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April 28, 2020

by Stritch senior Destiny Vang who is majoring in English and creative writing and is minoring in English as a Second Language, shares personal reflections on the social impact of COVID-19. The piece was written for the Nonfiction Workshop course.

I don’t know what day it is in the quarantine. It feels like it has gone on for ages, like I haven’t seen the sun except to go work and come back. I’m not even sure what day it technically started. But I know the stories.

Before there are empty shelves of toilet paper and bolded signs that say “Limit two per family” in front of the stacks of bottled water, I see the trails of panic trickle through Facebook. One girl is a student at UW-Milwaukee, just a few miles from where I live. Classes are still in session, and the teacher tries to reassure the students about COVID-19. She says, “Asians should know more about it” and looks straight at her. The girl shoves her books into her bag and stalks out the room. I like to imagine that she lets the door slam behind her, the sound echoing through the vast hallways. That one of the other students calls the teacher out on her blatant racism and holds her accountable. That maybe the teacher realizes her mistake and finds the time to seek the student out to apologize. In reality, I don’t know the rest of the story. This snippet of anger and injustice is all I get; there is no happy ending. 

A friend from high school posts about her customers asking her to wear gloves before giving back change. Some accept their change and immediately sanitize their hands while they stare at her dark skin and round face. She is Filipino. Not Chinese and not even close to looking like Chinese, but her posts continue the same trend: always a new person but the same old story.

I see pictures on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr – bruised faces and black eyes because someone took out their anger and fear about this pandemic on a stranger on the bus who conveniently looked Asian. Chinese restaurants struggle to break even — and they close when they can’t. When I go to work, I make the food and work in the back. Is it a coincidence that my boss keeps me off the front line? I don’t know, but I don’t question it.

My sister has not stepped outside in weeks. She turns her bedroom into a home office and works from the confines of a house filled with restless and noisy children who don’t even notice when their school goes on Spring Break. She sends her white husband out for groceries and watches one sad Disney movie after another.

My cousin goes to school in Minnesota, one of the biggest areas of the Hmong population. She sends me a picture of how she dresses before she goes out: black leggings, long sleeved-sweaters, enormous reflective sunglasses, and a hat to cover up her dark roots. She has dyed her hair blond, so she leaves that down. But the only sign that she is Asian is the color of her hands and the little bit of face that she shows.

I’m not saying that I didn’t know racism exists, but I’ve never had to face it myself. I’ve never had to watch my loved ones choose between safety and groceries, and I’ve never been more thankful for the white husbands that my sisters chose.

Some people have called us out on our luck, saying that Asians have always been able to “pass” and haven’t had to face racism to the same degree as others. It almost felt like they were saying that we deserve this. That, because they have suffered, we should suffer too. As if our suffering brings something better to this world. As if their pain could be erased if we felt it too.

I prepare a thousand comebacks for when it is my turn. Maybe I’ll cough on them and let their own fears make them flee. Maybe I’ll say a snarky line about white people and remind them that we fought in their wars. Maybe it will get physical, and I’ll have to force myself to walk away before I complete the need to strangle a stranger.

I’m sure that what I’ll actually do is ignore it or pretend I didn’t hear them. Make quick small talk and escape. Continue my day as if I don’t feel like there’s a target printed on my back.

We once had a customer come in, mid-40s or 50s, wrinkles set firmly around the edges of his face. He eyed our crew approvingly and nodded. “I’m glad it’s getting lighter in here.”

We didn’t get what he meant until he left: black people. There were no black people on the shift, and he appreciated that. He wanted that.

I brought the situation up to my boss, and she just shook her head in a “what-can-you-do?” kind of way. “That’s just the way some people are.”

I pressed on. “Could I have kicked him out for that? For being racist?”

“He wasn’t being derogatory. Better to take his business and go on with your day.”

My eyes widened. “How is racism anything but derogatory? What if someone calls me a chink? Can I kick them out then?”

She rolls her eyes. “Calm down. That isn’t going to happen. Stop thinking about it.”

I spend the rest of the shift infuriated, tossing up sandwiches with a lot more thrust than needed and keeping silent unless directly addressed. While she takes orders and hands them out, I seethe about how she can just ignore people who make her own employees feel unwanted and unsafe because they’re buying a few sandwiches. When I leave for the day, I overhear one of my co-workers talking with my boss about how I spent the whole shift crabby.

Crabby. Like I was a two-year-old throwing a tantrum because I didn’t get the toy I wanted when instead I wanted any kind of sign that my boss would protect her employees over her customers.

I’m not a political person. I don’t insult people very often, and I don’t swing words like homophobe or racist very often. But I went home that evening thinking just two words: White Privilege. I knew what it was and what it meant. But to see it play out in real life? To see it affect a person I worked with closely, someone that I once respected and thought to have good judgement and character?

And she is a good person. She works hard to feed her household. She even recognizes that one of her kids has extreme anxiety and tries her best to communicate with him in ways that work with him. For a Boomer, that’s not bad. But even a good person can fail the people who depend on them.

There’s a thing called toxic positivity: it means to reject anything that might trigger negative attitudes or emotions and focusing on the positive. And while this may seem like a good concept on paper, in real life, it squanders the validity of hardships. By not acknowledging the possibility of anything negative, such as racist encounters or shitty customers, toxic positivity grows insecurity and distrust in those who hear it regularly. When someone’s troubles are dismissed so easily, it makes them wonder if their emotions and thoughts matter at all.

Later that year, a customer had a series of drug episodes in our bathroom. He would come in just fine, order the same thing—a single shake, no whipped cream—and use the bathroom while he waited. Sometimes, he would be in there for five minutes; other times, it would be more like 15 or 20. But without fail, he would pick up his shake, eyes bugged out, hands shaky, and sit in the lobby for at least half an hour talking to himself or any poor person who happened to be nearby.

Eventually, a needle slipped out of his pocket on his way out, and we had the proof that we needed to ban him from the store. He stopped showing up for a while, but a few months later, I got a message in our work group chat that he had locked himself in the bathroom, throwing himself against the wall and screaming. Without a second thought, my boss gave them permission to call the police, and he was arrested shortly after. She sent him a “no trespassing” letter and called it a day.

I don’t agree with him doing drugs in our bathroom. But he always cleaned up after himself, and he was always polite. He wasn’t ever a threat, and, at most, he made other customers feel awkward in the same way that the customer who has autism and can’t understand when to end a conversation does. So why him and not the racist bigot? Why not confront the guy who actually made us feel unwelcome in our own store?

Social distancing means that I go to work and the grocery store; that’s it. But I barely even do the latter. I find myself holding my breath at the gas station and making sure I don’t cough when I buy my almond milk. Every step I take is thunder in my shoes. I watch the people who watch me. I walk slowly, carefully. I am extra polite and smile more than I’m used to.

Staffing shortages at work force me to work up front. I tell a man his total in the drive-through window, and he slips on a mask before he gives me the money. I turn away for just a few seconds to grab his change and turn back to the window—his mask is off, and he is chatting gleefully with his partner in the passenger seat. He glances back at me, puts the mask back on, and takes his change.

The mask hides his expression; I cannot tell what he is thinking. But I feel his eyes burn into my back as I grab his food and drink. I turn back to him, and his eyes are still staring at me, as if he can kill the germs I’m sure to be giving him through his eyes alone.

I stop at the gas station on the way home. I check to see if there is any toilet paper; amidst an otherwise fully-stocked paper section is an empty shelf. On my way out, a kind African-American man, young and thin in a black jacket with red trim, holds the door for me. I thank him and walk back to my car, aware of the way that he watches me walk to my car while he gets in his own. My engine rumbles to life; my seatbelt clicks into place. I glance at his car, and, sure enough, he is still watching me, a lit cigarette balanced gently in his mouth. I back out of my spot and feel him watch me as I drive past him to leave.

And as I sit here, pondering how all these stories could go in some kid’s textbook 50 years down the line, I wonder: was he watching me because he was afraid of my germs? Of my Asian descent somehow spreading this deadly, unknown disease to him? Or was he watching because he knew what I was going through? Because he knew what it felt like to walk into a store and have all eyes swivel on you? To feel the color of your skin like a straitjacket you can’t take off? To simply exist and feel like you could trigger something dangerous just by breathing?