Asian students are targeted by an outbreak of coronavirus discrimination
As the coronavirus spreads, so does anti-Asian discrimination. Tilburg University students from China, Taiwan and Indonesia speak out on their experiences. “I never thought this would happen in the Netherlands.”
Yingshu Deng holds up her phone. It shows a screen capture of a meme account for Maastricht students on Instagram. She points at one of the memes: “When a Chinese student starts coughing during a tutorial.”
Yingshu, an economics student at Tilburg University, received the screen capture a few weeks ago from a friend who studies in Maastricht. “It makes me sad to see people laugh and joke about the coronavirus in such a discriminatory way. I’m Chinese—am I not allowed to cough in class like any other student?”
After four years of studying in the Netherlands, Yingshu thought she had heard all the stereotypes about her people and her culture. “I was familiar with the ‘good at math’ and ‘working hard’ narratives. I don’t like those stereotypes either, but I get it—we all hold some stereotypical ideas about cultures we don’t know very well.”
“Coronavirus stigmas are different. I’ve tried to think of reasons why people would make racist jokes about a virus that is killing people, but I’m having a hard time understanding it,” Yingshu says. “During my time as a student here, first in Rotterdam and now in Tilburg, I’ve always experienced Dutch society as very multicultural and open-minded. I’m really shocked by the discrimination against Chinese and other Asians. I never thought this would happen in the Netherlands.”
Ever since the deadly coronavirus was first detected in the populous city of Wuhan last year, another epidemic seems to be spreading across the globe even faster than the virus: anti-Chinese sentiment, fueled by fears and anxiety over the virus outbreak.
There’s a Wikipedia page that lists coronavirus-related incidents of racism and xenophobia in countries across the world. The Netherlands is on the list, too. The reported acts of discrimination in our country include anti-Chinese comments under news articles posted on Facebook and Instagram, the vandalizing of a student flat in Wageningen with feces and racist graffiti, and the airing of a Carnaval song titled Voorkomen is beter dan Chinezen (a twist on a popular saying, which translates as ‘prevention is better than Chinese’) by radio channel Radio 10.
Attack on TiU student
Coronavirus-related discrimination doesn’t just take the form of memes and verbal abuse. In Tilburg, a Dutch student from Chinese descent was brutally attacked in the elevator of a student building after she asked a group of people to stop singing the song Voorkomen is beter dan Chinezen.
The 24-year-old student, Cindy, suffered a concussion and knife cuts from the attack. Before attacking her and leaving her unconscious on the floor, she remembers her attackers saying they would ‘eradicate the coronavirus’.
Cindy’s story shows how coronavirus ‘jokes’ are feeding into violence, and how fine the line between verbal and physical abuse can be.
Similar stories, with less dramatic endings, are told by international students from Asian countries. “One of my friends was recently harassed on an NS train by three French-speaking strangers,” Yingshu says. “They were shouting at her, calling her a ‘Chinese virus’. My friend was alone, and it was late at night. She was very scared.”
“I was afraid to leave the house at night without wearing a hoodie”
In another incident, Taiwanese exchange student Ivy Chan escaped an attempted attack and robbery on the day she arrived in Tilburg this semester. “I was walking with a friend from home when a drunk guy started chasing us. He was shouting ‘Chinese! Chinese!’,” she recalls. “It was very frightening. I feel like he targeted us because of our Asian appearance. The first few weeks after that horrible experience, I was afraid to leave the house at night without wearing a hat or a hoodie.”
A student from Indonesia, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes a recent incident at a popular student bar in Tilburg’s city center. She was stopped at the door as she wanted to enter the bar, while her friend—a white student from Poland—was allowed in. “The security guard said, ‘Oh, Asian?’, and asked for my ID. I know they sometimes randomly check IDs at the door, but it felt strange that he made a comment about my ethnicity.”
Later that night, the student describes being violently removed from the bar by the same bouncer. “He refused to let me back in after I had accompanied a friend for a smoke outside. He said that I was pushing other people as I was trying to get to the door. I told him I didn’t push anyone. ‘So you say I’m lying?’, he asked me a few times. He eventually let me pass, but then he suddenly grabbed me by my neck and dragged me outside. He claimed he heard me say ‘fuck you’ to him, which I never did. My friends tried to talk to him, but they felt like he was just being racist and targeting me for being Asian.”
A worried home front
The coronavirus has profoundly disrupting effects on everyday life in China. For Chinese students at Tilburg University, especially those who have family and friends in affected regions, worries over the situation back home are great.
At the same time, families in China have growing concerns about their loved ones abroad. Yunning Wang, who is enrolled in the same economics master’s program as Yingshu, has been receiving worried texts and phone calls from China. “My mom worries a lot. Every time a news story comes out about an incident somewhere in the world, she immediately asks me: are you safe, are you okay? I try to reassure my family that everything is fine—it’s not like everyone is running around attacking Chinese people here. But she’s scared that something might happen.”
Ivy has also received concerned messages from her Taiwanese home front. “I even received an email from my home university saying that we should be aware of the discrimination in Europe since the virus outbreak, and that we should try not to be too upset about it.”
Self-protection versus discrimination
For students with an Asian background, not being upset by coronavirus stigmas seems nearly impossible. “It actually makes me really sad that Asians are stigmatized as ‘disease carriers’,” Ivy says. “I think racism and discrimination against Asians existed long before the virus outbreak. It has always been an issue. I’m afraid it might become even worse if the virus spreads further.”
“Self-protection and discrimination are not the same thing”
In difficult times like these, Ivy says people should show their support instead of their resentment. “The coronavirus is scary, and I understand that people want to protect themselves from getting infected. But self-protection and discrimination are not the same thing. I think we should stand together during this difficult time, in Asia as well as the rest of the world.”
According to Ivy, the best way to fight back against coronavirus-related discrimination is to be open to other cultures and people. “Tilburg is a very multicultural and international environment, so I hope the situation will not worsen here. In my opinion, the best way to decrease discrimination and stereotyping is to spend more time with people different from ourselves and to learn about them.”
Yingshu agrees. “I have lots of Dutch and international friends, from countries all over the world. We come from very different cultures. But if you get to know each other, you discover that your similarities are much greater than your differences,” she says.
“And you also discover that stereotypes don’t hold up. For example, just because you can find different eating customs across China doesn’t mean that every Chinese person eats bat soup. Personally, I would never eat it. I don’t eat anything that doesn’t come from Albert Heijn. But seriously, I think people should be allowed to eat whatever they want as long as they aren’t breaking any laws. Who am I to judge?”
Face mask fear
According to Yunning, there’s one cultural difference in particular that needs to be understood better, because it’s feeding into stereotyped views of Asians: the use of face masks. In the West, face masks are associated with sickness. “In Asia, it’s very common to wear face masks. It doesn’t mean you’re sick. We wear face masks for all kinds of reasons—to protect ourselves from air pollution, for example, or simply because we’re too lazy to put on our makeup.”
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing my face mask here”
Since the coronavirus outbreak, face masks seem to trigger fear and aggression in western countries. Yunning wouldn’t wear hers on the streets of Tilburg unless it’s absolutely necessary. “I have a face mask, but I wouldn’t feel completely comfortable wearing it here.”
Safe and welcome
Yunning, Yingshu and Ivy say they feel safe and welcome in Tilburg, despite recent incidents.
“My friends and fellow students have been nothing but supportive since the virus outbreak,” Yingshu says. “So the recent outbreak of discrimination hasn’t really changed the way I personally experience studying and living here. I’m still planning on staying and making a life here after I graduate.”
Yunning: “In my personal surroundings, I haven’t experienced anything negative. I share a house with Dutch students and I have a lot of Dutch friends, so I know that people here are generally very kind and supportive. I feel confident that the hateful stuff you read online doesn’t reflect how most people in the Netherlands think and feel. Personally, I’m still happy to be here and I try not to let discrimination affect my daily life.”
“I’m still happy to be in Tilburg”
After a traumatic first day in Tilburg, Ivy says she has quickly grown to love the city, the university and the people. “All the people I’ve met in Tilburg—my professors, my classmates, my friends—are super nice and friendly to me. My friends are curious instead of discriminatory towards Asian culture, so we sometimes share our festivals or traditions with each other. And even the people I meet in supermarkets or restaurants are very nice to me,” she says.
“Me and some of my friends share news updates about the coronavirus almost every day. They’re genuinely concerned about the situation in Asia. Their support really makes me feel comfortable and at home here, even though I’m on the opposite side of the world.”