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Chinese international students face double whammy of disease and discrimination

By Weining Wang (People's Daily Online)    15:20, March 17, 2020

There are now 463 confirmed coronavirus cases in New York City, the New York Post reported on March 16. Schools, restaurants, and some public facilities have been told to close. Along with fear and anxiety, discrimination against Chinese people is also spreading across the city, with members of the Chinese community reporting several such incidents.

One New York University (NYU) student was recently accosted with the comment “Oh my god, that’s what corona looks like!” While walking near Bryant Park. As this tense situation continues to escalate quickly, Chinese students are finding themselves going through a difficult time this semester, which all started when they first came back to school in January.

The year of the rat, the first of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, and the start of a new decade should have marked a fresh start. But for Chinese students, when it was time to return to the US, traveling home for winter break may have been a gamble too far.

Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar, and this year’s date for the holiday was unusually early. Because of this, most Chinese international students planned to celebrate this important festival at home with their families in China. For many of them, it was supposed to be the first Chinese New Year that they were able to spend at home since starting their studies abroad.

However, the outbreak of coronavirus crushed these hopes for many. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)” on Jan 30, 2020, showing just how serious this new disease was.

With thousands of confirmed cases in China, Chinese international students face unusual challenges going back to school this semester. The Chinese government issued an order blocking all main routes of transportation in Wuhan, and later the whole of Hubei Province, responding to the quickly spreading virus which was found to be contagious through person-to-person contact.

Miss X, a junior student at New York University had her flight from Wuhan to New York canceled because of the virus. “This is the first time I couldn’t help but cry when parting with my parents at the airport since I came to the US for high school six years ago,” said Miss X, who had to switch to an earlier flight and spend the holiday alone on the airplane. Students living in cities where there were no direct flights had to book last-minute tickets with two or three layovers, since many flights were canceled. After arriving at the customs gate, they found that the usually long lines and waiting times had doubled due to extended questioning of students coming from China. “They asked me if I’d been to Wuhan in the past 14 days and I said yes,” Miss X said, recalling that it took her up to 10 minutes to pass customs, which normally takes about a minute. Later, on Jan 31, 2019, according to the New York Times article, the US border began barring “entry by most foreign nationals who had recently visited China.”

Getting back to the US was just the first challenge, especially for students like Miss X from provinces severely hit by the outbreak, such as Hubei and Guangdong. They were asked to undergo “self-isolation” for at least 14 days, which is the approximate incubation period of the virus. Miss X missed all classes during the first two weeks of school. However, even before confirmed cases had appeared in New York City, fear gripped the city, manifesting itself in several attacks on Chinese people. The New York Post in early February reported on an alleged attack on a Chinese woman wearing a face mask in a subway station in Chinatown. “I used to wear masks every day for protection since the virus outbreak,” says Tommy Guo, another NYU student from China. “Now I think I have to protect myself from attacks by not wearing masks. This is outrageous.”

Miss X also told of how conflicted she was in her daily interactions with other people, as she did not know how to tell people where she was from. “I take pride in my hometown, my beautiful city Wuhan, but now I feel like I can’t say where I’m from as proudly because of this virus, and I could sense how people around me were afraid of me when I first got back,” Miss X says, looking heartbroken. Guo from Henan Province says he saw other students in the US shunning Chinese students, and some Chinese students from other provinces talking about keeping away from students from Wuhan. “This is not right,” Guo commented, “but I get that everyone is scared.”

On top of dealing with their own situations in the US, students from China are also going through a difficult time worrying about their family members in China. Miss X said that her family is heavily affected by the virus - her grandparents live in another city in Hubei and are not able to be with her parents in Wuhan. “I feel lucky and relieved that no one in my family is sick, but at the same time I worry a lot every day, since there will soon be many dangerous elements in their lives,” Miss X says, referring to how person-to-person contact will soon become inevitable when work and daily life are resumed. Miss X says that she spends hours viewing news reports about the virus online every day, and that although she Facetimes her family members as much as possible, it doesn’t really help alleviate her stress.

On top of the already significant challenge of dealing with school work, Chinese international students are going through an even more difficult time this semester as a result of the stress caused by the prejudice they are facing in the US and anxiety about their families back in China. Unfortunately, but also inevitably, the virus is spreading and running its course in the country, and New York City is no exception. The first patient tested positive on Monday, Mar 1, 2020. Unsurprisingly, the number is growing rapidly, as New York City is packed with people, making person-to-person contact unavoidable. “I see dozens of grocery delivery boxes in the lobby of my apartment building every day,” Guo says, revealing that he, too, is hoarding essential supplies like rice, flour, and water. People are now responding to the crisis and are preparing for the worst.

With the Chinese government firmly implementing policies and continuously searching for ways to prevent the further spread of the disease, the situation in China is easing. By Mar 16, 2020, there were a total of 68,679 cured cases out of 80,881 confirmed cases in China. The US has been given an example of how to successfully deal with the Coronavirus outbreak, but society has yet to fully take on just how serious this disease is.

Wearing masks is undoubtedly necessary in this situation, since the virus’ incubation period can continue for up to 14 days. This means there could be people who don’t even know they are carrying the virus, which increases the risk of more people getting infected. This means that wearing masks and washing hands as often as possible are essential precautionary measures that will protect ourselves as well as others. However, hardly anyone wears masks in public in New York City, where over 7.7 million people ride the subway system every weekday, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “I see one non-Chinese person wearing a mask every time I’m on the subway,” NYU student Sandra Liu says. Many parents of Chinese students have shipped packages of face masks to their kids in the US. Liu received masks sent from her worried mom back home in Guangzhou, China. “People are not wearing masks, and it’s freaking me out,” she says, as she took out a mask from the box and put it on.

The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to People's Daily Online.

The author is a New York University student. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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