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[Kim Seong-kon] Living as an Asian in West in uncomfortable times

Undoubtedly, these are uncomfortable times for all Asians living in the West. For the unprecedented global pandemic that has recently devastated the earth, many Westerners blame China. Yet, even if the virus originated in China, the Chinese people are not themselves to blame for the existence of the virus. Moreover, in the eyes of many Westerners, all Asians look alike, and therefore, any Asian on sight can be an object of hate and derision in Western countries. To make matters worse, Westerners seem to assume that all Asians are potential coronavirus carriers. As a result, Asians in Western countries are often harassed and exposed to hostility and violence these days.

Of course, it is absurd and wrong to treat all Asians as if they were virus carriers or guilty of the recent global pandemic. It would be the same as anti-American Asians attacking Europeans because all Caucasians look alike in Asians’ eyes. Regrettably, however, such absurdity is happening in many Western countries these days. According to newspaper reports, someone sprayed Febreze on an Asian in a New York City subway, a malicious gesture of “sanitizing” a virus carrier. Similar incidents have happened in Italy, Canada and Australia. As the pandemic spreads globally, such incidents will surely increase.

Perhaps travelers or temporary residents could endure such an affront because they will return to their country soon. However, if such things happened to an Asian who was born in the US, Italy, Canada or Australia, he or she would be utterly frustrated and exasperated. Westerners should not assume that all Asians are foreigners or are guilty of spreading the dangerous virus.

Presently, I live in Lebanon, New Hampshire, near Dartmouth College. Recently, I went to a BJ’s Wholesale Club in West Lebanon for grocery shopping during the senior citizens shopping hour between 8 and 9 in the morning. The thoughtfulness of operating the senior shopping hour during the pandemic impressed me greatly because it would not be possible even in a Confucian country such as Korea. In Korea, young people pretend to respect senior citizens only when they are their boss. Otherwise, they do not seem to revere old people and regard them as useless and worn-out instead. In the US, however, supermarkets, too, provide a senior citizens shopping hour in order to protect elderly people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Initially, I was a bit reluctant to go out because I am Asian, a rarity in my majority white small-town community. I was afraid that people might shun me, assuming that I might be a coronavirus carrier. Yet, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, as they say. I have a family to support. Besides, looking at the empty refrigerator, my wife sighed deeply. Of course, I was worried about the highly contagious coronavirus I might encounter outside of the home, but I was more concerned about the possible prejudice of the townspeople against Asians. As a professor emeritus, I may be a highly esteemed fellow in my country. Here in the states, however, I am merely an Asian man who they think might carry the lethal virus. Thus, I left home full of apprehension.

Soon, however, my worry turned out to be groundless. Instead of coronavirus, I met extremely nice and friendly people. Shoppers greeted me with a bright smile, saying hi or good morning, even though they did not know me. When I had a problem with scanning an item at a self-checkout post, a female manager immediately rushed to me and helped me out nicely. Another staff member kindly helped me with using a gift card. The male desk manager, too, was kind enough to take my heavy cart to the car. It was indeed a pleasant shopping experience in these uncomfortable times.

Unlike some countries where people rudely and ruthlessly bolted a Korean family’s apartment door, America is still full of warm-hearted people. Of course, in some big cities, things may be a bit different. In Lebanon, New Hampshire, however, people are still gentle and generous, not holding any prejudice against Asians like me. On my way back home, therefore, I was in a good mood and lighthearted.

They say that COVID-19 is the worst virus of its kind since the Black Death in the medieval period. Surely, it will take long to heal the psychological wounds derived from the pandemic that is devastating the whole world now. The prejudice against Asians, too, will linger in many Western countries long after the pandemic is gone. It is so sad that the coronavirus is destroying so many precious things such as human touch, mutual trust and cultural understanding, not to mention human lives, jobs and economic prosperity.

Despite the ruthless, widespread pandemic, we should not lose “compassion, sacrifice, and endurance,” as William Faulkner emphasized in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As long as there are people who care about others, like the ones I have encountered in Lebanon, New Hampshire, there is hope. We shall overcome this unprecedented crisis together. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.
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