A Chinese college student in one of my classes this semester appeared to be fighting back tears as she recounted an episode from life on campus. It seems that last week she was riding on a bus taking her from one end of the campus to the other. It wasn't crowded and there were plenty of seats available. She suddenly noticed that other students glances were fixed on her a few seconds longer than usual. Then she had a crushing epiphany.
"Nobody wanted to sit anywhere near me on the bus," she said, still – days later – unnerved by the moment. "They seemed to move as far away from me as they could."
Within minutes, other Chinese-born and Chinese-American students in the class were chiming in about similar jarring experiences in campus dining halls, classrooms and other familiar settings.
The global outbreak of the coronavirus, which had spread to 65 countries and infected nearly 90,000 people at press time, is scary. The potential effects of an illness ravaging the world from China to California to Italy to Iran and then back to Japan, is enough to produce frightening headlines.
But the hidden story, which, sadly, has also been gaining a lot of traction lately, is the social aspect of the virus. The illness had its origins in the Wuhan section of China and the sometimes deadly disease has unleashed a torrent of xenophobia, directed at people who might be Chinese.
Underscoring the sense of widespread overreaction on campus, a student the other day emailed my teaching assistant to say he had to miss class because he was sick – BUT NOT, he felt a need to stress, WITH THE VIRUS.
The Role of Educators
The utterly misguided suspicion of Chinese students has prompted educators to react forcefully to the coronavirus fallout.
I happen to be teach sections of a class highlighting leadership, diversity and race relations. The stories about the xenophobia have dominated our classroom discussions.
I've reminded my students that any of society's "isms" – racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and the like – item from ignorance and fear. Bigots don't want to take the time to get to know you as an individual and prefer, pathetically, to view you as a member of a group. Compounding this, they are afraid of the unknown and so they imagine the worst about you.
I told the Chinese students that racists target them because they, the racists, are afraid, not because the students have anything to apologize for.
I'm excited when my students listen – really listen – and reflexively nod. Teaching is more than grading papers, giving lectures straight out of the syllabus, assigning homework and taking attendance. It's up to educators to assume leadership positions in the classrooms, too.
Xenophobia directed toward Chinese and other Asian students is an ongoing challenge because of the numbers of visitors coming to study in the U.S.
Increasingly, universities are recognizing that they can make a nice windfall by enrolling foreign-born students. They can charge more money in tuition to kids born outside the U.S. And, if the prospective students' home governments help subsidize their education here, it can turn out to be a nice sum.
An Opportunity to Do the Right Thing
As terrible as the corninavirus outbreak is, it gives us an opportunity to remember to guard vigilantly against xenophobia. If another pandemic breaks out in the future, it could be an entirely different ethnic group that gets the blame, and whose ranks start to receive hostile glances on buses.
The growing fear touches us in unexpected ways. I have an example; I like to go to lunch in a slightly pricey Chinese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan on occasion. After the virus-related fear started spreading, I happened to pop in at about 1:30 in the afternoon, confident that I could get a table since I was arriving just after the lunch-hour rush would begin to subside.
As it turned out, the last thing I needed to worry about was snaring a table. The restaurant was practically empty. You would have thought it was closing time instead of the middle of the afternoon. Surprised, the journalist in me surfaced and I felt compelled to ask the hostess why the place was so empty. She gave me an ironic look that suggested, "You know the answer."
Sorry to say, I had a clue.
I hope that restaurant hostess doesn't have a reason to ride on a campus bus or visit the dining hall with the students. But if by some chance, she would probably not be surprised.
The bottom line is: We must all work harder to promote tolerance and understanding. To quote the song, "What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding."