In early March, as coronavirus was making its way up the headlines, I had lunch with colleagues at the well-known Great Wall Chinese restaurant in New Haven. I was shocked at how the normally bustling eating establishment had become a ghost town, with only one or two Asian graduate students quietly having solitary lunches at the otherwise empty tables.
Shortly afterwards the pandemic shut down began, and for the next three months I stayed largely inside. During that time my family watched with consternation as President Donald Trump spewed vitriolic accusations at China for the origins of COVID-19, or what he insisted on calling the “Chinese virus.”By June he stooped lower, referring to it as the “Kung-flu.”
Despite Connecticut’s generally liberal bent, one has to question to what extent words may subconsciously influence general attitudes among our communities. As the state’s Asian American Attorney General William Tong recently noted, “what the President says…has tremendous force and meaning. And so when he speaks hatefully and foments racism, and peddles scapegoating conspiracy theories against Americans who look like me, he’s putting people at risk.”
While the pandemic has been detrimental to the region’s economy across the board, small family owned businesses and restaurants have been harder hit. Asian restaurant owners have had to additionally cope with a racialized economic and social backlash, documented in media reports, including threatening calls and derogatory comments blaming them for the origins of the virus.
The growth of Asian Americans in Connecticut, a state often maligned for population stagnation, has been extraordinary, doubling over the course of the last two national censuses. Yet for many, such demographic changes – often dispersed across the state’s suburban fabric – remain overlooked.
If anything, many Connecticut residents have gauged the spread of nearby Boston and New York City’s diversity through the lens of increasing culinary offerings, or “ethnic food.” For a significant number of Asian American families, restaurant entrepreneurship has been an important path for social and economic mobility and security. A number of restaurants in Connecticut have been set up by families expanding business operations from Boston and New York, a generally welcome development in a state where just a few years ago ramen and bubble tea were a rarity.
Venturing out since Connecticut re-opened outdoor restaurant seating however, I have again been struck by the seemingly implicit and temperamental biases of suburban diners. The downtown of West Hartford, a generally liberal town, has come to resemble Miami beach with extended seating spilling onto the sidewalks and roads outside to compensate for closing indoors. It is rather shocking to see the long lines of mostly younger, largely white customers eager to consume at the many now-open businesses.
And yet one of the town’s best Chinese restaurants, run by an award-winning chef who brought delicious Asian food such as soup dumplings to central Connecticut that one formerly had drive to Queens for, remains noticeably empty day after day.
This is in stark contrast to nearby establishments, where lines often snake out doors and down the street. When I asked about business, a waiter at the Chinese restaurant sighed, commenting with cautious optimism that “hopefully things will get better.” Meanwhile the Italian restaurant next door was packed to its socially distanced brim with customers at every available table. This despite the fact that Italy was one of the original outbreaks of the pandemic, and studies showing that the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. Northeast can be traced to travel from Europe, not Asia.
As an anthropologist, I am interested in how social attitudes emerge and foment, as well as how they may lurk and manifest below the surface. I have been looking into how Asian American restaurants and shops are important sites of community formation, information sharing, and generational change — issues that I highlight to my students on Hartford and New York field trips as part of teaching a Southeast Asian migration seminar and advising a student cultural club.
Despite the clearly documented uptick in anti-Asian hate incidents across this country since the start of the pandemic (the Asian American Policy and Planning Council reports around 2,000 over a two month period) and the President’s vulgar discourse that has attempted to racialize and foreignize it, the most egregious incidents are often reported in places already stereotyped by more explicitly racist histories, such as the recent stabbing of an Asian American family in a Texas store.
While reports of anti-Asian attacks have grown across the Northeast, the violence is not always overt. Discriminatory attitudes may express themselves in other insidious ways such as diners avoiding sitting down at a Chinese restaurant, metaphoric of a long history of Asian exclusion policies in the U.S., but being fine eating Italian – a cuisine that is somehow no longer “ethnic” and has become ingrained in mainstream American tastes. Italy, unlike China, holds popular sway as a celebrated country of immigrant origin reinforced in America’s Ellis Island and Christopher Columbus myths.
Subtle forms of racial discrimination are difficult to gauge, but it is worth self-checking implicit biases and reflecting on their catalysts and effects. Asian American mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses are critically dependent on returning customers at this moment of economic re-opening. If you are willing to brave Connecticut’s reopened leisure economy, which many seem to be doing, think twice about where you are choosing to go and why.
Words matter, whether from a politician, family member or friend. Although New England is not necessarily known to be a Trump-friendly region, his and others’ consciously racist remarks can subconsciously shape our choices, actions and attitudes, even when we steadfastly insist otherwise. Ultimately, their effects extend well beyond which restaurants we choose to patronize.
Ivan V. Small is a professor of Anthropology and Asian studies at Central Connecticut State University.