(Photos: Zilja Song)

After the US confirmed its first case of coronavirus on January 21, I received a message from my mom urging me to wear a face mask to graduate school. “You never know who’s riding that subway,” she said, sounding apprehensive. 

I didn’t take the warning too seriously. On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, face masks aren’t listed as a preventive measure along with washing hands, staying home when sick, covering a cough or sneeze, and disinfecting surface areas. A report published by the World Health Organization in late January says that masks alone can’t protect people from becoming ill. 

I was also slightly reluctant, because most of the people wearing masks on the streets are Asian. Wearing a face mask myself would only reinforce the assumption that Chinese-looking people are potential carriers of coronavirus. However, after the third time she asked me if I had gotten surgical masks for myself, I decided to put her mind at ease by visiting a few pharmacies and convenience stores around the East Village. 

“No, we are out of surgical masks. I don’t know when it’s gonna be restocked. You can check back on Monday,” an employee at the Walgreens on Astor Place told me. “Or check with CVS.”

Just five minutes before, I had been informed at three CVS locations that they were out of stock.

After a few unsuccessful trips, I finally resorted to the medical mask that NYU Langone’s health center provides for basic hygiene use. 

But the mask didn’t make me feel protected. Suddenly, during the evening rush hour, a space was carved out around me. People on the street cautiously kept a safe distance as if I was a walking disease. Several times, subway riders eyed me warily. Feeling stuffy, due to either the suspicious stare or the still air around my nose, or perhaps both, I thought about taking the mask off. Nah, I told myself, taking it off in the middle of a train ride would only cause more panic. I rolled my eyes and sighed at the awkward situation I had put myself in. 

As I hopped on the 7 train back home to Long Island City, three people riding the same car were also wearing face masks. One of them, thankfully, wasn’t even Asian. Fueled by a sense of camaraderie, I stood up straight and felt normal again. 

“These Americans think they are so far away from the disease,” two Chinese guys who were wearing masks on the subway sneered. I smiled approvingly.

That night, as I told my mom about the experience over video chat, she paused, and said in resignation, “Fine. When in America, do as the Americans do.”

Surprised by her ready concession, I asked why. She told me about the growing stigma around the people of Wuhan, where the coronavirus is said to have originated, who find themselves stuck as the face of it. Resentment and discrimination fueled by fear of the outbreak has left Wuhan people who traveled to other parts of China stranded, with few hotels or restaurants willing to serve them.

“It will be no time till a new wave of anti-Chinese sentiment springs up in the world,” my mom said grimly. “You have to be careful.”

She’s not wrong. Anti-Chinese sentiments have already spread around the world. Countries in Asia have seen petitions signed by hundreds of residents calling for a full ban of Chinese nationals from entering their countries. Newspapers in countries like Australia and France have published headlines and photos that bordered on blatant racism. A French newspaper’s front page paired an image of a Chinese woman wearing a face mask with big block letters that read “Yellow Alert.”

Still, I didn’t want to believe that it would happen in the US, especially in New York City. I’ve benefited from and come to appreciate this country’s virtues more than its vices during the seven years I’ve lived here. American people around me are generally understanding, reasonable, liberal and open-minded. They look past the skin of a person and don’t jump to rash judgment. 

That is not to say I haven’t experienced unpleasant microaggressions. The US-China rivalry and Hong Kong protests have also made me, a mainlander, feel uncomfortable amid rising hostility toward the Chinese government. But the half-hour of anxiety and discomfort on the subway felt particularly personal. Early speculation that the coronavirus originated from a wet market in Wuhan and videos of Chinese people eating “bat soup” have also sparked racist comments about Chinese eating habits. In just the past week, I’ve been asked twice, at a school social event and at a breakfast food truck, if Chinese people eat “everything that moves.” In the words of Yangyang Cheng, a columnist for SupChina, “A virus does not recognize human borders, but people are quick to draw lines between us and them, paranoia breeding discrimination.”

So far, there have been 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US. On January 31, a day after the World Health Organization declared the epidemic a global health emergency, the Trump administration temporarily barred foreigners who have visited China in the past 14 days from entering the US, effective February 2. A friend of mine who has lived in the US for more than eight years, and had gone to China for Lunar New Year, is now unable to come back.

At the moment, the New York City Department of Health is still waiting for test results regarding two possible first cases of coronavirus. However, the shortage of surgical masks in CVS, Walgreens, and Target stores around the city and online already suggests a growing fear of the virus that has spread to 22 other countries. (There are now over 17,000 confirmed cases; the death toll in China has exceeded 360, and the Philippines just reported the first death outside of China.)

An explosion of news alerts on coronavirus and the 100+ daily messages from family and friends in China and in group chats suggest that I should be taking extra precaution. Several WeChat groups consisting of Chinese residents in Long Island City have warned everyone to be careful; rumor had it that a mom had just arrived from Wuhan and had been living in a certain apartment building in Long Island City.

Yet, every morning, thinking back on that day when people saw my face mask not as a sign of precaution and regard for hygiene, but a sign of “Yellow Peril,” I left the mask at home. 

I think I’ll take my chances.