Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with a Vietnamese American woman in Southern California. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Aaron Mak.
It was after school on a Friday. I came home kind of late. My 8-year-old son was acting a little bit more surly than usual. And I said, “What happened? What’s wrong with you?” And he’s like, “There’s some kid at school who said they don’t want to hang out with me because I might be a coronavirus carrier.” And then he starts crying.
Probably two days before this, they were talking about the coronavirus at school. So my son started looking it up on YouTube and there’s this video that’s supposed to be completely cynical and funny and just not real. It talks about how there’s an exchange student who goes over to Wuhan and he gives mouth-to-mouth to a dying snake on the floor of some meat stall, and it progressively goes until this guy dies. My son had started watching this, and it was all animated, and I was sitting right next to him laughing because I thought it was so out there that there’s no way that my son can think this is true. But as the guy passes away and starts saying goodbye, my son immediately starts crying. I totally freak out. I’m like, “If I had known that you would respond this way, I would have never let you watch this video.”
This happens the Wednesday before. So as soon as he talked about what happened at school on Friday, he immediately starts crying and tells me, “Oh God, Mom, am I going to die?” And that’s when I got really upset. I don’t need my son to come home thinking he’s got the coronavirus and that he’s going to die. It was heartbreaking to even hear him say that. The amount of emotion that he had when he was telling me and crying. It was not something you want for your son to ever have to hear.
So I’m like, “Well, who is this kid?” It was total mama bear coming out to protect my baby. He said it’s a guy that he doesn’t even hang out with. He sees him around school. I asked, “Why would he say that to you?” He goes, “I don’t know.”
At that point I said, “Look, you don’t have the coronavirus. We haven’t traveled anywhere. We’re telling you to wash your hands as soon as you come home from school. You always cover your cough. You don’t share food or drinks with anybody. You don’t even have a cough. You don’t have any symptoms. You didn’t give mouth-to-mouth to the snake.” I repeated what I had told him when we had seen the video. He was really upset that evening.
When my son calmed down, I said, “I’m going to tell your principal.” And he’s like, “Oh no, I don’t want to make it a big deal. Are you going to tell him it’s me?” I said, “I’m not going to say who, but I’m just going to let him know that this kind of talk is not acceptable at the school.”
The principal said he was going to look into it and make sure that all the families have adequate knowledge. He agrees that it isn’t something kids should be talking about at school without any guidance. I was more insistent and asked if this happened because my son is Asian. The principal doesn’t think it was racially motivated. I can’t really see how it could be any other way, since it doesn’t seem like the other kid was telling anyone else that they had the coronavirus.
I think there was probably race involved. I don’t know how much of it was just the fact that my son is Asian. I didn’t talk to the other young man, so I have really no idea how his family might have been talking about the coronavirus at home. Did he misunderstand something from his parents? Could his parents actually have said that all Asian kids are carriers? I doubt it, but you can’t help thinking about it. The fact that he said to my son, “I’m not allowed to hang out with people like you because you might have coronavirus”—I mean, there’s no other way to take it other than, “You’re from an Asian family, you might have it, you might’ve tried to travel to China.” I think my son might’ve had an inkling it was about race because he said, “Why would that kid say it to me and not to my other friends?” I don’t know if he really recognizes what it means for something to be racially motivated, but I think it was something he realizes might’ve happened because he is Asian.
My son hasn’t talked about it since then. Like most boys, they don’t like to talk about it unless it’s brought up or pulled out of them like teeth. My son doesn’t want anybody to make it into a big deal. He didn’t want anybody to know that he’d been addressed this way. To be honest, I don’t know if maybe race has been an issue in the past at school, because I don’t actually talk to him about it. He probably wouldn’t bring it up.
I grew up probably experiencing more racism than my son is, especially as a child. It hurts me when I see that he’s going through this now. I don’t want him to be exposed to that and his personality to change because of what other people say about him. I want to make him prepared, but at the same time I don’t want to make him start to feel alienated. Right now, he’s friends with whoever is friends with him, or whoever’s nice; I don’t want to take that away by making him worry that he’s going to get discriminated against. But I think it’s going to happen no matter what as he grows up, because at some point in time we all experience it. It doesn’t matter what you do in life. They don’t see you as a person.