As Chu Zhang, a Chinese student in Dublin was returning from his part-time job one evening, some children commuting on the same bus targeted him for their hideous racial slur.
Chu, 24, is from Heilongjiang in Northeast China and doing a pre-masters Engineering programme in Ireland, one of the latest countries to record a case of Covid-19.
‘‘After my shift, I decided to use one of the public buses. As I tried to find a seat, some kids started shouting, ‘virus!’ ‘virus!’ but I ignored them. They did that to all passengers with Asian faces,’’ he tells me.
I visited Chu in his student accommodation. We’ve been friends since last October. I preferred to speak to him in person because I needed to do a video recording and also because we hadn’t seen in a while but others warned me of coming in contact with him. This confirmed the stigmatisation of Chinese people since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Xenophobia is now spreading as fast as the virus itself.
Few hours before our meeting, I deliberately posted an old picture of me and some of my Chinese friends on social media just to see the kind of reaction it would elicit, and I got what I expected. Statements like; ‘‘virus is real, use mask next time…’’ ‘‘don’t say I didn’t tell you, beware of these people…’’ filled the comments section of the posts.
Chu told me he feels so victimised that when in public, he suppresses even the slightest cough or risk being given those odd looks which can really be upsetting.
I may not know what it feels like being or looking Asian but I remember what it felt like being an African guy who just arrived in the UK during the Ebola pandemic in 2014.
It’s not only Chu who has experienced different forms of discrimination. It’s becoming so frequent that there’s even a social media hashtag, #coughingwhileasian and a video:
Over the years, Europe has become a popular destination for Chinese nationals. With an estimated population of 630,000 persons, the United Kingdom has the largest Chinese population in Europe followed by France with an estimated 540,000. In Ireland, out of the around 70,000 Chinese nationals, 40,00 of them are students.
There are also quite a significant number of students and professionals in other parts of Europe. Chu empathises with some of his countrymen in other countries. ‘‘I’m so worried over the harassment of some Chinese students in Germany. They are being treated unfairly.’’
There was a recent report of a 23-year old Chinese citizen in Berlin who received racist insults and was subsequently beaten by two unknown assailants, in an incident the police termed “xenophobic.”
Also reported was the case of a Chinese student from Chengdu living in Berlin who was given two weeks notice to leave her rented apartment by her landlord, German actress Gabrielle Scharnitzky.
The actress defended her actions, stating she had to protect herself against a real possible danger of infection by a person returning from a virus-contaminated area, entering and leaving her home and thus endangering her health and that of her visitors.
Congyi Jianglin, 22 is another Chinese student studying in Ireland and a friend of Chu who suddenly joined in our conversation.
He admitted he hasn’t been discriminated against but someone close to him who lives in the UK has; ‘‘my friend recently called to say he was denied entry into a supermarket because he looks Asian. They shut the door and window upon sighting him,’’ says Congyi.
His only crime was that he ‘looked Asian’ or had an ‘Asian face.’ But there is still no prove that appearances carry viruses and that anyone who ‘looks Asian’ must be a native of Wuhan. Yes, precautionary measures should be taken but can be taken without being racist. The virus can more likely be contracted from a South American for example who perhaps didn’t take necessary precaution than from a Chinese or Asian who has.
Since the outbreak of the monstrous virus, the internet has also been used to spew hateful remarks targeted at Asians.
In response to all the direct or indirect bigotry against Asians especially on the internet, the World Health Organization recently condemned “actions that promote stigma or discrimination.”
The internet is fighting back with the springing up of movements to fight racist stereotyping like #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I’m not a virus) which started in France.
Covid-19 is annoyingly ruthless. As at 27 February, 2020 (eight weeks since the outbreak began), more than 80,000 people had been affected and killed nearly 2,800, the majority in China’s Hubei province.
‘‘I can’t travel to China now but I live in constant fear for my family back home,’’ Chu says pensively.
Unfortunately, his predicament is not being helped by the new experience of hostility. For him, it’s is already challenging being a foreigner in Ireland – adjusting to a new language, new people and culture.
No day passes without Chu communicating with his family in China. Only recently, he bought masks and sent to his parents and grandparents who have now been quarantined and can’t access masks and other essentials as freely as they used to.
‘‘Someone just tested positive to the virus in our neighbourhood. The victim recently returned from Wuhan where he was doing a masters programme. My family is very worried.’’
Chu and Congyi say they’ve decided to ignore anyone who insults them because of their looks, insisting that no hating, fighting or mockery of ‘Asian-faced’ people would solve the problem. They believe that unlike humans, viruses don’t discriminate and as such anyone regardless of race or colour can have it.
There may be no vaccine for the disease but Chu is a big advocate of self-help and joins in the call for the observance of preventive measures by individuals.
‘‘I can’t understand why Chinese people still eat bats and all these funny animals.’’
*** Names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.
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