Asian Studies in a Time of Pandemic

AAS President Christine R. Yano

Greetings from lush Manoa Valley in sunny Honolulu! It is a strange time to become AAS President with the cancellation of our Boston conference and the realization of just how important these meetings are in renewing our friendships and ties to each other. We all feel the loss deeply. Many thanks to those who generously donated their conference registration fee to AAS, helping make our continuation as an institution that much more financially feasible. However, well beyond finances, the loss is keenly felt. Many hopes were laid in the months of careful planning, including that of a newly configured local arrangements committee which had created a rich showcase highlighting the best of Boston. Personally, one of my disappointments was not being able to soft-launch the AAS Oral History project—a new initiative to conduct and collect oral histories of Asian Studies scholars, beginning with our organization, but extending in the future well beyond. I will detail this project in a future letter to the membership.

But for now, I return to the present, and to my desk with a view, where everything looks as unchangingly beautiful as always, but nothing remains the same. We are living a nightmarish game-changer. Our days and minds are filled with numbers, projections, fears, Zoom meetings, and the strange newfound experience of time on our hands. We are mostly busy people, who just barely squeeze 25 hours in a day. But I know that now my house has hardly been cleaner, my dog never walked as much. Our at-home activities take place in the name of an enforced pause button in our lives that are anything but paused. Instead we linger through our days preoccupied with the unknowable future amidst wholly new contexts of balancing childcare, home schooling, elder care, stopped research and tenure clocks, and more. People are writing wills; they are baking cherished family recipes as never before. We search for textures that stop clocks and offer comfort that feels familiar. As of the time of this writing, I personally do not know anyone suffering from COVID-19, much less died from it. My heart goes out to those more directly affected. But the threat looms large and captures us all.

That threat has taken on a particularly pernicious turn in the form of anti-Asian racism. Although the pandemic’s epicenter has moved away from Asia to Europe and the United States, some segments of the population still cling on to the image of China qua Asia as holding the blame of its origins. Certain political leaders have inflamed this sentiment by repeatedly calling it the “Chinese virus.” Expectedly, this nomenclature has ugly consequences that call up long histories of yellow-peril racism in the United States and elsewhere. As Cathy Park Hong, Korean American author of Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, says, “Anti-Asian racism has come roaring back with the coronavirus scare.” That racism strikes fear in the hearts of Chinatowns, Japantowns, Little Saigons, Little Manilas, and other Asian American enclaves throughout the United States. The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has led to the creation of a website to track these attacks, Stop AAPI Hate. Newly launched by Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, and organized by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON) and Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), the website acts as a repository of reported incidents in English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Khmer. In its first week (March 19-26, 2020), over 650 reported incidents ranged from verbal harassment to physical assault. And for those who have been targeted, Harvard University has gathered a compendium of legal, social, and mental health resources. It takes a village, and AAS is part of our village of interconnectedness, one to the other.

Those of us who work in the field of Asian Studies should not find anti-Asian hate crimes terribly surprising. Racism—whether in North America directed against Asians or within Asia directed against other peoples—is part of our sociopolitical landscape. Much of the work that we do in our different fields acknowledges, if not focuses upon, this kind of terrain. And yet, it is absolutely worthwhile noting its reappearance, here in the context of a global pandemic.

This kind of violence reminds us of ways in which Asians—including those within the geopolitical scope of continental and island Asias, as well as the many diasporic Asians across oceans and continents—may be bound together, not always by choice, but by fiat, through racism. As long as powerful naming practices label a pandemic a “Chinese virus” and thus lay the blame more broadly by association upon something called “Asia,” then Asian Studies must take note and consider such targeted racism part of our kuleana—a Hawaiian word, meaning responsibility, concern, stewardship.

The Association for Asian Studies connects us through kuleana to Asia. That kuleana may be intellectual, emotional, and personal. Some of us are of Asian ancestry and may embrace kuleana on a familial level. Others may not be consanguineally linked to Asia, but share strong affinal bonds. All of us have committed our careers to scholarship on Asia. I ask that we as Asian Studies scholars extend our kuleana inclusively to the many parts of Asias and Asians globally that may suffer as targets of public fears and real human loss.

In the midst of dire forecasts, I extend my own concern for the safety, health, and lives of yourselves and those you know. I hold utmost respect for the frontline health workers who tirelessly risk their own lives in the process of caring for others. I extend warm gratitude for the personal ties that have been created—in the name of Asian Studies, over virtual and in-person annual meetings (including AAS-in-Asia), in an overworked and highly committed office staff in Ann Arbor, in the regional huddles of friendship, and in the many bonds of collaboration centered upon our zeal for scholarship. My gratitude is heartfelt, undoubtedly heightened by a sense of shared, global crisis. We wash each others’ hands and feet as we maintain the social distance that draws us ever closer. Did saying “take care” ever mean so much?

Take care. Be well.

With gratitude,
Christine R. Yano