Is Sinophobia Only Skin Deep? An NYU Shanghai Senior’s Experience with COVID-19

— An Interview between Ryan Hoover and Maya Wang

Even though it’s hard being spread apart on different countries, different continents, we still have a strong sense of support for each other

—Maya Wang

Interviewer: Ryan Hoover
Interviewee: Maya Wang
Translators: Acker, Eliza, and an anonymous translator

Editor’s Note

The COVID-19 outbreak has deeply affected China, the Asian diaspora, and the globe to varying degrees. Perhaps more dangerous than the virus itself are the accompanying xenophobia and stigmatization, which seem doubly infectious and deadly. 

Maya Wang, a senior at New York University Shanghai (NYU Shanghai), recently posted on Instagram an avant-garde surgical mask makeup in an effort to raise hopes and speak out against sinophobia. Ryan Hoover is an NYU Shanghai sophomore and Diversity Initiatives student leader. He was displaced by the coronavirus to the NYU New York campus, and as an effort to explore the impact of this outbreak in both the school and international communities, he conducted an extended interview on Maya’s experience during the novel coronavirus epidemic on Feb 13 (EST). Transcription from the original audio file has been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity

Image Courtesy of Maya Wang
Original Caption:

It is difficult to be joyful and celebrate the lunar new year while Wuhan and all of China is suffering. During the lunar new year holiday, families are meant to reunite and rejoice, not to mourn and worry.

We are grateful to those working tirelessly to find a cure, treat the ill, provide supplies, among many others who are keeping the nation safe. Please keep China in your thoughts and consider donating to the cause.

Additionally, I have been utterly disgusted by the sheer amount of insidious racism and sinophobia that has risen in response to the current situation. It is disrespectful to everyone who has been affected. In a time like this, empathy and sympathy is of utmost importance.

I hope that all of my friends and family in China are safe and healthy. I hope that I can return to China and finish my education. I hope that a cure is found and there is peace. I hope that there are new reforms and policies that are implemented so that a catastrophe like this can be prevented in the future. And most importantly, I hope that there is more compassion for our world and our fellow human beings.

新年快乐,祝福大家身体健康. (Happy New Year and wish everyone good health.)

(Transcription from the original audio file has been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity)

R – Ryan Hoover
M – Maya Wang

M: Hi, I’m Maya Wang. I am an IMA (Interactive Media Arts major) senior, Class 2020 (endnote 1).

R: We’ll just start from your Instagram post. What prompted you to publish, print, and make that makeup? 

M: I was feeling super helpless. I think this was probably right after that NYU Shanghai announced that we were going to suspend class for the time being. We could choose to go to another NYU portal campus or study away site or stay in Shanghai. It was really hard for me especially to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to be spending my senior year in Shanghai. On top of that, I was so concerned about my friends who are already there and my family there. I have my extended families all in China right now; they are from Shanxi province and Zhanjiang, which is in Guangdong Province. 

I was worried for their safety, for their health, but a lot of it also was stemming from things that I’ve seen online. There was a lot of negativity from number-based, fact-based kinds of posts. Either there’ll be jokes about the coronavirus, or there’ll be news about it, and it was all very heavy. 

So I wanted to make things a little bit more hopeful but still bring what’s serious, and bring attention to the fact that this is a real crisis and we need to be compassionate to other people. That’s basically what these posts are about. I feel like the surgical mask has been a symbol for this entire movement about Chinese people wearing masks who are at the center of these racist attacks. And then also coinciding with Chinese New Year, so that’s what the red and gold (is about) – feeling connected to my heritage. I was like “I need a little hope!” So I decided to put that all together and make it about hope for my friends, my family, my school, everything that was going on. 

“Chinese against Racist Virus” protest at Trafalgar Square in London.
Image courtesy of Chinese against Racist Virus 

R: So how do you think societal and cultural differences between the West and China amplify and complicate the problem? For example, the differences in attitude about wearing masks.

 M: Wearing masks in China is a really common thing whether it’s for pollution or just general personal safety or personal health. But with this outbreak, the mask has become a symbol for people being afraid, or people protecting themselves from others. And it is generally considered a positive thing in China. But it was certainly bad that masks are running out of supply, and people are scrambling to get them. 

After a Chinese woman was assaulted for wearing a mask in New York City, the NYPD encouraged the victim to report this incident via its official Twitter account. 

However here in the United States, if you wear a mask on a subway and you are Chinese or of any East-Asian descent, you are probably going to get looks. Actually, for my personal sanity, I decided not to wear a mask because I figured the risks aren’t as bad as they are here. Also, I didn’t want to be targeted for any kind of racial profiling or attacks, because I heard some stories about people in other cities being attacked for wearing masks — specifically Chinese people being attacked for wearing masks (endnote 2). 

Another thing I notice is that in the Chinese-American community, people who immigrated from China to the US actually proliferate a lot of the panic and hysteria around wearing masks and being Chinese. That’s probably where I get a lot of my concern from — the older generation who immigrated here, such as my parents and their friends and their family. 

R: How do you think this inter-Asian diaspora racism is different from white racial aggression towards Chinese people? 

M: I feel like it’s a little more centralized. For example, my mom was supposed to have these Chinese New Year performances because she’s a part of a dance troop. Once the news of the outbreak broke out, all of the organizers who are also Chinese-American cancelled because they were afraid that a lot of the performers and guests had gone back to China to celebrate Chinese New Year and came back for these performances. They were afraid that some of these people were from Hubei province or Wuhan and decided to stay safe. 

While it’s a little bit based in concern, a lot of it is really just Chinese people trying to differentiate themselves by saying ‘oh we are not from this province’ or ‘oh we haven’t gone to China this year. So it’s less racism but more like ‘differentiating’, ‘segregating’ maybe. 

R: How are your experiences in New York different from your friends in China?

Maya Wang (left) and her two roommates, Amy Decillis (center) who is currently in Shanghai, and Nathalia Lin (right) in Brazil. 
Image courtesy of Amy Decillis.

M: My roommate is currently in China living in her apartment and she’s pretty vocal about everything that’s been going on. What I see at least from her is that the city is rather deserted, empty. People are just continually concerned if there’s a bigger risk obviously from infection. She’s living in Shanghai and now there’s a couple of cases there so it makes sense for people to not want to leave their house. They have these mask-giving out things for you. If you put in your name they’ll give you a permit to buy at most five masks (endnote 3). And you can get a couple of things in a few days’ time but you have to take your turn to get them because there is limited supply.

But here I would say that I’m privileged because I’m not really at a high risk for contracting this, but I’m more at a risk for being targeted for being Chinese here. Whereas there it’s pretty homogenous, so no one’s gonna attack each other; everyone is just gonna be like ‘be safe and be cautious.’ It’s not really a matter of ‘oh you are Chinese, you have that virus;’ it’s more like ‘one of us might have the virus; let’s all keep everyone safe; let’s all stay at home and work together.’ Whereas here it’s like ‘you are different; you are going to get me sick.’ 

R: Right. So I guess like what you said, the virus itself isn’t actually the most dangerous; it’s the sinophobia that’s radiating.

M: Yes. Definitely in the West, it’s more so the sinophobia that affects me, at least.

R: On a more positive aspect, what community comings-together have you seen? 

M: I would say that a lot of the NYU Shanghai students have been so incredible — we are stronger than ever in the face of this and I didn’t expect us to fall apart. But something as big of a crisis as this, our school being delayed, or the fact that a lot of our seniors can’t go back and really live out the way we wanted to. We have come together and support our friends and family in Shanghai and China. And we’ll have our own strong community here (in New York); we are still a part of that.

Obviously we made the NYU Shanghai fundraiser (endnote 4); we’ve reached that goal in like three or four days. It was amazing! And a lot of (people) sent messages to support, from other students who are abroad or who are even in China too, just saying things like “stay strong, we got this!” Even though it’s hard being spread apart on different countries, different continents, we still have a strong sense of support for each other.

NYU Shanghai charity fundraiser site to help bring relief to those suffering in Wuhan.

R: Do you think there’s a difference between general sinophobia (the meaning here being omnipresent Asian racism experienced by the Asian diaspora) and sinophobia related to this virus specifically?

M: Yeah, I would say that. I might get a little liberal here, (both laugh) but I would say that this outbreak has given Western media a chance to really pit us against us as in specifically America (the West) against the East. Say like China’s dirty, China’s disgusting, the laws are bad, and raise a whole slew of other issues, like even those concentration camps (endnote 5) — papering that up. One thing happened in China, and you’re gonna put all this on the Chinese government, Chinese people and China. So I would say that this definitely was an opportunity for them to really spew some super bigoted rhetorics about China and about the East. 

R: How does this troubling information proliferate on the Internet? 

One of Maya’s TikTok posts on COVID-19. 
Image courtesy of Maya 

M: While I understand that people are suffering and people are trying to cope with this — they make jokes and stuff, but a lot of these jokes are coming off as really, not tactical. I see things on TikTok all the time. I’ve actually made a couple of social justice themed TikToks before about this issue. But people usually reply as a comment like: ‘this is how you get the coronavirus’ or ‘why don’t you stay away from us, Dirty Chinese’ or ‘travel ban on all Chinese people.’ It ranges from humor, dark humor, I guess, to just straight up sinophobia, like “fuck Chinese people”, stuff like that. 

And It really sucks because you don’t know when you’re gonna come across something like that. What if I want to just to read a news article about what was happening and I see this whole slew of comments coming from people in the West, saying really negative things about Chinese people and the Chinese government. 

R: What is your personal subjective experience like?

M: My personal experience? Well, I would say that I definitely try to report or comment. I really don’t get into comment wars that often. Personally, I made some videos too, about things like “Don’t be sinophobic. This is not an excuse.” Also with my posts, I just want to call out people who are being really disrespectful and rude to people who are actually suffering. Because here in America you don’t really have that much of a risk of contracting the virus, and you doing this is just going to proliferate all hatred.

R: Have you found any ways to combat this? What’s the most effective way to combat people being sinophobic?

M: I would say hit them with facts, but even then they have a lot of confirmation bias (endnote 6). That fake video — I mean it wasn’t a fake video — but it was an unrelated video of someone eating bat soup (endnote 7). It wasn’t in China, and it was reported in 2016. I also believe that there should be reforms to not have this [spread of misinformation and accompanying stigmatization] happen again. There are definitely issues with this. 

I don’t have as much experience to speak up about the governmental policy-making side of this, but definitely the social part of this is that people just don’t have respect for other people if they’re suffering. So I just go — imagine if you were sick, how would you feel if someone was making jokes about you being sick? That would just suck. I try to have people be empathetic instead of fighting fire with fire.


R: Obviously, there’s a huge wealth inequality in China, and it has to do with differences in food sanitization.

M: Yeah definitely. And it’s a class issue. It’s a… Well in America, I would say it’s a race issue. It’s a policy and governmental issue with responding to things like that. But it’s also a humanitarian issue! It’s very complicated to deal with a lot of this at once.

R: Do you have any more observations? Things that are troubling you about this outbreak or the response to it? 

M: I would say it has died down, part of it. People are going on with their lives here, and that’s the Western privilege. You have privilege — could just go on with your life, could not be concerned about this. I think about this daily. I hear updates from my family WeChat group chats in China, saying: ‘OK, well, we’re going to leave the house today. Hopefully things are okay…’

R: Do you think the coronavirus as well as how people respond to this right now is going to impact the future of how people respond to similar crises?

M: I really hope it does, but maybe more on the governmental side of things, especially with the whistleblower (endnote 8). He died recently. He was one of the first people who was a doctor in China who warned of the existence of the novel coronavirus. He posted warning messages in his private group chat, and the screenshots were later leaked out. And the police admonished him for “spreading rumors and false lies.” But then it became a big issue, and then he passed away from the virus. If he was not forced to keep quiet then there would have been maybe a better response and faster help, with all the supplies that they needed, possibly quarantining this, so it wouldn’t have spread as much as it did now. 

Doctor Li Wenliang being mourned by Wuhan citizens

But then on the Western side, I would say that hopefully this teaches some people that no matter what race you are, health and being well is really (important). Everyone should value other people’s health. Everyone should value your health and the health of the whole community, the world, and not just make this an us-against-you-guys issue. 

R: (Some) people are not able to put aside biases in this issue — maybe they don’t agree with China’s government actions. But people who are affected by this are actual humans. Just because they are Chinese doesn’t mean that they are not human. 

M: You know, the people aren’t the government, and vice versa. You’re not gonna just put the entire flaws of the government onto a bunch of people who are suffering from real illness. 

R: On a hopeful note, what are you optimistic about? Out of this horrible situation what did you see that made you hopeful, joyful? 

M: I would say that our school’s community is one of the things that brings me a lot of hope. Seeing that people do care and people will come together to make actual differences. It’s great and all for me to just post some stuff about “I hope everything’s okay.” But for people who donate, for people who have really tried to work towards finding a solution, tried to donate, I said donate twice… (interviewer laughs), who work towards a cure and are supportive for other people, that’s given me a lot of hope. 

R: What are ways in which people like you and me can help the situation? 

M: I would say donate. Even though we reached our goal, there’s still so much more to be done. So donate to the cause! And if you see something a little sinophobic, a little racist on the Internet, do your best to either calm the situation or report it. If you are having a genuine face-to-face conversation, a personal message or private message conversation with someone who doesn’t quite understand, teach them, educate them about what’s going on and have them be empathetic, instead of just giving them facts. Have empathy for other people. It’s really great! (Maya laughs).

Ryan’s penny for your thoughts:

Make no mistake the COVID-19 is a deadly disease that has claimed the lives of 2791 people in China (until Feb. 28th). Families have been ripped apart and people have died — that point should not be underscored. However, the radical response from Western media outlets that have hurled sinophobic remarks towards Chinese nationals, ethnically Chinese people, and Asian people in general is unwarranted. Consider the countless stares that Chinese people in the US who wear face masks get walking down the street or consider the people in China who have been cooped up in their houses for days and weeks. Reach out, listen, and put yourself in the shoes of those affected before you repost that problematic tweet or TikTok (shoutout Golden rule). Compared to the 2,000+ deaths caused by the coronavirus, the flu has thus far killed around 16,000 Americans in the 2019-2020 season (endnote 9). So, instead of engaging with or proliferating sinophobic rhetoric, empathize with your fellow suffering human beings regardless of their nationalities, and get your damn flu shots. 

Endnote 1:  IMA, or interactive media arts, is a major in New York University Shanghai that uses an interdisciplinary and creative approach to explore technology, media and communications. Maya is in her last year of university and soon graduating in the spring, 2020. 

Endnote 2:  According to NBC News, a Chinese woman wearing a mask was assaulted in the subway allegedly because of her ethnicity. The NYPD encouraged the victim to report for a full investigation via their official Twitter account. Officials are still trying to determine the identity of the assailant. 

Endnote 3: The online surgical mask registration policy in Shanghai saves residents the trouble and risk of queuing up in front of pharmacies. It allows the residents to register online with personal information, through which they will be granted a permit to purchase surgical masks at the designated pharmacy. One resident unit can only register once, and each purchase permit allows one to buy at most 5 masks. For more: According to Amy Decillis, she bought 5 masks for ¥9.5.

Endnote 4: The fundraiser, organized by two NYU Shanghai students, “Light a Lantern For Wuhan,” reached their goal of $30,000 within 72 hours after its launch. Currently the project has raised $56,604 (396,378 RMB), with over 750 donations and an anonymous donor contributing $20,000.

Endnote 5: “Concentration camps” in this context refers to the “re-education camps”, officially called “Vocational Education and Training Centers” in northwestern China, in which thousands or millions of Muslim Chinese Uyghurs (an ethnic minority) are detained.

Endnote 6: Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon in which people favor information that supports their pre-existing beliefs.

Endnote 7: The video of someone eating a bat was supposedly from Wuhan – where bat is not actually considered a delicacy – and meant to explain the origin of the coronavirus. But in fact, it was filmed in Palau, a Pacific island nation, by famous travel blogger Wang Mengyun in May, 2016. 

Endnote 8: Li Wenliang (12 October 1986 – 7 February 2020) was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. On December 30, 2019, he warned his colleagues in a WeChat group about a new “SARS-like pneumonia” – which was later proven to be COVID-19. On 3 January 2020, Wuhan police summoned and admonished him for “spreading rumors on the Internet.” Later, when his early warnings were exposed to the public, he was recognized as the “whistleblower” (chui shao ren) for the novel coronavirus epidemic. In its original Chinese context, this epithet is a praise of Li’s foresight and alertness that alarmed many of his colleagues when critical public attention was meager. Not long after returning to work, Li contracted the virus from an infected patient and died from it on February 7, 2020. Wikipedia:

Endnote 9: According to the Center for Disease Control, it’s estimated that 29 million people have contracted the flu so far during the 2019-2020 flu season.

Transcription: Jiabao Xu & 叁水
Proofreader: Ryan, Maggie, Huiyin
Editor: Ryan, Maggie, Joyce
Typesetting: Acker, Lili

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