A few days ago, I was listening to David Chang’s podcast episode about how the coronavirus has devastated the restaurant industry. It was difficult to listen to the fear in his voice as he pondered the genuine possibility that not only would restaurant workers’ livelihoods be destroyed, but also that the “solution” would just result in corporate takeover of a once exciting, independent, and diverse culinary landscape. While his focus seems specific, his worries are applicable to all aspects of culture and society right now.
I also couldn’t help but think of the special thing that food has become for us young Asian Americans. Though Asian food appreciation can be derided as the lowest bar for connecting with Asianness, it is still one of the few areas in American life where we feel our Asianness gives us credibility, instead of being a weight. And though it is indeed a low bar to clear (how difficult is it to love soondubu, kare-kare, and laksa?), Asian food has been for many of us the first step in reconnecting with a heritage from which we once tried to distance ourselves. Recently, I watched a Korean movie called Little Forest, in which an underemployed and burnt-out young woman from Seoul returns to her rural hometown and spends a year living alone in her childhood home, learning to make many of her mother’s dishes. For us in America, Asian food has often a way to get in touch with our past, but in a way that felt forward, down-to-earth, and creative.
Starting last fall, I started to consider more deeply about what the next steps for Plan A were, in terms of the big ideas we wanted to explore. When the founding team first got together in the spring of 2017, our main mission was to speak freely about the apparently forbidden topics in Asian American online spaces pertaining to gender and class issues. Gender issues usually about what we could and could not talk about with respect to fetishization of Asian women, emasculation of Asian men, and how that affected Asian Americans’ own treatment of each other. Class issues often were about the ubiquity of well-educated and platformed Asian Americans talking badly about or down to working-class Asians, especially when it came to matters of prejudices in school admissions and racial violence. At the time, the dialogue felt thrillingly raw and a bit dangerous. We said and wrote things that were plainly obvious to many people, but it nevertheless got us into trouble with the Asian American establishment. And we loved it.
Still, we knew those were only proxy battles for something deeper. Without context, heated fights over whether it’s okay to say we’re not attracted to other Asians because they remind us of family, or whether Harvard’s Asian student population should be 35% instead of 25%, can seem somewhat like small potatoes. But these issues impassioned and enflamed Asian Americans because they touched the raw nerves of some of our core anxieties and obsessions: do we really belong here? If not, should we find solidarity in each other or find ways to be one of the “chosen” ones welcomed to the party, no matter who we leave behind in the rest of our community?
With the coronavirus outbreak inciting not just street-level violence, but even more dangerously, the outright designation of a yellow-faced state enemy, the need for intra-Asian American proxy wars is nearing its end. Or at least nearing an armistice. After all, those proxy wars were mainly about insiders vs. outsiders, with the outsider Asian Americans feeling rendered invisible and spoken for by an insider class that disdained us in favor of their predominantly elite white circles. Now, none of us are invisible and we all suddenly matter. As Five Alive said in a recent podcast, we now have the attention and visibility we've long demanded. It’s both liberating, empowering, and incredibly daunting.
If Asian Americans felt torn before because during childhood, we didn’t know whether to bring stir-fried pork belly or PB&J sandwiches to lunch, then things are about to get much more harshly real. If it’s not glaringly obvious at this point, the Trump administration and its supporters have decided on a strategy of blaming China for causing the COVID-19 outbreak to distract from their own failings, whether it was Trump dismissing the virus’s spread in the U.S. as a Democratic hoax or Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross rhapsodizing about how COVID-19 could be a boon for the U.S. economy. But it’s not as if this has been a solely Trumpian tactic. In early 2020, when everyone knew how seriously China was treating the COVID-19 outbreak, the American media was more interested in how the coronavirus would benefit American geopolitical interests. Even supposed allies weren’t spared. The New Yorker ran a piece undercutting South Korea’s response to the virus, even though Korea’s response has been among the best, if not the best, in the world. In tweets celebrating democratic resilience to the pandemic, countries like Korea and Taiwan are curiously left out while Italy, Spain, and France are lauded.
Keeping consistent with the bipartisan theme, both Democrats and Republicans have interfering with or watered down desperately needed public economic measures in order to look out for their donors’ interests. When the justifiably massive public anger needs an outlet, it’s all too easy to see how the rightful targets of blame will redirect the rage at the yellow-faced peoples who never really belonged in the first place. Never forget the American appetite for racial revenge. Many people supported the Iraq War because the country needed to see people who looked like Osama bin Laden punished, WMDs or no WMDs. Every catastrophe needs a target. The corporate interests who see COVID-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime blowout sale would love for public anger to be diverted from Wall St.
For Asian Americans, Chinese or otherwise, this won’t be easy. I remember growing up in Vancouver, where there were many Chinese immigrants. Specifically, they were mostly Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong immigrants. I was fully aware of the typical Asian stereotypes—dirty, loud with our cacophonous languages (unlike, say, the beautiful French or Italian languages), insular, rude, etc.—and I was happy to distance myself from them because I was Korean. My language sounded nicer than Cantonese! Our food wasn’t as “weird” as theirs! Our people embraced Christianity (not that I personally did)! We were just somehow better suited for fitting into mainstream society than those eternal outsiders, the Chinese. There were also thoughts of how much easier we Asians would have it if it weren’t for the Chinese. I grew out of this mindset and now know it’s terrible to respond to an “allegation” of being Chinese with, “No I’m not! I’m Korean/Japanese/Filipino/Indonesian/Thai!” But I can see where it comes from and why it can be appealing.
We don’t have to be CCP loyalists to fiercely fight against attempts to deflect responsibility away from the institution that’s actually there and paid for to protect us: the U.S. government. This should be even easier to do when they invoke the age-old racial hatred that’s caused so many of us Asian Americans to doubt our place in this society. Regardless of what the Chinese government does, our primary obligation is to check the power of those who govern the country we actually live in and call home. Even if we wish for reforms in China, only an idiot would believe that the likes of Donald Trump & Co.—or the kind of liberal hawks who are as culpable as right-wingers for the Korean and Vietnam Wars— have any other desire than to revert Asia back into some collection of colonial/client states.
Right now, there is a debate over what to call this pandemic: the coronavirus/COVID-19 vs. Chinese/Wuhan virus. While it’s certainly not good that the President of the United States uses a term that is clearly designed to assign racial blame for COVID-19 (other viruses such as HIV, HPV, and SARS don’t have location-based names), the language itself is only the most superficial manifestation of a deeper ideology that seeks to designate a yellow-faced antagonist as the next great state enemy. When such an ideology powers not only American conservatives but also liberals, then Trump could call COVID-19 the “We Love China” virus and Asians would still get attacked. George W. Bush said nice things about Muslims after 9/11 and still proceeded to bomb Middle Eastern countries and establish places like Guantanamo Bay while the American public took out its rage on “Muslim-looking” people.
Imagine a near future, where the U.S., Canada, and Europe are still reeling from the health and economic devastation of COVID-19 while Asia is on the road to recovery. Things will get ugly and Asian Americans will need to look out and stick up for each other more than ever. The upside is that at last, the organizing political imperative for Asian Americans is here. The solution to American suffering won't be trying to relive 20th century glories of Pax Americana, but rather, the recognition that America needs to take care of its people with better health care, better unemployment benefits, a universal basic income, and so forth. The elites, whether conservative or liberal, will retch at the thought, especially when they're drooling over a once-in-a-century fire sale. Even now, they're trying to force Americans to return to a dangerous workplace for the sake of the stock market. Bailouts are still largely dedicated to salvaging corporate interests instead of protecting the downtrodden workers—garbage collectors, store clerks, delivery people, etc.—that are keeping our society afloat right now.
To maintain their position and wealth, the powerful will try everything to replace sharing material benefits with the emotional satisfaction of frothing at a reviled foreign foe. We've seen this playbook very recently with the Russiagate stories that were designed to distract from the Democratic elites' own failings in the 2016 election. This time, however, the target will be juicier: a non-white hegemonic rival, the long-feared yellow-faced foe.
But that redirection won't improve anyone's lives except for those at the very top. Now, Asian Americans have a visceral, generation-defining experience upon which to base our political imperatives. We’ll no longer have to keep disproportionately relying on media representation and ambiguously racist interpersonal encounters to substantiate our points. We'll no longer have to keep citing to Vincent Chin to provide evidence in the court of public opinion that yes, there is a strong racial animus against us, which will be leveraged to cement and increase inequality in America. That should now be our fight, one that we feel in our bones.
In a recent tweet, somebody noted how for many young people, our most formative years have been bookended by 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Those two events have marked my early teenage years to my early 30s. When I was graduating from college, I liked being the Class of 2010. It was a nice round number, hinting at a bit of cosmic importance. Other years (like 2007, 2011, or god forbid, 2013) felt unwieldy at best and cursed at worst. But, even better than 2010, how wonderful it must be to be the Class of 2020. Such a portentous number! It signified perfect vision and perhaps a class of great destiny.
And here we are in that year. That Class of 2020 won’t even get to properly experience graduation. Among a whole host of other problems.
When I think of people, particularly young people, whose own dreams for the future are in limbo or even shattered, I try to think of the message I took away from David Chang’s podcast episode: his emphasis that it was needless to blame ourselves, that planning for a not-since-1918 pandemic was akin to planning for an alien invasion. In other words, totally unrealistic for the average regular civilian. Instead, it was important to find solace in what we have right now and find strength in the rebuilding effort that is to come.
What will the rebuilding of the Asian American community look like? I can’t say that I have the answers, but I think we here were on the right track from the start. The very first article I ever wrote for Plan A blasted Master of None for its hokey and assimilationist vision of diverse liberal harmony. Now in 2020, I don’t even know if anyone can watch that show with a straight face. For one, many of the chic bars and restaurants featured there will probably never open again. That mindset is dead.
What will come next? I hope a generation of Asian Americans will realize the limits of striving in the system (indeed, experiencing two of the nation’s worst economic crises in our prime ought to do that) and will no longer waste time being “heartbroken” over anti-Asian violence. Because to have your heart broken means to have been in love in the first place. Just what the hell have we been in love with, especially that which did not love us back? And how much have we hated one another within the community, seeing each other as obstacles on the path to procuring that unrequited love? It’s good that some dreams are broken.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @JesuInToast