Episode 2: Pandemics and Prejudice
Chinese and Chinese Americans’ experiences
Connecting Pacific EP2 – Transcript
Hans Anderson: This is Connecting Pacific. A podcast from the University of Michigan of personal stories and perspectives about the changing relationship between China and the United States. I’m Hans Anderson.
Anderson: We talk to a group of U of M student and alumni about their experiences being ethnically Chinese during the pandemic in this unique political climate. And we also ask them to share their memory of SARS outbreak in 2002.
Anderson: Xin Sun is a current Ph.D. student from U of M. She shared her memory about SARS.
Xin Sun: I was in my second-grade elementary school. So, I don’t really have a strong memory of that, especially since I’m not from Beijing. I’m from Shandong, a province that is quite far from Beijing. But I do have some memory that, like every day at school we took our temperatures. And then like the teachers, they asked us to take temperatures at home and then the parents need to sign their names and then you need to bring these certifications back to school.
Anderson: Professor Yuhua Wang, a graduate of political science in 2011 from the University of Michigan, is now an associate professor at Harvard.
Yuhua Wang: I was a senior in college in 2003. I was in Beijing, the ground zero of SARS. But looking back, you know, they were all good memories. I remember at the beginning there was panic, like this time, and then you keep hearing friends or classmates, having fever or being quarantined dorm after dorm. Classes were canceled. And then I went back home. But then I stayed for, I think a month. I worked on my senior thesis at home, and then I was asked to come back to campus to attend the commencement. The commencement was not canceled.
It happened in early May. And then to re-enter campus, I had to be quarantined for two weeks with some other friends who went home. But those were probably the best two weeks in my life. There were no classes, no work. Our food was delivered every day. There was no social distancing, so I could hang out with my friends every day. So that were the fun two weeks actually.
Anderson: Joseph Xu, an UM alum, now works at the college of engineering.
Joseph Xu: My experience of SARS was very limited in the sense that, you know, I grew up in the Midwest and have lived here my whole life, and there wasn’t much about SARS here in the US.
You know, we had heard about it on the news. I think there are a handful, something like 20 some cases in the US ultimately, and there just wasn’t much concern about it. It was just sort of something that was really isolated to China and something that at least for me, didn’t really affect my life much at all.
Anderson: What impact did SARS leave on China, if any, and what can we learn from that?
Sun: I heard that China has built this sort of direct, like a system that you can report these kinds of potential diseases or like contagious diseases up to the head, or like the top officials of the government like avoiding all these bureaucracies. But from what I heard this time, it doesn’t work. And then that system was only for known diseases. So that’s why this new novel thing is not reported that quickly. That’s from what I heard.
Wang: I think there are probably two levels for the public. The SARS certainly prepares people for COVID this time. I remember in 2003, the central television station just everyday broadcasting about how to wash your hands, how the self-quarantine, how to take care of someone who is sick at home. So, people in China are better prepared this time. You don’t see people protesting, for example, against the lock down in China.
So this time we see, for example, the early signs of breakout in Wuhan and then covered up by the local government or, you know, we don’t know who covers that, but you know, by the government are there some cover up and then later on, it escalated. We see the numbers, then the government has to acknowledge the breakout.
And then you have removal of local officials, right? So, the central government will blame the local officials for the cover up. And then, you know, at the end, more recently we see, you know, propaganda to establish a more positive image of the central government. So, in terms of how the government responds to the crisis, we see a very similar timeline.
Anderson: When COVID19 was first found in Wuhan in December last year, what was your first reaction?
Wang: I totally underestimated, like the government everywhere. I didn’t think it would be a thing. There were reports of science of epidemic every year, right? So, you hear, H1N1, swine flu, Ebola, so on and so forth. But every time you hear it, you think it’s just, it’s not a big deal until you see the numbers.
Right? So, I think this time when I heard the first case in Wuhan, and I thought, you know, that’s just one of those epidemics. And then, it’ll be contained. It’s probably not, you know, human to human transaction. So I think we’ll some cases, and it will die out very soon. that’s my first reaction.
Xu: I think, as an American who grew up, you know, reading and watching things about H1N1, mad cow disease and SARS obviously, this just felt like another one of these things. Another one of these things that wouldn’t affect us. Right? And I think that’s, as you know, the professor mentioned, is kind of a worldview, right? We felt like it was isolated to China. We thought it would just be something that China would deal with and then would maybe, you know, like SARS be something that concerned us a little bit, but at the end of the day wouldn’t be that much of a big deal.And so, I think emotionally when it hit us, it hit us that much harder because of sort of the history of how we’ve been experiencing these situations in the past 10, 15 years or so.
Sun: I would say if it’s back in last December, I totally won’t associate those with, even H1N1 or SARS because I just thought, oh, just some cases, it’s sort of unknown but like it won’t be a big deal. And when I started to connect that with, like H1N1 or like SARS, it was like January, like mid or late January. So, like at first response I was like, oh, just a couple of cases. That’s it. I think doctors, governments would take care of that and we’ll be fine.
Anderson: Did you do anything differently in the US when the pandemic started to make its way here?
Sun: My parents definitely asked me to do a lot of things, like buying facemasks and protect, like stay at home, at least go out less. And then I went to local, like supermarkets and stuff. I don’t remember if that’s like late January or early February, but around that time. My parents were like, you need to buy some masks. You need to buy some of these supplies to sort of better prepared for that. And then it’s really hard to get the masks, like early February or like late January here even. I don’t think at that time I should wear a mask. But I wear mask pretty early. I would say earlier than a lot of the Americans.
Xu: It was only really in the last month (March) that my parents started making the calls to like, you know, buy a mask. Be extra vigilant about staying safe and all that sort of stuff for me. But you know, my parents and I had been talking about it since December. Just to give a quick background, I was born in China, but I moved here when I was about a year and a half old. And my parents were in their mid to late thirties when they moved here.
And so, for my parents and me, really, one of the values they instilled as immigrants was fitting in. They did not want me to wear a mask. They did not want me to do all these extra sorts of things, a precaution that we’re now doing, because they didn’t want me to be picked on. Basically, they didn’t want me to be seen as like an outsider in a sense. And this was something I talked at length about with my dad. He was afraid that, you know, I’d face unnecessary discrimination. And this is something they express a little bit during the SARS outbreak, but I was a little bit too young, I think, at that point to really understand where they’re coming from all that sort of stuff.
So, it was interesting to watch them, finally, I guess embrace the safety measures that we’re now embracing now, as immigrants, but also as Americans in a sense too.
Wang: In January, I just under prepared, I didn’t think it would spread to the US so quickly. I was worried about my family and friends in China at the moment, I remember this is around the time of the spring festival in China. And then my parents said they were planning on, you know, getting together with relatives who haven’t been there and so on, so forth.But then they had to cancel the dinner and I realized, this is getting serious. And then you heard the news from the government, you know, it’s locked down in Wuhan and so on, so forth. So, at that moment in January, I was primarily worried about people in China. And then, the only thing I did differently was, you know, I remember, I just started to help people connect in the US and also making donations to ship masks to China. You know, so as Xin said, she’s having trouble getting masks in China, probably due to the fact that a lot of Chinese and Chinese Americans in the US were shipping those masks back to China. Now looking back, we probably should have saved some masks in the US because we are now running short.
Wang: I was attacked on Twitter. I tweeted after Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said that, the virus might be from the US. It was a conspiracy theory. You know, I didn’t like it. I said on Twitter that we should just stop debating about where the virus came from and should focus on ending it. And then the next morning I woke up, it was like thousands of replies already. And now it’s gotten more than 500,000 impressions. It’s my most popular tweet, actually.
I tweeted, because I didn’t like Zhao Lijian’s conspiracy theory, but then because I’m Chinese, people on Twitter interpreted as a defense for Zhao Lijian. I learned a few things from the experience, actually. The first thing is for the people who haven’t used Twitter yet, try to avoid Twitter, if possible. There are a lot of trolls on Twitter. But more importantly, a lot of prejudices against Chinese and Chinese Americans. It’s very different from, for example, racism against the blacks in this country.
The prejudice against Chinese is based on a very strong, but implicit assumption that all Chinese are agents or supporters of the Chinese regime. So, people think in a way, our Chinese, we have a Chinese name and they think you must be hired by the Chinese government no matter what you’re saying.
Anderson: Do you think this relates to the history of anti-Chinese racism in the United States? Like there is a very particular type of racism against Chinese. It goes back actually many years, like railroads, like the Chinese exclusion act. Do you think that there’s a theme to the anti-Chinese racism in the United States?
Wang: Yeah, certainly there’s a historical root of this, but I think the prejudice, or the stereotype of Chinese has changed dramatically, I think over the last decades.
I saw some statistics that the Asian Americans, including the Chinese, especially are the highest income, and also, fastest growing minority group in the US, and also the highest education group in the US. I think this is very different from the railroad Chinese from the 19th century. I think, part of the prejudice is based on this perception that the Chinese now are very competent. They can do things, they have high education, high income. They are very different from the average Americans. And so, they can do bad things. They have the capabilities to do those things, but also at the same time, you know, they are forever foreigners. There is this saying that, you know, Asians are forever foreigners. They never fit in, you know, no matter what you do? Right? You can wear a baseball cap, you can wear a hoodie, but you are never a part of the Americans, so I think that is still very strong in the US.
Sun: I started wearing masks right after spring break, which was early March. Before or around the same time Michigan has announced the first two cases. And then there was this night when I went to a grocery store with my boyfriend and then we just walked there. It’s like 20, 30 minutes’ walk. And then when we walked back. We were wearing masks. And then there’s this guy in a car that was yelling at us. Like, oh dude, do you have this Corona coronavirus thing, if not, why you wear a mask? And then, he threw us like a metal thing, like a key or something. I didn’t see it very clearly, we luckily didn’t get hit, but that was the experience.
And then actually when I talked… at that time with my advisors and people in the lab, I got to know that there’s no like mask culture here. Like people don’t wear mask, and only the people who are sick would wear masks. I do also think that people should be aware that there’s this pandemic, if not getting here, but it’s in other parts of the world. And then they should respect those people who choose to wear a mask to protect themselves.
Xu: It’s weird how it’s become this visual symbolism of fear for a lot of Americans. Similar to like how the hijab was that in post 9/11. I went jogging the other day. I’ve been, you know, obviously barred from the gyms with quarantining and in state lockdown and all that sort of stuff.And this older gentleman, who is driving down the street, like basically stopped while I was like jogging down the street and basically said… I don’t know the intention… I don’t know if this was for me, being Chinese, said, you shouldn’t be out jogging. You probably have the COVID.
It’s one of those things. I think, you know, prior I had been reading a lot of news articles about how the FBI was talking about the potential for the rise in hate crimes and all that sort of stuff. And it’s just something that is an added extra layer. Right. I think as an Asian American in this country, I grew up like a lot of Asian Americans being bullied, for flat face, the shape of my eyes, stinky food, all that sort of stuff. And now it just feels like this is this extra thing to be self-conscious about. This is this extra thing of when you go jogging, when you go outside, am I being stared at and am I being stared at because of this?
You know, I don’t know if people are staring or not, but it’s a sort of adding an extra layer of anxiety and paranoia that I think a lot of us have to unfairly live with right now. Right. And it sucks!
Anderson: Do you still feel self-conscious wearing a mask now that lots of Americans are wearing masks?
Xu: So, I do not wear a mask actually. It’s something that I’m still honestly mentally struggling with doing. I know it is recommended by the CDC and is probably of a safer sort of thing. I have it laying on my desk, but I haven’t worn it because I am scared in some sense of being, you know, that visual terror, that visual fear for others and obviously being attacked because of that. I know it might not be the most socially responsible thing, but at the same time, it just feels… I am scared of being made to feel like more of other than I already normally feel like, if that makes sense.
Anderson: Professor Wang, you wrote an article in the Washington Post saying that political rhetoric could make stereotypes worse. Could you speak more about it?
Wang: The idea is that many people hold prejudices against certain races, groups, you know, gender, you name it. And then, but under most circumstances, they don’t feel comfortable expressing or acting on it. This is what we call Social Desirability Pressure. It’s a very good thing because it can keep people from saying or doing bad things.
The question then is the conditions under which people start feeling okay with practicing or even acting on those prejudices. So, a lot of the research in political science shows that political leaders matter, media matter.
When political leaders publicly attack a certain group of people, say for example, you know, when Trump calls it, you know, the Chinese Virus and then people who hold those prejudice are emboldened to do the same thing.Because they feel it is okay. You know, it is not a taboo anymore because our president, you know, can say, our lawmakers can say, so therefore, it’s okay for me to say it as well. So, this time I think, we see a very clear pattern, right. The anti-Asian attacks increased dramatically after Donald Trump and several other GOP lawmakers call the virus the Chinese virus.
And then there are websites that can track those incidents. And then you see a very clear increase after Trump said that is Chinese Virus. So, I think it means that the political leaders can really make people feel okay to say bad things. And also, you know, in some cases to act on those bad thoughts.
Anderson: What do you think about these divergent worldviews and these competing narratives between the US and China? What does this say about the tension between the two countries?
Wang: This is actually the saddest part during this pandemic. You know, two leading economies are pointing fingers at each other rather than collaborating on ending the crisis. The tension was before COVID, you know, the US-China relations were bad before this. There was a trade war, remember, right? And COVID just became a new arena for power play, where two countries are using the pandemic to direct attention of the public to a foreign country rather than their own problems. This is a classic playbook tactic used by politicians to shift blame.
And looking forward, I’m not very optimistic that two countries can mend the fences very quickly. One of the keys to US-China relations in the past four decades, you know, the friendship in the past four decades is that people to people exchange. Think about Xin, I and Joseph. we are ethnically Chinese, and then we came to this country, you know, some of us stay here and have families. You also have numerous students, visiting scholars, tourists, and businesses. Those people are the key to the US-China relations in the last four decades.
And one of the unfortunate consequences of the pandemic is that Chinese are leaving the US. We’ll see students are going back to their homes and then people who were planning on staying, you know, got denied visa or people were planning on taking a job in the US were their denied H1B or green card. And then at the same time, on the other side you also see Americans leaving China which means this people to people exchange, will be much reduced after the pandemic. So, this is the true worry, right? So, you know, in the next several years, right after the pandemic, we will see a much decreased level of people to people exchange between the two countries, which I think is, you know, in the long term will hurt US-China relations.
Xu: I think it’s petty, and kind of disgusting just using this as a platform for politics, when people’s lives are at stake. I mean, with all sort of Trump’s rhetoric about the China virus and sort of all this trickled down racism that he is, in a sense, instilling within our nation, you know, for me, like personally, I don’t view as really a reflection of maybe his views as much as just this political move of trying to displace the blame and trying to get reelected….and whatever other sort of political moves that he wants. And to me, it’s just really disgusting in a sense. I’m really sad that we’re here doing this rather than trying to figure out a solution together.
Anderson: What do you think the people in the US get wrong about China and what do people in China get wrong about the US?
Wang: Well, let me be clear first, I want to be on the right side of history. So, you know, I do condemn the Chinese government’s cover up all the early cases. You know, this is 100% wrong. They should not have done it. But then there’s a very strong assumption in the world, in particularly in the US, right now, that, if China didn’t cover up the virus in the early stage, there wouldn’t be the spreading of the virus across the world. Right?
This is what is what driving people crazy. They blame China because they think, Oh, it’s okay you get the virus but you should, you know, contain it at the very early stage, but because of your cover-up, it led to the spreading of the virus to other parts of the world. You know, this is the main reason why people are accusing China, right.
But then if you think about this assumption, this is in social sciences we call this a counterfactual scenario. That is, you know, something that didn’t happen. We simply don’t know whether it’s true that if China didn’t cover up the virus at the early stage, there wouldn’t be the spreading of the virus across the world. Therefore, you know, I would call for caution for believing in this unrealistic assumption and get mad at China.
You know, this is something we get wrong. I think the right conclusion should be this virus we are dealing with is a very contagious virus. And that even without the coverup in China, for example, in December, January, and the virus would still spread to other parts of the world.
Sun: The thing I want to say about people in China got wrong about US is like…I feel like Chinese they feel the US are not that aware of the severity of this thing. But actually, I think some of the people, they are like, oh, let’s all reopen the economy. Let’s go back to the beach or whatever.This is some of the Americans, and then there are other Americans. They’re like, let’s go social distancing. We need to stay at home. We need to take all these measures. I told my parents that all. Now I go to the grocery store. When I wait in the line, there are like signs like six feet away, you need to wait. Like, you will need to practice all of these things. They’re like, oh, US is doing a pretty good job. Like you’re doing these. Because from the news they’re like, oh, US people they don’t take that very seriously.
But like, I would say, there are quite a lot of people, they really know the severity of this thing and then they’re doing a lot of things. Also of course US is a really diverse country. People have different opinions. And then the good thing is also like, people can tell each other your thoughts. Like it’s like whole lot of different views. You cannot just see one side of it.
Xu: Kind of the same stuff that I grew up with, right. They are bad at telling about…. just assuming that all Chinese people are the same. Chinese people are the same as Asian Americans and Chinese Americans. And just basically being granular. Right!
And knowing that we all have our own individual stories, and that we don’t all support the Chinese government. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Right. And some of us have different mixed feelings and mixed views about this as well. The interesting thing I will say to corroborate another point is that, you know, when this first started in the US definitely I think my family, in China and here were just kind of, you know, being prideful about how China handled it in the sense that community values. Basically, how China got through it with this communal value. And how the US wasn’t going to be prepared to do it and too selfish, too self-interested to do it.
I’ll be honest, as someone who spent a decent amount of time in Southeast Asia last fall and really spend some time looking at that value, I was very cynical about our potential of handling the situation. And obviously I don’t think the US has handled it perfectly, nor has any country really. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised about the sort of community aspect of us as Americans and how we’re handling it.
Anderson: I am Hans Anderson. This has been connecting Pacific. Thanks to Laura and Bernie for making this happen and thank you to my crew, Justin, Debing, and Siyin. Thanks to all of you for listening.
Two U-M alumni and one student share their memory of SARS in 2003 and experiences as Chinese and Chinese American living in this current unique political environment, as COVID-19 pandemic has created more tensions to the souring U.S.-China relations.
On this episode:
• Xin Sun, Ph.D. student at UM
• Yuhua Wang, alumnus (Ph.D. ‘2011), associate professor at Harvard University
• Joseph Xu, alumnus (A.B. ‘2015), multimedia designer at UM college of Engineering
Washington Post: Asians are stereotyped as ‘competent but cold.’ Here’s how that increases backlash from the coronavirus pandemic.
Host: Hans Anderson
Producer: Debing Su
Project Assistant: Siyin Zheng
Sound Editor: Justin DeGroat
Music Credit: Closer Than This by Charlene Kaye (A.B. ‘2009)