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My Fine Line of Identity

by Geneve Lau

The COVID-19 pandemic affects each of us differently. For some, it has created financial hardship, especially if you had a job that wasn’t considered essential and you aren’t able to work from home. For others, it has been a disappointment; study abroad trips cut short, graduations canceled or moved online, special memories forwent. For me, it was a combination of multiple things, but I could summarize them generally by saying it was a revelation

Some required contextI was supposed to study abroad in Shanghai, China this semester. About a month before I was supposed to board my flight, the first case of the virus was reported in Wuhan, China, and quickly spiraled out of control. As my program was subsequently canceled, I headed back to Boston to start my spring semester, differently than how I had expected, but I was still optimistic.

This all changed very quickly as the virus began to spread rapidly and furthered its reach. For most Americans, the virus didn’t exist in their minds until the end of February or even the beginning of March, but for me, it was there from the middle of January. While on one hand, I could relate to those who felt like this virus was a totally new concept and a new problem when it finally reached the U.S. On the other hand, I was also able to see the other side, because the subject had already circulated around my house for at least two months prior. Having family in China meant that we were already aware of the severity of the situation beforehand while others around us were still going about their normal lives, flying all around the world, not having safe hygienic practices, and gathering in large crowds— all things that contributed to the extremity of the virus in the U.S.

The other aspect that piqued my awareness of COVID-19 is that I am ethnically Chinese. In addition to this meaning, I had more knowledge of the situation at the ground level in China when COVID-19 first started, it also meant that I would be subject to countless experiences of xenophobia and racism. Although I never lived in China long-term and was born in the U.S. (I’m a Chinese-American), I still related to the attacks on Chinese people. From President Trump calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” to people openly admitting to boycotting Chinese restaurants, I found myself defending a country that I shouldn’t have to hold a passport in to feel the unfair treatment. From reading about people who were attacked on the street for their ethnicity, to the man in NYC that had a stroke on the street and no one gave him CPR because they didn’t want to “contract the coronavirus”, to someone I considered my actual friend believing the conspiracy that the origin of the virus came from Wuhan as a bioweapon, I was shocked but awoken again to the inherent racism in this country. 

Racism has always been buried deep in the psyche of our culture. I found myself yet again at a threshold, where I realized that I had lived so much of my life in ignorance, and now was presented an opportunity to take a stand for the hatred and ignorance that I will not accept.

Class and hierarchy were always things I was aware of and claimed that I understood fully, but it wasn’t until the stimulus package details were revealed that I recognized how truly intersectional these can be. My parents are restaurant owners. They didn’t attend an institution of higher education in the United States, so I am a first-generation college student by definition. I was shocked to find out when I came home that my parents had closed the restaurant for the rest of the month, or however long the federal social distancing order and my own state’s stay-at-home order would last. This had never happened before. My parents only took a few holidays off (Thanksgiving and Memorial Day so they could rent a RugDoctor from Albertsons and clean the carpets in both our house and the restaurant) Christmas, and a week or two to take me somewhere over the summer. If my dad was sick, he would still go to work at the restaurant because he was (pretty much) the only chef, so without him, there wouldn’t be someone able to cook food. I became scared and worried about how my parents would be able to make an income, especially considering I still had school to be paid for, and let my mom know about the stimulus checks as soon as I saw the New York Times article. 

The reaction I was met with shocked me. My parents were virtually unconcerned about not having the restaurant open during this time, and let me know that finances would not be an issue. This followed with a prompt payment for my study abroad program in the fall. I was under the constant idea that because I was a first-generation college student, and because my parents owned a small business, that we would be hit the hardest, economically.

I quickly realized that the mere fact that my parents didn’t work at a corporate job like most of my friends’ parents did growing up did not mean that I was not privileged in other ways.

To have your parents not working for a month or more at a time and tell you that there is no financial loss is a privilege. I recognized how blind I had been before, and how although I was not like the wealthy people I knew, I was also not in economic turmoil. I was dancing on the threshold. I also came to the realization that this privilege was not new, but had been there all along. A person I went to high school with asked recently “honestly how do you afford your school? My boyfriend and I want to move to Boston and I want to go to grad school at BU but looking at the tuition it’s just so hard to believe…” and I realized that not once in my college career did I really think to myself, “This is a lot of money that most people aren’t just able to fork up easily in a lump sum.” I had been so consumed with the idea that “everyone around me pays this much” that I had taken it as normalcy.

COVID-19 brings forth a lot of opportunities for people to reclaim hobbies and talents: cooking, drawing, dancing, and more. It was also an opportunity for me to reflect on how my identity is so fluid, something that changed constantly, in each social scenario and how I have to be aware of the things I took for granted and not be so quick to assume. I sometimes look back and almost laugh at how I truly thought, when this virus first emerged in January, that it would be contained in two weeks and never leave China. Now it is the only thing I have talked, read, and worried about for the past month. And no end is in sight. But, regardless of when this ends, I know one thing for sure, this reflection on my lifeand my identityis one I won’t forget long after the outbreak ends. 

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