When coronavirus became a thing, I remember thinking first, narcissistically, Oh, f**k, here come the racist taunts and slurs. My hindsight was not, in this case, 20/20. I did not expect the “Yellow Peril” level of psycho-cultural turmoil and the perpetual feeling of being dispossessed of my body.
As an Asian-American woman, my sense of being seen and judged as an infected individual has never been as amplified as it is today, both in person and online. There have been increases in racist and xenophobic hate speech, actions, and violence across the world, particularly aimed at people of presumed Chinese descent. The London attack on Singaporean student Jonathan Mok, Vietnamese curator An Nguyen’s experience of being barred from London’s Affordable Art Fair due to Asians being seen as “carriers of the virus.” The new normal for me includes heightened levels of alarm from strangers upon seeing my face or body appear in their peripheral vision.
The virus was racialized from the moment “China” appeared in the global lexicon of COVID-19 discourse. It can no longer be moved or morphed into a different cultural or racial/ethnic signifier due to a longer history of Orientalism that pre-dates the current moment. “The China virus,” “Kung-flu,” the “Wuhan virus” — these names signify more than a place of presumed origin. They reinforce rhetoric that is overused to the point of both nonsense and normalization. They place blame and hypervisibility on a type of body that cannot respond without bodily dispossession or, worse yet, bodily plunder.
When Russian sociologist (Yakov Novikov, 1849-1912), writing in French, popularized the term “Yellow Peril” in his 1897 essay, “Le Péril Jaune,” he activated something that was latent in all forms of colonization, imperialism, and genocide: the idea of physical difference as a reason to harbor suspicion and distrust. The last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, used the term “Yellow Peril” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to justify European colonialism in China, and the phrase spread around the world as a color metaphor reinforcing perceptions of the non-white “Other” as a threat to European civilization. Media and popular presses around the world, including the United States, bandied about the term to describe not only Asian military threats, but also immigration from Asia. In the past half century, decolonization and globalization have decentered the “West” in the world’s political order, but the discourse persists.
A global pandemic implies a narrative of origin, spread, and containment. Wuhan is one part of the “narrative,” and many have fixated on it to the point of obsession, creating misinformation. This misinformation disseminates largely through the mirage of content created and curated via a social media livestream, post, vlog, or blog. One example of many is a Facebook post shared by a now fired New York state Assembly staffer, Marilyn Franks urging “citizens to stay away from Chinese supermarkets, shops, fast food outlets, Restaurant [sic], and Business. Most of the owners went back to China to celebrate the Chinese New [Year] Celebrations. They are returning and some are bringing along the Coronavirus.” Numerous other public officials around the world have shared social media posts urging their constituents to avoid Chinese businesses due to fears of coronavirus.
Before coronavirus flooded the global imaginary, many of us lived in a sheltered and skewed social media world of our own creation and curation — where the should’s and could’s outweighed the are’s. Those times are no longer, and we are left as a world to grapple with newly formed ideas of the “social,” the “public,” and the “individual.” The role of the individual in this crisis is under attack. The role of the individual of presumed Chinese descent, however, is more deeply and differently impacted. This new reality, however, is part of the longer story of the Westernized production of the “Oriental” subject. As a result, Orientalism needs to be restated for this moment.
The first recorded usage of the word “Orientalism” is in a 1747 essay by literary historian Joseph Spence. Spence writes, “This whole prophetical vision of the fall of the suitors […] gives us an higher Orientalism than we meet with in any other part of Homer’s writings. You will pardon me a new word, where we have no old one to my purpose.” The “purpose” of the word “Orientalism” was largely unmoored, culturally imprecise, and individualistic, until Edward Said’s restatement of the term in 1978’s Orientalism. After Said’s coinage of the postcolonial concept of Orientalism in 1978, its repercussions as imaginative idea and historical and political reality became clear to much of the Anglophone world.
The ever-shifting figure of the “Orient” is intensified during moments of crisis or conflict affecting the European and “Western” world. “Orient” has been used to refer to places in various parts of Asia, but also North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, colonial North America, Italy, Turkey, and parts of Eastern Europe. Today, the “Orient” still undergirds psycho-cultural perceptions of the individual, culture/society, and the public/public health. The avian flu is listed on the CDC’s website as an influenza virus with “Asian lineage,” reinforcing the notion of viral “genealogy” as a form of credible medical knowledge. “Lineage,” trajectory, vector — these words do not only show direction. They also imply a teleology or chain of being that cannot be reordered by anyone but science.
Race and the construction of the normalized white medical subject have not been fully attended to in the long history of pandemics and outbreak narratives. The litany of assaulting stares, everyday microaggressions, outright slurs and taunts, and physical attacks against Asians of presumed Chinese descent necessitates more Asian and Asian-Anglophone public voices in the global discussion of COVID-19. Our voices can keep the discussion not only comprehensive and relevant but will counter the rephrasing and adoption of inherited “Yellow Peril” and Orientalist rhetoric in 21st-century discourse. We need our voices heard, and the English-speaking world needs to listen.
Joey S. Kim is a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University’s Kilachand Honors College. She researches global Anglophone literature with a focus on 18th- and 19th-century poetics and aesthetics. She also works on global Asian culture and multiethnic U.S. literatures. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Keats-Shelley Review, The Keats-Shelley Journal, The Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, and Essays in Romanticism. You can follow her on Twitter @joeykim