Before the novel coronavirus closed schools, it was fueling xenophobia and discrimination against Asian American students.
Scientists say “viruses don’t discriminate.” But those messages don’t always make it to the classroom and into student’s conversations.
OPB spoke with three Asian American students about their experiences at school and online as coronavirus concerns moved closer to home.
The three students attend Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego. As a district, Lake Oswego’s student population is 73% white.
The students – Joshua Li, Emily Zou, and Megan Tian – love their school. Joshua and Emily are involved in student government, Megan and Emily are on the speech and debate team.
They embrace the small, tight-knit community – while also acknowledging the community’s privilege and whiteness.
“There’s this thing called the LO bubble, which is – we all live in a very privileged, very white bubble away from the rest of society,” Emily said.
So up until a few weeks ago, the virus might have seemed far away for some.
That was not the case for Lakeridge sophomore Joshua.
“My entire family is from Wuhan,” Joshua said. “It really affected my family personally because we just started receiving calls from my uncle, my grandmother about things happening in Wuhan.”
But before the virus hit Oregon, he said students at school treated the coronavirus as a joke.
At home, it was taken seriously from the start. Emily recalls her mom asking her to change out of her school clothes and spraying her hair with rubbing alcohol.
“I actually got into a fight with my parents about it,” Emily recalled. “Are we overreacting? Why don’t you let me go out and hang out with my friends? Why do I have to do all this stuff?”
For Emily, it was difficult to reconcile what was going in China with all the joking at school. She remembered talking to a classmate about the seriousness of the virus.
“Well, we’re not going to die because we’re in Lake Oswego,” she recalled the student saying.
Then there was the speculation that Chinese people eating bats caused COVID-19. Joshua said that debunked theory made its way into the lunchroom, with students joking that a soup made for lunch “must contain the bats.”
While the comments weren’t directed at any one person, freshman Megan said the joking around enforces long-held stereotypes.
“The idea behind bat soup, that contributes to this stereotype that Chinese people will eat anything,” Megan said. “Although it doesn’t seem inherently racist or xenophobic, it’s just playing on this other stereotype.”
Then COVID-19 came to Lake Oswego. Oregon’s first case was a staff person at a local elementary school.
Statewide school closures followed, and they’ll continue until at least April 28.
But that hasn’t stopped Emily from confronting misinformation. Now it’s on social media.
When a classmate posted his theory of how the coronavirus started to Instagram, Emily asked him to take the post down. She thought the false theory was xenophobic. When she explained that her family lives in China and she knows the theory is false, she said her classmate dismissed her.
“People feel a lot braver behind a screen,” Emily said.
To keep things in perspective, she remembers something her dad told her – she does not have to represent or speak for all of China.
“’It can be difficult, but you are not the person who is responsible for any of it,’” she said. “I just try to keep that in mind because it can be difficult to not get personally offended … and I feel like most of it’s just ignorance.”
The students say their families are frustrated by the lack of seriousness and slow response to the coronavirus.
And the xenophobia continues, even from the White House. Just last week, President Trump continued calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” before changing his tune and sharing a message of support for the Asian American community.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown tweeted a statement condemning xenophobia connected to the virus.
As the virus threat continues and news changes quickly, the Lake Oswego students wonder what will become of their school year and their social lives. Just last week, they say their peers continued to hang out with friends despite social distancing measures put in place by Gov. Brown.
“I think that goes back to, like, us being Chinese and knowing more what happened in China. I feel like the threat is a lot more real to us than it might be to other people cause it’s like we’ve heard of all of these things and we know how this is going to go if we don’t just like stay home and social distance,” Emily said.
But now that the state has ordered everyone to stay at home, Emily hopes that will change how young people respond to COVID-19.