You’re out in public: let’s say a Starbucks. You go up to the barista and you order your morning usual: a grande matcha green tea latte with extra foam. You pay, wait, and get your drink. At last you find a place to sit down. You choose the table next to the window in the corner. While scrolling through the New York Times daily briefing on your phone, you hear someone a table over cough. The flu’s going around. I wish that people would cover up, you brood, your eyes still peeled to your phone. Your thoughts soon return to your personalized electronic news. You browse the headlines: “Wuhan Virus Death Toll has surpassed 2,000 in China,” “Your Typical Drugstore Mask Can’t Filter Out the Coronavirus.” Thank goodness, I’m not there right now. That sounds horrible. You sip your latte and a small, insidious thought creeps up in the back of your head: It must be so dirty there. If those people had the same health standards as the Western world, it couldn’t possibly have gotten this bad. You guiltily try to push back the thought, but you still let a grain of that belief simmer in the backburner of your mind.
Suddenly, something stops your index finger, half-scroll: “The Fifth Confirmed Case of Coronavirus in the U.S.” It’s here? You feel a surge of adrenaline. But it’s probably in New York or LA. No way it’s here. You quickly type into your phone: Coronavirus Seattle, Washington. Oh no. An article from a few weeks ago mentions a case of the Coronavirus in a man who lives in Snohomish. That’s too close for comfort. Suddenly, the pandemic is not just an “Asian disease.” You can catch it, too. Now, you have to pay attention. Now, it’s important to care. It’s easy to preach that those people need to wash their hands more often when they’re in China. But it’s different now. If the virus is here, it must be serious and no amount of handwashing is going to easily erase it.
Once again, you hear the man at the table to your left cough. This time, you jerk your head up to look at him. Darn it. He’s one of them. The man is of Asian-descent. Nothing about him gives away that he is Chinese, from Wuhan, been to China recently, or has ever been to the continent of Asia in his lifetime. Still, you just know that he must be from there. You just know that he has the Coronavirus. You just know that you need to get out of there. You quickly shove your iPhone in your back pocket and you decide to dispose of your still half-full latte. You wonder if you should hold your breath. As you pass the man, you send him a dirty look: How selfish can he be for being out in public when he could be spreading the disease. A thought drifts by: Maybe he doesn’t know. No, he has to know. It’s not like he just heard about the Coronavirus today.
Back in your car, you begin to make your way to work at Nordstrom. It isn’t until you are pulling into a parking spot that you entertain the thought that you might have made some big assumptions. It doesn’t matter, though. You decide. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
During your workday, as a sales clerk, you remain vigilant for any possible Coronavirus spreaders: namely Asians and Asian Americans. You are ignorant of the fact that thousands of white businesspeople frequent China and that many of them and their families shop at Nordstrom.
During your break, you look on Amazon for the specific masks that can block out the virus. You discover that you are not alone, almost all of them are sold out, and the ones that remain are very, very expensive. They are far too much. Not worth it. You abandon your search. However, you secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, shake your head at the audacity of these high-risk Coronavirus units who do not wear the said masks.
When you return to work, you are called to attention. “Excuse me,” calls out a female voice from behind you. You set down a hanger before turning to her. “Do you still have those tan cardigans that go down to about here?” A strand of the woman’s jet black hair falls in front of her face as she taps her mid-thigh. You immediately hold your breath, like a pedestrian avoiding second-hand smoke from a chain smoker. Her brown, almond eyes, her straight dark hair flash like red warning signs to you. You are not willing to take any chances, you make a sad attempt at a “so sorry” face before briskly escaping your break room. With your back turned, you can’t see the woman open her mouth in disbelief, reach into her purse for her iPhone (the same one as yours, manufactured in the same Chinese factory as yours), and log in to her Kakao Talk app (a Korean messaging app) to text her friends about what you just did.
Back at home, you watch reporters on television cover more news on Wuhan. You enjoy a bran muffin, courtesy of your neighbor Mrs. Melville who just yesterday celebrated the return of her twenty-year-old son who has just finished his study abroad semester in China in a town hundreds of miles closer to Wuhan than the homes of all of the Asian Americans that you have interacted with today.
Before going to sleep, you check Instagram one last time. You see Simu Liu’s post on the Coronavirus becoming an issue of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. and other Western nations. How unbelievable. How uneducated. And people wonder how our President got elected. I’m so lucky to live in as progressive a place as Seattle. Racism like that doesn’t happen here. You turn off your iPhone and go to sleep.
Moments in this article are based on real events from Asian American students at Lakeside.