MICHELLE FANG writes on the rising xenophobia in America in response to the coronavirus.
(Illustrator: Lu Zheng, Original: Wang Fei/Xinhua/Sipa USA)
No, the Chinese don’t eat dogs for dinner, cats are not main dishes, and—the sensational Chinese woman who drank bat soup most definitely did not start the new coronavirus. Remarks pinning the deadly respiratory virus on exotic Chinese diets aren’t simply unintended byproducts born to misinformation and fear. Call them for what they are: orientalism.
It’s problematic when outlets—reputable news sources, tabloids, or social media—that shape public opinion on issues like the coronavirus, unconsciously and blatantly, reify the west’s trope of yellow peril. Quite literally, a Wallstreet Journal op-ed was dubbed “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” and a regional French newspaper was headlined “Yellow Peril?” .
An ignorant Twitter post received 12.1K likes with sensationalized footage of a Chinese woman eating a bat and captioned “When you eat bats and bamboo rats and shit and call it a ‘Chinese delicacy’, why y’all be acting surprised when diseases like #coronavirus appear?” Using the same footage, the Daily Mail named an article based on the revolting footage of a Chinese woman eating a whole bat and its link to the coronavirus.
The media’s misleading combination of this video and caption (which has evolved into a meme), implies that this Chinese woman was somehow responsible for the outbreak—disregarding the facts. This video was shot in 2016 in Palau, an island not part of China. Even given recent scientific investigations that point to bats as a likely origin of the virus, no bats were sold at the Huanan wet market and research suggests an intermediary host transmitting the virus to humans. This contagious virus is not your coronavirus meme—it’s a deadly reality. The coronavirus, COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China has a death toll of 2,663 and over 77,600 cases in mainland China.
Respected outlets like the Business Insider have included unnecessary and revolting details on China’s stereotypical consumption of dog meat, adding “nearby dogs watch hungrily” in a report on wet markets. No scientific basis links dogs and the virus.
Raised in a white Texas suburb, I’ve acclimated to “do you eat dog” jokes, but the ignorant passing comments on the new coronavirus struck a new cord. For me, the virus struck close to home, twice.
Early on a Tuesday, I awakened to panicked texts from my mother. Michelle, pray for us. China has a deadly virus spreading. We don’t know what to do. Stay safe. Holding my breath, I googled “virus in China” and clicked on an article of a mysterious disease. Something dropped within me upon realizing that this was real. My parents had built a life in Texas for over twenty years, raising me, a Chinese-American bookworm. Now, empty-nested, they excitedly flew home to Hangzhou, China to celebrate Lunar New Year with my grandparents for the first time since their immigration just to learn that a contagious virus broke out the day after they arrived.
Almost too coincidentally, my five-year old Chinese cousin caught a fever with a sore throat, the early symptoms. Hospitalized but not tested, my toddler cousin was a potential ground zero for my caring grandparents. That thought paralyzed me. How casually my level-headed uncle dismissed the new virus as far-fetched scared me.
Later, that weekend, my college, Yale University, hosted a Model United Nations conference on campus but had to cancel its last session due to an international participant from China who exhibited flu-like symptoms. Buildings were shut down and disinfected. My friends who hosted the competition were cautiously avoided out of fear, inadvertently becoming the “other”. Luckily, this participant was diagnosed with the common flu a week later.
But for America, the “other” isn’t simply a Yale student group—it’s the Chinese population at large. After an apprehensive week, I numbly sat through brunch with a fellow student who seriously yet fervidly exclaimed the Chinese just need to stop eating dirty animals. An accusation, not a grumble. His unfounded assumptions based on misconstrued stereotypes manifested itself through orientalist rhetoric. By demarcating an outgroup—the Chinese who have barbaric diets—he has invited the west to renew its justification for the aggression and suspicion of the Chinese.
The careless orientalist rhetoric rekindles our country’s historical exclusion and suspicion of the Chinese. Tracing back to the immigration bans in the 1880s, our country has a fascination and anxiety of the Chinese—enraptured by the East’s economic prosperity but fearful that Chinese migrants will take over America’s economy. As Chinese immigrants laid our transcontinental railroad tracks, Congress passed The Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese people from naturalization, legalizing discrimination, and reinforcing America’s conception of aliens.
Similar to how the San Francisco Plague of 1900-1904 that emerged in San Francisco’s Chinatown justified the denial of rights to the Chinese through discriminatory quarantine measures—the new coronavirus reopens the American media’s imagination. The COVID-19 is the newest chapter in the continual xenophobic narrative depicting the Chinese as the uncivilized, dirty carriers of disease.
It’s a recurring motif of the west. Disease outbreaks spark panic that causes the public to adopt xenophobic phrases and theories. In 2012, many thought MERS spread from traditions of eating camel meat when it actually originated from human contact with infected one-humped camels. The name “MERS,” an abbreviation of the “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” creates a negative stigma of that region. In 2014, scientists blamed Ebola on the consumption of bat meat in a Guinean village only to learn that it likely began with a two-year-old touching an object infected by bat droppings. Similarly, in this case, many are raising serious concerns on naming the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus.” Don’t blame epidemics on cultural traditions. Don’t isolate accidents caused by a lack of cleanliness to perpetuate xenophobic notions.
The intense interest surrounding the contagious virus is one not of empathy but fear. Empathy is not mutually exclusive from the medical precautions. With the CDC’s warnings of an outbreak in America, people are increasingly terrorized that the coronavirus will get to them, their campus, home or town. They blame the Chinese, the infected, the “other.” Americans are scared, but so are the Chinese. Their Lunar New Year began with a lockdown restricting 56 million, a shutdown of public transport, and overcrowded hospitals with no cure for a deadly virus.
In moments like this, be critical of the information catered to us by mainstream media. It’s true—nothing spreads like fear.
Michelle Fang can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.