Chinese Nationals Abroad On The Horns Of The Dilemma As COVID-19 Spreads

26-year-old Kevin Lai felt lucky to catch “the last flight” back to the US after his brief visit during Spring Festival in China before the massive lockdown. What he didn’t expect was to relive the same pandemic all over again in California, where he currently resides, in a more heart-wrenching way. An Amazon employee and Chinese national, Kevin first felt something wrong when playing basketball with friends in his neighborhood. “Coronavius!”, was shouted at him by an irritated American passing by and also his Asian-looking friend. 

In the following weeks, Kevin and other Chinese nationals living in the United States witnessed an exponential spike in COVID-19 infections in Hubei Province and across China. As part of Southern California Alumni Association, Kevin and other Chinese working and studying in California scoured nearby shops and pharmacies to see if they could buy more medical supplies and send them home to ease the shortage in Wuhan.

Kevin’s experience is easily relatable for many Chinese nationals working and studying in the US. “We (Chinese students) have suffered too much strange staring,” said Nicole Tan, a current graduate student at Columbia University. Nicole was among the first students at Columbia to wear a mask on campus. However, their awareness of the upcoming public-health crisis was greeted with bare malice. Nicole was sitting on the last school bus one night when a white man gave her a look of disdain. Her friend Sophie Shi, 23, a fellow graduate student at Cornell University was even refused by a potential employer for a handshake at a Career Fair. “I really didn’t want to go to class for a couple of weeks,” Nicole said. “I was afraid of getting infected if I didn’t wear a mask, while worried about being discriminated against if I did.” 

The pandemic did not created racism, but merely exposed it as the fear of the virus was projected onto a specific group. At a time when a disturbing amount of news about the epidemic in China was at the hearts of Chinese nationals abroad, the coronavirus is nothing more than an urban myth for Americans to take seriously. “We are living a grinding split,” said Oliver Wang, a data analyst based in New York City. “We overseas Chinese tried hard to be part of the solution, but are constantly considered as the cause of the problem.”

Chinese nationals in the US indeed took too much blame for the problem, not just by Americans, but by their fellow Chinese as well, when the outbreak began on a large scale overseas. As domestic infection numbers dwindle in China, many Chinese citizens living abroad are looking to return, while travelers from abroad became the major concern of “bringing the virus back” by the public. 

Life back home is no easier, though, not just because of the frequent flight transfers and lengthy mandatory isolation. A new storm is raging on social media as China’s angry cyber-nationalists took aim on Chinese study-abroad students as never before. 

Jane F., 20, a junior student studying at an American university made the decision to come back to China as soon as her school announced all classes had gone online. After 3 transfers and more than 40 hours of delays, she arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport on March 24. Jane was immediately tested for the first time at the airport upon her arrival, and and taken to Beijing Xiaotangshan Hospital by ambulance, where she tested positive. As she and her family struggled to accept the fact, it wasn’t long before they found out a famous Chinese media organization had leaked Jane’s personal information, including her school name, last name, birth place and detailed travel history despite Jane’s parents explicitly told the media they didn’t want her name and school name to be published.

Jane quickly became a national concern and social media debate subject after the news came out. On Weibo, a sarcastic comment read: “the girl came all the way back home just to poison her own people.” Some even maliciously speculated her motive, believing that she was a “traitor” that lacks loyalty to her own country. “My last name is not that common, so with the information leaked by the media, people can easily find more of my personal information. The pandemic is a global program, and I am as much of a victim as any other Weibo users’ trolling me. Attacking me will not make things better,” said Jane.

As the cloud of the virus cleared, what haunted China next is xenophobia. But this time, not just foreigners are targeted. Due to their young age and flexible nature, overseas students have become the biggest group returning home. With all the exaggerated description and celebratory tone Chinese self-media adopted about the severity of the epidemic situation in foreign countries, many seem to believe that the war has to continue, only with different enemies.

Xu Kexin, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and an avid Weibo user became the focal point of cyber violence after she made controversial remarks about the pandemic. In February, she described herself as “a prisoner” in quarantine and stressed that she did not want to return home from the US. Xu also aggressively criticized China’s response to COVID-19 in a not-so-subtle fashion. The sarcastic and cynical young woman caused a more widespread discontent after she claimed that her parents’ money and connections, as well as her hometown Suzhou’s platforms and resources are what got her there. Though this could be interpreted as a reflection of her own privilege, Chinese netizens quickly took it as a statement of confession for her “treason.”

After three days trending on Weibo, Kexin issued an apology and closed her Weibo account. On April 2, 4 days after Xu’s disappearance on Weibo, multiple local and national authorities including the Suzhou Municipal Commission and CPC Central Committee reposted a commentary article criticizing Xu for being “ungrateful.” Although Xu’s radical remarks have disappeared with her account, the prejudice and hostility against foreign students have survived on social media.

“We have never suffered as much from a socio-cultural jet lag as now,” said Oliver. “At a time when the two governments and people experience different stages of the pandemic and are eager to shift the blame, those of us who have done the most for intercultural communication become culprits in everyone’s eyes.” 

Kevin also expressed his disappointment to the current US-China dynamic, calling what he had witnessed a “chilling sobering experience.” The dispute over the source of COVID-19 continues. While scientists and politicians seem unable to find common ground, the consequences of fear and buck-passing are trickling down to a group of people who genuinely care about both countries.

*Special Thanks to Isabel Wang and York Zhang for contributing to the piece