How to Cope with the Added Anxiety of Being Asian-American During COVID-19None By Christine Yu
I stood in our bedroom staring at the red bandana. It was neatly folded with two rubber bands looped around the ends. I knew that I should wear my makeshift face mask before heading to the grocery story, but hesitated.
I wasn’t worried about looking silly or like I was overreacting. But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I’ve seen report after report of racially-motivated attacks on people of Asian descent—everything from racial slurs being hurled to bottles being thrown to physical assault. Recent incidents not far from my home didn’t help matters. A man was yelled at and spit on at a nearby subway station. A woman was attacked while taking out her garbage, leaving her with chemical burns on her face, neck, and back. Neither did the frequent texts from my mom reminding me not to go outside…ever.
As a Chinese-American woman, would donning a face mask highlight my Asian-ness and make me a target? Or was it all in my head?
Up to now, I’ve been lucky. Living in New York City, I haven’t grappled with racism or xenophobia in the past, so it’s been hard to adjust to this new reality. There’s an extra layer of vigilance and anxiety that cloaks my thoughts and actions, a constant bracing in anticipation of insults hurled at me, blame for spreading the virus, or physical confrontation. I second-guess and overthink what should be everyday activities—going for a run, picking up the mail, shopping for groceries.
I’m not alone in being made fearful by shelter-in-place orders and the uncertainty of COVID-19—people all over the world are experiencing the isolation and rising anxiety this pandemic has caused. There’s the psychological discomfort caused by not being in control. “Not having an end date and not having complete control over your living space and schedule, that’s driving fear. It’s hard to have an underlying sense of security,” says Michi Fu, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who specializes in working with Asian-American women and families.
But for Asians and Asian-Americans, this unease is multi-layered. “I’ve talked to a lot of [Asian] clients who don’t understand why they feel so impacted when they are relatively safe,” says Helen Hsu, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and past president of the Asian American Psychological Association. There is a sense of an added danger, lurking just out of the frame. People of Asian descent have to contend with a fear of being othered by politicians, the media, and even people in our own neighborhoods. We’re forced to bear the brunt of racist phrases like the “Chinese virus” and “kung-flu.” There’s a weariness that sets in when you walk out your door, a sense of being watched and scrutinized, and mistrusted, on sight.
If you’re experiencing a whole world of swirling, confusing emotions, it’s okay. Here are four ways to cope with the stress and anxiety you may feel.
1. Validate Your Experience
Micro-aggressions are like mind games—they undermine and keep you off balance. One minute you’re certain that you’re being unfairly judged or criticized, and the next you wonder if you’re being overly sensitive—or losing your mind. But the withering side-eye directed at you when you clear your throat or sniffle in public, the people moving away from you when you board public transportation, and the derogatory comments about Chinese food and culture spoken just loud enough for you to overhear aren’t your imagination. These behaviors, whether intentional or not, are discriminatory and communicate a hostility that may make you uncomfortable and concerned about your safety.
And while your first instinct may be to tell yourself that you’re overreacting, your feelings of fear and anxiety are real. Rather than dismiss them outright, it’s important to validate these emotions, says Sherry Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor in psychology at Santa Clara University. “A generation ago, our parents faced direct insults about being ‘other.’ But this generation hasn’t as much. It’s micro-aggression. It’s more subtle, less intentional and there’s a different level of pain happening.”
Sharing these incidents with trusted friends and family can help you gain perspective and provide a reality check, says Fu. It’s a chance to talk through your experience and support each other. And remember, it’s not your fault. “We don’t ask for racism just because we’re Asian,” says Wang.
But even as you commiserate, keep in mind that stress and anxiety affects everyone differently. “You may need to joke about it. You may need to be mad. You may need to be alone. There is no one right way to respond to all of it and what you need may fluctuate from one moment to another,” says Wang. “If you keep hearing the message that there’s only one way to respond, that’s disempowering.” Instead, take the time to sit with your emotions and determine what you need in the moment.
2. Find Your Community
When navigating stressful times, it’s easy to feel alone, especially with social distancing. “Standing together can make it less scary,” says Wang.
With COVID-19, social media has played a big role in uniting the Asian-American community and providing a platform for people to document their experiences. Hashtags like #WashTheHate, #RacismIsAVirus, and #IAmNotCOVID19 have emerged in recent months.
Even if you aren’t ready to share your experience, it can be empowering to read the testimony of others. “You see this happened to other people and they didn’t deserve it,” says Wang. “You can start to see that it’s not about you.”
3. Remember, It’s Not You
Suddenly finding yourself the target of racism and xenophobia and being made to feel like you don’t belong can be unnerving, especially if you haven’t experienced it before. “Without the language to make sense of what’s going on around you, it’s easy to self-blame and wonder if you did something to deserve this,” says Fu. It's paramount to remember that you haven’t, and you don’t.
The scapegoating of people who look different or may be considered foreigners during difficult and frightening times, like a pandemic, is a default in our society, says Wang. In part, as humans, it’s our fear and natural fight-or-flight response. We’ve seen racism and xenophobia come together in the face of infectious disease before. For centuries, Asian-Americans have been called “yellow peril,” a stereotype that implies that Asians carry disease and other dangers. Irish immigrants were blamed for typhoid in the 1800s and more recently, Africans were targeted during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
But it’s also important to remember that Asians aren’t immune to these sentiments. Some may shun or exclude other Asians out of the same sense of fear and a desire for self-protection. Wang says that while these fears are legitimate reactions to threats to our physical health and safety, we need to check our reaction to them. “How we decide who is ‘safe’ or ‘not safe’ is based on a larger system of oppression,” says Wang.
If you’re unfamiliar with Asian-American history, Hsu suggests taking this time to read up on how other Asian communities have survived similar situations. This can help provide the historical context and perspective to understand what drives these actions as well as cultivate a sense of strength.
4. Take Care of Yourself
If you do find yourself on the receiving end of a racial slur, profiling, or confrontation, looking after your safety is your first priority. Walking away from a conflict is usually the first, and best, line of defense. If avoidance isn’t possible, seek help from staff members (if you’re in a business), a person in authority, such as a bus driver or train conductor, or the police. When it’s over, and you’re out of immediate danger, seek out support—from friends, family, or a mental health professional—to help process your emotions and how you responded to the situation. This can help lighten the burden you may feel and reassure you that you’re not alone.
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