainland China in the past 14 days. A slew of countries, from Australia to Vietnam, also implemented varying degrees of travel restrictions on China, some more egregious than others. Vietnam has banned Chinese citizens regardless of their travel history, even if the citizen is a U.S. green card holder who has not returned to China for years. In fact, Yisu Zheng ’21, who is attending the Semester at Sea program, faces extreme uncertainty and anxiety as her Chinese citizenship denies her entry to Vietnam, Malaysia and potentially India, all three of which are on the program’s itinerary. She has not returned to China since July 2019. Though certainly the U.S. decision is more measured and less bluntly racist than that of Vietnam, America could perhaps be more cautious in issuing such a drastic restriction, especially given the magnitude of its global responsibility. For perspective, Japan, a country with both a historically strained relationship and greater economic and geographic ties to China is issuing more careful restrictions.

It is an extremely hopeless situation I am in right now. I criticized my own

government’s response to the Wuhan coronavirus and its contribution to the scale and severity of the current crisis; how defeating it is that we now see America, the country in which I currently reside, riding a historic xenophobic tide. My own schedule is but minutely disrupted: As all major American airlines have cancelled flights to and from China through April, my parents are a one-month cancellation away from missing my graduation ceremony. Compared to other Chinese Cornellians who have relatives, teachers and friends whose lives are greatly disrupted, or worse, fatally threatened by the public health crisis back home, my inconveniences are truly immaterial. In such a time, no matter if it be racist remarks or tiny insensitivities, a bad joke or blatant xenophobia, such aggressions hurt your fellow Chinese Cornellians more than ever.

When salting a gaping wound left by trauma, does it really matter how intentional you might be?

I dedicate this piece to Dr. Li Wenliang (李文亮), one of the original eight doctors who were reprimanded in early January for “spreading fake news” relating to the severity of the Coronavirus Outbreak. Dr. Li just passed away on Feb. 6. May he rest in peace, and may his and all of the 八勇士’s name be cleared.

“. . For the LORD has comforted His people And will have compassion on His afflicted.” –Isaiah 49:13


Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Poplar Sovereignty runs every other Thursday this semester.