When Parasite won the Academy Award for Best Picture in February, my family in Hong Kong was unimpressed.
“It’s like any other Korean drama,” they scoffed over a dozen messages in our family Whatsapp group.
I attempted to explain how groundbreaking it was for a foreign-language film set in another country to beat contenders that were love letters to the American film industry. In the 6 years that I’ve lived in this country, I’ve learned how special it is for a film with an Asian cast to have a wide release in American theaters, let alone win the industry’s highest accolades.
After Parasite’s Academy Award win, I reveled in Asian American Twitter’s euphoric reactions. Critics penned articles titled “Is 2020 the year for Asian Americans?”, though some were pessimistic.
It’s hard to believe that the Academy Awards took place only 6 weeks ago. Since then, 9 Democratic candidates have dropped out of the presidential race. There’s been a global pandemic outbreak. Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Multiple states have enacted a shelter-in-place order.
In mid-February, when most San Franciscans were still gaily hanging out with friends and going to work, my family offered to mail me face masks they diligently scoured since the New Year. Mask-wearing was ubiquitous in Hong Kong, learned societal-level hypervigilance from SARS. I declined their generosity. News reports of Asian people getting discriminated against, even physically attacked, were beginning to surface.
“It’s not worth the risk,” I told my extended family, “And nobody here wears masks.” They understood and told me to stay safe.
Last week, I watched the live briefing where Trump spoke of the “Chinese virus.” My Twitter feed fired up with angry comments denouncing his comments and predictions on how anti-Asian sentiments would be exacerbated. I scrolled through posts by Asian American friends recounting how prior to Trump’s comments, white people were already avoiding them in supermarkets or making snide comments on public transportation. I decided to only leave the house for groceries alongside my white roommates.
I woke up the next morning to a barrage of delightful, even triumphant, messages in my family Whatsapp group. It was shocking to read them praising Trump’s comments. “I hope he gets re-elected,” someone wrote.
I wanted to vomit.
The allegiance of pro-democracy Hongkongers to Trump has long been established. In November 2019, hoping to convince Trump to sign the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” protesters held rallies while singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and carrying posters that read “President Trump, please save Hong Kong.”
During the height of the movement, I attempted to explain to my friends and family back home that for many Hong Kong immigrants in the U.S., myself included, it was uncomfortable to witness the Trump-frenzied imagery while Hongkongers lobbied for a bipartisan bill. Globally, distanced from the nuances of American society, there’s a prevalent perception of the U.S. as a country of democratic freedom. However, Trump’s America is far from ideal; the administration has become increasingly oppressive — the war on science, the war on immigrants, the war on press freedom are few examples that come to mind. Furthermore, the concept of the U.S. being a worldwide “liberating force” is skewed and problematic.
Although Trump has yet to uphold the bill and impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses, Hongkongers don’t care. They’re desperate. They advocated for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” even though it meant the city potentially losing its special status afforded by the U.S. Given the inevitable repercussions to Hong Kong’s economy, they still applauded Trump’s trade war with China. Even when COVID-19 was limited to Wuhan, the bat-eating videos were circulated within social circles with accompanying discussions that distanced Hongkongers from mainlanders.
The encouragement of the term “China virus” isn’t unique to my family. My high school classmates are using the hashtag #chinavirus in their Instagram selfies with smiles hidden under face-masks. Pro-democracy media channels with Facebook news articles about Trump’s comments have received thousands of “Like”s, “Haha”s, and “Love”s. “A more accurate name is ‘People’s Republic of China Virus,’” one netizen wrote.
Given the oppression, violence, and helplessness of the pro-democracy movement, I understand my hometown’s desire for any challenger to Xi Jinping’s regime. It makes sense why some Hongkongers want to brand COVID-19 in a way that fuses global repercussions with China’s initial cover-up, especially as China ramps up its disinformation campaign attempting to shift blame to other countries. “China virus” holds China accountable.
But on the larger world stage, this rhetoric incites hostility against people of Asian descent indiscriminately. Racism is no longer limited to insensitive ching chong jokes or comments about having small eyes. My appearance, race, and identity have become synonymous with a disease that has uprooted millions of lives. “Chinese virus” doesn’t punish the Chinese Communist Party; instead, it’s an active threat against me, other Hongkongers abroad, and the hundreds of millions of other Asian people scattered in the global diaspora. San Francisco State University found a 50 percent rise in the number of news articles related to the coronavirus and anti-Asian discrimination between Feb. 9 and March 7.
To be clear, it’s not racist to name a virus after its geographical origin — COVID-19 did rightfully originate from Wuhan. But crossing it out and renaming it, after widespread use of its official name COVID-19, pushes an agenda. It’s ironic and unfortunate that while telling me to stay safe, my loved ones are perpetuating Trump’s “us versus them” mentality, with myself falling in the latter category, in an attempt to further the pro-democracy movement.
The movie I wanted to see sweep the Academy Awards wasn’t even nominated. The Farewell depicts a young Asian American woman who is confronted with a widening cultural gap between herself, her first-generation immigrant parents, and her extended family in China. Although I do not consider myself Asian American, and probably never will, the film captures the creeping sense of cultural homelessness I’m experiencing.
I wonder if my family expects me to defend myself with “I’m not Chinese, I’m a Hongkonger!” before getting yelled at, spat on, or worse. I wish I wasn’t too terrified to step outside for reasons beyond COVID-19 itself.