The Asian Image Amid COVID-19

Updated: Sep 16

It’s hard to accept change as the new every day. It is the human condition to thrive in familiarity: when I was living on campus and had to balance classes and extracurriculars and events, I would plan my days out to the second on Google Calendar. It was my best friend. Right now, though, our relationship isn’t as strong: I’m learning to live in the moment. But that’s a topic for another day.

Change doesn’t come out of nowhere, and when people have a hard time dealing with change, it’s natural to want to place the blame on somebody or something. Unfortunately, this pandemic has led to the blame being placed in large part on the Chinese. It’s reflected in the way that COVID-19 was dubbed as the “Chinese virus” just because the first cases were seen in Wuhan. 


What may have started as a casual phrase has now turned into a mentality, something that crowds of people have adopted and now project onto the Asian American community. A viral Twitter video showcasing a woman nibbling on a bat skewed the public’s perception, enforcing generalizations that Chinese people eat unconventional animals and therefore bring the disease. That is not so. Even though it’s being nicknamed the “Chinese virus”, Asian American people from all different kinds of backgrounds are experiencing discrimination in public whether they are Chinese or not.


I have never really explored my Asian identity in-depth. I was born and raised in the United States, so I always just considered myself American. I don’t walk around every day and project onto people the fact that I am of Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese heritage with Guatemalan, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Canadian infused roots. I am simply myself who is just as normal as normal can get. I do what I do because it satisfies me, not because I’m Asian and that’s what I’m supposed to do.


Thus, the actions of Asian Americans and their presence in public should not be categorized and directly linked to their label of “Chinese” or “Japanese” or “Asian” by others. Their identity and agency goes deeper than that. These people did not cause the virus. They were here the whole time. It pains me every time I read stories on the New York Times or The Guardian about Asian American experiences going shopping out in public. Some people have been spat on. Some have gotten racial slurs thrown at them. Some have simply been around a non-Asian individual who covers their mouth and nose and glares menacingly.


This isn’t the only problem. This xenophobia has a contrast in portraying Asian individuals on one of today’s most popular platforms: TikTok. TikTok is the rebirth of Vine and musical.ly, the evolution of comedy platforms and a merger of music, video, modeling and humor. But the more time I spend on the app, the more trends I notice regarding what is popular.


There is a special page, called the “For You” page, which is essentially TikTok’s home page. This is where the algorithm presents material to you that it thinks you will find interesting based on your movement in the app. It likely tracks what user portfolios you click on, what kind of videos with certain hashtags you like and comment on the most, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also takes into account the number of seconds you spend on each video before you swipe to the next. It’s also about catching the viewer’s attention and curating the proper material to suck you in for two hours straight. The more traffic, the more money the app makes because they can sell this data to other companies.


All this said, I want to address the role of Asian individuals on TikTok. TikTok is a Chinese video-sharing platform, which is mildly ironic considering its popularity in the U.S. coexisting with the current sinophobia. I first discovered it as a cheesy ad on some free app I was using (I think it was Wordscapes?). The fact that it evolved from that small ad to a worldwide trend astonishes me. Millions of people are on it every day. Among some of these users are Asian individuals who show off fashion, makeup, dance moves or simply their looks. These users have flooded my feed, and it made me wonder what other kinds of users enjoy watching this material. Is this an example of objectification? Is society evolving its beauty standards around the emergence of Asian icons on TikTok? We’ve already seen K-pop poke its way into our music culture, but perhaps TikTok is opening the space for Asian beauty aesthetics to emerge as well.


It confuses me to see virtual users glorifying Asian men and women alike on TikTok for quarantine entertainment while xenophobia spreads like wildfire throughout cities. Do people lash out at Asian individuals in public for show, for their personal beliefs, or for conformity to what they see others doing? Is the exposure of Asians on TikTok furthering this xenophobia through objectification or is it helping individuals be seen despite the anti-Chinese (and anti-Asian) mentality?


I see the portrayal of Asians on TikTok as worsening the cause of accurate Asian-American representation within the media, because the more that one type of content gets popular, the more that individuals tend to jump on that trend with the goal of becoming “tik-tok famous” and viral. As this pattern grows on itself, content becomes monotonous and cliches begin to build. Individuality is thrown aside in preference to conforming to what people may believe to be trendy. An example of this is the ABG, or Asian Baby Girl, with colored contact lens, heavy makeup, curled hair, low-cut tank tops or oversized sweatshirts and heavy false lashes. New stereotypes about Asian individuals (Asian women in particular) and pre-existing stereotypes become dominant in society and social media. Combine this with the idea that Chinese people bring coronavirus, and you have the ultimate recipe for a two-dimensional approach to Asian-Americans and a complete disregard for Asian individuality.


I am an Asian female who does not wear fake lashes, colored contacts or heavy makeup. I take pleasure in writing about how to actively combat Asian stereotypes in the media. That being said, every person has their own experience and interpretation of their personal identity and may have certain Asian traits because it’s what they enjoy. No one identity is morally superior to another, but individuality should not be disregarded when looking at an entire race. These past two months have taken numerous steps back from any progress society has made so far in eradicating fear of Asian individuals, and I am worried that it may take many years for our community to recuperate and stand up to labels.

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