• Millie Liao

Asian Is In, Chinese Is Out: Sinophobia During COVID-19

Updated: Oct 21

As an actor and a very open book, I’ve always loved exchanging stories about my life with others. But there has always been one topic that I've been unable to speak about: my experience growing up Chinese American in a predominantly white neighborhood.

I was the target of bullying and racist stereotyping by my fellow elementary school classmates, and I was often called “Ling ling” and “ching chong." While this outright discrimination and mockery subsided as I got older, a quieter, at times more hurtful form of racial discrimination grew, in the form of people saying they didn't want to be my friend because I was "too Asian," or asking me questions like "where are you really from? Like where in China?", "are you and [insert other Asian student here] related?", etc. etc.

Unfortunately, these types of experiences are all too common; when I say that, I mean the majority of AAPI teens I've met have related to at least one of the above experiences.


But now that I've reached high school, and moved across the country to live in LA County, a progressive area with many AAPI individuals, I can say both those forms of racism have diminished, although they haven't entirely disappeared from my life. In fact, these recent years have given rise to a dramatic expansion of Asian American representation in media, and some are even saying "Asians are in" (I withhold my opinion on that specific phrasing of it though). I would like to specifically note that this is mainly East Asians though, and unfortunately there is much less representation of Southeast Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander individuals.


As of recent, more Western audiences have begun to enjoy components of East Asian pop culture, for example K-Pop (Korean Pop) or Anime (Japanese Animated Films/TV Shows). In a short period of time, shows like Squid Game, mobile games like Pokémon Go, and hundreds of other forms of media that originate from East Asia have circulated the world and become globally popular, especially in the US. Viewership rates for shows and movies that originate from East Asian countries have reached an all time high as of 2022, and groups like BTS have broken records for being the first "foreign" musical act to win a number of acclaimed US music accolades in 2020-22. I've seen the impacts of this cultural globalization myself- many of my classmates have seen Squid Game or enjoy watching K-dramas and listening to J-pop.


But in the midst of this all, I couldn't help but notice a lack of Chinese media trending or rising in popularity with Western audiences; in fact, I haven't heard much about people interested in Chinese culture at all since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


As many of you know, the first case of COVID-19 was found in Wuhan, China, and from there things a flurry of blame and scapegoating occurred and casual, normalized racism towards Chinese Americans then expanded to encompass ALL Asian Americans (that is my oversimplified overview, I'm sorry for not being able to give an actually comprehensive cover of anti-Asian racism during COVID but this will have to do in terms of context). Because of this, these past two years have been a living hell for many Asian Americans, as many have had to deal not only with the difficulties of the pandemic itself but also be afraid of being the next victim of a violent hate crime.


However, in the midst of these violent hate crimes occurring and Asian Americans having to fear for their lives, simultaneously Western audiences are for the first time experiencing Asian pop culture, and then flocking towards it in large numbers, enticed by the new, exciting, and some may even say "exotic" appeal of these foreign shows. They served as an effective method of entertainment during a time where American audiences were pent up in our houses, forced to repeat a dull schedule over and over again everyday. They could be an escape from the reality of our lives, into a more fantastical, idyllic life in some distant place in Asia.


This specific sequence of events, of both ferocious hatred of Asian Americans and hyper-romanticization of Asian culture, is entirely unfathomable and almost comedic to me. Again, to repeat myself, immediately in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where hundreds of Asian Americans were attacked or KILLED on the streets for supposedly starting COVID, there comes an outburst of uninformed but passionate gusto for East Asian cultures from Western audiences. How crazy is that?!

Anyways, to summarize: Asians are somehow in, but at the same time very much out. How did it become this way?


Well, the answer lies in the fact that Asian Americans are not a monolith. Too often, all of the ethnic groups under the collective label "AAPI" are unceremoniously lumped together in the minds of Western audiences, and therefore we have become as a monolithic group. It is important to note again that the idea of an "Asian" person in the Western mind usually delineates an "East Asian" person, which already creates an inherent inequity between the different Asian ethnic groups and their level of representation. But specifically looking within East Asian ethnic groups, one can see that the recent top trending aspects of "Asian" culture can all be associated with either Japanese or Korean pop culture. On the other hand, many Western audiences still hold immensely sinophobic views, as modeled by our previous president, who called COVID the "China virus" and "Kung Flu."


So our conclusion becomes that Asians a.k.a. East Asians minus Chinese (so essentially just Japanese and Korean people) are in, and Chinese are out.


But it gets more complicated from there. Keep in mind that amidst all this, Western audiences still have trouble telling apart the different ethnic groups within the term "Asian American", and many still subconsciously identify Asians as all the same (a monolithic group) rather than classifying them to different ethnic groups. Pew Research Polls have shown that (and I'm obviously paraphrasing here) to the average American, there isn't much of a difference between a Filipino and a Chinese individual.


So this creates the ultimate paradox of Western audiences associating negative connotations with "Chinese"culture and people, but not being able to tell that apart from the aspects of Asian culture they enjoy.


Yes, we can conclude that many like Asian culture but hate China, but can we say that a majority of those people know what the difference is between the Asian cultures they like and don't like?


For me, the answer is no.


All of this can be modeled by an example:


Let's say there is someone who is a fan of Korean pop culture, specifically K-dramas and K-pop. They are not Asian American, and this is their main form of interaction with Asian culture.

In the midst of the pandemic, one of their classmates tells others in school that Asian people started COVID, and all Asians have the virus and are actively spreading it to those around them.


Would this individual's connection to Asian culture through their interest in K-pop and K-drama encourage them to stand up and speak out against this classmate's statements? Perhaps, in a valiant act of defense for their "faves". But would they be able to correctly deduce that the "Asians" they are standing up for are different than the "Asians" they know as their idols? And with that being said, would their response have changed if the classmate specifically said "Chinese people started COVID"?

I started this article with my personal experiences of racism and discrimination, and if you go back now to reread them, you'll see that many of them specifically suggest discrimination against a Chinese individual. Lucky for me, I am in fact Chinese, but strangely enough, Asian Americans beyond just Chinese Americans, including both East and Southeast and Pacific Islander Asians, have all experienced being called "Ling ling", or perhaps even been mocked with "ching chong". Sinophobia is the most prominent and widespread form of racism towards an Asian American ethnic group, and I would argue that it is actually one of the only forms of racism towards Asian American ethnic groups. But that is because we are all viewed as one and the same - there isn't a separation in the minds of Western audiences between us that would allow for a variety of different racist delineations towards each Asian ethnic group, and therefore we are all faced with the same old sinophobia regardless of whether we are Chinese or not.


And during COVID-19, this situation of sinophobia being applied to each and every Asian American was exemplified through the hate crimes targeting AAPI's of every ethnicity. Although the violent hate crimes were meant to be primarily directed towards only Chinese Americans and China, it ended up impacting all Asian Americans because people couldn't tell the difference between us.

In the end, I feel almost like I'm exploiting or taking advantage of other Asian Americans somehow - forcing upon them the sinophobia that should be directed only at me, and also getting to claim whatever facet of any Asian culture is in trend right now as my own.


But although this situation is extremely bleak and depressing, all I can say is that we must hold onto our unique cultural identities. In continuing to socialize AAPI ethnic groups as separate from one another in terms of our culture, we can do our best to both maintain what is unique to our ethnic groups but also still supporting and being there for each other.


It is still challenging for me to leave my personal comfort zone and share my experiences of discrimination with new audiences, but I make the effort to do so, reminding myself of my mission to end sinophobia not just towards Chinese people but misguided sinophobia towards all other Asian Americans. In this way, we can be united together in an issue that shouldn't affect us all, but does, and rather than feeling the need to be connected by some cultural aspect that simply doesn't exist amongst all of us, we can work together to find solutions for this misinterpretation of our identities.


With love,


Millie.


(Though I'd share a little photo of me from middle school to give you an idea of how absolutely Chinese I was and still am. The pose really sells it.)