After hunkering down in her Allston apartment for two weeks, Elle Chu ventured out to go grocery shopping in late March. A man walking in front of her did a double take.
“They kept looking back at me and then they suddenly yelled, ‘There’s a perpetrator walking down the sidewalk!’” recalled Chu, 24, the daughter of Korean immigrants. “I was not sure what to make of it since that didn’t happen before the quarantine.”
Chu, an Emerson College graduate who now works as a staffer at another college in the Boston area, said she feels lucky that her experience outside her apartment didn’t escalate. “Because there was some distance between us, I started slowing down my gait a little bit and I decided to cross the street because I didn’t feel comfortable," she said.
In these stressful days, Elle isn’t alone. As the virus has spread around the world from rural China, racial and ethnic aggression against Asians and Asian-Americans has increased locally and around the country.
At Wellesley College, Chinese students have shared stories about anti-Asian hysteria related to the virus. In Western Massachusetts, at least two Amherst College students still on the otherwise empty campus were targets of anti-Asian bias this month.
“It’s a much bigger problem, and one that we all need to address quickly and strongly,” Amherst President Biddy Martin told WGBH News.
Martin said international students have endured racial slurs in town, and some have overheard racist banter in dorms.
“These were students who applied to stay on campus because they couldn’t go home or didn’t feel it would be safe to go home,” she said.
On Twitter last week, a self-described Amherst alum tapped out a message urging the government to “get all non-citizen Chinese out of the country, including all Chinese students at all levels.”
Martin said, unfortunately, she’s not surprised.
“People have given others license to channel their fear into stereotypes, bias and even violence,” she said.
In daily press briefings, President Donald Trump has defended calling COVID-19 "the Chinese virus."
“It’s not racist at all,” Trump told reporters last month. “It comes from China. That’s why I want to be accurate.”
Trump later tweeted that the virus is not the fault of Asian-Americans, but as the pandemic surges across the country, a survey of Asian-Americans finds 90 percent fear racial bias and harassment.
“All of a sudden there’s all of this hatred towards Asians, and it’s only because politicians use inflammatory rhetoric to associate the disease with a people,” said Russell Jeung, who chairs the Asian American Studies department at San Francisco State University and who conducted the national survey.
Jeung, who is Chinese-American, said his research team began to pay attention to incidents back in January.
“We covered global news and did a content analysis of whenever coronavirus and xenophobia appeared together in search terms,” he explained. “And we saw a 50 percent increase in January and February.”
Then, in March, they started tracking personal accounts, creating a website called Stop AAPI Hate for individuals to report incidents anonymously.
“We wanted to give people a voice and to be able to air their grievances,” Jeung said. “We got over a hundred incidents a day without even advertising the site, so people were flooding us with harrowing accounts of not just micro-aggressions, but actually strong, virulent hate.”
About 10 percent of all cases have been physical assaults. “Families have been stabbed, pushed, shoved,” Jeung said. “I was really surprised at how vicious and mean people could be.”
In 20 percent of cases, individuals say they were coughed at or spat upon.
“[It’s] sort of a unique expression of this disease,” Jeung said. “They felt like Asians were to be blamed, so they would attack them back with this public health threat.”
So far, the website has fielded more than 1,500 reports. More than 2 percent — or 37 cases — originated in Massachusetts.
“I'm not surprised, and it’s probably a low-ball figure,” said political scientist Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston.
Watanabe’s Japanese-American parents were interned during World War II, and he said because of the virus, stereotypical views have resurfaced about Asians and Asian-Americans.
“The shape of their eyes, claiming that they had poor hygiene — that they ate weird food,” Watanabe said. “While this virus from the beginning is called this faceless enemy, I think people want to put a face on it. And when you call it 'the Chinese virus,' it clearly connotes the enemy has a face, and it's a Chinese face.”
Or an Asian face of someone from a different ethnic group, since many non-Asian Americans often fail to accurately discern the difference.
Watanabe also sees the pandemic as an opportunity to demand equality, encourage compassion and build a local sense of community.
“The sense that we're all in this together and that all racial and ethnic groups are victims of this and, most importantly, to recognize that they're part of the solution,” he said, pointing out that many Asians and Asian-Americans are serving on the frontlines of this battle — often disproportionately represented in fields like health care.
“But also people who are preparing our food and stocking our shelves and delivering things and manufacturing those PPEs (pieces of personal protective equipment),” Watanabe said.
He said he hopes the idea that we’re all in it together will bridge growing divisions that some elected leaders have stoked.
Chu, originally from Orange County, Calif., is not as optimistic.
“I think it would take a lot, a lot of work for that to really change,” she said. “This kind of mindset is also being taught by people who have believed it for a long time and so that trickles down from generation to generation. And it’s really hard to change that overnight.”