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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Markley

Double jeopardy

Surviving the pandemics of coronavirus and anti-Asian racism

Written for American University course Communications 420, April 2021

The world shut down 13 months ago when country after country declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, and eventually, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic on March 11, 2020. In the months following the WHO’s declaration, hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) began to rise.

The past year has been one like no other. Over 550,000 Americans have died of a disease that no one knew existed a year and a half ago, leading to mask mandates, stay-at-home orders, social distancing and unprecedented stimulus spending to salvage the economy.

An increase in anti-AAPI hate crimes, as well as increasing attention paid to already existing hate crimes against the community, was reported. This issue gained more traction following a March 16 shooting at three massage businesses in the Atlanta area where eight were killed, six of whom were AAPI women.

Every American has had a unique experience in the past year. This is the story of just a few.

‘When you die and come back’

Survivors of COVID-19 tell their stories

Bill Plummer was living in Potomac, Md. when he discovered he had COVID-19 on March 19, 2020, one of the first several thousand Americans to receive this diagnosis.

Little was known about the virus at the time.

“I have absolutely no idea how I got it,” Plummer said in a phone interview.

His journey began when he drove himself to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. after more than 10 days of feeling extremely sick with a fever and headache.

At the hospital, he was tested for COVID-19 with a nasal swab, which he described as a “long, brain scratching Q-tip test.”

After his test was administered, Plummer was sent home, where he said he felt so awful he decided he needed to return to the hospital, so his son drove him back.

When Plummer arrived, he was told his test results weren’t in yet.

“I said something to the effect of ‘I am the result,’” said Plummer, who works at wireless software developer JMA Wireless.

He was put in a back room away from other patients and staff. Plummer said he barely remembers what happened the following two days, but he knows he was moved into a patient room and was in communication with his children via text.

“And then two and a half weeks later I woke up,” Plummer said, indicating that he went into a coma on March 21.

“Now, the first time that they did the cognitive testing after I woke up from the coma and the two weeks on the ventilator, it was ‘do you know what year it is?’ and I nailed it,” Plummer said. “Then they said, ‘do you know where you are?’ and I said ‘I’m at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md.’ And they said ‘no, you’re at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.”

Plummer said he realized looking back at his time on the ventilator that he was “not in full mental control at the time.”

He said he was shocked to learn that on March 21, when he was put on the ventilator, he was taken to The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“I had some really twisted hallucinations,” Plummer said of his time on the ventilator. “That was not normal because I continued to have hallucinations [in intermediate care] and wasn’t thinking quite straight.”

Plummer said the common thread in his hallucinations was being restrained, which he tied to being restrained in the bed in the hospital at the time. He said many of the hallucinations were dark, but they seemed very realistic at the time.

After waking up, Plummer said he remained in intermediate care until going home on April 21, more than a month after first being admitted.

Plummer said he was confused upon reentering the world after more than a month in the hospital, since he had “slept through” the beginning of quarantine. He said he didn’t know what terms like social distancing meant.

He explained some of the short and long term effects he has experienced in the year since leaving the hospital, including partial loss of hearing in his left ear, requiring blood thinners and reduced lung capacity.

Nearly a year later, Plummer got his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, although he said he still experiences the ringing in his ears, partial loss of hearing in his left ear and occasional brain fog.

Plummer described how it felt not having loved ones in the hospital to comfort him during his experience with COVID-19.

“I think I probably was afraid in my own way,” Plummer said.

Plummer said he drastically changed his life after leaving the hospital, including moving across the country and finally fully committing to a long-term relationship.

“What on earth am I waiting for?” Plummer said. “Life’s too short, and you shouldn’t not do the things that you’re supposed to do.”

He added that he reevaluated his priorities.

“When you die and come back or whatever it is that happened, it does make you rethink things,” Plummer said. “It’s a do-over of sorts.”

Zoe Goodman had just moved back to her Washington apartment for the spring semester of her sophomore year after being home for winter break when she tested positive for COVID-19 in January.

“Obviously it was really scary,” Goodman said in a phone interview. “I didn’t really know what was going on. I was pretty sick. I get sick really easily, so I felt the effects really strongly. It was kind of scary and a very unknown thing.”

While Goodman isn’t certain, she said she believes someone in her group of friends was exposed and then exposed others in the group upon returning to Washington.

Goodman felt that she got sicker than many others she knew who had COVID-19.

“I had a really high fever,” Goodman said. “I couldn’t stand up without getting really dizzy. Walking to my kitchen, I had to sit down. I just couldn’t really do anything. I was super tired all the time.”

After her diagnosis, the American University sophomore went to an isolation hotel in Washington, where she only stayed for a couple of days.

She said the food at the isolation hotel wasn’t great and she couldn’t get fresh air, so she decided to go to a non-isolation hotel, where she stayed for three nights, at which point her 10 days of quarantine were done and she returned to her apartment.

She described the experience of going to the isolation hotel as lacking “clarity.” She received a call that she tested positive for COVID-19 and, since she chose to go to an isolation hotel, a bus came to pick her up shortly after. She said they wouldn’t tell her where she was going, and the process was rushed.

“It was just kind of really scary,” Goodman said. “It was really immediate. I didn’t know what was going on.”

She was in the isolation hotel when the semester began and said it was challenging having to start the semester while there.

“It was really difficult and kind of just hard to get myself together,” Goodman said. “That was really hard and a horrible way to start the semester, and overall, another added stressor to trying to take care of myself and being healthy.”

Brendan Lawlor, another American University sophomore, found out he had COVID-19 in January after his roommate told him and his other roommates he had been exposed, and they all got tested.

“COVID kind of threw a wrench into the start of my spring semester,” Lawlor said in a phone interview.

He said his main symptoms were severe headaches, stomach aches and fatigue.

“I kind of can’t even really remember what my days looked like because they all blurred together a lot,” Lawlor said.

He said it was good that school started because it forced him to get out of bed and do work. He also said his professors were supportive and understanding.

However, he was stuck quarantining in his room, which he said was an isolating experience.

“The biggest takeaway was the solitude,” Lawlor said. “It was difficult to be in my room for 14 days.”

Just a few weeks after he and his roommates finished quarantining due to their COVID-19 diagnosis, Lawlor was taken to the hospital where he had to have an emergency appendectomy. While in the hospital for the surgery, he was isolated “out of an abundance of caution” because he had recently had COVID-19.

“I really got a sense for [the loneliness] whenever I was in the hospital for my appendix,” Lawlor said. “It felt like ‘I’m all alone. I can’t see anyone…’ I’m having a non-life threatening procedure. I couldn’t imagine if I was on a ventilator, about to potentially die, all alone. I couldn’t imagine what some people have gone through whenever they were all alone on ventilators.”

‘Forever foreigners’

Anti-AAPI racism and the intersectionality of the movement to Stop AAPI Hate

Maddy Park said her upbringing in a predominantly white area made her feel disconnected from the AAPI community. The American University student said she did not start to connect more with her Asian culture until her senior year of high school and first year of college.

“I started to come into my identity more and be like, ‘being different is okay;’ that concept of accepting different facets of my identity,” the first year student said in a Zoom interview.

Park, who identifies as Asian-American and has Korean, Thai and Chinese ancestry, said she joined the Asian American Student Union and Korean Student Association at American University in Washington in the fall of 2020.

Park is from the New York City area and moved to Washington in January for college.

Park discussed the racist terms “China virus” and “kung flu” that former President Donald Trump and others began using last year to refer to COVID-19, explaining her belief that these terms led to a stereotyping of all Eastern Asians and a rise in crimes against these communities.

“It was heartbreaking to see it, and it was also heartbreaking to see no one else outside of [the AAPI] community speaking up about it. Throughout the pandemic it felt as though it was on the back burner,” Park said.

Hye Young Shin, the director of the Korean Language Program and the Asian Studies Program at American University, expressed a similar sentiment about the typecasting of the AAPI community.

“When [some people] categorize American people, they don’t want to include Asians,” she said in a Zoom interview.

Shin, who was born in Korea and now lives in the Washington metropolitan area, added that, while the United States is a multicultural society, there are many Americans who seek to other non-white Americans.

To Shin, Asians are seen in the United States as “forever foreigners,” who don’t look or speak how Americans should.

“People all the time say ‘oh, America is a kind of melting pot, or we just accept all different cultures, people and groups,’” Shin said. “But we now understand that is not true.”

Park said she didn’t see many mainstream conversations about anti-AAPI violence outside of the AAPI community until “the attacks started to pick up.”

“It shouldn’t take violence for marginalized communities to be heard,” Park said.

Park recounted calling her grandmother out of fear that she would be attacked on the street and talking to her mother about racism she was experiencing at work. Her mother said a man “yelled at me and spat at me and called me a Chinese virus.”

After spending her first semester of college at home, Park moved to Washington in January, which she said worried her family due to fears of anti-AAPI violence.

Park said just a few weeks after moving to the capital, she and her roommate were walking home from getting groceries when a man came towards her on a bike. It wasn’t until she pulled out her pepper spray that he swerved his bike away. The man then rode away “shouting imitation Chinese,” Park said.

When Park went home to visit her family in March, she was at the mall when a second time, a man shouted “imitation Chinese” at her. She said this incident upset her even more than the previous one because it was somewhere she normally felt comfortable.

“That shook me more,” Park said. “This area was supposed to be safe. It was home.”

However, while Park acknowledged that attacks against the AAPI community have increased since the pandemic, she emphasized that violence against the AAPI community is not unique to the past year.

“Attacks against the AAPI community, it’s not new with the pandemic, it’s just people are more willing to see it now,” Park said.

Park outlined racism she faced before the pandemic, such as in high school, when classmates would use stereotypical and harmful insults for Asian Americans to mock her. She also described experiencing fetishization.

“In high school a kid came up to me and asked me if I was Asian, and I said ‘yeah’ and he was like, ‘that’s hot,’” Park said.

This comment was representative of the stereotypical view of Asian women as meek, weak and submissive, according to Park.

Park explained her frustration with some of the shortcomings she sees in activism against anti-AAPI racism.

“It’s so much easier to just hide behind your screen and partake in performative activism and post one post on your Instagram story and not do anything else beyond that—not donate, not have conversations with your family, [not] have internal dialogue about dismantling racism within yourself,” Park said.

Park’s advice for people who want to combat anti-AAPI racism is to make sure they are “being inclusive in your activism.”

Esther Kao is someone who confronts these issues of inclusivity and intersectionality in her work as the communications consultant for the Sex Workers Project - Urban Justice Center in New York City.

The Sex Workers Project - Urban Justice Center pushes “for the passage of full decriminalization [of sex work] in New York. We work with both sex workers and anti-trafficking victims and provide aid for both,” according to Kao, who identifies as Taiwanese-Bunun.

After the March 16 shooting at the Atlanta massage businesses, mainstream media outlets began to focus more attention on an issue many had been ignoring for nearly a year: the spike in anti-AAPI violence. While the shooter’s motive is still being investigated, six of the eight victims were AAPI women, and all three locations were massage businesses, an industry often associated with the AAPI community.

“The majority of Chinese massage businesses are licensed businesses that don’t provide sexual services,” Kao said in a Zoom interview. “[The alleged perpetrator] could have shot up nail salons. He could have shot up a Chinese restaurant. But he didn’t because he assumed that because these women [at massage businesses] are Asian and they’re doing some kind of body work, they must be sex workers.”

It is not known whether or not the victims did in fact work in the sex work industry, and at least one of the victims’ loved ones has denied these claims; a friend of Xiaojie Tan, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage, one of the businesses targeted, rejected claims that her spa provided sex services.

The fact remains, however, that the West has a long history of hypersexualization of AAPI women, and massage businesses are often associated with sex work even if they do not provide sex services.

“Massage businesses, especially those that employ Asian people, are stereotyped and stigmatized in every corner of America, assumed by some to be places where consensual sex is bought and sold, and painted by others as epicenters for exploitation,” a March 19 Washington Post article said.

The media coverage around whether any of the victims were sex workers has faced criticism from organizations like the Asian American Journalists Association for its lack of nuance and potential stigmatization of the industry.

Likewise, advocates for AAPI sex workers like Kao have cautioned the emerging movement that has been coined Stop Asian Hate (or Stop AAPI Hate) to not leave sex workers out of the conversation.

“There’s been this call for increased policing across Chinatowns as a form of safety, but it’s not,” Kao said. “In fact, that’s the farthest solution from what these massage workers and potentially sex workers need. This broader movement to Stop Asian Hate has forgotten about sex workers and massage workers… Even though these women died, the movement is not calling for material conditions that will support people in these conditions… I’m pretty disappointed in the recent movement and how diluted it’s gotten.”

Kao explained what organizations like the Sex Workers Project - Urban Justice Center are advocating for in place of increased policing and crackdowns.

“The things that we’re asking for are very basic: for people to be able to live and not have to struggle paying rent, for people to have a decently waged job, to have health and safety in their place of work and for there to not be stigma if they’re doing this kind of work, so that they can properly communicate and talk about what they need and have access to it,” Kao said.

Similar to the exclusion of sex workers in the Stop AAPI Hate movement, Park expressed the belief that the “systems of white supremacy” that exist today entice marginalized groups to compete against one another.

“Because of white supremacy, not only is the AAPI community pitted against white people, or the majority, we’re pitted against other marginalized communities because of white supremacy, because it’s this competition of ‘can you fit in? Will you assimilate?’” Park said.

Shin said that, now that knowledge of anti-AAPI racism is receiving more attention, it is time to rethink and reevaluate how the term American is defined and bring AAPI people into the definition of American.

“What is American?” Shin said. “Who are Americans? This is the time we have to really think.”

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