Asian Life Amidst the Coronavirus: Should Chinese Food Get the Blame?

By Kayce Tiongson

The impact of the global coronavirus outbreak has put life on hold. As of late, there are already more than one hundred thousand cases all around the world with a death toll of over four thousand. 

In Italy—now the second country with the highest number of cases—schools and universities are closed until March 15, a decision that was not simple to make according to education minister Lucia Azzolina. Italians have refrained from traditional gestures of greeting, such as kissing on the cheek and hugging. In Korea, many businesses are temporarily closed, and public events are postponed, especially in Daegu city. Office workers are instructed to telecommute until further notice. Students who are supposed to attend school on March 2nd have until March 23rd to enjoy their winter vacation — except they can’t go out and play with friends. Grocery items are also piling up in homes due to panic buying. Numerous concerts have been canceled or postponed in many Asian cities due to the virus. Popular music acts such as Green Day, Avril Lavigne, and Khalid have all announced cancellations of their shows in places such as Bangkok, Taipei, Manila, Hong Kong, Seoul, Osaka, and Tokyo. 

 

The Chinese community in and outside China 

Ninety countries have been affected by the virus so far, the worst-hit being China with more than eighty thousand cases as of this writing. The Chinese community is going through a tough time in many aspects of life: work, business, and even personal relationships. 

In Beijing, food delivery giant Meituan Dianping introduced robots in some of its partner restaurants to bring takeout food to customers who have no choice but to stay at home. Meanwhile, e-commerce giant JD.com enlisted self-driving robots to bring goods to medical workers in Wuhan. All of this is done to minimize human contact.

Chinese restaurants around the world are suffering from the outbreak. Jack Chen, manager of Good Luck Hot Pot in Australia said that their business “can only last three more weeks if business doesn’t improve.” An owner of a small Chinese restaurant in Oakland, California described how business is bad in Chinatown. He shared with Slate, “I’m pretty worried. I still have some cash reserved to handle things, but after six months, I might have to let an employee go and work longer hours myself.” He further cites that he and his staff are sanitizing every four hours and that he has given 80 percent discounts just to sell out food at the end of the day. The effort cannot save the restaurant because “People don’t really want to come in because they think Chinese people are carrying it since the virus is from China.” 

 

Hostility towards East Asians spreads as fast as the virus

According to the Wall Street Journal, this recent outbreak of the virus may have begun at “a cluster of vendors at Wuhan wet market where carcasses and live specimens of dozens of wild animals” are offered. The availability of “exotic products,” such as baby crocodiles and hedgehogs, is enough to incite a sense of disgust and finger-pointing at the community.

The outbreak has caused netizens to dig up questionable online content that appears to be related to the virus—usually based on hearsay instead of careful research. A travel video posted by Chinese influencer, Wang Mengyun, was met with global outrage as bats have been identified as a possible carrier of COVID-19. In the video, she is seen eating a bowl of fruit bat soup. “You should go to hell. You should be killed in the evening. You’re disgusting. Why haven’t you died?” Those were some of the messages that slid into her inbox, forcing her to post an apology. She explained that the video was not filmed in Wuhan—or even China—but in Palau, Micronesia, in 2016 as a travel segment for her vlog.

Angela Chan, a Ph.D. student at Royal Holloway, said the outbreak “brings to the surface all the casual racism about people being dirty or the things people eat.” Chinese culture and anyone viewed by Westerners as being “different” can be the next target of prejudice and insult. 

Sam Phan, a British-Chinese student, shared on The Guardian, “My ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass.” He described a bus ride to work where after finding a seat, the passenger next to him scrambled to gather his things and avoid sitting next to him. Phan also shared a story of a friend who experienced something similar in the university library: “As soon as they sat down at a desk, the person in front of them packed up their things to leave.” 

Even young Asian children are not immune to xenophobia. A pediatric nurse from Wanstead East London says her 11-year-old daughter “reported last week that children are telling each other to ‘stay away from all Chinese people because they are ill due to the virus.”

An 1854 New York Daily Tribune article said, “They [the Chinese] are uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception.” The judgemental gaze of the West towards Asians has existed since centuries ago, and sadly, it hasn’t gone away. 

Beyond Chinese food 

Inconsiderate remarks on cuisine have now extended even towards Italian food. “Making fun of the Italians like that, with the Coronavirus emergency we are facing, is profoundly disrespectful,” Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said in response to a “coronavirus pizza joke.” The content in question is a 10-second gag on the satirical Groland program on Canal+ where a coughing chef hacks up green phlegm onto the red tomato base and white mozzarella to make up the colors of the Italian flag.

COVID-19 continues to spread to this day. In times like this, it is natural to find fault and be critical of everything—but can such behavior save us? 

 

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