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An Asian-American Author Talks About Racism in the Pandemic

Great Meadow Park at Fort Mason in San Francisco on Sunday. Credit: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

June 24, 2020

By 

Kelly Yang, a young-adult novelist based in San Francisco, was teaching a free writing class for teenagers on Instagram Live in March when she began to talk about how her writing has been affected by surging xenophobia against Asian-Americans in the coronavirus pandemic.

As Ms. Yang was talking, one of the students wrote a post in the comment section that appeared to call Ms. Yang a “Chinese virus.’’

Since then, the president has doubled down on racist rhetoric in talking about the pandemic.

Here is Ms. Yang’s conversation with Thess Mostoles, edited for clarity and length:

Kelly Yang: I just remember seeing the words “Chinese virus” flash across my screen, and I froze. It was a scarring experience because it’s intimidating and knocks the wind out of you.

Thess Mostoles: Did you consider stopping the classes?

I’d be lying if I said no.

What did you do?

After the class, I talked about it on Instagram and Twitter. If it’s happening to me, it’s happening to many others, and we need to talk about it.

The attack took place on social media. Have you noticed a difference between the online and offline worlds?

I think the problem with social media is people think that, because they’re behind a screen, it’s OK. It’s like an open season. But it doesn’t only happen in social media.

You were recently harassed in a neighborhood park while walking with your kids. Can you describe what happened?

We were playing with our dog. Then, from almost half a football field away, a woman stormed over toward us. She didn’t have a mask, and she told me to put my dog on the leash, and I did.

I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, it’s my first time at this park.” She said: “There are signs everywhere. Can you read, you Oriental?” It became apparent that she was not just there about the leash, but to also call me a name in front of my kids. I said: “I’m sorry. There are other dogs off-leash, so I was confused. You don’t need to be rude about it.”

Her husband started walking toward me, too, and he said, “Go back to where you came from.” With Covid-19, it’s scary when someone without a mask on won’t stop coming toward you, so I got my phone out, started recording. They walked away.

How did your children react?

They were thoroughly confused. I had never told them the word Oriental was bad or what it means when someone says, “Go back to where you came from.” I had to explain it. My son burst into tears. He said, “Why would they say that, Mommy?” He also wanted to know what I was going to do to protect them next time. I didn’t have an answer.

Why did you decide to post a video of the incident?

I wanted people to know what happened. My oldest son was so sad, but also kind of humiliated by it, which is so heartbreaking. Victims can’t be embarrassed. Perpetrators should be. That’s just the odd way in which this works. As a kid, I always wanted to brush it under the rug because I wanted to fit in.

You and your family came here from China when you were 6. How does it feel to be Asian-American at this moment?

You’re always constantly feeling you’re not fully accepted in one or the other. You work hard to have this dual identity and feel every bit as American as Asian. When something like Covid-19 happens, it becomes so clear how much you’re not “American” in a lot of people’s eyes, and you will never be.

What advice would you give young people facing discrimination?

In my next book, “Parachutes,” I wrote, “Your voice is your armor.” I spent most of my life being ashamed and worried. Now I have started using my voice, and it’s always led to great things.

Did you ever hear from the student in your online class?

When I went into my DMs, he had written, “Dear Miss Yang, I displayed ignorance and greed for attention. I was being selfish, trying to be funny to make my friend laugh. I understand now that it was disrespectful and racist. I’m sorry for making your day worse when all you were doing is trying to help.” I wrote back, “Thank you so much for your apology. I’m glad you’re using this opportunity to learn and grow.”

What do you hope young people will learn from your experience?

Asian-Americans have a double fear. We’re afraid of the virus and we’re also afraid of xenophobia. We need to be much more tolerant of each other, and stand together as a strong community.