‘Are you sick?’ For Asian Americans, a sneeze brings suspicion

(David Kasnic/The New York Times) A person walks in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, on Feb. 12, 2020. Though there are only a few known cases in the U.S., the coronavirus outbreak has left some Asian-Americans feeling an unsettling level of public scrutiny.

Chicago - Strings of lanterns in festive red and gold swayed high above the streets in Chicago’s Chinatown, but few people strolled the sidewalks on a recent afternoon.

At Slurp Slurp Noodles, tourists were not filling the usual tables for lunch, a waitress said. A school crossing guard had stashed a face mask in her pocket, ready to slip it on when her nerves began to fray.

The mysterious coronavirus outbreak has so far largely spared the United States, with only 15 confirmed cases across this country, even as the virus has rapidly spread around the globe and killed more than 1,100 people, most of them in China. Most Americans have gone about their lives, confident that they have little to fear from an epidemic that has mostly been felt abroad.

But for small pockets of people — those who come from China or travel there frequently, and health workers who are charged with battling the virus — life has been upended. Hundreds of Americans who were in China are now marooned in anxious quarantine on military bases. And many Asian Americans in the United States have felt an unnerving public scrutiny, noticing that a simple cough or sneeze can send people around them scattering.

“Instead of ‘Bless you’ or ‘Are you OK,’” said Aretha Deng, 20, a junior at Arizona State University, “their reaction is an instant state of panic.”

Reactions to the coronavirus outbreak have been a study in contrasts. On college campuses, classes and parties continue as usual — except for students returning from China, who have been asked to isolate themselves for two weeks. City leaders in Chicago and New York made a point of visiting those cities’ Chinatowns last week, encouraging visitors to patronize restaurants and shops where business has suffered.

Chicago, home to the nation’s busiest airport, sounded alarm bells last month when a woman contracted the virus after traveling in China and passed it to her spouse, the first person-to-person transmission in the United States. Even after the couple recovered and was discharged from a suburban hospital, signs of worry throughout the city have remained: Travelers at O’Hare International Airport seemed to be wearing more face masks than usual, and in Chinatown, on the city’s South Side, businesses have posted signs forbidding people who have recently visited China to step through the door. (Some Chicagoans have grimly noted on Twitter that an HBO adaptation of “Station Eleven,” a 2014 postapocalyptic novel about a world ravaged by a global flu pandemic, is currently being filmed around the city.)

In San Francisco, recent immigrants from China said they were worrying about the very real health threats for loved ones still there, while encountering the fears of others in their own daily lives in the United States. Yihao Xie, an environmental researcher at a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, traveled back to the United States from his hometown of Lanzhou, China, early on January 30 — narrowly beating the shutdown of airline travel.

Although Lanzhou is far from Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak, his co-workers in the United States thought it best for him to stay home from the office for 14 days. He said he understood.

Since then, he took a walk in a nature preserve near his house to calm himself. At the grocery store, he said, he felt the eyes of strangers appraising him.

“A few folks were giving me looks,” he said. “I don’t think they were malicious or hostile, but, ‘Why are you wearing a mask — are you sick?’”

Robert Li, a resident of San Francisco, was browsing phones at a computer store last week when he overheard an employee talking with a customer about the outbreak. “‘Of course, if you eat raw bats, you’re going to get coronavirus,’” he recalled hearing the worker saying.

“They were basically making fun of Asians,” said Li, who is ethnically Chinese. “This is part of a racial trope that Chinese people eat everything.”

Immigration from China was once effectively banned under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first anti-immigrant law directed at a specific nationality.

The Chinese population in the United States began to grow significantly after 1965, when restrictions on immigration were loosened, and it exploded after 1980. At that time, fewer than 500,000 immigrants from China lived in the United States; now there are close to 5 million, primarily concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, California, according to the Pew Research Center.

News of the coronavirus outbreak comes on the heels of a trade fight with China that already had created uncertainty and economic worries for some.

“If you are already conditioned to fear China or Chinese people, this gives you another reason,” said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights organization in San Francisco that has called on California agencies to arrange hotlines to collect information on bullying or discrimination related to the virus.

“Disease is a really powerful way to turn one group of people against another group of people,” he said. “Historically, disease has been a really fast way to ‘other-ize’ a community. It’s a tricky balance because we also don’t want as a society to minimize public health concerns.”

Around the nation in recent weeks, health officials have issued warnings that walk a delicate line: trying to protect the public without prompting needless alarm and xenophobia. Since January, local, state and federal health officials have repeated a single message: that the risk of contracting coronavirus in the United States remains low.

“Ethnicity does not influence transmission of the novel coronavirus,” Jeanne Ayers, a Wisconsin health officer, said last week after announcing that a resident in Madison, the capital, had contracted the state’s first case of coronavirus. “It is travel history and direct close contact with a case,” she said, explaining how medical officials believe the person was infected.

So far, the coronavirus outbreak has largely been contained by federal authorities’ decision weeks ago to sharply curtail flights from China and to place the small trickle of travelers who had been there recently into two-week periods of quarantine on military bases or isolation in their homes.

Americans in quarantine said they were ambivalent about their confinement. Some said they were bored and restless, increasingly anxious and lonely, but also understanding of the public’s fears.

Last week Jeffrey Ho, an auto mechanic based in San Bernardino, California, returned from Hubei province, where his wife’s family lives, on a flight organized by the State Department. He and more than 170 fellow passengers from Wuhan are now being held in quarantine on Travis Air Force Base, northeast of San Francisco.

On the one hand, Ho said, he does not blame people for fearing contracting the virus.

When he was in Hubei province, the center of the outbreak, the few people who wandered outside generally kept their distance from one another.

“They are fearing for their lives,” Ho said. “People were suspicious of anyone who left their apartment building.”

On the other hand, he said, fear of the virus in the United States is tinged with racial discrimination. “I feel like I could be potentially targeted, too,” he said.

Last week, Eileen Wong, a business consultant from New York whose parents are from Hong Kong, boarded a packed train in Philadelphia with a colleague and stood in the aisle for the entire 90-minute journey home.

A woman seated nearby looked up from her phone and gasped, Wong said, when the woman spotted Wong and her colleague, who is also Asian American.

“She said, ‘Oh my God!’ and immediately covered herself with her jacket,” Wong said.

Wong’s colleague looked down to see the woman type into Google: “How deadly is coronavirus?”

In a mix of ethnicities in Manhattan, where Wong lives, she never thought of herself as sticking out.

“I grew up here; I don’t have an accent,” Wong said. “You’re American — why would that happen to me?

“It was eye-opening for me,” she said. “We weren’t showing any symptoms like sneezing or coughing, so it was just based on looks.”