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Life Inside

Coronavirus Has Sparked Another Epidemic in My Prison: Anti-Asian Racism

The racial slurs, dumb comments and news reports of hate violence have me on edge.

Sitting in my cell on a mandatory precautionary quarantine, I'm still finding it difficult to make sense of everything that's going on.

In the beginning, “pandemic” was a word I had to translate for my cellie, a Vietnamese refugee who struggled with English. After he understood what that really meant, he anxiously questioned if it was going to affect his upcoming release.

I told him that I don't know, and we both sat silently—helplessly—staring at CNN for answers about this invisible adversary.

I’d had my first encounter with this adversary in the GED class where I tutor. On a March morning, while the teacher conducted a current events exercise, I was at my desk preparing to pass out assignments. Somehow, the conversation shifted from reports of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, to a debate about whether or not Japan was in China.

While this was the most ridiculous debate ever, I was happy that the students were actually doing some work. Most days were like a scene out of the movie "Dangerous Minds," minus Michelle Pfeiffer, of course.

But then a White student blurted out that it didn't matter if China and Japan were different countries because "they are all gooks anyway." I panicked. I didn’t fear for my personal safety, but as the only Asian-American in the classroom and somebody who had been inside for over a decade, I knew what was supposed to happen. When there is any disrespect, what is supposed to happen is never good.

I sat there for a moment, hoping somebody would speak up on my behalf. Then I contemplated how I—a genuine practitioner of nonviolence who still has to abide by the convict code of retribution—was going to react.

No one spoke up. So I used a few choice expletives and requested that he go do something with his "saltines" self. He sat in silence, embarrassed but not apologizing. I went next door to the library feeling disappointed that I let an ignorant comment get me out of my character.

Later that day, watching a White House briefing on CNN, I heard President Donald Trump refer to the coronavirus as the "Chinese Virus”. Later, I heard that another White House official had called it the "Kung Flu".

I was surprised how much those comments affected me. I usually have much thicker skin.

But the comments took me back to being a kid with classmates who made fun of me because my home-packed lunch looked and smelled different. They took me back to a time when I had to ignore insults like, “Go back to China,” while I was walking home from school or going to the store. I would be thinking, First, my family is from Laos, not China. And second, I was born in Seattle, you fucking dumbass!

Still, I was naive enough to brush the comments off as a case of mistaken identity. They can’t possibly be trying to hurt me, I would say to myself. I'm an American, right?


Today, as an adult who is all too familiar with the discrimination and disparities of this world, I know that hate is not a mistake. It is an intentional action meant to lacerate, maim, mutilate, disable, debilitate, impair, and every other goddamn verb my thesaurus has for causing pain.

Nine months into the pandemic, ain’t nothing changed about the racist shit. I’ve seen news reports coming out of Seattle's Chinatown-International District about vandals targeting Asian businesses. They have broken shop windows and put up White supremacist stickers and posters. I’ve also seen an account of a White man who was arrested in Ballard. He had been looking for Chinese people and harassing employees at a Thai restaurant.

These incidents are terrifying to me and my family. The other day, I called home to speak to my eldest son. He's 16 and recently got a car. The conversation started as just the usual father-teen son dialogue: me asking how things were going and him avoiding every question.

But then my eyes filled with tears as I expressed how, after all of the anti-Asian racism I’ve been seeing lately, I was concerned I was for his safety out on the road by himself. My son listened reluctantly as I went through the do's and don'ts of his reaction if he ever found himself in a sketchy situation. I wondered to myself if this was how generations of Black parents have felt when they had to have another version of "the talk" with their sons.

Last month, as news was pouring in that Joe Biden was going to be the next president of the United States of America, I overheard a conversation between two White prisoners.

One was going on and on about how the election was rigged. The other one whined, "Now we're gonna be the United States of China!"

Wow, I thought. I can't make this shit up.

Then again, I’m excited that I’ll finally get to visit Tokyo. The capital of Japan will be in the United States of China, right?

Felix Sitthivong is an organizer and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sittivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. Sitthivong currently works as a GED tutor through Edmonds Community College. He is serving a 65-year sentence at Washington State Reformatory Unit for charges including murder, attempted murder and first-degree assault.