By Stephanie Lai
An alarm went off in my dorm, I was jolted awake. Hundreds of notifications flooded my phone. I had two days to leave campus and return home across the country, while reporting and editing stories for my school paper. My parents, who recently returned home from China and had not yet finished their 14 day self quarantine, were terrified.
New York City was the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the U.S., and my school already had a confirmed case and one student death. I tried not to panic; I knew reporting would put me, those around me, and potentially my family at risk—but I had an obligation to uphold. We had dozens of stories to get out before I left campus, and as the City News editor, I knew my job would be made more difficult after evacuating the city.
There were dozens of risks involved; even the way I looked was a risk. My long black hair and passable Asian facial features were a warning sign for those around me. As a Chinese student, I noticed the hesitation of those around me to talk to me or even stand near me; that stung the most. As a first generation immigrant, I was used to stereotypes and derogatory terms thrown my way, but seeing my peers actively avoid me was a new dig.
I wanted to put together coverage that would benefit the student body—the same people that were making a concerted effort to avoid me and my Asian American peers. Even walking through the streets along Broadway to meet with sources put me on edge.
And when the time came, I had to navigate through the city to get to the airport. I boarded the 1 train to Penn Station with caution, but apparently not to the extent of those around me. In the crowded subway car, I sat alone on the familiar yellow plastic bench while others stood crowded to the ends, hanging from the metal rails that put you too close to comfort with the person sitting below you—not by my own choice but by the passengers that feared my Asian heritage. I was alone, feared, and singled out.
I had never been ashamed of my ethnicity, but now, my parents would warn me of the pervasive hate crimes targeting Chinese Americans. Only once I returned home, and all of my interviews were distanced, did my fears evade me and I felt some level of security again. The virus has revealed more flaws in the country than simply public health preparedness, racial tensions and inequalities have unraveled as well.
As I prepare for my metro reporting internship this summer, these concerns flood back. And once I begin reporting again, I can’t return home to prevent infecting my parents.
Despite these concerns, I’m still excited to provide a public service for everyone. My understanding of journalism has always been to promote the voice of others, but that was made difficult by people’s reluctance to speak with me. It’s a troubling, emotional time, but I’m confident we will all persevere. I am hopeful this is a stint we can blame on the pandemic, and that in months it will blow over. But for now, coronavirus has kept me and my family sheltered out of an abundance of caution for ourselves and the safety of others. I will continue to chou fan with my mother in the kitchen, I will wear my Chinese heritage with pride, and I will support my fellow Asian American reporters who are on the front lines.
Judge’s Comments: Chinese-American student journalist at the height of COVID in New York. The isolation is not just in our homes, for this journalist it’s what’s in her race. Riding on a train in COVID — people clustered at the other end of the subway car … simply because she is Asian — showing the fear not only of COVID but being socially isolated bring you to her perspective. Well done.