A Facebook post tells of a hospital patient who refuses to be examined by an Asian doctor. Prior to that, a different post tells of a Chinese international student at UNM in Albuquerque, who was distraught when going to his dorm room. Pranksters had draped his door with plastic and a sign, “Quarantine. Keep Out.” The student didn’t find it funny. He felt threatened.
For weeks, we have seen photos of empty Chinese restaurants whose patrons fear feasting there because of the Covid-19 Virus. And up to now, Americans have always savored Chinese food.
Did you know that Americans were first introduced to Chinese food during the 1849 California Gold Rush? That’s because many Chinese came over to participate in searching for gold.
Today there are over 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. and their appeal, in good part, rests on the large portions and generally inexpensive prices. Still, when I first tasted this delectable food as a child during the 1930s, I was hesitant already having heard the rumor about the unexpected finger found in the chop suey. That was a not-too-subtle attempt at looking down at the Chinese.
Irrational beliefs rise to the surface when panic sets in, and our culture has long been leery of Asians and their cultures. Most of you are probably too young to remember the anti-Asian sentiments of the last century when Chinese and Japanese were referred to as “The Yellow Peril.”
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Anti-Asian sentiments in Los Angeles soared. Most non-Asians couldn’t distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, or Korean residents. Los Angeles Chinese, fearful of being mistaken for Japanese, placed “Chinese American” stickers on their cars or wore ”Chinese American” pins or “ABCD” (American Born Chinese Descent) pins to stave off dirty looks or worse from suspicious Angelenos. Even Life Magazine, probably the most significant disseminator of public information at the time, was caught up in this preoccupation with distinguishing between different Asian populations. They published an article, “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese.
To demonstrate patriotism to the USA, Chinese American men in Los Angeles, awaiting induction into the regular military branches or unable to serve because of age or physical disabilities, created a special unit of the California State Military Reserve that they dubbed the “Chinese Militia.”
Although this home guard branch of service was short- lived, they designed a shoulder patch and pin to wear on their uniforms. The designs were based on Sun Yat-sen’s famous Three Principles or San Min Chu I, incorporating Chinese symbols of blue sky, white sun, golden pagoda, and the color red.
Parades were one of the most important activities of the Chinese Militia. When they marched, the Chinese American community always clapped and cheered them on, and the non-Chinese community enthusiastically received them, as well.
Judging by current behavior and the xenophobic commentaries posted on social media, we haven’t learned anything from past experiences about our irrational fear of Eastern cultures and the virus and China. Unfortunately, bigotry thrives. And we have no available badges to wear that identify us as non-threats to public health: “Free From Symptoms;“ “Never been to Wuhan;” “I haven’t visited Italy in 20 years.” “I Just Took a Purell Bath.”
Even though ugly memes come to mind during this pandemic, please make a strong effort not to pin it on any race or religion. Help your neighbors, and last but not least, “Stop Hoarding Toilet Paper!”
Folklorist Norine Dresser witnessed extreme anti-Japanese racism during WWII when her Japanese classmates were whisked away and placed in Internment camps. Those were ugly times. Let’s not have history repeat itself.