Vietnamese diaspora suffer as discrimination spreads faster than new coronavirus

By Minh Trang   February 2, 2020 | 04:40 am PT
The Vietnamese diaspora in Western countries are being discriminated against as fears mount over the new coronavirus that has spread out from China.

Ngan Linh, 25, was walking on a Paris street to get back to her office after lunch when a local man walking towards her panicked on seeing her, covered his mouth and bolted.

"I stood frozen in shock for a while before the anger hit me."

Linh yelled out at the man but "that was because I was with a friend. If I was alone, I wouldn't have known what to do."

In three years of living in France, this was the first time she had ever experienced such explicit discrimination.

Vietnamese woman Ngan Linh on the street of Paris. Photo by Ngan Linh.

Vietnamese woman Ngan Linh on the street of Paris. Photo by Ngan Linh.

After she shared her story on forums of overseas Vietnamese students, Linh found out hundreds had similar anecdotes to relate.

A trend of discriminating and staying away from Chinese and Chinese-looking people has risen ever since the new pneumonia virus, nCoV, spread to other countries from China's Wuhan City, a domestic and international transportation hub.

Tran Phuong Vy, 23, an economics student in Paris, had been suffering a sore throat for several days. On the morning of Thursday, Vy coughed as she walked up the stairs at her school.

"When other local students saw me coughing, they walked away immediately. Everybody looked annoyed and some even took out their handwash gel."

That was not the end of Vy's discomfiture.

That afternoon, as she took the metro back home, a local man entered and sat next to her. Then, when he noticed that she was Asian, he moved right away to the opposite chair.

"For now, we cannot do anything to change their thought. I did feel sorry for myself at first, but now it does not bother me anymore," she said.

Businesses hit

These days in Paris, Asian restaurants in general and Vietnamese ones in particular have been losing customers.

"The Vietnamese restaurant I work part-time at has lost up to 30 percent of customers. We normally close at 11 at night but in these times, we have had no customers by 10 and staff have been allowed to go home early. However, take-away orders have remained stable," Vy said.

Also staying in Paris, Nguyen Anh, 32, took a cab on Thursday afternoon with a Vietnamese friend.

Though it was raining and cold, the driver insisted on keeping open the side windows at the front.

"At first I simply thought he wanted some air but then it felt really strange because the rain made both his seat and the front passenger seat wet, but he did not roll up the windows."

"Later, from what I read in the newspaper and what other overseas Vietnamese shared, I believe that driver was afraid that he could catch the infection from us."

Anh deployed wry humor to look on the bright side.

"There will be much less pickpocketing and I would easily find a chair for my own on trains that are usually overcrowded."

However, Anh also decided he would limit his time outside in the coming days as a precaution against both discrimination and infection.

In France's Lyon city, Vu Thu Phuong, 60, is worried that her 18-year-old daughter, Minh An, is being mistreated although she was born in France and has never been to Asia yet.

"For the past week, other passengers have always stepped around her when she rides the bus. They remark she could be Chinese and have come from where the epidemic outbreak happened. Even in the school’s restroom, other kids gossip about her and stayed away from her," Phuong said.

On Friday, An told her mother she had a headache and wanted to skip school.

Phuong let the girl have some medicine but she thinks her daughter might have been psychologically affected by what she has suffered at school.

"I asked her if she is upset but she denied it, saying she really feels sick. But if she keeps skipping her classes like this, I will go to the school and see for myself what is going on."

Keeping their distance

Tourists from an Air China flight from Beijing wear protective masks as they arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France, January 26, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Benoit Tessier.

Tourists from an Air China flight from Beijing wear protective masks as they arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France, January 26, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Benoit Tessier.

Nguyen Thu Ha, 27, has lived on the outskirts of London for seven years.

An employee of a financial company, Ha feels quite offended when some locals make it a point to stand far away from her, deliberately.

"Last weekend, when my husband and I went to the supermarket, some people stared right at us and when we waited in line at the cash counter, other buyers kept a long distance from us."

On Friday, when the U.K. confirmed two infection cases of the new coronavirus, Ha said she was worried the discrimination will get worse.

Another instance of how widespread the discrimination against Asians has become was related by Lynn Le, 40, in Melbourne, Australia.

"I went shopping at a Chinese store several days ago. The cashier already wore three surgical masks and had gloves on, yet unlike normal days when she always greets me and says thank you, she did not say a word and even used just two fingers to hand me the change."

Asian markets and restaurants in Melbourne wear an empty look and some Chinese stores have even shut down temporarily.

"I dined at a Vietnamese restaurant inside a community of Chinese and Vietnamese people yesterday and there were just three tables with customers. Normally, we have to wait in line for a table," said Lynn.

With the Wuhan pneumonia virus yet to come under control, most overseas Vietnamese say they have no choice but staying quiet and accepting the discrimination.

Aside from China and Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, the U.S., South Korea, France, Germany, Canada, the UAE, Nepal, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, the U.K., Russia, Finland, Nepal, Sweden, and Spain have confirmed infection cases by Sunday.

Le Anh Nguyet, a post-graduate history student at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, said the Vietnamese diaspora should not stress themselves out, because in most cases, the unjustified discrimination comes from those with little knowledge about the ongoing epidemic. She said she has not experienced such a situation among well-educated communities.

‘Unproductive, unwarranted’

The Business Insider publication in Singapore has cited public health experts as saying that for the most part, panic over the Wuhan coronavirus outside of China is "unproductive and unwarranted."

It stresses that the most effective preventative measures "are everyday actions like increased handwashing and not touching your face."

The article quotes Amira Roess, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, as saying fear would not stop the spread of the virus and could cause negative social impacts.

Roess notes that the spread of an infectious disease and the spread of panic have "very different mechanisms."

The Business Insider further cites Roess as saying that in the early stages of an infectious-disease outbreak, much of the panic is "fear of the unknown."

For Ha, in the U.K., this fear means that "people will keep staying away from us as if we are the outbreak."

go to top