Like everyone else, I charge my phone on my nightstand. Within minutes of waking, I reach for it and from the cozy warmth of my bed, I check my personal emails, respond to texts, look through my news alerts, dawdle over Instagram, and scroll through Facebook to see what’s been going on in my sphere while my eyes are still bleary.
Before my workday responsibilities, which include managing my company’s social media accounts, I take the time to go through my own.
It may not be a healthy habit, but it’s a common ritual I share with many. Innocuous, universal, unremarkable.
However, since the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head, this ritual has become a source of dread. As my Facebook feed loads, I feel tendrils of anxiety unfurl from my stomach. My heart beats a little faster, my breath catches, and I feel a weight in my chest, nervous about what fresh attack awaits me.
I’m not alone in this trepidation. Pandemic conspiracy theories are rife as people grow tired of the limitations of quarantine and spend too much time in the deepest recesses of their thoughts. Political rants, misinformation and finger-pointing rhetoric have mounted to crescendos as folks feel increasingly helpless against the onslaught of bad news and lash out.
… But you see, I am first-generation Chinese with an ethnic name. And to a shockingly, overwhelmingly large amount of my fellow citizens ― most recently demonstrated by this divisive election ― I am part of the problem.
Beyond the worry for my health as part of the susceptible population of sufferers of autoimmune disease, beyond my fears for immunocompromised immediate family members and my concerns for my future prospects and job security as a writer specializing in two of the hardest-hit industries ― travel and food ― I have the additional burden of apology to shoulder. The responsibility to defend an entire country of people to which, as an ABC (American-born Chinese), I have no more than ancestral kinship.
It started with the harmful rhetoric “Chinese virus.” With President Donald Trump’s insistent usage of this slur, he put a target squarely on the back of one minority group. In April, I put up one post on my personal Facebook, asking for friends to scrub this term from their vernacular.
It incited a flame war.
Extended members of a family I was once welcomed into with open arms released hateful words in defense of our president, convinced that my plea was an attack on him. They told me and friends who sprang to my defense to get out of this country if we didn’t like it ― something I’ve heard throughout my life, but didn’t think I’d hear from folks who had me over for Sunday dinners, people I’ve celebrated and mourned with.
People who I thought were my friends refused to understand why I was upset by the use of this term. They didn’t want to read about how pinning the disease’s origin on one culture put all Asians at risk; didn’t want to hear about why I was afraid that the types of “patriotic vigilante justice” committed against those of Middle Eastern descent after 9/11 could repeat itself targeting my family members, or even myself.
In short, they made it quite clear they didn’t want to hear from me, as a human being. Deeply shaken, I turned my notifications off.
* * *
Although much of this nastiness sprouted from the virtual world, as I’d feared it didn’t stay there. The pandemic has seen an uptick of violence against Asians, toward the people, their businesses, and their communities at large. Chinatowns in Canada were vandalized and temples desecrated. Asian-Americans ― including those of Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese descent alike ― were spat on, harassed, and attacked in streets and even parking lots across America. As infection numbers mounted, so did the instances of prejudice at work ― as many as 100 a day in March, according to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) in an impassioned plea to discontinue use of the term “Chinese virus” on MSNBC.
The Stop AAPI Hate website, aimed at addressing anti-Asian American discrimination amid the pandemic, logged over 2,500 physical or verbal attacks between March and August. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all released statements to Al Jazeera’s reporters saying they’ve asked users to report instances of this verbal abuse.
As recently as October, after Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis, anti-Asian rhetoric and Chinese conspiracy theories took a shocking 85% spike on Twitter, proving the danger was far from over ― it’s instead cyclical. Hostilities rose again with rapid speed as Asians around the world pleaded for humanization with desperate cries begging for acknowledgment that #IAmNotAVirus.
In keeping with the “model minority” tradition, many Asian victims of hate-motivated crimes or harassment decline to report these instances, brushing them off as an anticipated price we all pay for our American tradition of systemic racism. Commander William Slaton of the Pennsylvania state police has speculated that this could be due to a variety of factors: “fear of embarrassment, lack of community support, and fear that law enforcement won’t seriously investigate their concerns.”
In my experience as a first-generation Chinese-American woman in a predominantly white neighborhood, prejudice was the price of entry and accepted as a regrettable matter of fact. To cry about it was weak, to demand action is to be a community nuisance, and to call attention to it was putting a target on, not just your family’s, but your people’s backs. You’re expected to keep your head down and mouth shut, to fly beneath the radar and let your hard work and perseverance validate your existence.
In a collective effort to remain a model minority, we delude ourselves in believing that racism has disappeared in the generations since our ancestors immigrated, that the incidents that fo occur are isolated and a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person, and not hate-fueled actions.
And of course, friends don’t want to face that those they care about can be perceived as nameless, blurry-faced targets. Who wants to have that kind of worry on their shoulders, when they themselves “don’t see color” or “don’t think of [you] ‘that’ way,” as I have seen in comments on Facebook walls?
… Which is yet another disheartening reason opening social media feeds has become such a trial.
Tokenization is already something people of color have to battle, and as people fight to choose the side of right in a world full of shades of gray, it eats away at you to see folks you know, attempting to be allies, use statements like “but I have an XYZ friend” to virtue-signal their liberal ideologies and open-mindedness.
I began to wonder, am I “the Asian friend?” Am I the significant other being referred to when people comment “I know someone who is with a Chinese person, and they would never …”? Have I been reduced to Exhibit A?
* * *
Sometimes, I take half a Xanax before bed. I take them with reserve and caution, due to their addictive nature.
I wait until the thrumming of my low-level panic rises just enough to vibrate through the invisible hairs on my arms and I can’t sleep, too fixated on the single, probably inane reason I’m freaking out.
We’re many months into this pandemic, yet I continue to confront a stream of anxiety-inducing trigger statements every time I log onto social media, a sudden feeling of impotence and voicelessness. The angry, finger-pointing post I couldn’t respond to. The hurtful comment or joke made by someone who forgot they had a Chinese “friend” on their list. The patronization of those trying to walk the line between being a white savior or an ally. “Fact”-shamers on the left and right, neither of whom will listen to the other in favor of actual facts.
It is emotional labor just to be exposed to this, and especially when your job is in communications and social media, it’s unavoidable. I see things I can’t respond to, read things I can’t refute. I am exposed to “behind closed doors” rhetoric on corporate feeds, spewed by racist brand followers who assume they’re in a safe space since the account they’re “friends” with is a company and not an individual ― faceless, anonymous, neutral and consummately professional.
So I stifle my outrage, bite my tongue, and let it eat at me, abjectly powerless to do anything else but try to push it down, to try to allow room for hope and light.
But every night, I am tired. Every night, I am drained. And yet every morning, I steel myself, heart in throat, and click my phone on.