During 2020, the big year of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone was cocooning. I did so in my home with husband and cats. The streets were empty. Limited to Zoom meetings and the internet, I found myself dependent on newspapers delivered to my door and television reports about Governor Inslee’s mask mandates and Washington state’s infection rate statistics. What I seemed to want was “the latest” while not truly understanding what was passed on. During this time, I read about or saw images from the Black Lives Matter marches, notices that the summer Olympics would be postponed, announcements of favorite long-time street businesses closing, and weather reports of spreading wildfires. All this went on amidst the 2020 election. Other than brief sound bites, very little came my way in terms of an Asian perspective. Mentally, I felt confined without other knowledgeable people to talk to. My response was often more emotional than logical without substantial evidence to back up generalizations.
After masks and vaccination, how welcoming it was for me as a general reader to consider interpretations in anthropology, food studies, history, and political science that examine COVID-19’s impact upon China, India, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and beyond.
The Pandemic: Perspectives on Asia teases its contents with an outstanding cover image. A photo was taken at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia, by Adli Wahid and consists of Rest in Peace Posters of Dr. Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital and first warned authorities about the coronavirus outbreak. The central image consists not only of different straight-on head shots of Dr. Li, but also renderings in different artistic sketches. One poster emphasizes Dr. Li’s eyes and mask while another uses a negative image of white on black. There are other interpretations and emphases.
To read these 11 essays is to read work supported by references to other scholarly efforts written by academics from institutions ranging from the University of Cambridge to the University of California at Irvine, to Seoul National University and Duke University and others. Each essay has acknowledgements and notes from at least 20 to 35 citations.
As I considered these essays, the mush of my thinking cleared. The Pandemic: Perspectives on Asian offers timely and provocative writing.
One interesting argument from Jaeho Kang in the article, “The Media Spectacle of a Techno-City: COVID-19 and the South Korean Experience of the State of Emergency,” argues that “in view of ‘techno-Orientalism,’ Asia and Asians are stereotypically imagined as technologically advanced but morally and intellectually primitive.” Kang goes on to develop the example of privacy that “would not fit in individual-freedom-based-liberal-societies such as Western Europe and North America. Herein lies a crucial limitation embodied in the conventional views of binaries: individual versus society, private versus public, nature versus culture, human versus machine and so on.”
Another fascinating analysis is Alexis Dudden’s “Masks, Science, and Being Foreign: Japan During the Initial Phase of COVID-19,” where the author analyzes Prime Minister Abe’s fear of losing the chance to host Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Dudden cites literary scholar Norma Field and antinuclear activist Muto Ruiko (“This Will Still Be True Tomorrow: ‘Fukushima Ain’t Got the Time for Olympic Games’”) where the government’s push both before and during the pandemic focused special “attention on the fantastical insistence that the 2020 Olympic torch relay take place as planned in March through irradiated areas of Fukushima regardless of the safety risks involved there.”
Even more troubling is Christine R. Yano’s “Racing the Pandemic: Anti-Asian Racism Amid COVID-19.” Here the author’s goal is to “develop strategies of action for the targets of such racism, as well as for others for whom race-based violence is anathema.” I realized how far damaging language has swayed public opinion and action and appreciated Yano’s examination of language, how terms such as “China virus,” “Wuhan Virus,” and “Kung-flu” are labels that give permission for racial discrimination. Yano followed this up by exploring how the phrase, “Go back to your own country,” is an admonition that establishes the Asian-American experience as “forever-foreigner.” Yano’s answering strategy is to move towards critical empathy by “looking inward” and “looking outward.”
It took time for me to complete my reading because I needed to digest these points I had not considered before moving on. There are other essays for other readers to discover. In the afterword by Kenneth Pomeranz, he notes that he is “struck less by what the pandemic might change than by what it reveals about how the world was already changing” and that “it is easy, then, to imagine a future in which COVID-19, for all the damage and chaos it has caused, largely winds up reinforcing preexisting trends on various levels.”
Two years into the pandemic, the world is still feeling effects and has not yet returned to “normal.” Seeing COVID-19 through these scholarly essays inspires thinking beyond the mundane and stirs contemplation of multiple perspectives.