As an immigrant, you become accustomed to feeling unwanted in the place you call home. It’s a skill forged not through self-pity or defeatism, but rather self-preservation; accepting that on any given day, you will be reminded that you don’t belong by virtue of how you look, and still choosing to believe differently. It’s a useful skill to have – especially now.
The specific origins of the coronavirus are still undetermined, but as it travels outside China’s borders, reaching international shores, it seems the world has made up its mind about the culprit. While some Australian headlines denounced the “China virus”, demanding that “China kids stay home”, France issued a “Yellow Alert” and resurrected the spectre of the “Yellow Peril”, amplifying the narrative of tainted and disease-ridden east Asian bodies threatening to smother the west. Then there’s the pervasive fixation on how quickly the number of deaths and infected have surged, some using it to paint a looming threat, despite local governments categorising the risk to the general public as low.
Meanwhile, an entire minority group is living in the aftermath of having their humanity reduced to a virus strain on the world stage. Face masks worn by anyone of Asian descent now serve as scarlet letters that stain our identities and mark our otherness. It feels like we’re inconveniencing our society by simply existing.
During the peak of the Sars epidemic, I was finishing up the last years of high school in Beijing. There’s an eerie familiarity in the images of bustling Chinese cities sanded down to the bare bones of their deserted streets and the uniform procession of surgical masks when people emerge from their self-imposed isolation. But living through it felt less dramatic. Yes, there was the weight of an ordeal bigger than us plaguing our daily routines, but much like the people of Wuhan and the rest of China, there was no alternative but to ride the wave of a new reality. No one was coming to evacuate us – this was our home. Back then, we hoped the rest of the world was watching and willing to offer their support. The difference this time is we can hear what they’re saying about us.
When the “bat soup” rumours began circulating, a relative in China sent me an image of a Caucasian protester wielding a sign that said “China, stop eating everything that moves”. She asked me whether that’s really how the rest of the world saw us. I didn’t know how to respond, but for me it highlighted the tenuous relationship the rest of the world has with Chinese culture, and by extension Chinese immigrants.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, trips to food markets like the Huanan seafood market were Instagrammable mementos of an exotic trip to the east, a stamp of the highly coveted authentic travel experience. Perhaps for some, eating a bat would have been worn as a badge of honour, a prized story to regale friends with at dinner parties. How many celebrity chefs and reality TV shows have scoured the Asian food scene, specifically hunting down the most daring local delicacies? Beating snake hearts downed in shot glasses. Livestock genitalia lightly marinated. It seems the same enchanting qualities that make a culture different will also inevitably be weaponised against its people when they become inconvenient.
There’s no denying that fears of the coronavirus outbreak are harrowing and valid, and no one would begrudge countries for implementing measures to keep their communities safe. But as Australia and its international counterparts respond to this global crisis with policies that directly affect their local Chinese communities, it’s worth keeping in mind that while we have little control over how people get sick, we can choose how we treat those who are already suffering.
All the deaths from the coronavirus so far have been Chinese nationals, whose lives were just as vivid as those in countries far from the virus epicentre, places where people now feel threatened by the very presence of their Chinese communities. The same communities in China are actively working to find a cure, to contain the spread of the virus by imposing extreme restrictions on themselves, and building new hospitals within a matter of weeks to save lives. The Chinese community in Australia and mainland China are enduring the coronavirus in step with the rest of the world and are just as scared. Let’s not traumatise them further with unnecessary ignorance and fear-mongering.
As the Australian government and the world navigates this crisis, it’s my hope that the overwhelming message beamed around the world right now is not that Chinese people are unwanted. My hope is that it’s a message of support that divorces politics from the value of human lives, because kindness and compassion reverberate further than indifference and disgust in times of crisis.
• Yang Tian works as a news producer at Guardian Australia