Home Campus ‘This is not the time for the blaming game’: Experiences of Chinese students during the COVID-19 pandemic

‘This is not the time for the blaming game’: Experiences of Chinese students during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Editor’s Note: Two of the sources in this story were granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the experiences they had within the Ohio University and Athens communities. They will be referred to in this story as Charlotte and Sarah. 

The first time Charlotte and Sarah went to Kroger wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic, they felt uneasy. It was March, prior to the statewide mask mandate. 

“We were still feeling like we did something wrong just by putting on the mask,” Charlotte said. “We were trying to avoid eye contact with other people.”

But Sarah and Charlotte said everyone in Kroger was nice. The roommates took a selfie together in an empty aisle as a memento of wearing masks during the pandemic. 

“Being an international face, being a figure like this, it makes us more standout if we wear a mask, more like being targeted, at least,” Charlotte said. 

After the novel coronavirus was officially detected in the United States in March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned against labeling it as the “Chinese virus,” stating it could lead to racial profiling of Asians. 

“Viruses know no borders, and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the color of your skin,” WHO Executive Director Mike Ryan said in a media briefing March 19. “We have to be very careful in the language we use lest it lead to profiling of individuals associated with the virus.”

But some politicians still refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” 

According to a Pew Research study, about 39% of U.S. adults “say it is more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.” 

Around 58% of Asian Americans said “it is more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views about people who are Asian than it was before the coronavirus outbreak.”

About 36% of Asian Americans worry their ethnicity will make individuals suspicious of them if they wear a mask or facial covering in a business. 

For students at Ohio University of Chinese ethnicity, Sarah and Charlotte said their black hair and black eyes set them apart — features that can’t be hidden behind a mask. 

“With so many people telling you it’s normal, you just expect it.”

The 1918 flu pandemic has been a common reference point in historical discussions of pandemic responses. At the time, the pandemic was erroneously called the “Spanish Flu” even though the earliest reports of the flu were in the United States. 

In “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Lessons Learned and Not,” a paper published by the American Journal of Public Health, Trevor Hoppe, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York, discusses how the term “Spanish Flu” is a “window into the significant role that scapegoating of vulnerable populations play in pandemic response.” 

Giving a disease the name of a foreign country is “closely related to the desire to wall off those who are viewed as threats of contagion,” Hoppe said. 

Sarah is a medical student, and in February 2020, she was working in a hospital in Ohio outside of Athens County. 

At the time, she had a cough and a small fever. Sarah couldn’t take time off of work, so she wore a mask. Sarah said patients in the hospital were sick too, so other individuals were wearing masks. 

Sarah was walking past a family by a hospital bed when she overheard someone say, “It’s scary seeing a Chinese walk around with a mask on.”

She said she didn’t know what to say. 

“I’m in my white coat. I’m not supposed to yell at people. So I turn around and say, ‘Excuse me?’” Sarah said. 

The individual who spoke didn’t reply at first, but when Sarah walked past again, she heard, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I didn’t say anything, but obviously he 100% meant what he said,” Sarah said. “So, I was really surprised to hear that in a hospital, in a professional setting, when I was in my scrubs, in my white coat. It wasn’t like I was just walking down the street.”

Charlotte said she thinks the patient meant because Sarah looks Chinese, he thought she was infected with the coronavirus. Sarah has studied at both Case Western and Purdue University. This was the first time she experienced a situation like that.

Sarah told a hospitalist, who was from Jordan, what happened.

“She said, ‘You experience that so many times in your life you just get used to it and kinda laugh it off,’” Sarah remembered. 

Charlotte expressed more anger about the incident than Sarah. 

“It’s so wrong,” Charlotte said. “At least have some respect for your healthcare provider. It’s not like me, a general international student on the bus where you don’t really care about who I am and you can say whatever.”

Charlotte encouraged Sarah to share her experience, and Sarah said she was reluctant to do so because she doesn’t see any action to address these incidents. 

“I didn’t really feel hurt or anything like that. With so many people telling you it’s normal, you just expect it,” Sarah said, adding that with the diverse set of patients she’ll see in the medical profession, she doesn’t anticipate always being treated respectfully. 

“These kind of stories happen all day, with every single international student.”

The last time Charlotte rode the Athens Public Transit, she knew she needed to buy her own car. ASAP.

It was fall 2017. Charlotte had recently begun studying for a doctorate in translational biomedical sciences at Ohio U, although she had been in the U.S. for two years, studying in South Carolina. 

“I wasn’t expecting too much culture shock after almost two years of living in the states,” Charlotte said over a Zoom call. 

She didn’t have a car in Athens and was using public transportation for off-campus travel, such as grocery shopping. 

Charlotte got on the bus with a group of new international students and met who she believed was a visiting scholar from China. The two started a conversation. 

“She started asking me questions in Chinese in the bus, and I was replying in Chinese. Because we were Chinese. It makes more sense. We communicate faster, and we communicate more efficiently, in Chinese,” Charlotte said.

She described the volume of her voice as conversational, not loud or disruptive to the other passengers on the bus — a group of local residents.  

Then, a teenage boy on the bus overheard Charlotte and the scholar. 

“He started to say, ‘This is America, speak English,’” Charlotte said. “[The scholar] did not realize what he was talking about. I heard it, and I tried to ignore him because we were having a conversation.”

But the boy repeated the words, “This is America, speak English” again and again, raising his voice each time. 

The adult with the boy, who Charlotte assumed was his mother, said nothing, and neither did the girl who appeared to be his little sister. The bus driver, who likely could hear the commotion, also remained quiet. The only intervention was another local resident voicing support for the boy. 

Charlotte replied to the boy, “Sure, okay,” and ended her conversation with the visiting scholar. 

Initially, Charlotte thought the boy was right: She should only speak English in the states. Now, she knows the boy’s actions were inappropriate. 

“I have my own right to speak whatever language I want to speak,” Charlotte said. “I think I have my right to speak my mother tongue.” 

Charlotte said she was fortunate to have the means to get a car so quickly. She feels safer driving by herself. 

“Once you get outside of the university bubble, I still feel a little bit insecure, to be honest,” she said. 

Charlotte tries not to think of her experience in daily life, but even after three years, she still tears up when telling of that day. 

“It’s a scar on your heart,” she said. 

When Sarah finished speaking about her experience in the hospital, Charlotte said the roommates’ experiences were not unique. 

“These kind of stories happen all day, with every single international student,” she said. 

“This is not the time for the blaming game.”

Caroline Kingori is an associate professor of social and public health at Ohio U. She’s studied the relation of HIV/AIDS and stigma of groups, such as people of African descent. 

“Stigma often marks an individual as being different from ‘normal’ people in the society. It disqualifies such an individual from being fully accepted by society,” Kingori explained in an email. 

On April 21, 2020, the World Health Organization released a document titled “Addressing Human Rights as Key to the COVID-19 Response.” The document warned that stigma and discrimination have negative consequences on the mental and physical health of individuals impacted by it. 

“History has shown that public health emergencies often lead to stigma and discrimination towards certain communities and groups of added persons,” WHO said. 

One solution WHO offered to combat stigma and discriminatory behavior is disseminating accurate information and stopping the behavior. 

Kingori’s research shows that lack of education is one of the causes of HIV stigma as well as stigma surrounding other issues, such as the COVID-19. 

“Fear is often the basis of stigmatizing or looking down upon people who are ailing from a disease that people do not have a good grasp of how it is spread,” Kingori wrote. 

Fear of contracting the coronavirus and the association the virus has with China have perpetuated stigma of people of Chinese descent, Kingori explained. 

“COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, and we continue to know more about it as time goes by. The challenge with the rate at which we are learning and coming up with innovative ways to prevent further transmission, is the increase in rumors and misconceptions about transmission. Such inaccurate information is fueling stigma and discrimination about various groups of people,” she wrote. 

With the statewide mask mandate, Charlotte said she’s more comfortable wearing a mask in public. She doesn’t feel like she stands out as much. 

“I’m happy, it’s kind of like a disguise for me because everyone’s wearing a mask,” she said. 

In a follow-up email, Charlotte wrote that attention should be focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19, instead of trying to pin blame on what country the coronavirus originated in. 

“This is not the time for the blaming game, people are dying, and we should focus more on taking effective methods to control this disease,” she wrote in the email.

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