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As I turned at the intersection of Fifth and Spruce Streets on my bike ride to work last Monday morning, I heard something that I’d never heard in Philadelphia before: “You Chinese!”
A woman had wanted me to wait for her to reach the crosswalk before I entered the bike lane, and was furious I hadn’t. In her anger, she chose to attack my ethnicity. She shouted what I was supposed to perceive as an insult so loudly that a UPS delivery man turned his head in surprise.
I was caught off guard, but not shocked.
What made me really sad, though, was how quickly I tried to shoulder the blame. Maybe I just should’ve waited for her to cross the street. Also she was elderly — maybe the coronavirus really scares her. But I knew that even if those things were true, there is never an excuse for making someone who simply looks or identifies differently from you feel as if they don’t belong in this country. Not even for a second.
I sent a tweet about the incident, mostly hoping that people who witness similar incidents in the future would speak up. I had no plans to write about it, until a man shouted “China!” at me from the sidewalk just two days later while I was biking to work.
Again, I tried to make excuses for the yeller. He didn’t sound as malicious as the first woman — maybe he meant it as a compliment? Maybe he didn’t mean any harm? I wanted to believe that these incidents were isolated, that this city I’ve worked in and loved for over two years now wouldn’t treat its Asian-identifying residents like this.
As a Chinese American reporter, I’ve gotten used to things like fielding questions about my last name at the end of phone interviews, being asked where I’m from (or where my parents are from, after I politely push back by saying “North Carolina”) when I’m meeting a source, and gently correcting colleagues when they mix me up with other Asian Americans in our newsroom. Many of my Asian American colleagues also experience those things on a regular basis.
But over the last few weeks, I’ve watched anti-Asian sentiment spike as China fought to contain the coronavirus. It’s disheartening, to say the least. I’ve watched my Asian American friends share stories on Twitter and Facebook about how people stare at them in public. I read reports about how people are avoiding Chinatown, hurting family-owned businesses, and stories about how xenophobia similarly reared its head in 2003 with the SARS outbreak. All this despite the fact that Philadelphia currently has no confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Being a health reporter, I get it. There is still so much we don’t know about the virus. Most media outlets have focused their coverage on the skyrocketing number of cases, and as of today, more than 550 people have died. Experts have said that at this point, it’s unlikely that the coronavirus can be contained. It’s only natural to feel worried.
But these overreactions can be hurtful. It’s easy to tell when someone looks at me and the first thing they think about is the coronavirus — I can see the fear, or even disgust. That kind of behavior has caused me to feel more self-conscious about my sneezes in public than I can ever remember feeling, even though the last time I visited China was 2017. I hesitated to write this piece because I didn’t want to open my inbox up to racist emails.
But all I’m asking for, as an Asian American resident of this city, is to think about how you might make someone feel with your actions. Think twice before asking your Asian friends about the coronavirus, or boycotting your usual Chinese takeout spot. Speak up if you witness racist incidents. Remember that we’re Philadelphians and Americans, too.
Bethany Ao is an Inquirer reporter covering young adults and mental health.