Don’t Call It “The Chinese Virus”: Asian Faculty’s Reflection on Xenophobic Naming by Jongsun Wee and Rieko Miyakuni

We are two Asian professors who teach at a state university in southeast Minnesota. At our institution, Jongsun teaches undergraduate children’s literature and literacy education classes, and Rieko teaches graduate counselor education classes. We are two of the few faculty members of color in our college. We are not Americans, but we both have lived in the United States for about two decades. Jongsun is from South Korea, and Rieko is from Japan. Sadly, in recent years our senses of being treated as foreigners have elevated.

In this paper, we reflect on our experience in the spring semester in 2020, when our school and community first recognized the seriousness of COVID-19 and took action. Although our personal stories do not represent all Asian faculty’s experiences during this pandemic, our reflection may help shed light on readers’ Asian students and colleagues who may have similar experiences.

Switching to Online Instruction
On Thursday of the Spring Break week, our university sent out an email about extending the break by one week due to increasing cases of COVID-19. The faculty was asked to work on alternative delivery modes and move away from face-to-face delivery. An emergency college meeting followed. Although we anticipated the school being shut down before the announcement, a sudden change alerted us that a much more difficult situation was ahead. Like many other colleges and universities, our institution did not take any specific measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, but only sent an email about precautions to take during the Spring Break. We remember that some people in our school and community talked about the Coronavirus as something that happened someplace else and had nothing to do with the community we live in. Jongsun vividly remembers how uncomfortable she felt at a grocery store when people stared at her, as she was one of few people who were wearing face masks in that space at that time.

We have heard about how serious COVID-19 could be through our friends and families in Korea and Japan. Later, we learned that the first COVID-19 case was identified in South Korea and the U.S. on the same day, but actions taken in the two countries were different. We shared what happened in our home countries with our colleagues, including a shortage of face masks in Korea and a shortage of toilet paper in Japan. However, with no official action taken for increasing cases of COVID-19 nationally, what we shared did not seem to register with our colleagues. Some of them laughed in disbelief, but when the university decided to extend the Spring Break, our colleagues admitted the seriousness of the virus and complied with the school’s decision.

One of the first things we did in preparation for online instruction was moving teaching resources from our offices to our homes. The campus was closed, but we were allowed to make a quick trip to our offices to get the materials we needed. Our previous training and experience of online classes helped us immensely when creating online modules quickly. More importantly, we felt confident about managing the rest of the semester online. In our institution, professional development on teaching an online class is available for faculty. Jongsun voluntarily went through a series of online class training and has offered an online class for several semesters. Rieko also has experience teaching via an asynchronous online method from a previous school, so the transition from a face-to-face class to an online class was reasonably smooth.

Even though we felt confident about teaching online, we were concerned about not being able to bring students to field experience sites as local K-12 schools also went online. Student field experience was the top issue in the Education department. In the fall semester, Jongsun’s department continuously discussed alternate student field experiences with state guidelines. The same struggle was occurring in the Counselor Education department. Students suddenly became unable to earn hours to graduate in that spring semester. As far as Rieko knows, counseling programs in other schools were also scrambling to figure out how to make students’ internship experiences available and secure their timely graduation at the same time.

Calling It “The Chinese Virus”
During this time in our local community, we witnessed people’s urge to stock up on food and toilet paper. Rieko found that toilet paper was out of stock at a grocery store. Jongsun saw some people buying a large quantity of meat. We had talked about a shortage of toilet paper in Japan with our colleagues not long before, and here we were, witnessing it in our community with our own eyes. The surge of COVID-19 put people in a panic buying mode. It certainly had impacted us, but we found that for us, two Asian people who live in a predominantly white community, President Trump’s calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” was more alarming and made us anticipate a public display of xenophobia.

In the past semesters, there were occasions when we felt we were treated differently by students due to our ethnic identities and cultural backgrounds. For example, Jongsun recalled that she introduced Korean folktales in her children’s literature class as part of the traditional literature module, and her student commented that Jongsun talked about Korean stories too much. Almost every semester, Rieko receives negative comments from students about a Japanese accent on her English. We both felt it was already hard to be Asian female and foreign professors in a predominantly white institution, and it got more challenging with the “Chinese virus” naming. We were worried that the level of bias towards us would be increased at our institution and in our community where we interact with local people in our daily lives. We were each often identified as Chinese by people in our school and community, even though we are not. Most of the time, we are the only Asian people in a place we go in our community, such as a grocery store, a post office, and a gym. Due to the lack of ethnic diversity, we are often treated as the representatives of Asia in our school and community, and for this reason, xenophobic naming brought us a great deal of anxiety. Rieko thought that, to white people, it may not seem to be a big deal to call Coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” but to Asian people, including her, naming the horrible virus with the specific Asian country felt like a death sentence. We thought some students might treat us as foreigners who brought harm to their country. However, we decided to trust our students and hope that they would read and listen to the news with critical eyes.

Zoombombers
We used Zoom for our online classes. We had heard about “Zoombombers” but had not experienced them until Rieko attended a webinar. The webinar was organized by the Asian American social justice activism group in the state and held in response to increasing xenophobia and anti-Asian discrimination cases since this xenophobic naming began. In the middle of the webinar, all of a sudden, Rieko heard multiple voices making insulting remarks, expletives, and racial slurs. The webinar organizers muted the audiences’ microphones, but Zoombombers started posting hateful comments on the chat box.

Rieko remembered how shaky she was after experiencing Zoombombers’ disturbing behaviors and was shocked to learn how easily space once thought safe could turn threatening. After the webinar, Rieko felt vulnerable and wondered if Zoombombers knew any webinar participants and intentionally insulted them with hateful comments. At the time, Rieko was concerned about race-based harassment, assault, and even hate crime with the President calling COVID-19 the Chinese virus, and hearing the Zoombombers’ racial slurs elevated Rieko’s anxiety. She even became afraid of going outside of her home because she worried about racial harassment and possible assault. Living in a town with a small Asian population, she thought she could be an easy target of such a threat.

Rieko’s concern might seem like an overreaction if one considers Zoombombers as hackers who play pranks. However, we both agree that hateful comments and racial slurs that Zoombombers dropped felt like a hate crime in relation to blaming others for COVID-19, especially blaming China by calling it the Chinese virus. A week after the Zoombombing incident, Rieko was approached by a white woman at a grocery store who shamed Rieko’s wearing a face mask by saying, “You know that mask will not do anything for you” and giving Rieko a pitiful look. This white woman may have shown the same behavior to others, but she might have approached Rieko since Rieko appeared to be Asian.

Rieko’s reaction also brought us a memory of 9/11. We remember how 9/11 affected our Muslim fellows—how fearful they were of coming to school, and how they stayed home instead. Some of our Muslim friends’ whereabouts were even unknown at that time. We felt sad to realize that minorities are still the targets of blame for national crises. We wondered how our Asian and Asian American students were doing with this xenophobic naming, especially those who identify as of Chinese descent. If we, faculty members who have more experience and resources than students, were impacted by this much, we thought students may have a more difficult time and need help. We know that our institution has a center for students with diverse backgrounds to come and talk; however, we wondered if that space was still available with the implementation of social distance rules on campus.

Positive Outcomes
We were grateful that our school decided to go online for the rest of the semester. However, we could not help thinking that if we had paid more attention to what happened with the increasing cases of COVID-19 and acted faster, we could have saved the time we lost in March in preparation for alternate modes. Despite the challenges we faced, we found a couple of positive outcomes out of this unprecedented semester. The first positive outcome is that we saw the possibilities of online instructions. In past years, our institution closed several times due to inclement weather. However, with our online class experience, we now see that we no longer have to cancel classes due to severe weather. We thought this was a valuable experience for us since the chances are high that we will utilize online classes in the winter months in Minnesota. We plan to keep seeking professional development opportunities and search for new information for online teaching.

We also conducted advising sessions through Zoom meetings, and it crossed geographical boundaries and saved waiting time for students. For example, Jongsun advised a student who resided in Maine, which showed the possibility and convenience of online advising. Our school used to hold advising days at the library on campus for incoming first-year students and transfer students. Students signed up for a specific time block, but they still had to wait for their turns. However, as we were able to spread out online advising days throughout the month, students had more advising days to choose from and did not have to wait for their turns. Similarly, Rieko’s department organized screening for program applicants via Zoom. With the exception of a few incidents (e.g., call drops, confusion among the applicants about which faculty’s Zoom room to return to after breakout sessions), the first synchronous screening was successful.

The second positive outcome from the COVID-19 semester is that we confirmed the importance of promoting diversity and international perspectives for our students. In Jongsun’s children’s literature class, she has modules for multicultural and international literature. Even though many students made positive comments about reading multicultural literature, some students made negative comments about too much time being spent discussing multicultural literature. However, Jongsun sees the need for diverse books more than ever. She plans to keep those multicultural and international children’s literature modules and emphasize the importance of bringing such literature into students’ future classrooms when they become teachers. She also plans to encourage students to pay attention to what is going on in other parts of the world. COVID-19 exemplifies the price we might pay if we do not care about people’s lives in other countries.

In counselor education, it is imperative to train professional counselors who can provide culturally sensitive and appropriate counseling. Multicultural counseling competence is regarded as ethical practice in counseling; however, Rieko often felt somewhat concerned about placing an emphasis and spending time on racial and ethnic minorities’ experiences in counseling. She wondered if she might appear too forthcoming or seem to favor minority groups over the dominant group. Despite her concerns about how students may interpret her motives, her professional responsibility calls on her to take action and be unapologetic about incorporating multicultural counseling materials. She plans to keep presenting the concept of critical consciousness in class and introducing social constructs of race, gender, class, intersectionality, and settler colonialism. In Rieko’s class, students are encouraged to question what they think they know and the norms that white American society has presented to them to believe and internalize. Students are to discuss the social determinants of mental health and how white supremacist capitalism has manifested in every sphere of the lives of clients of color. Students are also guided to think about their privileges, power, and protection that their whiteness can provide to serve their future clients and communities.

Concluding Thoughts
We hope that readers have a chance to think about their Asian students and colleagues and how vulnerable they may have been during COVID-19. Some of them may have the same experiences that we shared in this paper. COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation for all of us, but as we repeatedly said, it added more anxiety and stress to Asians when President Trump called it “the Chinese virus.” We suggest that we should not refer to COVID-19 this way, but document that it was called the Chinese virus by President Trump. We also suggest that we discuss the aftermath of that naming. We need to stop blaming a particular group for COVID-19. Instead, we must keep reminding ourselves that we need to work together to overcome this pandemic. Let us not forget that blaming does not help us get out of the situation any faster. More importantly, let us remember we are in this together, no matter who and where we are.

Learn more about Jongsun Wee and Rieko Miyakuni on our Contributors page

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