March 9, 2020

Foreign Virusanother good excuse to order in Chinese

Alas:

I’m suffering a bout of deep sighs of a sudden. But I’m led to believe they aren’t a symptom of any virus. At least, not directly.

When I moved to Russia years ago, getting the visa was a pain. Part of it involved an HIV test, which I’d never had before, and had no reason to have before. To get and stay in the country, I had to pass.

Several factors explained this policy. At a certain level, the Russian Federation simply aimed to make the American visa process more denigrating. In that they succeeded, on many fronts, though I’m led to believe America maintained its lead, with its own process for visas to the US. But as I learned, mentioning the HIV test offhand to Russian friends and acquaintances, it went a bit beyond tit-for-tat. There were darker aspects, too.

Russia suffers an ongoing HIV epidemic. Causes range widely, but major factors include all the usual: intravenous drug use, unprotected gay sex, prostitution. Add to that the massively compounding factor of a homophobic government broadly resolved to deny and repress HIV testing, and HIV reporting, for Russian nationals. Russia had an HIV problem, but officially, Russia had no HIV problem. Which made Russia’s HIV problem worse.

Rhetorically, once the reality of HIV in Russia became too pressing and obvious to deny, certain rhetorical maneuvers kicked in, as if by muscle memory. HIV was associated primarily with homosexuality, not drug use or unprotected heterosexual sex, and via homosexuality with the West, principally longtime nemeses Western Europe cum United States. The widespread use of intravenous drugs in Russia, the gruesome consequences of the Soviet-Afghan War, the proliferation of prostitution after the fall, and the dire state of Russia’s provinces, all exacerbated by the general collapse of the Soviet state and economy, could thus be papered over in the prevailing narrative. HIV was cast as a foreign plague, a penance for foreign cultural sins, unjustly visited upon a Russia caught in an unnaturally low, weakened geopolitical position. As a foreign problem, HIV bound tightly to foreign enemies. Enemies, presumptively, like me, if you stopped at American.

It was natural, tribal, to pin such a disease on outsiders and antagonists. It was natural, tribal, to require each American visitor, among others, to take and pass a test, to prevent predation on Russian women and further spread of the disease from where it justly belonged, the permissive, sexually tolerant West. These things weren’t true, as thinking people assess truth. And many thinking Russians said so, very candidly, often apologetically. But the same sharp minds would submit in the same breath that they were also true socially, as social truths go. Reality was one thing, popular perception quite another, and the inevitable difference its own, third kind of truth. That’s just how it goes down here.

I have done pretty well avoiding captivity to the news—or rather, the game of talking head fact telephone and raw speculation that has redefined “news” in its own image—about COVID-19. I am trying to operate by my usual rubric: When I hear someone who’s taken responsibility tell me I have a job to do, I do my part. When entertainment people and politicians tell me to be afraid, be very afraid, or to buy their blame game, they can all go to Hell. But anxiety about COVID-19 might be the only thing going more contagious than the actual virus. I have been exposed.

In light of my own experience, one dark thought keeps slithering through my mind: We are going to want to blame this on China, and not in any reasonable way. The worse this gets, the more we’ll want—need—that projection. China remains American’s reigning dramatic Bad Guy, for unrelated reasons. Americans, collectively and individually, are going to want to blame and punish for their fear, pain, and loss. And not just China, of course, but anything, anyone, everything expediently dubbed Chinese. Instinctively, we all want this, at a very deep, common, utterly counterproductive level.

I can only imagine Chinese-American communities bracing for this backlash already, over and above what we’re all going to have to handle. Their history, impressed on me in depth only since I moved to the west coast, primes them for self-defense and self-preservation. They are survivors, their collective memory stained by trauma. In that they resemble other American minorities: blacks, Jews, gays, countless others.

I remember the stories of Muslim businesses hit with rocks, defaced with paint, and verbally accosted by ignorant manchildren after 9/11. I remember the Sikh and Persian businesses likewise affected, without any sense at all. I remember how long it took—years—for countervailing stories of other Americans, often veterans returned from the wars, filling the seats at Afghan and Iraqi restaurants abused by blustering Lay-Z-Boy commandos and bottom-feeding opportunists. I’m sure these memories have occurred to Oakland’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, as well.

I get to feel disappointed by this behavior, by how it reflects on the state of my tribe. Their experience will be very different, on the presumptive receiving end.

How do we prevent this? I’m not sure we can. It’s deeply ingrained. How do we respond to it? Affirmatively. Proactively.

Sound familiar?

I am going to be giving extra thought to my Chinese and Chinese-American friends, the Chinese-American businesses I frequent, and the institutions of the Chinese-American community here in Oakland. I am going to reach out to those I know best, to make sure they know they’ll have my support in time of need. I am going to be on the lookout for opportunities to patronize, support, and be present at Chinese businesses, within the limits of prevailing health advice. If I get tired of my groceries, and just have to order in, I’m thinking chow mein.

Chow mein sounds pretty good right now. If you’re looking for something to do, other than buying more paper goods you shouldn’t, give it a thought.

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