Thoughts From Asian Artists in Europe During COVID-19

As stilted as this may sound, this Lunar New Year was marked by the COVID-19 outbreak for my family. My mother took one of the last planes from Beijing back to Paris, while my grandmother was to stay home indefinitely. As they gathered as much information as they could at the dawn of the epidemic, streets became dystopically empty in the capital and many households had begun stocking up on food. With each day came new updates, questions, and worries. This kind of abstruse made me feel disconnected from one of the places I call home. It was an aberrant case of FOMO, in which I was anxiously learning as much as I could from afar while also recognizing that not everything can be/is being reported. And that’s also one of the downsides which come with being part of a diaspora: watching the world around you keep turning, swiftly and effortlessly, knowing your home someplace else is struggling to get by. It’s living inside a sphere, immune to the grapple taking place in another.

While the main reports on the infection still came from texts by my family, the only time I had actually heard the word “coronavirus” come out of someone’s mouth around me was at a college party, where three drunk first-years incessantly fake-coughed and threw around Corona beers. By then, global media outlets had started picking up on the urgency of the pandemic, and casual Sinophobia simultaneously spiked. What transpired was an immediate urge for racializing the disease that perpetuated prejudices and conspiracies, and heartbreaking hate crimes aimed especially at East and Southeast Asians.

In March, the first cases of the virus were found in Europe and the Dutch city I currently study in. With the paranoia prompted by this news, the attitude of people around me changed. Conversations nobody previously cared to have, research that nobody previously cared to invest time into were suddenly prioritized. Although it is only human nature to show more sympathy and interest towards an issue that affects one personally, the nuance within this change of comportment shouldn’t be ignored. Because only when the probability of depressing what-ifs became substantial and when COVID-19 grew to become a present threat in the lives of Europeans, did its trivialization concurrently lessen. People found themselves in similar situations as my loved-ones in China a couple of months ago. This past April, out of the few times I went out (following the quarantine rules), I had witnessed a lady in the marketplace frantically yelling about the virus towards any non-white person she saw while pointing at them, and being shouted at by two men who yelled “Corona” as they passed me on a motorbike. I consider myself to be very lucky that this is the extent of direct xenophobic encounters I’ve experienced since the outbreak.

While the word “coronavirus” sets off exasperated sighs for some at the thought of canceled plans and inconvenient lifestyle changes, it is for others a word that sets off distressing memories of odious encounters and situations.

In this current social climate, being both a freelance artist and someone of Asian descent represents a double-challenge that involves having to innovate professionally while also taking care of one’s mental health.

This is how some Asian artists in Europe are keeping their heads above water in the midst of this commotion:

Oslo, Norway

Duy Nguyen (30 years old)

What is your occupation?
UX Designer & Freelance Photographer

Where do you consider to be “home”?
I consider my hometown in Norway where I grew up to be my home, but I feel most at home when I’m in Asia.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
I first learned about the outbreak from some friends in Shanghai, where I used to live. I think it was at the end of December 2019 or early January 2020. My friends mentioned a virus that had been spreading from Wuhan and they were quite worried, but unsure of how serious it was at that time.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
At first, when people were referring to the virus as “The Chinese Virus”, it was quite worrying. I already had some feelings then about a potential reason for people to hold some racial bias against me. I felt like people didn’t care that much about what was happening in China as well, especially here in Norway. Generally, Norwegians have been quite nice, with some exceptions. When I was traveling abroad I definitely felt and experienced some subtle racism, especially in France. I also talked to some of my Asian friends and many of them had experienced similar or worse things than me. Dealing with the coronavirus outbreak and then on top of that also with racial bias… Right now I just feel really tired.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
Personally, it has been more subtle things; people avoiding me on public transportation. People giving me weird stares if I wore a face mask. When I was in Paris, people would really avoid me and one man swore at me in French. In general, I guess I’ve been lucky compared to others. It is a sad thing to say that I’m lucky for experiencing less racism than other people I know. I shouldn’t be experiencing any at all.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
I’m actively using my social media platform (Instagram) to discuss these issues with my friends and it helps me calm down a bit. I don’t feel like people are necessarily more racist now than usual. I just feel people are more vocal about their racism than usual instead of keeping it to themselves like they normally do.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
I think I kind of just put my whole art-making on pause. I totally lost track of time and routine. I’m doing some creative writing and I’m reading a lot. In a way, I feel like I’m fueling my creativity and I’m super excited to start making things again. I’ve also been filming some random clips that I plan on pairing up with my writings, but nothing related to the social climate… I think.

A message you would like to share?
If you feel troubled, talk to your friends who share a similar background to you; you won’t feel like you need to spend extra energy explaining how it feels like to be, for example, Asian. Then you can use that extra energy to discuss how to solve problems and feel better.

Berlin, Germany

Sarnt (28 years old)

What is your occupation?
Student/Filmmaker

Where do you consider to be “home”?
Nowhere (Bangkok-Berlin)

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
January 2020-ish.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
Not yet an issue but I feel much more isolated, affected more from the social measurements.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
Luckily I didn’t experience much (except everyday life things like being looked at/not sat close to/etc. which is not necessarily corona-related). Currently, I don’t go out “at all” (due to my health condition, not the best time anyway) but go more online; people posted disgusting things, I try to avoid them anyway. One of my POC (but not the most critical person) friend started a corona conspiracy theory post and it got shit-stormed but also crazy comments. I was like, “fuck off.”

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
Pretty so-so. I would love to be able to go out or walk around but I am afraid; also everything sounds apocalyptic, and not in regards to people panicking… They don’t behave normally, and it freaks me out.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
More or less; I have more time to read/reflect/think/rewrite, although socializing/talking with others is very necessary, which I lack for now. And I don’t have a webcam or easy tools to chat with others, I’m usually pretty manual. So this is a weird time.

A message you would like to share?
Stay strong — mentally and physically — let’s use this time to best possible ends; make your dreamt projects a reality or try to set things in motion after this crisis. We hopefully will deserve our places or success after this.

Eily Thams (20 years old)

What is your occupation?
Photographer/Artist

Where do you consider to be “home”?
The place where my partner or the person I trust is.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
Since there was news that it was starting to spread in Wuhan, China.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
I feel unsafe going out alone as I am queer and Asian.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?

Yes.
#1: This happened when the corona news just spread across Europe, and most people here just thought it was not going to escalate into a serious problem in the EU and treated it like an excuse to be racist. One day I was walking around the block next to my house, and there was a group of white dudes I walked past. They looked at me, laughing with their friends, and said “Corona” to me. I hesitated for a second but decided to cough at one of the dude’s faces and walked away.

#2: This happened when I was in Rewears with Rhiannon (my partner). At that time, there was a new regulation that forbade gatherings with more than 10 people. We wore masks because the supermarket was big and a lot of people were there. There was a group of white teenage boys who called us “Corona” while laughing. After that, he decided to enact exaggerated coughing towards us. On the same day, the woman who was queuing in front of us told me to walk away from her while we were lined up behind her, despite the fact that we didn’t get close to her at all.

#3: The next time I went grocery shopping after this incident was when the situation got more serious, with an updated regulation that forbade gatherings with more than 2 people. I was outside of the cashier line waiting for Rhiannon to pay for our groceries. Suddenly a white middle-aged woman started yelling at me to get away from her although I wasn’t even close to her and other people were even closer. I didn’t want to make it all about race, but I felt targeted as the only Asian person there. This experience made me not want to go to the grocery store again until the pandemic situation gets better.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
I have focused on myself more. This is the time to take care of myself and the people I love. I don’t have a good answer for this. I don’t want to give a space in my head for bullshit, but I would be lying if I said I’m not hurt when someone does something racist or discriminating against me. However, I am ready to stand up for myself and minorities around me too.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
I feel like it is, in both ways. For my profession, as I am a photographer, I have to meet clients. Once situations like [quarantine] started, I couldn’t do that.

For my personal art projects, I had to postpone them for now since I can’t currently work with others. But I also got inspired by the situation right now to put out messages I want to say about this pandemic to the world, too.

A message you would like to share?
I love your project and really want to see what others share.

Paris, France

Lena Luo (19 years old)

What is your occupation?
Art student

Where do you consider to be “home”?
Nowhere? Shanghai comes the closest.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
I don’t remember, I think maybe on the news or memes.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
Well, it wasn’t that tough before, but now everyone’s in lockdown and in quarantine. So far, my mental health has been fine but staying cooped up in a single place is kind of frustrating.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
Not really, just the usual “ni hao” and “konichiwa” in funny voices. A random guy thought I was Japanese and started speaking to me in Japanese, but I don’t think that counts.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
It’s definitely discouraging and terrifying to see news about violence against Asians. I walk down the street looking at any random person and think “this person could attack me if they wanted to.” Online as well, I don’t follow racist accounts nor do I have a Twitter, so it’s mostly been fine. It makes me really sad seeing the willful ignorance of some people concerning other cultures.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
I have been moving around a lot, so I haven’t been able to create as much as I would like to.

Mylan (19 years old)

What is your occupation?

I’m an art student.

Where do you consider to be “home”?

I was born in France and I reside in this country. So, I consider it to be home.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
From the start of the outbreak in China.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
People’s anxiety and paranoia. The environment becomes stressful and disturbing. Every day, media, people, and family… It’s always about COVID-19. It gets tiring and stuffy.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
No, I feel lucky!

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
I’m shocked about videos or photographs showing assault and racism. The outbreak is already stressful. Racism aggravates anxiety.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
It doesn’t inspire my work. However, during quarantine, I’m really productive with homework and art-making. It’s been the only way to keep busy.

A message you would like to share?
Stay home, please. Don’t be selfish. It’s important to have responsible behavior.

Groningen, The Netherlands

Julien Lin (26)

Where are you based?
I am from Taiwan and currently study at Groningen Minerva Art academy.

What is your age?
26

What is your occupation?
Art student

Where do you consider to be “home”?
The place where I feel comfortable and have my personal quietness.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
At the beginning of the news of China’s lockdown.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
Well, people here consider the virus to be a flu… The two reasons I don’t wear a mask are to avoid causing social panic and to protect myself from being criticized by others. At the same time, my family in Taiwan try to send masks to me which I can’t even use.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
No, but I did hear my friend get criticized in Dutch.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
Friends studying in other countries have had racist encounters, but for me, in the Netherlands, I didn’t encounter any racism problems.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
I am a product designer and a final year student who is about to graduate. During this quarantine situation, I can’t create my final work in the workshop. All product design students have been forced to create only digital work.

A message you would like to share?
My focus is on what will happen after quarantine.

Lujza Zhang (26)

What is your occupation?
Student, filmmaker, artist.

Where do you consider to be “home”?
Anywhere where people treat me like I’m at home.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
Through my family in China.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
Being an introvert gives me an advantage, but losing even the vague structure I had in my life is difficult. Discriminatory behavior had a detrimental impact on my mental health.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
Yes, people putting masks in front of me in the Vienna airport, violent aggressive verbal attacks, or telling me that if Chinese people would eat fewer bats this would not happen, etc.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
Very badly, it was already building upon other damage received through my life from racism.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
I became more creative as an outlet, was able to collaborate more with other artists as they are a bit bored and have more free time than usual. It also made me prioritize art over my other responsibilities.

A message you would like to share?
Art and creativity strive in critical conditions, things will always get better.

London, England

Rossana Wong (18 years old)

What is your occupation?
Art student

Where do you consider to be “home”?
China.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
On news and social media.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
Slightly affected, since everyone is worried, negativity is almost everywhere.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
No, people I have met are friendly and respectful.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
I was aware of it but ignored it since I know it is an act of unnecessariness and immaturity.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
Yes, I was affected as an artist and a musician.

Art: I am not able to get access to the resources at school (e.g. specific materials, the space to create large pieces of art etc.) or in the public areas such as the museums and galleries.

Music: Concerts at school were only opened internally to students and staff since the school was closed to the public at the beginning of March. However, it was live-streamed on Facebook and therefore parents and friends were able to support from a far distance.

Nevertheless, the school has been providing support and guidance to students through ‘e-learning’, where students were able to have online lessons/meetings and stay in contact with the staff to get academic advice and spiritual support.

A message you would like to share?
Stay safe, stay home, and stay motivated!

Sophie Smars, (19)


What is your occupation?
I am a university student.

Where do you consider to be “home”?
Shanghai, China.

When and how did you first learn about the COVID-19 outbreak?
My mother, being Chinese and someone who reads Chinese news every day, informed me about it in early January.

How have the coronavirus and the reactions surrounding it affected your mental health?
I strongly believe that physical and mental health come hand in hand. I have type 1 diabetes as well as Vasculitis which are conditions that both cause me to be immuno-deficient and more prone to the virus being deadly. Naturally, this has lead to insomnia and stress in general, which has definitely been worsened because of the outrageous offensive reactions I read about every day that are directed to the community of Asians I consider myself to be a part of.

Have you personally experienced discriminatory behaviors since the outbreak?
Luckily, no one has been directly discriminatory towards me (perhaps this has to do with the fact that many do not classify me as ‘Asian’ or ‘Chinese’ because of my physical looks), but friends and people I know have constantly been making many offensive comments or posting about Chinese people being ‘backwards’ because of their eating habits.

How have you been coping with the racism that has spread online and offline since the outbreak?
In the beginning, I stopped reading all the comments and posts online because it was endless and only angered me. I then tried to post more on my own social media to counter-argue the racist things people had been saying and sharing, as well as generally expressing my opinion on the matter. But now that it has definitely become more of a global matter and people have been turning towards the more positive side of this virus (coming together as one etc.), I have also tried to just focus on positive energy.

Has the current social climate inspired/affected your art-making process?
I would say that in the process of coping with these hard times I have definitely turned to my artistic side as this is the side of me that is able to relieve stress and negative energy the most. I have meditated more, which has brought out a clearer and focused mind that is more easily inspired.

A message you would like to share?
I just hope everyone comes out of this pandemic having learned something, and that from now on we will continue to work towards an increasingly united humanity in the face of crisis instead of a divided one.