The Media and Xenophobia: COVID-19 Edition

On March 1st, a tweet by the New York Post stated, “First case of coronavirus confirmed in Manhattan”, followed by a link to the article. The attached picture, however, was a photo of an Asian man in Flushing, Queens. While the caption was referring to the case of a middle-aged woman who had contracted the virus while traveling in Iran, the misleading thumbnail was an example of bias in the media and the perpetuation of racist stereotypes.

In the past few weeks, social media has been flooded with myths, memes, and warnings about COVID-19. Among these antics are tweets relaying incidents of racism, narratives by victims of xenophobia, and plenty of “reputable” sources exacerbating the creation of racial or ethnic connotations. There’s not only an outbreak of the virus, but of racism.

Fear, unsurprisingly, can make people do strange things. Across the U.S., stores are selling out of items such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Besides shortages and a spike in delivery services, anxiety about the virus is also bringing out racist underpinnings, and the result is not pretty. Text, images, and videos on various social media outlets portray discriminatory rhetoric and behavior against certain Asian identities, specifically those of Chinese descent. Reports include “No Chinese” signs outside of businesses in other countries, incidents of harassment in public areas such as subways, and tremendous losses by local Chinese restaurants due to lack of patronage. Luckily, there’s been an insurgence of people and online comments calling out the discriminatory behavior, but the problem still stands, especially when news outlets pander to rumors and xenophobic stereotypes.

During times of crisis like the current COVID-19 epidemic, it’s easy for fear to play into “legitimizing” discrimination against “outsiders” perceived as potential threats. While looking out for one’s own families, communities, and nation can be a good thing, what’s not a good thing is the exclusion or detriment of others. Relying on a sense of white nationalism won’t fix a global crisis, nor the spread of COVID-19 in our own country. By referring to the epidemic as a disease brought by dangerous foreigners, we create a metaphor for invasion; yet, however much we label the virus as an external menace, the truth is that it’s now within our own borders.

As the outbreaks continue to spread, so do panic, politics, and tension. While examining the details regarding the first COVID-19 diagnoses in Wuhan, China, it’s important to separate the facts from personal biases. This isn’t an argument on the origin of the virus, but rather an acceptance of the danger that comes with attaching certain identities to the virus. Racial undertones both demonize and detract the biological facts of the virus. By being sensationalist, the media is perpetuating a false image of the virus, thus causing people to be misinformed and antagonistic towards each other.

As someone who is immunocompromised and struggles to battle even simple colds or infections, I understand your fear of the virus and the unknown; however, as an Asian-American—or simply someone with a sense of humanity—I urge you to be aware and refrain from channeling fear into racism. The enemy is a virus, not the Asians that are being used as scapegoats. Rather than letting your fears and other emotions get the best of you, try your best to gather evolving information about the virus from a credible source. And, as always, wash your hands.

Enjoying Art on a Budget

As somebody who consumes a lot of art and media, I can tell you first-hand that it’s financially frustrating. I’ll hear about a book that I want to read, or an album that just came out, or a new video game that is stunning, and I always have to come to the same conclusion: I can’t have it all. This is easily attested to by the many lists on my phone of things I would love to get, and also by all the items saved for later in my Amazon shopping cart. Perhaps it’s something unique to me, but I doubt it; I think anybody who enjoys art wants something physical that can serve as a reminder of how great a work of art was. In this way, art is inherently nostalgic, and that’s a quality that I greatly appreciate, being a sentimental person myself. For example, the first video game I ever remember playing was Pokemon Sapphire on my brother’s GameBoy Advance; I absolutely loved it even though I had no idea what was going on (to be honest, I’m pretty sure I was stuck in Mauville the whole time because I didn’t know how to progress).

It was a combination of the style, the game-play, and the interesting Pokemon that kept me entertained, but more importantly, the game came to represent a simple time in my life. Eventually the game was sold, as it became obsolete in the face of iPods and iPhones, and I gradually forgot about it. Then a year or so ago I started to feel nostalgic about the simplicity of the GameBoy; it didn’t need internet, the battery lasted for days, it wasn’t cluttered with apps and social media, and it was a reminder of one of my first great experiences with art. Needless to say, I ended up finding and buying a used GameBoy and started collecting the Pokemon games, which eventually led to buying a used DS Lite for the nostalgia of playing Pokemon Diamond and Platinum. However, the cost was adding up, and I started to realize that I had forgotten the point entirely; I never wanted all of the games, I just wanted the one that was sentimental to me.

I learned a lot from that experience, but most importantly that art can be appreciated and enjoyed in small quantities. When I thoroughly enjoy a work of art, I no longer try to buy everything related to it, instead I focus on the one thing that I loved about it and try to find something that will represent that in a nostalgic way. As a result, I have a little bit from everything: the seventh book of One Punch Man (the style of the fight scenes in this book are especially impressive), the first volume of One Piece, a deck of tarot cards, and a poster from the anime Akira, just to name a few. Each of these things I would love to indulge in, but I’m glad I haven’t; it is essentially quality over quantity, which is perfect for somebody like me who already enjoys so much art to begin with. And as far as cost goes, I can appreciate a work of art without having to waste money; for example, if I wanted to own every manga from Akira, it would run me about $170, when instead I can appreciate it and remember how much I enjoyed it with a $15 poster. Obviously this is just my personal philosophy, and some people might think it’s outrageous to only own one book from a series. I can’t say they’re entirely wrong, and in a perfect world I would want the whole series too, but realistically this is what works for me. So consider this an alternative way of thinking about and appreciating art; perhaps you can find the same value in this philosophy as I do.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

The Archetype of the Wayward Muslim Boy

Growing up in a South Asian Muslim community as a girl, I’ve witnessed some of the most cringy and boorish displays of masculinity. The expectations placed on men by their families and cultures are overtly different than the expectations for women. Simply put, it is a fact universally known by young women in the South Asian culture that boys get away with troublesome behavior much easier than a girl can or ever will– moreover, the expectation for a man’s success is much lower than that for a women’s. Is he going to school? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he eating the food his mother prepares him? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he doing the bare minimum any decent human being would do, like saying thank you and greeting visitors? Wow, shabash, beta! Meanwhile, girls much work much harder to prove to our families and communities that we are serious about getting an education and being young professionals in America, and are often told over and over again that we are so lucky to have the opportunities that our male counterparts take for granted. I grew up knowing that I would have to work harder and fight longer to gain the respect that the men in my community already had. This archetype of the hard-working, idealized young woman and the dundering, wayward young man is constantly propagated in Muslim media, and though it is realistic, I honestly can’t help but feel annoyed and constrained by it.

Take The Big Sick for example, the famous rom-com by comedian Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani that took its ranks among Muslim-American media in 2017. The story follows Kumail, who has been perpetually lying to his parents about studying for the LSAT and does stand-up comedy professionally, when he meets Emily, falls in love, and persists at lying to both his girlfriend and his family about his dedication to either. Kumail is clearly torn between two worlds– the world of his “American” life (Emily, stand-up, his passions, etc)– and the world of his family and culture (complete with arranged marriage and expectations to be a lawyer). The movie acts as a clear sympathy-builder for Kumail in the sense that we pity his poor and constrained life circumstances– it seems like the one thing standing between him and all his dreams is his family, culture, religion, traditional expectations, etc. And I’m not saying that these aren’t very real problems faced by men in South Asian American communities– they are. But somehow, this movie subtly degrades two really important facts in favor of winning a “white” audience: 1) the value of culture, tradition, and family, and 2) the compounded problems of women in these communities.

There is one particular scene that I’m still so annoyed by: when Kumail is meeting potential brides by his family, one of the girls asks him if he would like to meet up again. He refuses honorably, saying, “I don’t deserve you.” If this is the case, then why don’t men in these communities work harder and do better rather than seize their privilege by the reins and go to town? And why don’t we, as responsible art makers and consumers, attempt to challenge these notions?

The archetype of the wayward Muslim boy is not only present in The Big Sick, but so much of Muslim media that is put out today. It’s the case in Fatima Farheen Mirza’s bestselling novel A Place For Us, where the male protagonist runs away from home and renounces his religion (to be fair, though, I love this book with all my heart– it’s a very mature grasp on the culture and people). It’s the case in Osamah Sami’s Australian-Iranian rom-com Ali’s Wedding, where a young man lies to his whole community about getting accepted into medical school. There’s a blatantly ignorant son in Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders to contrast his socially aware younger sister. The archetype is real and constantly a tool used by Muslim writers because it reflects some truth in Western Muslim cultures.

I know this is a niche worry in a small subset of American culture, but it’s really important nonetheless– we have to have characters that not only represent the wrongs of a particular society, but also characters that show us that we can do something right. I want to see men that care about their background. I want to see men that are socially aware of the faults and beauties of their culture. I want to see Muslim men and women and all people working together to make their communities places of success and joy in corners of the world that are not their own. I don’t want to constantly see the poor, dundering young Muslim man who feels so torn by his two worlds that he is pitifully forced to lie and hide who he is, while his sisters, who usually have much more grotesque expectations placed on them, slink in the shadows of their traditions. There have been great advancements in the literary field in making diverse art– now we need to curate and be mindful of how the archetypes affect American and American-Muslim people alike.

Thought Contagion: A Call-Out

Nearly nine months after their last single dropped, the British alt-rock band Muse finally released new content, a single called Thought Contagion. The lyrics revolve around the spread of ideas, holding that if an idea gains enough traction, then there’s no way to stop it from invading everyone’s lives, even if they don’t believe it–and even if it’s a bad idea.

Muse is no stranger to heavy-handed lyrics. Their last three studio albums–The Resistance, The 2nd Law, and Drones–relied heavily on current events for their lyrical themes, and their second-to-last single Dig Down included the line: “When God decides to look the other way/and a clown takes the throne….” It’s nothing if not overt.

At first, I was really bogged down by the heavy-handedness of Thought Contagion. Three verses of sentence-fragmented metaphors describing a dismal, apocalyptic scenario are broken by the choruses of, “You’ve been bitten by a true believer…by someone who’s hungrier than you…by someone’s false beliefs.” Not a lot of subtlety there, and it’s wrapped up in a lot of pessimism, such as, “Brace for the final solution.” Yikes.

It’s suffocating to focus on these lyrics. We all know what it’s like to have idea after idea crammed into our heads. It’s impossible to get away from hearing the ideology of people who just know they’re right. Idea after idea after idea, and they’re in our classrooms and homes and offices, in our social media and news and ads, in our movies and books and art. No one could spend a single day without at least inadvertently encountering the ideas of someone who believes they’re right with every fiber of their being. These ideas could be about religion, politics, science, philosophy, sex, art–if someone can have a belief in something for which they’d be willing to die, you can bet they’ll be yelling it loudly from all platforms of social media in an attempt to get it across to even one person.

While there’s nothing more annoying than listening to “someone’s false beliefs,” some of those false believers are getting through to other people. In a country where polarization is a driving force of media, anyone who was neutral on anything at some point has been “bitten” by one side or the other, shrinking the middle ground and forcing both sides of any issue imaginable to resort to extremes, in both beliefs and in the actions for which they call they call.

Muse can do better stylistically than the lyrics of Thought Contagion, but maybe this time they’re not going for poetic–they’re going for a call-out. They’re back on the dystopian track, taking our current situation and stretching it to its logical extreme: if we stop thinking for ourselves and let the momentous force of zealous ideologies take us over, then “it’s too late for a revolution.” Thought Contagion reminds us to take a breath, step back from the inundation of media (as much as we can), and think things through before blindly getting caught up in the storm of shouting matches before the shouting matches turn to nuclear wars.


The 2013 Orientation: The Art of YouTube

I just read an article on CNN about something most everyone knows about YouTube. In my column last week, I talked about YouTube briefly, in the form of the Vlogbrothers, who have attained internet stardom.

They aren’t the only ones. As CNN points out, YouTube is a giant community that, within itself, breeds smaller communities based off of people – vloggers – who have somehow cracked the code and gotten millions of people to watch them – myself included.

On my YouTube, I currently have 46 subscriptions, though I’d be lying if I said that I only watch those channels. My YouTube preference ranges from the comedic (charlieissocoollike, Dave Days, nigahiga) to the oddly specific (BookTube, Feast of Fiction, hankgames). Each day, all the people I mentioned and thousands more get billions of hits, but they don’t do anything but sit at home and make movies.

And yet, I can spend hours on YouTube finding yet another video I have never seen before. Normally, this would seem to make the market saturated – why would I want to listen to Sam Tsui, a musician who gets his income primarily from YouTube using home recordings, when I can go watch the newest Panic! At The Disco music video?

But I think that’s what makes it work so well. YouTube has an audience of the world, and it caters to every single aspect of that audience. Not only that, it caters towards the mood of the audience. I’m bored, so I watch someone parody the life of a college student; I need a break from studying, I look up a new artist I’ve never heard of; I need inspiration for my history paper, so I look up an action video created without the help of Hollywood. The options are limitless, and it makes YouTube one of the most innovative and artistic tools of my generation.

But it also makes me wonder. Where will the next generation fit in? Will they just feed into the YouTube mantra, giving advertisers even more money with every click? Or will YouTube slowly fade into oblivion, just a social network that will be remembered only in name (R.I.P., MySpace)?

I love YouTube, I love the D.I.Y. feel, and I love that it isn’t someone I can’t relate to that is talking to me. I love that they are able to interact, reply to comments, and make videos that relate to the everyday, mundane problems I go through. I love this community, but I think that as both an artistic medium and a creative outlet, it is only the starting point for the internet.