As novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, continues to spread worldwide, global populations have responded with fear, anger, and despair. However, amid these emotional reactions, it is easy to forget the need for open communication, especially on campus. Oberlin’s Chinese Student Association seeks to change that with their program “CSA @ AMAM: Culture, Life, and Family Bonding in the Context of Coronavirus” at the Allen Memorial Art Museum today. Event attendees pre-registered for the program, which is capped at 40 people.
Today’s program is not the first College event related to COVID-19. On Feb. 13, OCSA hosted a candlelight vigil at Asia House to commemorate those who have died from the virus and pray for Wuhan. (“Join OCSA in Coronavirus Support,” The Oberlin Review, Feb. 28, 2020).
College third-year and OCSA Chair Wenling Li, along with College first-year and OCSA member Latifa Tan, observed the worldwide anxiety and sadness surrounding the pandemic. However, they wanted to approach the topic from an angle that focused less on death. They approached the Allen’s Curatorial Assistant for Office of Academic Programs Emma Laube, OC ’17, and Assistant Curator of Academic Programs Hannah Kinney about creating an exhibition about historical diseases and disasters, but exhibitions require years of planning, and Li and Tan needed to address these issues now. Laube and Kinney then suggested using the Allen for a gallery-based program where students could engage with works of art that deal with loss, epidemics, and familial bonds, as well as have an open discussion about COVID-19.
“Everyone has different reactions to these artworks, and you can interpret [them] in very different ways,” Li said. “So we feel like art could be a more indirect but still very meaningful tool for us to talk about the coronavirus.”
More specifically, Kinney explained that artwork is a reflection of the artist, but it is up to the viewer to decide what to take away from it.
“Works of art are manifestations of people’s minds, their hearts and their labor, right?” Kinney said. “They are embodiments of a person or culture of a moment. They are not removed from all the things that were happening at that moment. And so recognizing the human in these works, or recognizing someone else’s thoughts are here for us to contemplate, for me is a really powerful thing about what it means to teach with works of art. … We’re not going to be the voice that’s telling you the history of these works of art, but instead saying this is a place in which we can think about these questions together.”
From a larger selection of pieces, Li and Tan chose four artworks that they believed best fit the needs of students.
One of these works is a lithograph by Chinese-American artist Hung Liu titled “Needlework, from the Corcoran 2005 Print Portfolio: Drawn to Representation.” One issue that Li wanted to highlight was Chinese social media’s focus on male medical professionals working on the frontline over the predominantly female nurses. Hung Liu’s piece features a woman engaged in needle point, an intimate portrait of domestic life and labor.
In “Three Sisters” by Chinese artist Hai Bo, two gelatin silver print photographs feature the sisters side-by-side when they are young, and again when they are older. However, the second photo only has two sisters, and the viewer notices the third sister’s absence immediately.
“You are kind of put in the speculative role a little bit and [are] prompted to think about different modes of remembrance for loved ones,” Laube said.
While these works deal with more universal themes, certain works have become more relevant, and tragically so, in the wake of COVID-19. One of the selected works is a series of immaculate Qing dynasty rank badges, done in embroidered satin and silks. As the museum wall text explains, “In the border around the badge the longevity symbol … alternates with lucky bats. Because one Chinese word for bat (fú 蝠) sounds like the word for good fortune (fú 福), bats were popular motifs for wishing luck.”
Now, these symbols of longevity are being vilified due to claims that the virus originated in bats. Many, including white Americans, are using bats and COVID-19 to disparage Chinese cuisine, eating habits, and even society. Salon reported that Fox News host Jesse Watters made the racist claim that Chinese people are “eating raw bats and snakes” because the Chinese government does not have enough resources to feed its starving citizens — and that this was the reason for the pandemic. Not only is this claim unfounded, but it builds upon outdated history that perpetuates the image of China as a less modernized and “civilized” country than Western nations.
While Watters’s claim may appear to just be a typical overreaction from a conservative news network, this kind of misinformation can be powerful and widespread, and it is easily warped into a tool to spread racism. College first-year Heewon Seo, an international student from South Korea, described how she overheard several white people at the Social Security Office in Lorain County discussing how the Chinese eat bats “over there” with no consideration for the Asian individuals in the room.
“I feel like this anti-Asian sentiment is coming from the dramatic numbers and stories that people hear on the news,” Seo added in an email to the Review. “The Western tabloids do not touch on how different Asian countries are responding to the pandemic. For example, Korea implemented a law for buying masks, as to prevent people from hoarding them. Yes, it is true that the situation is not ideal, but Asian countries are working towards curbing the virus. I hope people take this into consideration before making assumptions and or targeting comments.”
To that point, Li emphasized that blaming the Chinese is especially unproductive because COVID-19 may not even be a Chinese virus.
“The outbreak of coronavirus started in China, but there is no evidence showing that the virus is actually from China,” Li added.
She also further explained the complicated social tensions surrounding bats and Chinese cuisine.
“Bats [were] traditionally implying something positive and something good,” she said. “[But they are] now turning into a totally different implication because they are regarded as where the virus originally came from. There are also very complicated socioeconomic factors with it because bats are considered as a luxury food in China.”
Other students of Asian descent weighed in on how COVID-19 is enabling more explicit anti-Asian sentiment, including how it manifests in Asian and Asian-American people themselves. College first-year Christina Mariani, who is a Chinese adoptee, described how COVID-19 impacted her usual Lunar New Year gathering with other Chinese adoptees. White parents projected their fears and biases about the Chinese onto their ethnically Chinese children, even if unintentionally. They even discussed eating Italian food instead of Chinese, despite it being a Lunar New Year celebration.
“My mom didn’t want me to talk about my internship in Chinatown because she was worried [the other parents] wouldn’t want to be around me,” Mariani wrote in an email to the Review. “Unfortunately, most of the adults spent the dinner talking about the virus … and I saw this fear reflected in their own children who are ethnically Chinese, despite being raised in white families. A lot of them make self-deprecating jokes about them being a virus, and their parents don’t tell them otherwise. So as an older sister-type figure, it really pains me to see them go through that and not have someone around everyday to tell them, ‘Being Chinese does not equal being a disease.’”
While Li emphasized that she felt that Oberlin was a safe space for her — safe enough for her to host the Allen program — racist incidents are not isolated to any one location. Li herself experienced discrimination during her Winter Term project in Chicago, where she was harassed and told to “go back to China” while wearing a face mask on the subway.
With the rapid spread of misinformation and racism, ongoing dialogue is critical not only to curb further incidents, but also to give people an outlet to express their fears, anger, and disappointment. Laube and Kinney hope that the Allen can provide that space, away from the academic buildings on campus, for all students to reflect and rejuvenate.
“I think in this situation where there’s a lot of feelings going on — nerves, anxiety — the museum can really become a place of solace,” Kinney said. “It can create a place where you can come and contemplate, where you can think with other people, where you can feel with other people. … When the Chinese Student Association came to us, it was clear that they needed a space to have this conversation and to process these emotions, and the museum is a unique place to do that.”
Above all, despite pervasive fear and feelings of helplessness, no disaster is a reason to assign blame on anyone.
“Just be nice to everyone — the virus isn’t an excuse for racism,” Seo wrote. “Nothing is.”