A roundtable with Columbus residents Philip Kim, Esther Myong Hall and Sharon Kim

In late March, as the coronavirus spread and Ohio entered into lockdown under Gov. Mike DeWine’s “stay at home” order, Philip Kim, likely best known to Alive readers as the bassist in Connections, posted to Facebook about one silver lining to life as a shut-in. “Guess one good thing about being quarantined at home is that it dramatically lowers the chance for me to experience COVID-19 racism IRL (in real life),” wrote Kim, whose father lives in South Korea.

Though made at least partially in jest, the post is based in a reality that Kim said has hit home particularly hard in recent months. In late February, Kim’s father made his annual trip from Korea to Florida, just ahead of more extensive travel restrictions being put in place. Now, in addition to concerns his father could be at risk for contracting COVID-19, Kim said there’s growing anxiety he could also be subjected to a racist attack while stateside, with the FBI recently warning of the potential for an increase in hate crimes directed against Asian Americans. 

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that the novel coronavirus likely originated in Wuhan, China, Asian Americans are not responsible for its spread. Regardless, Republican leaders, including the president, have pointedly and repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Wuhan Virus,” the “Chinese Virus” and (shudder) “Kung Flu,” even as Asian Americans have increasingly reported being physically and verbally attacked.

Due to these concerns, Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership (OPAWL) recently issued a public letter signed by 149 Ohio organizations and more than 1,200 people, including 20 elected officials, urging lawmakers “to take a stand against the increase in racist attacks and discrimination towards Chinese and Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.” 

Under these circumstances, Alive recently conducted an email roundtable with Philip Kim, consultant, seamstress and former Yarn & Haberdashery owner Esther Myong Hall, and Cleveland-born Sharon Kim, who moved to Columbus in 1997 to attend Ohio State and returned to the city in the fall after nearly a decade spent living in New York City. What follows is an edited, condensed version of the email exchange.

When did you first hear about the coronavirus, and then at what point did you start paying closer attention to its spread?

Sharon Kim: I first heard reports about what was happening in China in early January. I started paying closer attention in late January/early February, specifically because of news coverage on Nextshark (this is an Asian American and Asian news site).

Philip Kim: My wife is a PhD student in Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology and works in a virology lab, and she was tuned into what was developing, so we had casual conversations about it [in late December/early January]. I started paying more attention in late January … [and] I was fully invested by mid-February, because my father lives in South Korea, and that was around the time the virus started to explode there. … My father was slated to make his annual trip back to my parents' residence in Tampa, Florida, in March … but we were afraid he might not be able to fly out of the country, so we asked him to come back earlier.

In retrospect, for some reason that I'll chalk up to American hubris, I just assumed that my father getting to America would solve everything. … I had no concept at the time that the virus was already here in the U.S. and spreading rapidly, and that we'd be locked down within a matter of weeks. As [the virus] progressed here, I realized that perhaps it would have been better had he stayed in South Korea.

Esther Myong Hall: The first I officially heard about it was about two weeks before the Arnold Sports Festival. My Muay Thai gym was ... hosting a few fights at Arnold, so we were getting emails from [organizers] about developments and changes. ... I knew there was a bad strain of "flu" going around maybe as far back as February, when I traveled to Las Vegas to visit my dad in the hospital. I wore a mask [on the trip].. It's a common practice whenever I go to visit someone sick, in case I have something I'm not aware of.

The virus has been accompanied by a rise in violence and xenophobia directed at the Asian American population. What effect has that had on your state of mind amid the pandemic?

Sharon: These anxieties and feelings are nothing new and feel very familiar. I've experienced racism and being “othered” my entire life, but the difference is that it's ramped up to 11 in terms of being hypervigilant, especially when I'm out in public with my kids. [San Francisco-based writer] Chanel Miller said something in an interview that really resonated with me, about how these racist incidents over a lifetime, both micro and not so micro, were never something you would set yourself on fire for, but collectively these things serve to put us in our place, and that this place is not one of respect or power. That's especially clear now. 

Philip: I made a joke on Facebook about how being quarantined means less chances for experiencing racism in real life, which I think plays into the adage "It's funny because it's true." I think that it also brings to the forefront how sometimes race issues are dominated by black and white, and that oftentimes the experiences of Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and other people of color are left out or pushed aside. This [coronavirus] issue brings the racism against Asians that is oftentimes a side note into full view. My state of mind is helplessness on behalf of many Asians that will face discrimination and racism because they don't have as much privilege as I do.

Esther: It's made me both really sad and angry, and a bit apprehensive to go out to do household errands like going to the grocery store. Nothing has happened to me directly, but close friends of mine in NYC and Chicago have told me of some negative interactions they have had.

What kinds of things have you or your family members and friends experienced in recent weeks?

Sharon: Thankfully, I haven't experienced anything overt in the last few weeks, but I have also been mainly sequestered with my family because of social distancing. I worry about my parents because they are elderly, but they seem less worried about things. Honestly, I don't know if they would tell me or my brother if anything racist happened to them unless we asked them.

Philip: I’d have pretty much the same answer as Sharon. I would add that in the comments of the tongue-in-cheek Facebook post an Asian friend wrote, "Yes, but also the amount of times I've faced racism online..." I've seen many posts and comments online that are triggering, and which do have a big impact. … That kind of cyberbullying or cyber-racism can be even more difficult, since it takes place in that nebulous, online world, and you can't directly interact with those people. But it definitely still affects you.

Esther: Thankfully, I have well-informed, educated and open-minded people in my life. … I did have a weird experience where a friend at work tested positive for COVID-19, and I when I told someone else I knew, a non-Asian, [their] first question was, “Well, was she Asian?” It really threw me off. I replied, “No. She’s white. And you’ve recently been to the medical surgery office where she works.” And that was the end of that conversation.

Are these things that you had experienced previously in your life? 

Sharon: I've absolutely experienced these things throughout my life, My first memory of racism is from when I was 4 years old.

Philip: Every person of color has experienced this throughout their life and will continue to experience it. You experience it directly and personally growing up when classmates call you "chink," and you see it played out in popular culture, in movies and tv shows. It is ingrained from every level of experience. It is something you accept early on as being part of this reality that won't go away.

Esther: When I had the yarn store, people would come in and walk up to the oldest white lady in the store and ask if she was the owner. … I grew up in Columbus and don’t have an accent, so I’ve had people meet me in person for the first time after we've talked on the phone and [express surprise] to see an Asian person. I think the worst was when I was teaching Continuing Education at CCAD [and] they only used my married name, so people were expecting a totally different person when they saw their teacher’s name was "Esther Hall." One time, a student actually came up to me after class and said, "Thank god you speak English. I was worried I was going to have to deal with an accent for all my classes.”

Are those tensions in some way heightened now? Do you experience anxieties doing day-to-day tasks where maybe you didn't before?

Sharon: What we are facing creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in people, and it's easy to look for and target a scapegoat. It's predictable and part of our American history (see the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor; the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982; I could go on and on). I've always been aware of my surroundings and people when I am out in public. This is so I'm not caught off-guard when something happens. Like I said before, this all feels familiar but more intense as of late. 

Philip: For me, yes, I have great anxiety about day-to-day tasks. I think that there is a heightened sense because we are dealing with a very real life or death situation. When North Korea was at the forefront of the news, I felt some sense of anxiety based around my race, but it was more abstract. This is absolutely more of a direct threat to people.

Esther: I am an early adopter to wearing a mask, and I’ve found that lots of people keep their distance from a person wearing a mask, even more so an Asian wearing one. There are for sure anxieties about going out where there might be people, so I've given my husband all the privilege to go out to the grocery store, or if I know a friend or neighbor is going someplace, we [arrange] a trade for food or the masks I've been making.

What was your reaction to Trump's insistence at calling it the "Wuhan Virus"? 

Sharon: My initial reaction was, "Well, this is going to be bad," but it was also no surprise. It felt inevitable, and I was surprised he hadn't been using this language from the beginning.

Philip: I think that he calls it "Chinese Virus" far more often than Wuhan Virus. And my reaction is anger. Whatever excuse he has, the end result is an increase in racism and discrimination, and, even further, racist violence and hate crimes. … What is most terrifying is the trickle down effect it has. When a random person on the internet calls it the Chinese Virus, I'm not as upset or worried. When the person with the biggest platform in the world is spewing this kind of racism, then it's absolutely scary. His words have a powerful effect, and they can change how history proceeds. 

Esther: I was livid though not surprised, because he hasn't been the most charming or politically correct leader at any point during his presidency. It was like he didn't know the answers and didn't know what he was planning, so it was easiest to make a scapegoat and try to deflect attention.

What effect does the president embracing that kind of terminology have on how people of Asian descent are viewed within the country? What effect did it have on you?

Sharon: It's the same effect that it's had for everyone who has been on this merry-go-round of racist rhetoric and scapegoating since well before the 2016 election.  But it's not like Trump was elected and suddenly racism showed up in this country. … I think it's also really important to acknowledge and understand that because this country allows anti-Blackness to run rampant and unchecked, all of us suffer for it. Yes, even white people. It's all connected.

Philip: The U.S. has a long, difficult history with Asians and Asian Americans. One important thing is that the Asian community is so diverse, not a monolith, and so embracing that kind of terminology instantly groups all these cultures into one hollow word: "Chinese." What I mean is that it goes to the root of racism -- generalization based on appearance. I'm Korean, not Chinese, but I know that people don't know that and don't see that. They just see Asian, which in this heated environment equals Chinese. And another layer is that I'm Asian American. No one knows my history, but because of narratives and language that people in power use, people fill in the gaps and make assumptions, which are entirely out of my control.

Esther: It just further drives the idea that the U.S. is not for everyone … and makes it feel less and less like a country that is safe for anyone who isn't white.

What can people do to help counter the things that the Asian community is going through right now?

Sharon: If you witness something happening, and it’s safe to do so, say something. Or even just physically stand next to the person being attacked. Speak up when you hear people making jokes or saying racist things. Check in with your friends and let them talk to you about their fears and anxieties. Support them. BELIEVE them. And have these conversations at home about why this is wrong and harmful with your family and friends. You don’t have to have the answers, but it's important to engage in this conversation, to keep trying to expand your understanding of racism.

Philip: Everything Sharon said. People need to continue to work on their subconscious biases (myself included) and fight urges to generalize and fall into racist language and frameworks. That takes time and experience. We need to be out there interacting with people who are different from us, to learn about their cultures and their histories.

Esther: You can also help support small businesses that are Asian owned. Talk up not that they are Asian, but the amazing service or food. … I appreciate that many of my non-Asian friends have been responsive to the backlash and have made an effort to order takeout meals from Asian restaurants. … Also, just be a good person. Don’t treat someone differently because of their name or skin color, or because they have an accent. … This virus doesn't see race, so why should we?