GPB intern Eva Rothenberg reports on the bigotry aimed at international college students amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The older white man glared at Cynclaire Choi outside the strip mall in suburban Atlanta. Choi was on his way to grab a boba tea at the nearby Kung Fu Tea shop.

He kept walking with his head down, past the coffee shop where the man was sitting, trying to ignore the man’s stare. He knew what was coming.

“Thanks for COVID,” the man said.

He ended by shouting a racial epithet at Choi.

Racist encounters like these have become increasingly common for Asian American and international students in the era of President Donald Trump, with hate speech intensifying ever since the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States in early 2020, students at Emory University in Atlanta told GPB News.

Choi, a Korean-born physics and chemistry student at Emory, said he’s been met with both overt harassment and an undercurrent of suspicion from strangers.

“There’s a lot of people who walk away from you when you go outside, or they just look at you funny,” said Choi, whose family moved to Lawrenceville seven years ago. “Whenever I go to Walmart, there’s always white people who, when they see you, they’ll stare until you leave.”

Choi admits he’s in a privileged position, living in an overall accepting community near Emory’s Atlanta campus. He’s also an American citizen, having been naturalized three years ago.

International students, the majority of whom hail from mainland China, are often denied that level of security.

Molina Zhang, a 20-year-old international student from China’s Sichuan Province, said she was making small talk with a man next to her while waiting for a takeout order. The man asked what her major was.

“I said biology,” recalled Zhang, a junior at Emory. “He said, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t invent any viruses in the future.’”

Sarah Huang, a 21-year-old junior at Emory, said she and her boyfriend were visiting an Apple store when an employee asked whether they could read a sign warning customers that those with COVID symptoms should not enter the store. Huang is multilingual, fluent in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

"When I went into the store, I observed her for a bit,” said Huang. “She was really nice to other people, and that made me so angry. Like, why are you just pointing me out?”


'I don’t think we realize how damaging it will be'

The Chinese virus. The Wuhan virus. The kung flu.

Those are the words Trump has used to describe the coronavirus that has infected more than 15.5 million people in the United States, killing over 291,000 of them. 

The president has even repeated debunked conspiracies that the virus originated from a laboratory in the Wuhan region of China.

It is that type of language from the leader of the free world, often with thousands of supporters cheering him on, that experts say has resulted in the uptick in hate speech hurled toward Asian Americans and international students.

Dr. John Givens, a professor of political science and international affairs at Kennesaw State University, said the administration’s rhetoric stoked and legitimized a wave of East Asian-targeted xenophobia that exacerbated existing problems between China and the United States.

“The frankly racist sentiments that we’ve been hearing are relatively easily fixed by the administration changing tone, changing attitude, changing messaging,” Givens said. “The bigger problems with China are not as easily soluble.”

According to Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Chinese students make up 16% of all graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States. Chinese immigrants working in the United States provide invaluable connections to the Chinese market. The two economies are interdependent, so rhetoric that promotes “getting tough” on China is damaging to U.S. tech jobs, scientific research, and engineering, Givens said.

“I don’t think we realize how damaging it will be, in really any sector you can think of,” Givens said.

He also said that the trend of Chinese nationals seeking work and educational opportunities in other countries will have devastating long-term effects on the industry and economy of the United States. 

For students like Huang, Trump’s comments have had real effects on their lives and put them on the defensive about their homeland.

“Me and other international students cannot say that the virus is not from China, because it first came from China,” Huang said. “But then Trump didn’t do anything to protect people in the U.S. and even said you don’t have to wear a mask, which made the pandemic more widespread. So at that point, the problem wasn’t that it came from China.”

Choi added, “His entire job is to serve the people, but then he literally goes out and says, ‘It’s all people from China’s fault.’ Like, what can you do about that?”


Trump ‘really just gives us a hard time’

The students who spoke with GPB News said the animosity they have faced far precedes the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think even before you consider East Asian discrimination, you have to talk about how Trump managed to radicalize his base to the point where they basically had no inhibitions about racism,” Choi said. 

FILE - In this March 20, 2020, file photo, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the rear, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington.

In this March 20, 2020, file photo, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the rear, President Donald Trump speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House. The Trump administration Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly said they suspect the virus was somehow released from a Chinese laboratory — a claim that has amplified racist animus against Chinese students living and studying abroad in America.

Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

He said Trump’s branding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” was just the latest in a long series of Trump’s attempts to stigmatize various racial and ethnic backgrounds. He noted Trump’s 2015 speech announcing his run for president in which he infamously said Mexican immigrants were “rapists” who were “bringing drugs, bringing crime” into the country. Trump in 2017 also signed an executive order suspending travel from seven majority-Muslim countries — a measure that was widely criticized as Islamophobia thinly veiled as national security policy. 

Not only do these claims and policies engender distrust of American citizens of non-European descent, Choi said, but they also scapegoat immigrants who seek jobs and educational opportunities in the United States.

“Anti-Asian or anti-China sentiment always existed in this country, but Trump made it more apparent,” Choi said. “Nobody likes America anymore. Everybody thinks America is a joke, so there’s no point for international students to come here.”  

Huang, who described the racist encounter at the Apple Store, agrees.

“Trump has these international policies to ‘defeat China,’ but what they’re actually doing is affecting the lives of international students here,” she said. “He really just gives us a hard time.”

Beyond racist encounters in stores and in public, the coronavirus pandemic has brought more restrictive policies for international students studying in the United States and on immigrants overall.

International students already in America fear that if they were to return home to visit loved ones, they might not be allowed to re-enter the United States.

All of that takes a heavy toll on college students trying to find their way and adapt in a new country far from home.

Huang hasn’t seen her family in almost a year. She can’t go back to her home in Canton in south China, because she is unsure whether she will be able to return to the United States. Her F-1 student visa has expired, and she must leave the U.S. in order to renew it. However, during the past six months the renewal process has slowed to a snail’s pace.

At the U.S. Embassy in China, the waitlist for visa applications extends into the middle of 2021. According to the Department of State, the U.S. has issued only 808 F-1 visas between April and September — a 99% drop from 2019. 

For Zhang, the biology major, this uncertainty is mentally draining. Zhang has studied in the United States since high school but, no matter how busy she was, she found time to visit her family at least once a year in Chengdu, southwestern China.

“It’s been really emotionally hard, because you have to deal with your classes transitioning to online, the fact that you can’t go out and that you need to socially distance, and now I don’t know how I’m going to go back [home],” she said. “I don’t know how long I’ll have to stay here. I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait for my visa. I don’t know what’s going on.” 

Zhang had originally planned to renew her visa in Mexico, but the U.S. embassy there closed a day after she booked her appointment. She then shifted gears and checked to see if she could go to Canada to wait out the renewal process. But operations there had slowed as well. Over the next two months, Zhang obsessively checked and rechecked various embassy websites, researching places where she could get her visa renewed in order to go back to her family. 

“Now I don’t know if I’ll be able to arrange a good timeline for me to go back without missing class,” she said. “I just have to be here and wait. Worst case scenario, I’ll have to stay here until graduation in another year and a half.” 


‘Chinese parents are worried’

Huang and Zhang, like many international Chinese students, feel stranded in the United States. And they have both experienced harassment in the country that is now their reluctant home.

This prejudice, according to Zhang, is making Chinese high schoolers and their parents hesitant about the prospect of seeking higher education in the United States. Studying abroad is a long-term endeavor for many Chinese students: They attend international schools, which can cost up to 400,000 yuan a year, the equivalent of $60,000 in U.S. dollars, and prepare for the SAT and TOEFL tests, all with the hope of attending universities in the United States.

Zhang said that hope is changing.

People hold Chinese and American flags as they wait for President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to participate in a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

People hold Chinese and American flags during President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping's Nov. 9, 2017, meeting in Beijing. Chinese students in the United States say Trump's rhetoric and policy against China both before and during the coronavirus pandemic has made life harder for international students in the United States.

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

“Chinese parents are worried about if it’s safe for their kids to stay in the United States,” she said. “Not just because of the pandemic but because it has fueled this kind of xenophobia. High schoolers all over China who wanted to study in the United States are applying to other English-speaking countries like Canada and Britain.”

Recent administrative obstacles have further hindered Chinese students from studying and finding work in the U.S.

In May, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee proposed the SECURE CAMPUS Act. This act, which has yet to pass in the Senate, seeks to bar Chinese nationals from “receiving student or research visas to the United States for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM fields,” citing threats of espionage. 

The Department of Homeland Security in September proposed new protocols to “protect American workers” by restricting H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers. This rule would also limit the terms of student F-1 visas to either 2 or 4 years, depending on the student’s home country.

Chinese international students would be hurt most by this, as China is consistently the largest contributor of international students to Emory University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Georgia.

“Trump thinks there are so many spies,” Huang said. “But we are here because we love the education here, and I think these policies would make it difficult for executives in large companies to find employees.”

In fact, research shows that foreign-born workers contribute roughly $2 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product. A demographic study from the New American Economy Research Funds found that international students “contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2017-2018 academic year and supported more than 455,000 American jobs.”

Zhang wants to pursue a career in neuroscience research, but is unsure whether she will be able to get a Ph.D. in the United States. She is now considering applying for Ph.D. programs in other countries.

However, she remains hopeful that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden will take steps to officially mitigate hostility towards international students. According to Biden’s website, he “believes that foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree.”

“That’s something I’ve never seen any candidate put in their platform before,” Zhang said. “It's really exciting for me.”