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On March 5, 2020 at 7:23 p.m., I receive a WhatsApp message from a close friend in Bangkok:
Hey guys… I think you’re either just about arriving in the States or already there; hope the journey went smoothly. I’ve been seeing a number of news articles lately about coronavirus-related racism against Asians in the US so be sure to stay safe… both from the virus and the racism!
My husband and I do indeed land safely in California. We’re wearing face masks, as are the majority of our fellow passengers on both legs of the journey—Bangkok to Taipei, Taipei to San Francisco. I expect as much. Over the past two months, noses and chins and cheeks had been disappearing with increasing regularity on my metro rides in Bangkok; I’d taken to admiring the colorful coverings on the faces around me.
Arriving in America, I anticipate coronavirus questionnaires, screening stations, informative signs from the Centers for Disease Control—having encountered all of these when I arrived at Taiwan’s Taoyuan airport on a February trip to Taipei. I am met with none of these at San Francisco International Airport. It’s disconcerting. The level of concern about the rapidly spreading coronavirus seems strangely low here.
I suddenly feel self-conscious in my mask.
Most of my relatives live in China. Thailand, where I had been living since October 2018, was the first country outside of China to confirm a case of the novel coronavirus. It was on my radar well before the World Health Organization coined the names for the disease and the virus on February 11: COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2.
On March 16, the US president started using his own term—the “Chinese virus.” Despite the widespread use of an existing appellation that doesn’t besmirch a geographic location or an entire group of people. Despite the stigmatizing effects of his word choice and the corresponding rise in verbal and physical attacks against Chinese (and other Asian) Americans.
Still, after eight months abroad, it’s good to be back in the country where I grew up, the country whose primary language became my mother tongue after I immigrated here at the age of four. I greet my in-laws at the airport with elation but, just to be safe, not hugs. At their house, showering is the first order of business, followed by washing my fabric mask in the sink and replacing its charcoal filter. I fight the urge to fall asleep at 5:00pm. I go for a walk outside, greedily breathing in the cool, fresh air—a scarce commodity in Bangkok.
… both from the virus and the racism
Reading our Thai friend’s text, I feel my breathing constrict. I may not be able to speak the national language with ease in Thailand, but I enjoy a privilege there that I seldom access in the US: being a member of the racial and religious majority, as a person of Asian heritage and a Buddhist. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a white Christian in America—never having to give a second thought to whether the shape of your eyes or the religious icon around your neck makes you a target for harassment.
The unrelenting air pollution in Bangkok that ushered in the new year, compounded two weeks later by coronavirus fears that only increased with each passing day, kept me almost entirely homebound for the first two months of 2020. Finishing my book manuscript kept me occupied. Without realizing it, I was practicing what would soon be known as “social distancing.”
In those two months, I spent a lot of time on Angry Asian Buddhist. My late friend Aaron J. Lee started the blog in 2009 to counter the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asian American Buddhists, who make up two-thirds of American Buddhists. Contrary to what his online moniker might suggest, Aaron was motivated to speak up out of love and concern for American Buddhist communities. His work inspired me to write a master’s thesis on young adult Asian American Buddhists. Aaron’s death from cancer at the age of 34 impelled me not to give up in the struggle to secure a publisher for the book that emerged from that research project.
Contrary to some of his detractors’ accusations, Aaron did not hate white Buddhists. In fact, he often praised their efforts, as in an August 2011 blog post where he celebrated an essay by Soto Zen priest Alan Senuake titled “On Race and Buddhism.” In the essay, Rev. Senauke writes about how racism and white supremacy are rooted in seeing people as Other—and reminds us that American Buddhism is not free from these pernicious ideas, which “are like a virus in society.” Revisiting Alan’s words, I realize that SARS-CoV-2 is not the only virus we need to confront and protect ourselves against.
Eleven days after landing at SFO, our Bay Area county is placed under shelter-in-place orders. By March 19, all of California is under shelter-in-place orders. As the number of infections and deaths rise, and as the likelihood of my returning to Bangkok plummets, anxiety overwhelms me.
On March 22, I seek solace in a Zoom meeting for a recently established dharma circle for Buddhist practitioners of Asian heritage. The organizers had expected a handful of attendees, but there were fully eighteen of us on the call. After a lovingkindness meditation, each of the practitioners checks in one by one. I hear concerns about family members (How to make sure Mom and Dad and the in-laws stay safe? How to keep the kids entertained?). Aspirations to deepen Buddhist practice (How to meet empty shelves with greater equanimity? How to practice generosity when others are hoarding?). Someone relates her fear and frustration at the president’s repeated use of the phrase “Chinese virus,” and her hurt from an incident in which she was regarded with alarm and suspicion by a stranger on the street. Onscreen, heads nod in empathetic agreement.
At the end of our meeting, we read the Karaniya Metta Sutta together. For me, this moment of taking refuge in Buddhist teachings—and practicing with spiritual friends—provides succor amid the panic.
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace…
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another…
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world
Of course, you and I have been born into this world, with a host of desires that may be asserting themselves more acutely than usual during this pandemic (Who knew a mountain of toilet paper could provide such a sense of security?). The practice of lovingkindness, which involves not holding to fixed views and loosening attachments, is just that: a practice. The fear and uncertainty and xenophobia that COVID-19 have unmasked present a challenge to practice—a challenge in the sense of both obstacle and impetus.
The day after the Asian American dharma circle, a headline appears in the New York Times: “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety.” That day, March 23, the president refrains from saying “Chinese virus” at his press briefing, but doesn’t publicly condemn the racist attacks. Many wonder if it is too little, too late. The Times article explains that Asian Americans are afraid to wear face masks for fear of being targeted—though those who aren’t wearing masks have also been attacked. As Chinese American high school student Katherine Oung puts it, “Not only do we have to be afraid about our health, we have to be afraid about being ourselves.”
Reading the statistics—China having flattened its curve, Italy and Spain and the US failing to do so—one might imagine a world in which it would be white people who are being spit on, yelled at, attacked. Not that this thought brings any comfort. More to the point, such “reverse racism” scenarios erase historical and systemic realities: as many scholars and activists have pointed out, anti-Asian discrimination—the concept of the “yellow peril” and the lumping together of Asians into a monolithic mass of perpetual foreigners—has a long history in America. Yet the saddest part of the Times article may be the reported rise in gun sales to first-time Chinese American buyers. A gun shop owner recounts how one woman teared up upon being asked why she was there: “To protect my daughter.”
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings
In this surreal time, we hold these timeless wishes to be safe and happy, protected and cherished. Time marches on. We tune in to the news with heavy hearts. Time stands still. We pause to reflect on how we might alleviate even the tiniest portion of this crush of suffering. Time circles back. We turn to faith and ritual and story and the other inheritances that we are stewarding for future generations, at once retaining them for posterity and adapting them to ever-changing circumstances.
On March 5, 2020 at 9:40 p.m., I receive a WhatsApp message from a dear friend in San Francisco. I’d hoped to see her in person this coming weekend, but she’s already sheltering in place. Being overseas, I’d missed our ten-year college reunion the previous autumn. I was especially sad not to be there to open the time capsule a small group of us had been saving for the occasion. Among the treasures in the capsule was a letter from one of our dorm mates who died in 2016.
The Whatsapp message my friend sends is a photo of that letter.
For the first time, I feel like I am letting myself feel the weight of a major life change as it is happening…
What will these next years bring?
How will I do in life?
My friends’ health?
It’s a letter to herself, but it’s also a letter to all of us. On the bottom third of that single sheet of lined notebook paper, each of us gets a line, our names followed by a string of qualities: honesty, caring, vigor, sincerity, dedication. And then, the last line.
Me: scared, loving, sad, grateful.
I read in that whisper of a word, me, the collective voice of this world in limbo that she isn’t here to witness. I allow myself to be racked by sobs. I let myself grieve.
There will be grief to come. There will be sickness and death, the loss of jobs and dreams and lives. But there will also be hope. There will be health and (re)birth. There will be new livelihoods and new visions. Destruction will not foreclose creativity, tears will not eradicate laughter. Suffering sows the seeds of change; what these seeds will yield depends on how each and everyone one of us chooses to conduct ourselves in body, speech, and mind.
If this novel coronavirus is a Chinese virus, we are all Chinese. More accurately, it is a global virus that has already impacted all of us. The American president declares us at “war” with an “invisible enemy,” but I prefer less martial metaphors.
The Buddha is often likened to a physician. He diagnosed the unsatisfactoriness of the human condition and revealed its cause. The Buddha was no doomsayer, however: his teachings were treatments that promised a cure, an ultimate freedom from that which ails us. SARS-CoV-2 is a truth-teaching virus. It has revealed to me a deep well of fear: of my loved ones dying, of dying myself (or, during more mundane moments, of running out of brown rice). More incisively, it has revealed society’s disturbing inequities and gross iniquities, forcing us to confront the truth of how the most vulnerable among us—the poor, the disabled, the unhoused, and the otherwise marginalized—bear the brunt of this crisis.
I hope we do everything we can to support these vulnerable populations, and to demand that our elected officials do the same. I hope we remember to wash our hands thoroughly and often, practicing physical distancing and social solidarity with inspiration and joy. I hope we stand against instances of racism against Asian Americans and other racial minorities—during this crisis, and after it has passed. I hope we seek support in Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) friends and teachers, stories and rituals, art and music.
May we be free from the ills that plague us. May we find and make the refuges we need, not only to survive the difficult now, but to thrive in our yet-to-be-determined shared future.
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