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“When he saw me, he sped up,” my Beijing-born mother, who lives in California, explained to me on the phone. She was talking about a bus driver who refused to pick her up when he saw what she looked like. “I can’t believe it.”
I could. Displays of prejudice against East Asians have surged in recent weeks. I scroll through the news every day to see who’s been punched, jumped, or spat on. When it first emerged, the novel coronavirus was nicknamed the “Wuhan virus.” The World Health Organization soon labeled the virus SARS-CoV-2, and the disease COVID-19, selecting names without geographical references to prevent stigma against the Chinese community. It didn’t work. More than a month later, President Donald Trump began to label it the “Chinese virus”—a term only he and his closest political cronies seemed to be using—and in turn validated the resentment many already felt against people who look like me. Soon after, #ChineseVirus became a No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.
I reassured my mom that I felt safe in Brooklyn. But honestly, I am scared, too. As a 23-year-old recent college graduate, I am scrambling to figure out how to keep myself afloat. I lost every freelance photography gig I had after people were ordered to socially distance. And now, for the first time since I moved to New York in 2015, I look over my shoulder and walk faster in public places because I don’t want to become the next headline. Whenever I leave my social isolation bubble to go get food, I feel a jab of panic: Would people take this out on me? For the first several days of quarantine, I wore shades and a baseball cap to hide my face.
This pandemic is not the first time that I’ve tried to hide my East Asian roots. Growing up as a half-Mexican, half-Chinese immigrant in Plano, Texas, I became an expert at it. I would beg my mother not to speak in Mandarin around my elementary school friends, who called my fried rice lunches “nasty.” At 10, I was walking my dog, and someone threw a red slushie from a car that missed my face by an inch before it splattered all over my white Nikes; I heard the roaring laughter of the two white men inside as they sped off. On my first day of seventh grade, I saw the word “CHINK” etched into a wooden desk in all caps.
As soon as I turned 18, I was ready to move to a city where I would reinvent myself with only the parts of myself that I liked. My freshman year in college, I introduced myself exclusively as half-Latino—Latino was the only acceptable minority to be in my hometown—as if someone could walk around as 50 percent of himself. I avoided Chinatown and opted instead to hang out with my American friends in the East Village. Still, there were reminders that I was not welcome: On Grindr, men replied to my messages with “sorry, no rice.” At a party, I introduced myself to a stranger who said she wasn’t sure if we’d met before because she “couldn’t tell Asians apart.”
After Trump’s election, when the prejudice I could always feel finally became undeniable and obvious, I began deliberately reconnecting with my heritage: I moved in with my grandmother in Beijing for a summer and enrolled in Mandarin classes. A year later, when my friends were going to Paris and Florence, I decided to go to the least popular study abroad site at my school, Shanghai. I learned to make xiao long baos and memorized a poem about a moonlit night by Li Bai. The more I immersed myself, the more comfortable I felt in my own skin.
But this January, as the virus spread in China, years of personal progress began to wane. On the subway, I instinctively moved away from an elderly Asian wearing a face mask. One morning, I was scrolling through Twitter posts and retweets of videos that showed Chinese people eating baby rats and scorpions, the eating practices of a tiny fraction of the country. I scrolled through the comments: “Such nasty people.” “Nuke Asia.” “Coronavirus is karma.” I felt deeply embarrassed. Maybe it is China’s fault, I thought. It sometimes only takes a small trigger to bring me back to the internalized racism I had spent so many years combatting. It’s a reflex.
A few days before all businesses closed in New York City, I felt a pull toward Manhattan’s Chinatown for a haircut. I knew I would find comfort in hearing my mother tongue. When I got off the subway on Canal Street, there was stillness: no honking, no women selling mangoes the color of sunsets, no Cantonese gossip flowing out of the fish stalls. I’d spent all that time in college avoiding them, and now they were gone.
“Jian tou fa?” my favorite barber asked in Mandarin, his face lighting up as soon as I walked into the room. He told me I was only one of a handful of customers he’d seen that day. He was afraid to lose his job if things didn’t improve. I felt myself tearing up. I told him that as soon as this was all over, I’d come back so he could fix whatever mess I’ll have growing on my head by then. He laughed.
I sat in the salon chair, and he started cutting. I stared at the mirror as my charcoal hair fell on the floor of the empty salon. I saw two Asian men staring back, doing their best to hold themselves together.