[Editor's note: This is the first installment in a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday.]
There are two times I have felt the most vulnerable as a Chinese national living in the United States. The first time was in 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected. Perhaps I was just over-sensitive, but as I walked down the streets in Iowa City, I felt that people were looking at me differently, with contempt and bitterness. Do you hate me, I said to myself. Do you hate me because of my skin? Do you hate me because of my accent? Because my decision to pursue my ambitions in your country?
I had this same feeling in 2020, when I found myself facing rows of empty shelves in a Walmart in St. Louis. Trump had recently begun calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.” I know I have nothing to apologize for, but, because I am Chinese, I somehow still felt guilty.
Recently, a friend told me a story about a young Chinese man who runs a cafe in Melbourne, Australia. The cafe has been popular since it opened two years ago. But, on March 22, when Australia decided to shut down all of its bars, restaurants, gyms, and churches, the young man found himself suddenly lost. After a long deliberation, he decided to close his restaurant temporarily. On the last day of business, he decided to donate the frozen food in storage to his regular customers, his staff, and the elderly people in the neighborhood. The customers and senior citizens not only insisted on paying for the food, but they also tried to comfort him: “The virus comes from China, but the Chinese are its first victims. This is not your people’s fault.” After the employees had left with their last paychecks and government allowances, the young owner found that they had left the money for the food in the register. He burst into tears.
That night, he called his father. “Pa,” he said, “Why are we having this virus? How am I going to explain this to my kids?”
These two questions sadden me. Growing up, I witnessed my father’s generation lose their jobs during China’s early Reform and Opening. This young man’s frustration is familiar to me. “I’ve been working hard all my life,” my father used to say. “Why is this happening to me?”
The tragic nature of life is a question that has no conclusive or easy answers. As James Baldwin puts it beautifully in his essay collection, The Fire Next Time, “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.” But humanity won’t succumb to the capricious forces of fate. In our best moments, we learn to fight against hardship, expand our knowledge to reduce the uncertainty, and support one another until the storm passes and the sun rises again. Still, there is a dark side to life’s many inexplicable tragedies. To fight back against despair, we are quick to seize upon easy answers to the source of our current woes. In China, for example, my father’s generation liked to blame their troubles on the young, non-native laborers who came to the cities and “stole their jobs.” The customers and elderly folks who visited the young man’s restaurant in Australia are kind and wise, but the growing numbers of people who are out of work because of COVID-19 might not remain as reasonable. People want their pain to have a justifiable cause, and they want their hatred to have a deserving object. “The Chinese virus” gives them both.
In 2016, during the frightening time after Trump’s election, when racist sentiments were on the rise across the United States, I had a fierce fight with a close friend in China. I found his dark views of humanity—that hatred and bias are irremediably linked to human nature—to be cynical and cruel. My faith in the best of humanity struck him as naïve and idiotic. Unable to understand him, I called one of my workshop friends. He asked me whether my Chinese friend had experienced racism.
“Yes,” I said, “in Australia, when he was a freshman in college.”
“His experience may have impacted his views,” my friend explained to me. “When people talk to you, they are not talking about their views, but their pains.”
Now, four years later, like every responsible resident, I stay at home to practice social distancing. When I go out for a short walk, I always put on a face mask, to protect myself and others around me. I have been met with eye rolls and curses from random strangers, but I keep reminding myself: They don’t hate me. They simply don’t understand their pains.
Jianan Qian writes in both Chinese and English. In her native language, Chinese, she has published four books. In English, her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Gulf Coast, Guernica Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a staff writer at The Millions and holds an MFA degree in fiction from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, "The Night All Devils Wept," appeared in TBLR Volume 2.