What you need to know
A Taiwanese student studying in Europe recounts his experience in the weeks leading up to the global lockdown.
They joked. They laughed. They told me to go back to China. Then came the coronavirus.
One morning in January, I was making my commute on a bus in Brussels. A man who had his face completely covered got onto the bus and said something in French. I wasn't sure who he was talking to. Then he pointed his finger at me, coughed, and moved to the end of the bus while glaring at me.
Later that day, a corner shop cashier demanded that I look him in the eye when I was plugging in a debit card to pay for some snacks. “Are you getting enough sleep? Hello?” he asked. “Where is this bank card even from?” He said with a scoff. I left the store and was confused by the amount of hostility I was facing the entire day.
Just as I made my way home to finish writing this article, a man walked past me, turned his head around, and told me to go back to China. I was more offended at how the man misidentified me as Chinese instead of Taiwanese than at the act of racism itself.
Belgium was already on lockdown at this point.
Incidents like these kept happening to me and other overseas Taiwanese students in the past weeks. We were constantly made aware of our looks and misidentified as Chinese or generic “Asians” amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Racism against East Asians skyrocketed as media and politicians proliferated fear of the virus, using phrases like “amid coronavirus fears” and the constant mentions of the virus’s origin in China.
At first, many in the U.S. and Europe joked and laughed, finding coronavirus funny rather than threatening.
In February, coronavirus jokes relating the virus to Corona beer went viral on the internet. People laughed at different versions of coronavirus jokes as I worried and checked in with family and friends, many who travel regularly between China and Taiwan.
A supermarket in Belgium introduced a sale a free “Mort Subite” (Lit. “Sudden Death”) beer for every two corona beers purchased. A high school class wore panda suits, qipao, Manchu outfits, and Chinese farmer hats, holding a sign saying “corona time” while squinting their eyes to imitate the stereotypical look of a person of East Asian origin.
Sydney Ko, Assistant News Editor at the Queen’s Journal who reported on the party, told me about how disheartened she was by both the offensively-themed party and the responses. Though the community around her reprimanded after attending the event, she thought the students took neither racism nor coronavirus seriously.
"Those who condemn the party were sympathetic towards the minority community, but their sympathy did not extend into action," she said. "We need to have a conversation about racism on campus, they said. But what would these conversations really do absent substantive action?”
Very soon into the third month of 2020, the number of infections stemming from the initial outbreak in Europe spiked. Italy was slow in reacting, and cases surged throughout the continent.
For the Europeans and the Americans classmates attending the study abroad program I was enrolled in, the issue suddenly hit much closer to home.
The jokes turned into concerns about whether spring break travels would be canceled and whether we would be sent back home.
During the first week of March, American University’s administration quickly warned the students of the coronavirus situation, as outbreaks began in the United States. By the following week, the university canceled all student travels and moved classes online, an action taken by almost all other major U.S. universities.
The situation culminated when President Donald Trump made a speech to ban travel from . The impact of the speech reached Brussels before dawn, and fellow students panicked as Trump’s ambiguous announcement left them unsure of whether they had only 48 hours to pack up and fly home.
American University’s Brussels campus immediately announced the cancellation of the program, asking all students to return to their “permanent address.” For me, I could go back to Taiwan. For some students, ironically, this means going back to places where the outbreaks are much worse than the relative safety in Belgium. At least the university would not be liable for their personal health once they are home.
Airfares skyrocketed immediately. Some spent upwards of US$800 for a last-minute ticket back to the U.S., double the usual price. Others had to compromise with three layover stops instead of a direct flight back home.
As I prepared for my return to Taiwan, I couldn’t help but think about how the U.S. and Europe could have handled the crisis better had it been taken more seriously. Since the World Health Organization labels Taiwan, or “Taipei and environs,” as a part of China, I guess I would be back in China as the men who muttered racist remarks requested.
If people in North America and Europe had the health awareness to wash their hands and wipe down a door handle for every coronavirus joke they made early on, this might not have turned into an uncontainable pandemic. And instead of directing verbal abuses toward Asian-looking people, they might have prevented a viral outbreak if they had directed their anger toward government inaction.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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