“Be kind, be calm, be safe.” With these words, Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s health officer, ends her daily COVID-19 update. Have we all been kind to each other? The COVID-19 virus poses a risk to all of us, but the pandemic does not affect all of us the same way. As we have seen in Europe, the US and here in Canada, anti-Asian hate crime is increasing. Among the recent crimes was the vandalization of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Chinatown in Vancouver. Reported cases, however, do not fully represent the reality, as people of Asian descent may feel uncomfortable speaking publicly about being the target of discrimination. In response to the need to document Anti-Asian racism incidents, a group of volunteers in Vancouver created the COVID-19 Racism Incident Report Form (Canada), available in several Asian languages with the option of anonymous contributions. Within two weeks of its launch, they received eighty responses.
As UNESCO reminds us, viruses have no nationality. But we see narratives based on bigotry and ignorance that link the current pandemic to a country, people and culture. The president of the United States has publicly referred to the pandemic as the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus. As if to side with him, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Emerging Infectious Diseases May 2020 issue featured a cover image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) collection of a Chinese textile known as rank badge, which depicts a leopard and bats. MOA has many Chinese rank badges in its collection too. This stunning textile work is in no way related to the contents of the CDC journal issue, which focused on respiratory diseases in diverse geographic locales. On April 23, the Met wrote the CDC Director to express the Museum’s strong objection to the use of this work on the periodical cover. The selection of this work as a cover image distorts the meaning and context of the art and supports prejudiced implications about China by linking the virus to animals, disease and China. As of May 12, the Met has not received a response to their letter.
The visual image, whether a work of art, or an object of daily life, is a powerful tool that communicates a message and creates an impression. We can see this in the changing status of face masks as objects. Back in March, I felt self-conscious about wearing a mask commuting via public transit. I began to wear one only recently as a shift in the perception of masks seemed to take place in Vancouver with the importance of masks, in combination with other measures, affirmed in health advisories and media. We are encouraged to wear one where necessary and face masks are now worn by people of any background while noting the cultural implications of masks.
Many, including myself, have made cloth face masks for our own use out of necessity. They even provide a venue for some artists to respond creatively to the pandemic. However, masks are often racialized, as they connote comfort and safety in one context and a sense of threat, fear and medical intervention in another. Whether you wear a mask or not, if you are Asian you are still more likely to feel and experience an increased risk of stigmatization as demonstrated by the recent anti-Asian racism incidents.
People in parts of Asia, especially East Asia, have a cultural habit of wearing masks when they feel unwell or have cold or allergy symptoms, largely out of courtesy for those around them. In Japan, we say “the eyes are as eloquent as the mouth,” emphasizing the importance of the eyes in conveying facial expressions. However, the mouth is seen as playing an important role in offering emotional cues in Western societies and thus hiding the mouth has been seen as a challenge. But, now, despite initial resistance to wearing masks, other parts of the world are perhaps fast catching up on this “courteous” habit from Asia. Or, perhaps we are all just trying to be kind to each other. As we celebrate Asian Heritage Month in Canada during this challenging time, it is also time to respect and learn from each other, rather than ignite the flames of xenophobia. Viruses have no nationality.