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Overseas Koreans report discrimination on coronavirus panic

Feb. 5, 2020 - 16:21 By Ahn Sung-mi

A seoul citizen covered up in mask. (Yonhap)

As fears of the new coronavirus spread around the world, so do racist attacks and stereotypes targeting people of Asian descent, with many Koreans overseas reporting having experienced discrimination.
“I am becoming hyperaware of my ethnicity even more these days,” Kim Jung-in, a 35-year-old Korean who lives in the US, told The Korea Herald. 

“I feel like even a little cough or sneeze is eliciting attention at some places I go.”

Another Korean man, who wished to remain anonymous, shared via an online community his experience of being called “a virus” by teenagers on a train in Germany, where has have lived for more than 10 years.

UK-based Korean chef and popular YouTuber Gabie Kook also spoke of an unpleasant encounter at a restaurant in the UK. A waiter approached her table, asking where they were from, citing worries about the new coronavirus. After learning about their Korean nationality, the waiter said, “It’s close anyway, so aren’t you the same?” according to Kook.

Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min also became a target on social media after coughing during an interview.

When the Korean star soccer player, who scored the decisive second goal in Sunday’s match against Manchester City, coughed while standing next to teammate Steven Bergwijn, people took it as an opportunity to speculate sarcastically online. “When he coughed, I felt the coronavirus,” one comment read. Other reactions include “Son is spreading corona,” and “Steven will be infected with the virus now.”

Such experiences are not confined to Koreans.

A growing number of people from the Asian diaspora in Europe and America are facing xenophobic remarks due to the color or tone of their skin, although they may have never been anywhere near Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus is believed to have originated.

The death toll from the new coronavirus, officially called the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCov, is 490 in mainland China, with one fatality in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. There are now 24,505 confirmed cases across more than 25 countries around the world, stoking fears about growing anti-Asian sentiment.

Major institutions are also facing criticism for discriminatory practices.

Rome’s Santa Cecilia Conservatory, one of the oldest and most prestigious music institutes in the world, is under fire for telling students of “oriental” descent -- specifically Chinese, Japanese and Koreans -- not to come to class until they had undergone a mandatory doctor visit confirming they didn’t have the virus.

UC Berkeley, a US university known for its sizable Asian proportion of around 30 percent, is facing backlash after an offensive Instagram post on its University Health Services account.

Last week, the center released a post listing “xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about those feelings” as a “common reaction” to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Please recognize that experiencing any of these can be normal,” the school wrote in the post, including other possible reactions, such as “social withdrawal,” “anger” and “panic.”

Following the outcry, the post was deleted and the school apologized for “any misunderstanding it may have caused.”

People online are calling for an end to prejudice against people of Asian descent, with the hashtag “I am not a virus” circulating online. 

By Ahn Sung-mi(