An Intersection of New Orleans, Asian Americans, and COVID-19

By Maya Schioppo

Not long ago, the New Orleans police department released a report saying that two Tulane affiliates were pestered by a man asking them if they were Chinese or Japanese. The fellow pedestrian followed the two and continued to ask the question, threatening to shoot them if the answer was yes. This sad but true story is only one example of the many reported hate crimes that have started to erupt across the nation as COVID-19 has become a larger issue.

David Yang, a Chinese American who until recently was a member of the New Orleans community, described how “because we live in an era where every person is talking about viruses and COVID stuff… how quickly over the last couple of weeks, how strangers see you without knowing anything about you has changed. Where before I would greet people and say hi, and people would chat back and say hi… now, no one pauses or stops or anything and when you get on airplanes people step away from you.” While this may not be as extreme as threatening to shoot someone with a gun, these smaller displays of racism are what contribute to a larger sentiment of prejudice against the Asian American population.

Part of this issue is due to ignorance or the labeling of the coronavirus as the “China virus,” but other reasons for such hate crimes are likely due to underlying feelings of racism that are already present. Even in the 21st century, where diversity and inclusion are given special emphasis, it is likely that people harbor racist sentiments without even realizing it.

One woman who spent her childhood in New Orleans, Stephanie Fang, explained this possibility by comparing it to a concept in psychology known as attachment styles. While Fang is not a psychologist or expert in psychology or race relations, she was able to elaborate a little on this idea. Fang explained this by saying “as humans, we are sometimes attached to people who are inconsistently positive and negative to us. Inconsistency makes this need to attach where it’s much less black and white than if somebody were consistently positive towards you or consistently negative towards you.”

There are multiple attachment styles, each of which manifest in ways that encourage certain types of activities with other people, even those who you may not know very well. Usually, these attachment styles develop due to interactions someone had as a child. This psychological phenomenon can help explain why certain people may perceive distinct populations in a certain manner and the actions they perform as a result of that perception. This may help to explain the fluctuating perception of Asian Americans throughout the history of the United States.

Fang grew up in New Orleans but moved away from the city when she went to college. When describing her time in the city as a child, she recalls that “New Orleans has a very specific culture that I think is different from other cities in a lot of ways. Especially the subcultures within like the intersection of socioeconomic class, race, and society which is very prevalent in New Orleans. More so than I’d imagine in larger cities that aren’t as historically grounded as New Orleans is.”

This mix of cultures and lifestyles is part of what many people love about the city. It is believed to be a true “melting pot” and representative of the trying history of the city.

One aspect of New Orleans’ past that is notable for the Asian and Asian American community is the history of the two Chinatowns that used to exist. This small area was rich in culture and familiarity with Chinese and Asian Americans. Churches offered literacy programs for the Chinese Americans who traveled to New Orleans, which is what allowed the birth of the first Chinatown. Unfortunately, the first New Orleans Chinatown met its end during the Great Depression; however, attempts to revive this cultural setting happened during the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, this second Chinatown also died out leading up to the arrival of the 21st century. This rich, ethnic history is something unknown to a lot of members within the New Orleans population and there are almost no remnants of either Chinatown.

The lack of education and representation of this historically rich space and time is a reflection of the general ignorance about Asians and Asian American communities in New Orleans and across the nation. The fall of New Orleans’ Chinatowns represents how the decline in cultural awareness of other ethnicities coincided with the rise of ignorance and racism with Asians and Asian Americans.

David Yang, who now resides in Massachusetts, described this lack of interaction with Asians when recalling his childhood. “In New Orleans, you aren’t really introduced to this Asian American culture,” said Yang. In contrast to Yang’s upbringing in New Orleans, the area where he went to college had a very strong Asian population. Yang says, “when I went to college, suddenly I’m surrounded by all these Asian kids, predominantly East Asian, who are mostly from California and they’re bringing in what I call these subculture interests that I never really knew about.”

Fang could also relate to this experience when describing her unique upbringing. She recognizes that she was fortunate to be able to go to an independent private school in New Orleans and understands her experiences might differ from others as a result of that. However, she too recalls that “it probably took until I went to college and was surrounded by a much larger and more diverse community for me to understand what race meant for me and others…It was probably the environment shift and the change in age and maturity.”

Councilwoman Nguyen is another one of the many people who realize this lack of exposure to and ignorance of Asian Americans causes detrimental perceptions of the community. As a result, she has worked with her district and now believes “we are definitely doing better as a community at sharing our culture, our traditions, and our values with other families.”

Councilwoman Nguyen also focuses on enhancing educational opportunities within her district by starting programs such as Viet. She describes the program “as a way of helping families that are struggling. It’s not just Vietnamese families, it’s families in general because… we all need to work together to help each other. So, Viet was created, and we created different programs that helped families- particularly after school programs that helped with children, to help people file for their taxes for free, and different services where people can come to get access to different resources.”

Programs such as these are only a small portion of the work Councilwoman Nguyen is responsible for. She shared the story of how COVID-19 has affected her work in interactions with people from different backgrounds. Rather than her feeling sentiments of racism, she explained how there was a heightened concern for the homeless population in New Orleans. The homeless population of the city needed to be spread out in order to help ensure the general health and safety of the public. As a result, the homeless population in her district has increased, which raised concerns for people in her community. While this is luckily not an example of racism, and while nobody was threatened or injured, Councilwoman Nguyen does recognize that “people are responding in a time of crisis targeting populations that they may not be familiar with.”

 Luckily, there are still many people who are not being targeted despite the hysteria that has gripped the country. Fang, who now resides in the Northeast, reported that she did not experience a change in the attitudes of people she interacted with.

 Similarly, a woman from New Orleans, Vatsana Chanthala, also reported that she has not noticed a change in the way people treat her because of her ethnicity. Chanthala said “I haven’t felt threatened…I know that [discrimination is] happening…but I have not experienced it. That doesn’t mean I won’t experience it.” She also recognizes that part of this might be a result of her upbringing. She says “I think it’s also awareness and how you carry yourself because for me- I grew up being different…so my self-defense mechanism supports the idea that ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m different and that’s good.”

These feelings of pride about someone’s ethnicity has helped fuel the progression of minority communities, and the Asian American community especially. If individuals continue to have this strong, brave ownership of their identity then they will likely overcome the underlying feelings of racism and prejudice that are still present in society.

The variation in feelings and experiences is a reflection of the different reactions people have to the COVID-19 crisis and how the public interprets the role Asians and Asian Americans play in the spread of the pandemic. While it is impossible to prevent racism, New Orleans, and other cities across the nation can do their best to support and protect members of such a diverse community at this precarious time when there are new and unprecedented challenges for everyone.

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