From verbal abuse to discrimination, travel writer Jennifer Chan shares her recent experiences traveling as an Asian American during the coronavirus outbreak.

As a proud Asian-American living in the melting pot of Los Angeles, I rarely think twice about my ethnicity, but in recent weeks, with mounting reports of the coronavirus outbreak spreading across Asia, it’s become an inherent characteristic about which I’m suddenly feeling more sensitive. A few days ago I was sitting at LAX, waiting to board my cross-country flight, when I received a call from my older brother who was shaken up about an upsetting incident he had just experienced with his family in Las Vegas.

A stands next to rolling suitcase in an airport
Asian travelers report being singled out and discriminated against © Francesco Carta fotografo / Getty Images

He had taken his wife and two young sons out to the movies to kick off the weekend. While crossing the parking lot at the busy shopping center, a group approached them and angrily hissed a hate-filled sentiment right to their faces. 

"These Ching Chong mother f**kers should be wearing masks before they kill all of us," one of them hissed.

It was hurtful and horrifying, and enough to make anyone rage with angry, defensive emotions. Instead, my brother remained composed for the sake of setting an example for his kids, and sat through the movie processing how racism is very much thriving in 2020 – particularly in regards to the coronavirus outbreak. 

It saddened me to hear that incidents like this are occurring today, knowing full well that the Asian community would bear the brunt of this for some time as the epidemic continues to sweep over the world, inciting fear and stirring up hate. I had a sinking feeling that it was going to get ugly before it got better for Asians everywhere. 

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Woman stands next to a coastal wall, with old structures in background
Accustomed to traveling the world, Jennifer says recent fears about coronavirus have caused discrimination against Asian travelers © Aniesia Williams / Lonely Planet

Attention on China shifts elsewhere

Blame is being put decisively on China as the origin of the outbreak, and although I am Chinese-American (born and raised in the US) I admit that I felt a strange misplaced sense of guilt or shame when these facts were repeatedly reported, subconsciously aware that my nationality was being portrayed in the worst light possible right now. 

However, I certainly felt safe and out of harm’s way here in California, in no real danger of contracting the virus myself. Walking through LAX was another story. I found myself among travelers arriving from all corners of the world, many wearing surgical masks, and felt countless pairs of uneasy eyes on me as I navigated my way to the gate. I suddenly realized that even if I felt safe, healthy and unaffected, others perceived me as a threat based on physical appearance alone. 

There’s nothing more uncomfortable than being singled out for something that you can’t control. 

“Not every Asian-looking person is Chinese and not every Chinese-looking person carries the virus,” Tiffany Yu, a disability advocate based in San Francisco, wrote on social media after she was flagged by the CDC at JFK airport for no apparent reason. Although she hasn’t visited China since 2012, Vu was quarantined and tested for the virus anyway. “The coronavirus is a challenging situation for all individuals and families involved, but it does not warrant conscious and subconscious racism against Chinese and Asian people across the world out of fear, blame and harmful prejudice.” 

As I boarded my flight and looked around, I noticed that I really was the target of nervous glances from fellow travelers. Was my mind playing tricks on me? Was I paranoid having just talked to my brother and channeling similar energy by association? I travel more frequently than most, so I can confidently say that this time around, things surely felt different. 

I lined up with my boarding group, and noticed that the passengers queued up behind me had intentionally left some extra space in between us. I surveyed travelers of all ethnic backgrounds wearing surgical masks, eyes darting anxiously as we buckled in for the long flight. The tension was stiff as I took my seat, my mind restless with thoughts. 

Read more: What travelers need to know about the coronavirus as governments warn against travel to China

Should you travel during the coronavirus outbreak?

Should one avoid traveling right now? It’s strongly advised to avoid traveling to China and affected areas, but it’s also important to not let the news cycle or fear mongering get the best of you. A word to the wise: be patient, be empathetic and remember that this, too, shall pass.

“My friend had a trip planned to Bali and Thailand when the height of the coronavirus broke out,” said Mae Murakami, a physical therapist from Los Angeles. “Her grandma was so terrified that she offered to pay for her flights and hotels upfront, and begged her not to go because she was so scared. She went anyway and she’s not worried about it. She’s having a great time.” 

A woman uses her phone to book a rideshare on a city street
Jennifer has experienced an unusual number of canceled Ubers since the coronavirus outbreak began © LDprod / Shutterstock

Canceled Ubers

The truth is, traveling as an Asian right now will likely come with some frustrating roadblocks and annoyances that are as uncomfortable as they are unjust.

I learned this firsthand when I arrived back to LAX after my travels. I summoned an Uber, just as I had done countless times before, and found myself waiting longer than usual to confirm a driver. Moments later, the ride was canceled. 

Confused, I called for another Uber, and after considerable wait time once again, I was canceled on for another time. Moments later, my phone rang and the driver nervously told me that she would need me to cancel the ride on my end so she wouldn’t be penalized. 

Bewildered, I hung up, canceled the ride as instructed and tapped the button to try again for a third driver. I didn’t think to ask further questions, but I’ll never forget the nervous backpedaling tone of her voice when she couldn’t offer any actual reason as to why she needed to cancel the ride. 

I waited at the rideshare lot and watched travelers hop into Ubers with no problem, while I continued to struggle to secure a ride home myself. After another failed attempt, (making that a total of three Uber cancellations), I finally found success when an Asian-American Uber driver came through with no problem. 

The following morning, I stumbled upon reports that Uber drivers are actively warning each other to cancel on all Asian passengers so as not to contract the coronavirus. 

My jaw dropped and suddenly it all made sense. 

Chinese lanterns hang over an empty street in Los Angeles' Chinatown
Chinatowns across the US, such as this one in LA, have reported declining visitors as coronavirus fears have spread © Jennifer Chan / Lonely Planet

Asian discrimination spreads, affecting communities

It goes without saying that the cases of Asian discrimination are surging as we speak. 

According to ABC7, a young boy in the San Fernando Valley was wrongfully accused of contracting the coronavirus and was bullied and physically attacked in his middle school simply because he is an Asian American.

“Many may be quick to assume that just because someone is Asian or from China that somehow they are more likely to be carriers of the virus,” Robin Toma, the Executive Director of the LA County Human Relations Commission told ABC7.

It’s this very irrational and upsetting fear that’s causing a widespread panic and affecting the Asian community in the worst way. 

For example, Chinatowns in major US cities are always popular attractions for tourists and locals alike, but in light of the coronavirus scare, these areas are taking a hit as crowds shrink away, driven by fear and xenophobia. 

According to a report from WBEZ, Chicago’s Chinatown saw a sharp decline in foot traffic and patronage compared to years past for their annual Lunar New Year Parade, and the same effect was felt in Los Angeles.

Last weekend marked the 42nd annual LA Chinatown Firecracker Festival, a fun-filled cultural celebration that always includes a 5K and 10K run/walk, bike ride, musical and dance performances, kids activities and more. While the event usually attracts thousands of local attendees, there was a noticeable decline in attendance this year despite the event committee’s best efforts. 

“We’ve had booths cancel. We had people who always come out to support our festival year after year cancel this time because they’re scared,” said Katy Murakami, co-chair of the festival. “Everyone should know that the coronavirus originated in China, not in the United States. There are very few confirmed cases here, and let’s remember that the flu is deadlier, but people are scared, regardless. It’s just something we’re going to have to get through right now as a community.” 

After all, we’re all in this together. 

Keep up to date with Lonely Planet's latest travel-related COVID-19 news here.

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