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Asian Americans In Kansas City Say COVID-19 Is Bringing Out Racists And Internet Trolls

Adeta Chareunsab
Adeta Chareunsab, a sophomore at UMKC, said she started getting harassed online about the coronavirus weeks before the first confirmed case in the U.S.

The coronavirus outbreak finally spread to the Kansas City region last month, but local Asian American residents say they were feeling the global pandemic’s effects long before that.

Adeta Chareunsab, a sophomore at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said she began facing harassment online weeks before there had been any confirmed cases in the U.S.

“I made a comment about how the coronavirus shouldn't be an excuse to be racist to Asians. Then some guy commented, ‘Maybe if you stop eating bat soup then it wouldn't have happened,’” she said.

Anti-Asian backlash

The first cases of COVID-19 began appearing late last year in the Wuhan region of China. Soon after that, Chareunsab, whose parents immigrated from Laos, says she began seeing racist tweets blaming Chinese people for the spread of the virus.

One particular flashpoint for Chareunsab was a video that went viral in January showing a food blogger eating a bat as part of a soup dish. (The video was actually filmed in the Pacific island nation of Palau in 2016.) Chareunsab says she saw Twitter users blaming the woman — and Asian culinary tastes and traditions — for the outbreak. That’s why she says she decided to speak out.

“I just didn't think it was right to say racist things about that. A lot of different countries eat different types of animals. Just because it's not a part of our culture doesn't mean we should make fun of it,” said Chareunsab.

While she still sees racist tweets online, Chareunsab says she’s now more concerned about potential attacks and real-world violence against Asian Americans.

The FBI reported that crimes against Asian Americans were already on the rise before the pandemic, and the agency says it is bracing for a surge of hate crimes related to the spreading coronavirus.

In Texas last month, three members of the same Asian American family, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, were stabbed, suffering serious injuries. The suspect reportedly said he stabbed the family because he thought they were Chinese and were infecting people with the virus.

There have been other reoprted physical attacks against Asian Americans since the pandemic started, including in New York and California.

“We don’t have the coronavirus.”

No reported hate crimes have been reported in the Kansas City metro, but some members of the Asian community here say they’ve felt uncomfortable going out in public since the outbreak began.

“When all this happened, I just didn't quite know how to handle myself, to be honest, because I stick out like a sore thumb around here,” said James Chang.

Credit Waldo Thai
Waldo Thai
James Chang recently handed out a to-go meal for a customer outside his restaurant Waldo Thai, which has shutdown dine-in service amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chang is Chinese American and the manager of Waldo Thai, a restaurant in south Kansas City. He grew up in the Midwest but says he has been hesitant to leave the house since the virus arrived in the area.

“I still have to venture out. I still have to run errands and I still have to go to work. But I'm a bit more cautious about my social interactions with people,” he said.

PaKou Her is the lead organizer at the Kansas City-based consulting group Tseng Development Group. She identies as Southeast Asian and says the first time she ever felt self-conscious as an Asian American in public in Kansas City was this January, just as cases of the coronavirus were exploding in China.

Her says she was shopping at Ward Parkway Center with her family when her 11-year-old daughter, who was recovering from the flu, began coughing. That was when she noticed another shopper become agitated.

“I turned to her and I said, ‘We don't have the coronavirus. We had the flu.' And she kept saying, are you sure? Are you sure?,’'' said Her. “It was our first experience in this environment where I was very aware that the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is very different on Asian Americans.”

“I am American.”

A coalition of groups led by the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council launched an online reporting forum in March for Asian Americans nationwide to report race-based violence. That forum has since received more than 1,000 complaints.

In a news release, the Council said the spike in hate crimes is fueled by statements from public officials, like President Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” early on in its spread in the U.S.

Her says she was watching one of Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings when she heard him use the term for the first time.

“The minute I heard the president say that I turned to my husband and I said, ‘Watch what's going to happen. Watch what's going to happen. Everything is going to start turning against Chinese people,” she said.

Chang, the manager at Waldo Thai, says he shouldn’t have to prove himself more than any other American during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I am about as American as anybody can be. But at the same time, it's that fine balance to me of yes, I am American. Yes, I love this country. Yes, I am patriotic. But at the same time, my background is Chinese,” he said.

Chareunsab, the UMKC sophomore, continues to argue online with people are she says accuse her of prioritizing Asian Americans’ experiences over world health. But she says she doesn’t see why she can’t be concerned about both.

“Everyone's getting affected by this. We shouldn't call out Asians because it can spread to anyone, not just Asians,” she said.

Jodi Fortino is a news intern at KCUR.

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