By Swee-Ann Koh
Last week, when visiting a large shopping centre in Melbourne, I approached a concierge for information. As I did so I couldn’t help but notice she took a step backwards.
Initially I was puzzled and wondered why she did that. As I walked away, I wondered whether she thought that I, as a Chinese person, was a walking pathogen for the deadly coronavirus.
As panic about the virus spreads, so unfortunately does the fear of those who are not like us. Asian communities around the world are finding themselves subjected to unfounded suspicion and hostility. The virus has been weaponised to give permission for some to be openly racist.
Mothers in Milan have used social media to call for children to be kept way from Chinese classmates, even those with no contact with those from infected areas. In Vietnam, signs have been placed outside restaurants declaring “No Chinese”.
Recently, a French newspaper printed “Yellow Alert” on its front page in big block letters next to an image of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask. Another headline in the same paper read “New Yellow Peril?” and introduced an article about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. “Yellow Peril” is an old racist catchphrase that targets East Asians in Western countries. It embodies the worst of anti-Asian fears and stereotypes.
Closer to home, it has been reported that on the Gold Coast, a patient refused to share the hand of her surgeon, Rhea Liang, citing the deadly virus. After tweeting about the incident and receiving a flood of responses, the respected doctor learned her experience was all too common.
Undoubtedly, the coronavirus outbreak, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has prompted a racially tinged wave of disgust toward Chinese food.
One popular tweet said “Because of some folks in China who eat weird (foods) like bats, rats and snakes, the entire world is about to suffer a plague”.
A widely shared video of a Chinese travel blogger eating bat soup was filmed three years ago in the Pacific Island nation of Palau, where the dish has been sampled by Western TV hosts in the past.
The video and the blogger have no connection to Wuhan or the current outbreak, but the video has gone viral, with many viewers expressing horror on social media. There was so much uproar the blogger came forward to apologise.
The Australian College for Emergency Medicine has warned against this type of “misinformation”, which it says is fuelling “racial profiling” where “deeply distressing assumptions are being made about ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’.
What such viral misinformation and breathless media coverage misses is that only a small minority of people in China eat wild animals. Most people eat much of the same things you see in other cuisines, such as pork and chicken.
Ultimately, what people like to eat is culturally relative – a lot of the Western disgust toward “weird” Chinese food is Eurocentric.
I am not suggesting that all criticism of food eaten in China is invalid. The country does have a problem with badly regulated trade of wild animals, which led to a previous virus outbreak.
Yes, the coronavirus outbreak originated from China, but that’s no reason to vilify Chinese people and Chinese culture.
Unfortunately, this virus has resurrected the old racist tropes that portray Asians, their food, and their customs as unsafe, weird and unwelcome.
Chinese restaurants all over the world have been affected by the spread of such misinformation and racially tinged panic. To combat this may I suggest that you dine in a Chinese restaurant this week as an act of solidarity.
Let’s not allow the coronavirus to spread the secondary infections of racism and xenophobia.
Rev Swee Ann Koh is Synod’s Intercultural Community Development Advocate.