Xiao Xuan Law
On the bus back to my accommodation yesterday, a little boy around the age of 8 waved at me from the sidewalk, then yelled “CORONAVIRUS!” before dissolving into giggles with his friends.
I’m Singaporean Chinese. At least four generations of my family have lived their entire lives outside of China (Singapore is not in China). And this distinction really shouldn’t matter, because viruses aren’t exclusive to any ethnicity or nationality. That little boy and his friends definitely did not care though – the East Asian face has become the face of coronavirus, and the consequent target of the equally virulent coronavirus racism.
It doesn’t help that the disease was initially dubbed the ‘Wuhan virus’ in its early days, associating the disease closely with the city and by extension all mainland Chinese. But I can’t help wonder if a coronavirus by any other name could have prevented the current racist sentiment that has arisen in response.
A great part of racism comes from ignorance of differences. Plenty of attention and vitriol has been generated from that single, powerful image of ‘exotic bat soup’. Concerns about food safety are understandable. But the unfamiliarity of the creature is sensationalised and its image weaponised against the mainland Chinese, playing upon the undercurrents of racial prejudice already present in society.
To no one’s surprise, discourse surrounding the coronavirus has become a thinly veiled justification for ignorance and racism towards East Asians. Neither is this a simple East vs. West divide – prejudices between different Asian and Chinese communities have also been made prominent with the various responses to the coronavirus. Yes, not all Chinese communities are the same, nor do they necessarily always get along.
It was wrong of the boy to shout such a thing at me just because of the way I looked. To him, I was a disease-ridden Chinese body. To me, he highlighted the importance of being aware of one’s positionality, especially in times like this.
I first learnt about the concept of positionality in a module about Asian performances of Shakespeare at my home university in Singapore. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the occupation or adoption of a particular position in relation to others, usually with reference to issues of culture, ethnicity, or gender”.
As a group of predominantly Southeast Asian students, we had been confident that we were on home ground when it came to ‘Asian performances’. The implications of positionality came with the realisation of just how little we actually knew about cultures outside our own – even if those cultures were ‘Asian’.
We can’t be every kind of person, or know everything – as I learnt through the horrendous amount of research I had to do before approaching every theatre production on that module. But I also learnt to respect people as whole, complex beings, living full lives of their own, even if I found their culture and way of life foreign.
It’s perfectly fine to find certain things unfamiliar and strange. (For example, I find the fact that people eat rice with forks here absolutely horrifying.) But finding something unfamiliar and strange doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad and wrong.
Wash your hands thoroughly in 2020, and remember to check your positionality before you make that racist coronavirus comment.