I am thinking of a city, abreast of a river, with a population of around 10 million people; a commercial center in one of the most powerful countries in the world. Your instincts might scream New York, but this place is on the other side of the globe: Wuhan.
Over the last few months, Wuhan has become a familiar name: It is the source from which the ever-present COVID-19 virus has emanated, journeying from a seafood market in China to every continent except Antarctica. President Donald Trump has insisted on referring to the virus by its country of origin (Chinese Virus), rather than its scientific name—a behavior that has cinched the country’s ability to blame the Other while huddled in fear of an invisible foe.
Immediately prior to spring break, University President Lee Bollinger emailed the Columbia community informing us that for the remainder of the semester, classes would be transferred to an online format. He also urged students living in residence halls to pack their belongings and leave campus, heading home or elsewhere.
The minutes following Bollinger’s message revived one of my deepest memories: the principal of my elementary school running into my classroom on a September afternoon in 2001 and whispering something to my vocabulary teacher, who then proceeded to inform us that there was a plane crash nearby, and so the school day would end early. With a whisper (or an email), school was over, and a new reality was upon all of us.
For me and millions of Muslims in America, the real consequences of September 11 came in the days, months, and years that followed. Chief among them is an experience ubiquitous across Arab and Muslim communities: discriminatory treatment from neighbors, classmates, teachers, coaches, law enforcement, and everyone in between.
And a similar pattern emerges again: for Wuhan and billions of Chinese people, the COVID-19 story is just beginning. In the fog of the hysteria and gravity of the ongoing, I find time to venture out of quarantine to my local supermarket, where I am reminded of a sentiment I recall all too well: hate.
See, over the course of my childhood, my mother and I developed a sixth sense for detecting animosity expressed facially. That is, how to tell from the look on someone’s face that they didn’t like us.
Conveyed through a cocktail of suspicion and disgust, I see the same looks being given to Asians wearing masks in my community, U.S. citizens or not, as I remember being given to my mother wearing her traditional headscarf in public places.
The hints were out there for us all to see. Where my boyhood neighbors spray-painted “FUCK THE ARABS” on my family’s driveway, our peers at Columbia scribble “Wuhan Isolation Area” in Chinese in Butler. Where friends from my childhood avoided me, undoubtedly on the advice of suspicious parents, hate is today manifested in Asian children being stabbed (yes, with a knife).
Through the necessarily reflective state I am in as a consequence of our collective confinement, I have come to realize that we must learn from the past, given how identical my own experiences are to the contemporary. Each of us, in our lives, as students in every corner of the world right now, has the power every day to make a choice between what is easy and what is right.
What is easy is for us to be frustrated, annoyed, and frightened by our powerlessness in confrontation and universally woeful governments. Surely, it would be easier for us to isolate ourselves emotionally. We’re already physically cut off from everyone else, aren’t we? What is right is for us to remain sensible, considerate, and empathetic, and continue to reach out to friends, neighbors, and those who are doubly punished by the coronavirus: our Asian and especially Chinese brothers and sisters.
The assemblage of deep and painful memories I have from a time now gone are accompanied by the small acts of kindness I still remember from my childhood. I still remember when a kid from my neighborhood traded Pokémon with me at the park when nobody let me join pick-up soccer games. I still remember when airport security attendants went out of their way to make sure my family and I had hassle-free travels and weren’t discriminately selected for “secondary screenings.” I still remember when restaurants had someone hold the door for my mother as a show of respect.
Ultimately, this storm shall also pass. And for the countless Asian classmates and neighbors we all have, American or otherwise, let us make sure that kindness is equally salient to chaos and that we did our part in helping those close fight back against the hate that lives on around us.
Mohammad still remembers when his elementary school classmates did not want to trade Pokémon because he spoke Arabic with his parents. He has forgiven his peers and gone on to become a Pokémon master. His column, The Native, runs alternate Fridays.
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