Letter to the Editor: The racism of the pandemic, on and off campus

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Letter to the editor

Content warning: This letter discusses racial discrimination and violence toward Asian people.

I got my first COVID-19 vaccination March 3, 2021. I felt such relief and was excited thinking about how I would be able to finally have some pre-pandemic normalcy back in my life. My now 81-year-old mother was about to get her second shot a few days later, and I already felt the stress of taking her to the market being lifted. The weight of risk had already dissolved, I thought. I wouldn’t have to think twice about going to buy groceries anymore. For the last year, whenever my friends or I went to 99 Ranch, Costco or Trader Joe’s, we would ask each other if we needed something in order to save a trip for the other person. Maybe we could stop doing that, because it wouldn’t be so risky anymore. Picking out our own groceries any time we wanted was now a small luxury to reclaim. I also missed window shopping at the mall, eating at restaurants and walking around Old Town Pasadena for no particular reason.

I was excited to resume some of those old habits, but by the time I got my second shot March 31, those hopes were gone. Instead, I was hunkered down at home as much as I had been during the first few months of the pandemic, because two weeks earlier, eight people were killed in a mass shooting in Atlanta. Six of the victims were Asian women. By then, the enormous increase in anti-Asian sentiment had been extremely palpable for over a year. But that was the first day I felt like I had a target on my back, and I started looking over my shoulder whenever I was out. Until then, most of the attacks my Asian friends and I experienced were verbal. It suddenly felt naive to have thought there wasn’t potential for physical harm. Racist rhetoric had now escalated to a frightening level of violence against Asian women that I had not seen before. All the things I did to avoid COVID-19 were now the very same things I did to protect myself from being a victim of a hate crime, and life had become even more restrictive in an effort to stay safe. Venturing out for the second shot was one of the few times I left the house back then. My vaccinations seemed almost unnecessary at that point.

In the weeks following the shooting, my mom asked me several times to take her to the Chinese market, and I told her repeatedly, “We can’t go anywhere with too many Chinese people. It’s too dangerous right now.” In the early days of the pandemic, Asian markets felt the safest, because we were already accustomed to masking — it was not a divisive issue in our community. Since the shooting, whenever we go to any market, I make sure to take note of all the exits and where the storage area is. Is it in the back or to the side? I need to know where to go if I have to get to safety and can’t escape safely through the front doors. I wonder how I can help my mom if there is a shooting. She is too old to run. I’m not strong enough to carry her. How would I find my mom and help her if we are separated? Sometimes I walk with her to pick out vegetables and fish, and then tell her to wait outside while I quickly pick up everything else we need. Sometimes she just sits in the car, only going to get out of the house. It’s a relief when she tells me to go without her. Then I can be in and out of the market quickly and without the stress of my mom’s safety in mind, just mine. I am so grateful for the friends who have dropped off food for us and for all the times when our neighbors have picked up pork belly and chicken wings from the Chinese butcher, so we don’t have to go back to 99 Ranch for a while longer.

A month before the Atlanta shooting, I signed up to swim at an outdoor YMCA pool near Arcadia, where nearly all the other swimmers are Asian. There is a park area outside the gated pool, and as I swam, I would think about how I was a moving target. What would stop someone with a gun from shooting all of us as we did laps? The pool is on the same street where a few months earlier I saw someone driving by in a truck with a large Confederate flag. I know there are people in that neighborhood who don’t welcome my presence. I had left another pool for this one because it had become too crowded for me to think I was safe from the virus, but maybe it was the better choice now. The other pool is also gated with a park area right outside, but at that pool I would be one of only a handful of Asian swimmers regularly there. Do my swim cap and goggles hide my Asian features? I don’t want to be noticed, and the irony is Asians are known as the invisible race. We are finally getting attention, but for all the wrong reasons. It is all negative — and it is threatening. Swimming, the one means I had to relieve stress, had become another source of stress. Nearly every move outside the house was layered with fear, and the one place I used to feel safe during the pandemic was on campus. That is no longer true.

The Atlanta shooter was not charged with a hate crime. This serves as an example of how racist acts can be hard to define and how they can easily be disguised as something considered legally more benign. This is so frustrating. If I got shot, does the perpetrator need to call me “chink” in order for it to be a hate crime? The last time I was called “chink” was in 1997, and the last time I was called “oriental” was in 2005.

That 2005 incident happened on campus, and I had forgotten about it until recent events. Before Feb. 3, being on campus would not have triggered a memory like this to resurface. These are not just words. They remind me that a stranger can look at me and decide instantaneously that my life has no worth. There have been many times where I experienced forms of racism far less obvious than name calling. You can’t always prove someone is being racist. It might be a gut feeling that something is wrong. It can be so subtle. More times than not, it is hard to articulate, so when it’s loud and clear that something or someone is racist, it’s appalling that I need to explain why it matters and how it makes me feel more unsafe than I already do.

Many of the publicized anti-Asian attacks have been on the elderly, but Jan. 15, 40-year-old Michelle Go was killed while waiting to take the subway to go to work in New York City. This is another case that may not be legally considered a hate crime. Michelle sounds like someone I might have grown up with. She comes from an area where I have friends, and we are about the same age. My college roommate also lives in New York City and, like Michelle, was harassed while on a subway. It is likely my friend got COVID-19 from that encounter, where she was yelled at in her face during the early days of the pandemic, when masking was advised only for frontline health workers. Just recently when my friend brought up the murder of an Asian woman in New York, I asked, “Which one?” because a few days earlier, less than a month after Michelle Go’s death, Christina Yuna Lee, 31, was followed home and killed in her apartment. These attacks remind us we are vulnerable in so many ways while doing very normal things.

Racism is powerful. Racism has made us targets, and yet we’re still the invisible race. Racism goes viral despite the community guidelines of social media sites and remains shielded by the First Amendment. It has crushed us into a million devastated pieces, but then united us in ways that were not possible before this struck us like a knife in the heart. How can we ignore its strength and consequences? Like COVID-19, racism can be asymptomatic, hard to detect and spread easily if not addressed in a timely, consistent manner.

Racism is a public health crisis, and we should be treating it more like the disease that it is to the many people in our community it is affecting. Data and statistics are derived from personal experiences, and it is important we listen to them. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow said it best: “One does not have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding is enough.” To the students who mobilized in brave and amazing ways to work for greater empathy, understanding and accountability, your work will not be forgotten when you are all graduated in four years. These efforts, the enormous sacrifices, and all the tears are the seeds of restoration and a cultural shift that the faculty and staff will tend to for years to come.

Anne Yu is a non-tenure track senior instructor in the chemistry department at Occidental, a 2020-21 recipient of The Linda and Tod White Teaching Prize and the faculty advisor to the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Association (APIDAA).