NewsNov 15, 2022

New research traces the pandemic through stories of the Chinese diaspora

New research traces the pandemic through stories of the Chinese diaspora

Stop Asian Hate Rally in Times Square - women holding images of asian people with words stop asian hate
Stop Asian Hate Rally in Times Square. Photo by: Katie Godowski

By Georgia Sparling

Associate Professor Peiwei Li remembers being on high alert after the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting in which a gunman killed eight people, six of them Asian women, amid a national rise in violence and animosity toward the community. 

“I remember walking outside. I was hypervigilant about if somebody was walking behind me,” she says. “That is what racism and discrimination does to you.” 

Before the shooting, Li and fellow academic Pengfei Zhao had already initiated a multi-year research project to document the experiences of the Chinese diaspora in the United States during and after Covid, the rise of xenophobic rhetoric and the community’s response.  

“Between how the Covid policy manifested and this racialized discourse about the virus, it had specific impacts on this population,” Li says. Yet, she feels Asians are often left out of race discussions and are treated as a monolith. 

“The Chinese diaspora is very diverse, in terms of social, economic, education, the history of immigration, but the discourse often is kind of flattened,” Li says. She includes anyone of Chinese ethnicity living in the United State under the term diaspora. 

Nearly two years later after the pandemic began, the project has grown to include students from both Lesley and the University of Florida, where Zhao teaches. The work has also been bolstered by a $75,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation Racial Equity Research Grants.  

Families first 

Phase one is focused on collecting the experiences of at least 100 ethnically Chinese families — from restaurant owners to academics, city dwellers to suburbanites and children to elders.  

“It is crucial that we listen to individuals rather than broadly categorizing them, which can reinforce racial stereotypes. Often the media we consume operates by generalizing and oversimplifying, which does not permit us to understand the narrative’s complexities. It is imperative to give voice to individuals in these communities to spread awareness and increase cultural sensitivity,” says Art Therapy graduate student Carolyn Brazil.  

Many in the Chinese diaspora have personal stories of discrimination or know someone who does, including the Lesley researchers. 

Counseling graduate student Yongliang Ouyang says he feared for his mother after she experienced animosity on public transportation in Boston where a man yelled at people wearing masks to remove them and then pretended to cough.

There is pain. There is trauma. There is an embodied effect.
Peiwei Li, Associate Professor

“My mom was always wearing a face mask outside to protect her and her family,” says Ouyang. “She was so fearful at that time. After this incident, I didn’t allow her to take public transportation.”Apple Li, also a counseling graduate student, has worked with Chinese international students in Boston for seven years and said they often report racially tinged bullying, both at school and in public. “Go back to China” is a repeated refrain. 

When students come to her with these reports, “I personally don’t know what to say,” Apple says. She believes this project will give her and others in the Chinese diaspora a way to process and respond to their experiences.  

Chinese often avoid conflict and openly discussing negative things, she says. 

“But it is actually happening, and it is affecting the older generations and also younger generations. It actually causes a lot of invisible conflict between generations,” says Apple. 

Peiwei agrees. 

“There is pain. There is trauma. There is an embodied effect,” she says. “How we can engage to make our voice heard, to change the landscape of how the group is being treated?”  

Creating community

The second phase of the project will seek to answer that question while also developing strategies to educate Asian people on the broader issues of racism within their own communities and among other marginalized populations.  

“For me, it's also important to address the issue of solidarity building among marginalized groups, so it doesn't become a competition of who has more pain,” Peiwei says. 

The researchers’ next steps will be to meet with Chinese schools in Florida and Massachusetts where they hope to facilitate discussions on education, children’s experiences growing up in two cultures, ways to engage with other marginalized communities and more.