Without Air For So Long: Asian American in the Age of Coronavirus

A person holds a hand-written sign that reads "I'm Not a Virus".

By Guest Contributor: Amy Zhou

This piece was originally published in The Wake Magazine.

I often wonder: will I ever be American enough for the country I was born and raised in? Will I ever be Minnesotan enough for the state that I grew up in? From Chinese exclusion to Japanese internment, has there ever been a time when Asian Americans weren’t a hair’s width away from being aliens? Our history has been manipulated and molded into something palatable that whiteness is comfortable with. We have been doled out slivers of humanity on the condition of our complicity. But anything — a war, a pandemic, a skit — can expose how dispensable we have always been to them.

I miss the bustling streets of Shanghai with their never-ending streams of pedestrians going to and from work. The smell of cigarettes and a slight hint of sewage, but also of the cong you bing frying on a nearby street cart. I miss the yell of Chinese and the concert of people moving, going, hustling, doing. The streets of Shanghai are where I’m from; my parents immigrated in 1990. I was born nine years later in Corpus Christi, Texas, a world away from the origins of my blood. I grew up grossed out by the Chinese food my mother made and embarrassed by my parent’s accents when we went out in public. So much of my life has been spent trying to assimilate myself into my whiter surroundings, rejecting all the yellow parts of me.

The first time I was called a “ch*nk”, I was twelve years old and didn’t know what it meant. I was in my seventh grade history class, and a boy stood up and pointed to me, repeating the word in a mocking drawl. The teacher told the class to quiet down, and I was left to piece together what had just happened. It wasn’t until I told my mom that I realized the gravity of the situation. Her knuckles went white clutching the driving wheel as she asked me to repeat my story. When she asked me if I wanted her to talk to the teacher, I said “no.” Even at twelve years old, I knew that my survival in America was dependent on my ability to adhere to the white status quo.

When I finally decided to study abroad in Shanghai during the spring of 2020, it was a decision to open the floodgates of an identity that I had spent twenty years repressing. My dad had moved back to Shanghai to start a business when I was in middle school, and all of my extended family lives there. Spending five months in Shanghai was more than a study abroad—it was my way of reclaiming where I came from.

My program was canceled a week before it was scheduled to start.

I found out about the cancellation while I was traveling in Asia, having been in Shanghai days earlier. I had seen the effects of COVID-19 on the city that had always been a second home to me. The subway was empty, the restaurants were closed, and a city of 24 million was a ghost town. When I left Asia a week later in a flurry of panic and stress, above all, my heart hurt for the people of China. They are my people.

In the weeks following my return to Minnesota, every day was marked with constant anxiety for my family back in Shanghai. I worried for my father, for my 90-year-old grandmother, for my seven-year-old cousin. I never had the chance to say goodbye to them, and I have no idea when I will see them again. My heart also worried for the diasporic Chinese community internationally. Reports of racist attacks against Chinese and the Asian community broadly have risen quickly in the past few months. New hate crimes against the AAPI community have averaged one hundred a day, including the stabbing of a Chinese American family in Texas last month. The president of the United States has referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” Even in our own on-campus communities, we have seen discrimination take root, revealing the precarious social position Asian and Asian-American students hold at the University of Minnesota.

Two weeks after my return, I learned about a racist and xenophobic skit that occurred in a student group that I used to be a part of: Admissions Ambassadors, one of the largest student groups on campus. At a membership retreat for the Admissions Ambassadors,a skit was performed, depicting a student who had studied abroad in China, contracted COVID-19, and infected the University of Minnesota community upon returning, turning students into zombies. Out of the seventy some members present that day, only one student said anything about the skit. This student was Asian American.

The pain I felt to think that people I knew had condoned this behavior hurt me to my core. When I wrote an email asking for repercussions for the person who had performed the skit, I did so while sobbing in my bed. I got a call later that day from the organization’s advisor, explaining that the person would not be removed. I choked up on the phone and the advisor asked me, “Are you ok? We read the email, and we’re just concerned about you, Amy.” To be told that there would be no justice for the blatant racism and xenophobia that was committed, and then to be asked as paltry of a question as “Are you ok?” was demeaning, dismissive, and patronizing.

The pain I felt to think that people I knew had condoned this behavior hurt me to my core.

The next day, I received a letter from the Office of Student Affairs, notifying me that the advisor had filed with them due to their worry for my family in China. Just like that, I was made out to be the problem rather than a lack of accountability for their racism. The next week, I decided to speak publicly about what happened, and posted about the situation on my Instagram story. The story received 900 views. A few days later, the person was removed from the Admissions Ambassadors.

It hurts to know that people I knew didn’t do anything when I talked to them privately; rather, it took a public outcry for anything to be done. My inclusion in the group was always conditional, based on the notion that I would not voice my grievances.

When the coronavirus hit the Western world, it felt like a slap in the face to see people panic over mundane things when my people have been dying for months. When Minnesota was given the shelter in place order, I replayed that skit in my head. I’m wondering if those who watched it would find it funny now. Witnessing this unfold, it makes it clear what kind of bodies have been deemed deserving of mourning. It makes it clear who is afforded empathy and care. It makes it clear why I was never given the benefit of the doubt, why my own emotions and feelings were weaponized against me. After all, isn’t that what whiteness does? It will choke you and then wonder why you aren’t breathing. It will drown you and then blame you for the water in your lungs. I have been without air for so long. Our community deserves more than that. They deserve to finally have agency and a voice in a nation they helped build.

My mother has always told me that I have a Chinese face but an American heart. I’ve spent my whole life trying to reconcile those two things, to make them fit together like puzzle pieces. This pandemic has made me throw the puzzle out the window. A Chinese face, an American heart—they are one and the same after all.


My mother has always told me that I have a Chinese face but an American heart. I’ve spent my whole life trying to reconcile those two things, to make them fit together like puzzle pieces. This pandemic has made me throw the puzzle out the window. A Chinese face, an American heart—they are one and the same after all.


This piece was originally published in The Wake Magazine.

Amy Zhou

Amy Zhou is a student majoring in political science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is passionate about advancing communities of color through policy, and hopes to one day work for an elected official. Her largest quarantine accomplishment to date was learning how to soft boil an egg.

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