My phone alerted me that I had a new message request on Instagram. Upon opening the message, I froze. “You’re way too ugly for that Chinese virus.”
I had received that message on Instagram exactly a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a reply to one of my Instagram story highlights, a basic selfie of me posing and smiling in front of the backdrop of a wall. The account was anonymous, of course — I suspect that the user did not want to suffer the consequences of spewing racist hatred if they were to be exposed. Though I was stunned at the pure bigotry in the sentence, that message was far from the only time I have experienced anti-Asian racism.
I am Chinese, both ethnically and nationally. I was born in Shanghai and raised in Beijing. I had an unassuming childhood until one Friday night when I was 13. With my hair still wet after having gone to the community pool, my parents sat me down on the couch. Our conversation that night was exhilarating: They told me that we were emigrating to the United States of America. I leaped from the couch up and down in elation. America was sugar, spice and everything nice to naïve, 13-year-old me. I took pride in excelling in my English classes, which were taught by American teachers who wore trendy clothes and perfume, unlike their Chinese counterparts. My favorite movie, “The Avengers,” which had just came out in 2013, had a predominantly white cast: I envied the characters’ beauty, especially their pale skin, and admired the luxurious and futuristic lifestyle they led.
The following year was almost unbearable as I counted the days until we would actually move overseas. During the final months, I even made my own grid paper with dates to help me count down the days. I kept it in my pencil case so that I could color it in like a scantron with eagerness and excitement every morning in my homeroom. I did so very obnoxiously so that my classmates around me would notice. I wanted them to be jealous of me because, just as I did, the other students understood the perks of being American. Little did I know that being an immigrant in America came with many burdens.
The whirlwind change in my life came at a price: I had a hard time fitting in at my new high school. I did not speak English fluently like my peers. While my entire high school was ecstatic about the whip and nae nae dance, I responded to my dancing classmates with awkward laughter, as I didn’t know the routine nor where it originated from. Fitting in was a particularly impossible feat for me, considering I was an awkward foreign girl who was new to the town and the school system. I was being tutored on grammar every study block when I had English class, much to my embarrassment. I sat with my English teacher at her desk breaking down grammar structures while my peers snacked, laughed and chatted in their seats. It was difficult making friends and my loneliness took a toll on me.
Being an immigrant was uncomfortable beyond a personal level as well. I soon began to realize that China, my home country, had nowhere near a positive image here in the United States, even pre-COVID-19. Sinophobia was all over the news and the media. I became hyper-aware of it. Everywhere I looked, my home country was being overwhelmingly portrayed as filthy, corrupt and authoritarian, without a single mention of our traditions, humility or culture. It was unsettling that the latter had always been my focus when perceiving my home country, but to some, the Chinese Communist Party’s perceived wrongdoings are all they knew about the nation. Anytime I saw China on the news, it was an alarming report on either pollution, CCP censorship and mass surveillance or its propaganda. Does China have its own issues? Yes, but often it feels like these issues are only reported by western media to demonize China as a whole and not out of genuine concern for its citizens. The news reports are not a call for change nor action — they are sweeping generalizations that can lead to real-world consequences.
Sinophobia was embedded in entertainment as well in the form of stereotypes. While white characters with, for example, European or Australian accents are portrayed as mysterious and attractive, Chinese accents are foreign and the butt of the joke in many Hollywood movies.
I started becoming ashamed of my roots and began to downplay my identity — as much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t want to be associated with neither the “corrupt” Chinese government nor the offensive stereotypes. When I first moved as a child, I often announced with pride to the class that I was from Beijing whenever my teacher asked if there was a new kid present. As time went on, I no longer mentioned my home country and adjusted my accent to be more palatable and assimilate with my peers. The internal struggle was constant, though. While I considered myself American, I was still enraged any time anybody insulted my home country and my people. Once, one of my first American friends had pulled on the ends of her eyes as a joke. Though I laughed along and put on a front out of cowardice, I was fuming internally.
Fast forward a few years, you could not tell me apart from an Asian American who was born and raised here in the U.S. Over time, I had gradually lost my accent and even started to forget my mother tongue. This did not bother me as much, since fitting in and not being viewed as an anomaly meant everything to me then. I learned to forget and ignore the culture that raised me for fourteen years, but my experiences with racism in the COVID-19 era, such as the aforementioned direct message, ushered in new painful realizations for me regarding my identity as a Chinese American.
A year ago, the internet watched and sneered at the clips of Wuhan, China, where residents were dragged out of their homes into quarantine facilities during their city-wide shutdown. On the other side of the world, we enjoyed our temporary “freedom” and “normalcy.” It was an “aha” moment for a lot of Americans who have bought into sinophobia in the media — a moment where this sinophobia was justified in their minds. This is what some western media outlets do to its audiences: They have and continue to successfully equate the Chinese people to its government. On the other hand, Chinese people’s real suffering does not receive the much deserved attention due to mainstream media’s hyperfocus on the Chinese government’s corruption. As I expected, practically nobody extended their sympathy towards the people of Wuhan; instead social media watched these videos of the city amused, as if they were some sort of dystopian trauma porn. Help was never the topic of discussion.
On top of that, former President Donald Trump quickly assigned blame for COVID-19, which emboldened individuals to commit vengeful acts of hatred, racism and violence towards Asian Americans. After the “kung flu” rhetoric, the “Chinese virus” controversy and the countless Asian hate crimes, I am truly exhausted as a young, Chinese immigrant woman living in the United States of America.
I arrived “fresh off the boat” as a child with a fantastical, naïvely positive outlook on my life here as an American, but my experiences here, especially during the pandemic, have gradually diminished my pride in my Chinese heritage and elucidated me on the myth of the American dream. It couldn’t have been clearer: America prizes whiteness and global domination. Through viewing the entertainment this country had exported as a form of propaganda, I had created a utopian image of America, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. My lived reality within the first few years of my life here had gradually opened my eyes to the many racial inequalities — systemic and interpersonal.
Living in the U.S. has never made me proud of my Chinese heritage, ever. Being Chinese has never been an identity in this country — it is a commodity. My identity has never been perceived in a positive light unless it is a product that can be consumed, like Chinese food or fast fashion items that are manufactured in China. The Asian identity is simultaneously uplifted when it comes to the model minority myth, which we are all too familiar with. However, when it comes to pinning the blame for COVID-19, Asian Americans are stripped of their title as the “model minority,” one that was used for decades to delegitimize systemic plights of Black and Brown communities. Instead, we become disease-ridden people who are wholly responsible for the spread and atrocities the virus has brought upon this country.
No matter how many Chinese cultural events I attend, an overwhelming pressure to assimilate and rid myself of the harmful rhetorics imposed on the Chinese identity always prevailed. America markets itself as a “melting pot” to the rest of the world, but then continues to perpetuate xenophobia and racism, and wage war for political gain.
Perhaps someone reading this piece can find comfort in that they are not alone in their experiences as an Asian American or an immigrant. Hopefully the open discussions me and many others are having can increase our visibility when it comes to the racism and xenophobia we face. As all of us are becoming more vocal about our experiences with racism and taking action accordingly, maybe one day no other young immigrant girl will have to experience what I went through.
MiC Columnist Zoe Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.