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Cathy Park Hong in NYT Mag: The Slur I Never Expected To Hear in 2020

As an Asian-American, I’ve been conditioned to a certain kind of unspoken racism. This pandemic has unmasked how vicious it really is.


Early in February, I read unsupported speculations that a virus ravaging a distant city called Wuhan was due to a Chinese taste for a strange scaled mammal called the pangolin, which resembles an anteater but is cuddlier than its lumbering tube-snouted look-alike. Around that time, during a dinner party, I laughed when a friend quipped: “How do you eat a pangolin anyway? Do you dip its scales in butter like an artichoke?” When I tweeted that same joke the next day, a writer I knew responded, “It’s used for medicinal purposes.” He was simply stating a fact, but I suddenly realized that I could be spreading stereotypes about Chinese people. I deleted the tweet with a reminder to self: Make fun of Asians only around other Asians.

When the virus spread to South Korea, I became worried. I had family in Seoul, many of whom were elderly aunts and uncles most at risk.

“They’re fine,” my mother said. “They never go out anyway.”

I scolded her, telling her that she should be more worried. But if I was so worried, why didn’t I just call and check on them? I did follow a cousin in Seoul on Instagram. Every few days, she posted photographs of flowers that she arranged herself. Throughout the alarming spike of the coronavirus to its eventual dip in Seoul, her Instagram posts remained stubbornly consistent, revealing nothing except for the same artfully arranged bouquets of fragrant white roses, pink peonies and fringed tulips.

When I finally called her, she told me that she bought the flowers from a wholesaler that remained open. She walked 10 minutes to the shop and bought flowers every week or two, wearing an air-filtration mask that she spritzed with sanitizer and dried in the sun after use. Every morning she received text messages of locations where people testing positive had been and avoided those locations. She said she was worried about me. She had heard stories of how Asians wearing masks have been harassed in Europe and the United States. “In Korea,” she told me, “we look at you funny if you’re not wearing a mask in public. We think you’re being selfish.”


Read the whole piece in The New York Times Magazine