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Rage-Tweets, Jokes And Stifled Coughs: How Asian Americans In LA Are Dealing With Coronavirus Fears

Protective face masks are being used to ward off the coronavirus. (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)
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As coronavirus has spread beyond China, University of Southern California graduate student Cindy Lu has stopped blowing her nose in public to avoid glares.

Ryland Lu, no relation, has gotten mad about racist tropes he's seen in media depictions of Chinese people and their culture as unsanitary and bizarre.

As for Ren Fernandez-Kim, she is now partial to rage-tweeting. It started after a jarring episode at a Target in Pasadena where an older couple stared her down after she coughed. Fernandez-Kim recalled awkwardly smiling and waving as the pair walked away, frowning.

"Then I got angry," said Fernandez-Kim, who vented online just hours later. "Why should I have to worry about making them feel uncomfortable? I just coughed into my elbow like I was taught."

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For Asians in Los Angeles, xenophobia sparked by the spread of a virus originating in China has acted as a harsh reminder to even the native-born that they come off as foreign to those fearful they are disease-carriers just because of how they look.

Similar anti-Asian sentiment surfaced in 2003 during the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which also emerged from China. But the vitriol this time around has been amplified by platforms like Twitter, where racism spills into the open like a steaming trash heap speckled with expletives and the liberal use of "gook" and "chink" slurs.

But it's not just random Twitter racists who have ramped up tensions. The University of California, Berkeley, got heat for posting on Instagram that it was normal in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak to feel "'xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings."

The university has since apologized and removed the post.

Unease over how they'll be treated has put some Asian Americans on alert for microaggressions, while others have adopted a gallows humor about being part of the "yellow peril." As L.A.-based comedian Jenny Yang joked:

For Lu, the USC grad student, the coronavirus panic has made her recognize that even though she is Vietnamese American, some people do not make the distinction, viewing all Asians with suspicion.

In recent weeks, she had watched with concern as others on campus shot looks at Asian students, especially those in masks, and kept their distance.

Then it happened to her. Lu sat down on a campus shuttle bus only to notice the passenger next to her scoot as close as possible to the window.

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"I can't help but think if it wasn't an Asian person sitting down next to you would you have the same reaction?" Lu said.

Some organizations are trying to do what they can to stamp out coronavirus-related xenophobia. At USC, where the administration had to quash rumors of the virus' arrival on campus, nearly 30 student groups including the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly penned an open letter calling on the university to "reaffirm and make explicit its commitment to supporting all Trojans no matter where they come from."

Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu, who represents the San Gabriel Valley, similarly asked constituents on social media to not "spread fear of Asian people."

"I just want to make sure that people are suspicious about misinformation and to certainly not scapegoat an entire ethnic race of people," Chu told LAist.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., represents the San Gabriel Valley. (Paul Sancya/)

Fake reports of coronavirus in Carson and the Santa Clarita Valley have created alarm across the region, which has seen two of the 11 cases reported so far in the United States -- one each in L.A. and Orange counties.

Chu said she's worried that Asian Americans will face racism until the worst of the virus is over.

A sense of dread is building in Ryland Lu, who works in Monterey Park as a transportation planner. He's bracing for how the virus will be treated in the presidential election cycle, and possibly put even more of a target on Asian Americans.

"That could play out in some pretty nasty things that I might have to experience like name-calling," Lu said. "Or if I'm out late like at a bar or something, that's where people are more willing to express dark views."

Fernandez-Kim, an illustrator who moved to L.A. about three years ago, said she experienced racism growing up Korean and Peruvian in Louisiana. But not until the Target encounter did she feel it in L.A.

"There was like a silent tension there that I didn't understand," Fernandez-Kim said.

Fernandez-Kim has since harnessed her discomfort into something else. After returning from Target, she tweeted explaining why she and many Asians wear face masks.

She's gotten more than 42,000 retweets. In the dark void of xenophobia, there may be a little room for enlightenment.