In forging this solidarity, we follow in the footsteps of Asian American activists like Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, and Richard Aoki, who aligned with and fought ceaselessly on behalf of Black liberation during the civil rights era. We eye each other in stunned silence. The president—alarmed at last and only by an impending economic downturn—kicks into high gear, criticizing “the Democrat policy of open borders” for the rise in infections. Into the revolution that awaits. After our mayor announces a shelter in place order for Austin, I head to the grocery store. By hiding my East Asian features, the world feels safer, more benign, yet I’m wracked with grotesque self-loathing. I walk the store with a sense of foreboding, trying to imagine millions of people in quarantine. He shrugs, turns his palms skyward. The loathing etched into the mother’s face is a sea-change, a harbinger of things to come. She jimmies him into her cart and swivels away, but not before shooting me a look of contempt. I tell myself: you didn’t get knifed; you got lucky this time. He tells me how he uses night-vision goggles to hunt feral hogs in the dark. The scenes circulating on social media are apocalyptic—shuttered stores, empty streets, hulking arcs of concrete highways with no cars. The words embody a horrifying efficiency, a singular power to strip me down to something vile and unrecognizable. The other sustains a wound to his lower back. My inner sixteen-year-old immigrant—the girl with the too-formal shoes, the off-brand clothing, the unplaceable accent—is back, this time with strange and terrifying powers. I decide that I’m just imagining things. Into the struggle. As a teen, I once harbored dreams of fame and adoration. If we were fighting for visibility before, we now have it in spades, except it has arrived in the perverse form of spit, fists, fury. I start wearing them whenever I venture outside, even on cloudy days. Let’s hope it doesn’t come here, I think. According to FBI reports, Gomez stabbed them on suspicion of carrying COVID-19. Dominant culture has painted us as many things: usually caricatures, not quite human, and never fully American. I freeze. Listening to him is like stepping into the predatory mind, like peering through the scope of his LaRue AR-15. Eventually, curiosity gets the better of me. In this new lexicon amplified by the president, I am no longer a human being: I am the spiked parasitic molecule; I am the amorphous membrane brimming with pestilence. A separate post directly underneath features Trayvon Martin, commemorating what would have been his twenty-fifth birthday. I cross my fingers reflexively. I still don’t plan on owning a gun, but here’s how I move through America now: with one hand curled tight around a cold metal shaft, trigger finger poised and at the ready. When the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain start circulating on social-media, I am reminded, on a bone-deep level, that my privilege of invisibility within white America simply does not exist for Black Americans. He suffers head injuries so severe that he needs to be rushed to the emergency room. More from this author → No target is spared, from Chuck Schumer to the Obama administration, and I start feeling the deep pangs of a new anxiety. Anti-Asian violence is on the uptick, a thunderbolt slicing open urban areas and small towns alike. I decide to try something new. In the toiletries aisle, a toddler lumbers unsteadily toward me. Her work addresses themes of immigration, exile, gentrification, and life in liminal spaces. I decide that “at least” is no longer enough, camouflage is no longer enough. Later, I order lunch tacos with a fifth-generation Texan who fancies himself a cowboy. Asians have seesawed through American history as the hardworking émigrés du jour during acute labor shortages, only to be redesignated as opium-smoking Chinese degenerates during the Gold Rush, or as enemies of the state in the era of Japanese internment camps. What better way for an administration to purge itself of culpability than by highlighting the virus’s foreign origins? The other illness, racism, is as old as the country itself. In that moment, I understand that my security in this country is now a coin toss—untethered, inconsequential, subject to the casual deliberations of an unabashed racist. I smile awkwardly and squeeze by. I start greeting strangers with pleasantries—smiling and making eye contact.
On March 17, I awaken to a tweet from the president referring to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus.” It takes all my willpower not to fling my phone across the room. In a Washington Post op-ed, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang called for Asian Americans to combat the rising violence by “showing our American-ness” and wrapping ourselves in the red, white, and blue.
By the end of February, the virus is spreading rapidly within the US, and the markets begin a startling free fall. I try to recall the names of all the Black children who have been killed since Trayvon’s death in 2012, but there are just too many to list. Before he gets near, his mother—a white woman—swoops down to pick him up. In Yang’s Asian America, the burden is placed on an already othered community—one that has never been seen as fully American. She is a two-time VONA/Voices fellow, and attended the 2017 Key West Literary Workshop. Once, twice, then a third time. I lift my face from my elbow to find that the aisle is now clear. Privately and in the streets, Asian American groups have raised fists and funds in support of dismantling anti-Blackness and white supremacy. To combat my spiking anxiety, I digitally unplug for a week, willfully lulling myself into somnambulant denial. While well-intentioned, the crux of his argument implies that humanity is a commodity to be earned and duly bequeathed by its rightful owners. Here in Austin, the cadence of life thrums on as usual; nothing feels out of the ordinary. As a Chinese-Singaporean woman who is visibly East Asian, I know what’s coming next. In the eyes of some, we’re worse than disease vectors: we are the disease. I log on to Facebook and scroll backward to see what I’ve missed. It is the exact opposite of disappearing into the model minority myth; it is to stand up, shoulder to shoulder, in genuine and full-throated solidarity. As I round the corner behind a group of people, I sneeze. I’ve known—based on the botched federal response, based on the coded racism of media reports about “wet markets” and “bat eating”—that this was coming. The Virus
By Beverly Tan Murray
July 21st, 2020
When the Chinese authorities order a complete lockdown of Wuhan’s eleven million residents, I’m at a Target in Austin, Texas, standing in an aisle lined with garish hearts and cupids. This feels utterly contrived for an introvert, but I keep at it, even when it makes me cringe. Only one of them can be alleviated by insularity and social distancing. Spring has arrived unseasonably early, and with it, the dreaded cedar fever that is the bane of my city. LOL WHAT? We were coolies, prostitutes, the Sick Man of the East. The kids, aged two and six, survive the attack, but one of them has a cut reaching from behind his ear, all the way across to his eye. Since hunting season has been declared on Asians, I decide that what I need are protective goggles of my own. Her pieces appear or are forthcoming in The Briar Cliff Review, The Southampton Review, The James Franco Review, AWAY Journal, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, The New Tropic, and The South China Morning Post. Therein lies the truth about the hungry maw that is America: while anti-Asian violence is deemed unusual and therefore newsworthy, the killing of Black people is so pedestrian, so commonplace as to form the de facto backdrop of our collective consciousness. Nothing bad will happen here; the media sensationalizes news; the good people of America know better. Today’s anguished calls for Black justice, ringing raw in throats all over America, must be heard and acknowledged as a rallying cry from a community to whom Asian Americans owe an immeasurable debt. This looks like rejecting conscription into white supremacy by renouncing the model minority designation because it’s obvious that any security it provided was purely illusory. This looks like centering, supporting, and taking on Black struggles as our own. This strategy is repugnant in light of the fact that, unlike the Black community, Asian Americans were spared the full brutality of slavery, public lynchings, Jim Crow, redlining, and mass incarceration. Period. comes the reply. This landmark piece of legislation was singularly responsible for a groundswell in Asian immigration to the United States. To achieve this, there are several viable paths forward, all of which must include Asian Americans embracing a more prismatic view of how white supremacy, capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence are insidious and intertwined. As things stand, there are two viruses ripping through our lands. The photo already looks dated, but his smile, his kind eyes, are frozen in time. I smile and wave at him. On the other hand, I do look pretty scary today. The trouble with this approach is that it attaches conditions to humanity where there are none. A day after the “Chinese virus” tweet, during a White House briefing, the president repeatedly defends the use of the term. In time, scientists may find a vaccine for COVID-19, and some aspects of our old lives may return. What greater foil for wholesome Americana than the shifty Chinese, with our questionable tastes and strange culinary traditions? We were kung fu masters and job thieves, dragon ladies and war traitors, America’s fever dream and opaque mystery. My cheeks are flushed, my eyes wild. His family, terrified of repercussions, has opted to stay silent. When they’re out of sight, I text my friend. By deploying the model minority label, the political establishment dangles white adjacency as a carrot to Asian Americans while also using Asian American gains as a cudgel to shame the Black community. I’m already noticing people going out of their way to cross the street when they see me; seemingly overnight, I’ve acquired the ability to part crowds. The first post that catches my attention is about an Asian boy in the San Fernando Valley who is jumped at his middle school for supposedly carrying the virus. This is useful information. In order to be treated like a human being, one only needs to be human. As we speak, this hard and humbling work has already begun. Jose Gomez, nineteen, stabbed a father, mother, and their two children at Sam’s Club while they were out on a shopping errand. Now, I’d give anything to be able to blend in. Without Black activists laying the crucial groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it is unlikely that the Immigration and Nationality Act would have followed. I picture this family as I push my cart into another aisle, heart pounding, willing myself to finish shopping. It is through us that this proud tradition can, and must, continue. This instinct to blend in, assimilate, flatten ourselves, disappear is the unfortunate result of an old colonialist tradition of waging wedge politics between Black Americans and Asian Americans. Racism has killed us for longer, gutted our souls, cannibalized our collective spirit. I add a laugh emoji and hit send. All four people in front of me have flattened themselves against the shelves, their faces registering varying shades of trepidation and mild panic. No one says “bless you.” In fact, no one says anything. It should come as no surprise that in the age of COVID-19, the Trump administration simply reshuffled the deck, yanked our immigrant darling card, and replaced it with The New Yellow Peril. I reach into my purse, find my sunglasses, and slip them on. The time has come for Asian Americans to cement their foothold. Think I just scared a bunch of white people for sneezing while Asian, I write. After loading the bags in my car, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. For the other, we, all of us, must dive into the fray. Tensions are running high, aisles crammed with people who are panic-buying toilet paper and pasta sauce. We contain the first by distancing when we can.
The truth, like the virus, is a hydra-head. Three days later, an Amazon package containing pepper spray arrives on my doorstep. “Go ahead,” he says. Before we were the “Chinese Virus”, Asian Americans were nerds, math heads, the model minority. There is a new awakening, however fledgling, that Asian America’s struggles can no longer be decoupled with the protection and liberation of Black bodies. That night while my husband makes dinner, I watch video footage of a doctor in Wuhan. If the stabbing in Midland occurred at a grocery store in broad daylight, it’s clear that I need more protection. In the parking lot of a strip mall, an older man in an Astros baseball cap looks surprised to see me, grimacing and shaking his head as if I’ve snuck in under the barricades, as if to shame me for the subterfuge. But the other disease is just as deadly, and equally essential to treat. Her mask of disgust and revulsion reminds me of a recent news story involving a Burmese family in Midland, Texas. This looks like sitting with the painful acknowledgment that while the knee on George Floyd’s neck was white, the officer who protected and enabled him was Asian American. Valentine’s Day is looming, and I’m grateful for the distraction. Even worse, it reduces Asian Americans to despairing supplicants while absolving racists of any accountability. ***
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito. She is exhausted and traumatized from treating an onslaught of COVID-19 patients, screams in Mandarin that she can’t take it, claws at her throat while her colleagues witness her excruciating mental breakdown. One of them, an older man in a Hawaiian shirt, speaks first. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window)
Beverly Tan Murray is a Singaporean-American immigrant and Pushcart-Prize nominated author. She is the winner of the Briar Cliff Review’s 2018 nonfiction contest, a finalist for Glimmer Train’s July/August 2016 Fiction Open, and received Honorable Mention for the Cincinnati Review’s Robert and Adele Schiff Award in 2016.