OPINION
06/02/2020 11:24 GMT | Updated 06/02/2020 17:02 GMT

To The Woman Who Recoiled From Me, Not All Asians Have Coronavirus

Almost overnight, Britons of Chinese descent who were born and raised in the UK have suddenly all become tourists from China, journalist Vivian Song writes.

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By now, Asians across the world will have their own story of discriminatory woe, journalist Vivian Song writes.

The other night, at a posh theatre in the centre of Paris, I inadvertently perpetuated a tired old stereotype of the passive, submissive Asian when I failed to call out the French woman sat next to me, who spent the entire first act of the production with her turtleneck over her mouth.

The incident happened in increments. Sometime near the beginning of the first act, she had pulled up the top of her sweater to cover her mouth and nose. Progressively throughout the play, she began to lean further and further away from me until she was practically sitting in her boyfriend’s lap. Under the pretext of snuggling up to her partner, she had twisted her body into a knotty pretzel with one sole aim: to get as far away from me as possible. 

During intermission, the pair packed up their affairs and moved to an entirely new section, robbing me of the chance to call her out.

By now, more than a month into the coronavirus outbreak, many in the Asian diaspora around the world have their own tale of discriminatory woe – be they of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese or, like me, Korean descent.

Almost overnight, Britons of Chinese descent who were born and raised in the UK have suddenly all become tourists from China.

If anything, the outbreak has exposed the astonishing level of ignorance around Asian ethnicities as we’re all lumped together. Just as all brown people are terrorists following a terror attack and all black people carriers of ebola, every Asian in the diaspora from the UK, to the US, Canada and Australia, has suddenly become a Chinese citizen from Wuhan and incubator of the coronavirus.

And therein lies our complicated history.

In France where I currently live, fed-up Asians have adopted the Twitter hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus which means “I am not a virus.” First-generation Asians and expats like myself are uniting under the same banner regardless of our origins because, for the duration of the outbreak at least, we are all Chinese. And when you’re Chinese for even just a day, you get a small taste of just how deep anti-Chinese sentiment can run. 

Have you been affected by racism in the UK in the wake of the recent Coronavirus outbreak? Get in touch with your story by contacting ramzy.alwakeel@huffpost.com 

Which is why I am ashamed and saddened to see restaurateurs, businesses and shops in South Korea post signs banning Chinese customers. The same trend has been reported in Japan and Vietnam.

In continental Asia – the motherland for the diaspora – citizens are carrying out blanket discrimination against the Chinese in the same way we, the diaspora, are being targeted in our respective countries of residence.

In France (and I suspect this to be true in other parts of the world), the outbreak has exposed another uncomfortable truth: that within the model minority myth – a dangerous and misleading narrative that Asians are all hard workers, higher achievers and less likely to speak out compared to other minority groups – there exists another micro paradigm that stratifies Asian ethnicities into its own internal hierarchy. 

While the Japanese have their highest respect, the Chinese have their disdain. 

Given the racist narrative that tries to trace the coronavirus to Chinese cuisine, let’s use that as an example of how Asian ethnicities are perceived.

After covering the world of haute gastronomy in France for nearly a decade at my day job, it has become clear that Japanese chefs and Japanese cuisine enjoy a special kind of preferential status among the gastronomic elite compared to other Asian cuisines. Just last week, the Michelin guide admitted the first Japanese chef in France to the exclusive three-starred club. 

Anecdotally, I can’t tell you the number of times a French person has rhapsodised to me about Japan; how much they love the country; how much they love the culture and their cuisine. 

To be clear, I have no qualms about that. I was a Francophile and loved everything French. That’s why I moved here from Canada 10 years ago. 

But compare that to the jarringly racist language I’ve heard French people use towards the Chinese, incidentally one of their biggest tourism markets in terms of spending. 

It’s been more than five years now, but I will never forget the moment in the office kitchen when a former colleague used the word “dirty” while talking about the Chinese. She ostensibly thought I wouldn’t be offended as I’m Korean Canadian. But as the coronavirus outbreak has clearly shown, for many non-Asians, there’s little to separate a Korean person from a Chinese, and a Vietnamese person from a Filipino.

In such a short time, what remained of our status as integrated members of society has been wiped out. Almost overnight, Britons of Chinese descent who were born and raised in the UK and have never set foot in China; Canadians of Korean descent; and American citizens of Filipino descent have suddenly all become tourists from China.

I’ve lived through this before, in Toronto during the SARS epidemic in 2003. Then too, a group of teenagers boarded my subway car and coughed “SARS” in my direction. I called them out and managed to shame them into silence. 

I couldn’t do the same this time round, to the lady who seemed by all outward appearances, reasonable and cultured. But then again, I too, may have been too quick to judge. So this essay is dedicated to you, French lady who sat near the aisle in row 17 of the section amphitheatre bas at the Théâtre du Châtelet last week. You know who you are.

Vivian Song is a lifestyle editor based in Paris. 

Have you been affected by racism in the UK in the wake of the recent Coronavirus outbreak? Get in touch with your story by contacting ramzy.alwakeel@huffpost.com