Yue Qu did not expect to be spending the end of his first year of college alone in his room on a deserted campus in California. But he had little choice. Despite booking several tickets home to Chengdu in southwest China, the flights kept getting cancelled as China and other countries imposed air travel restrictions amid the escalating Covid-19 pandemic . “I have two tickets for May, but I’m not confident that those flights will run. There’s no reason for me to be here, and it’s a stressful experience staying here all alone,” he said. Yue is among the roughly 350,000 Chinese students studying at US colleges and universities, the largest group of foreign students in the country. It is not clear how many have remained in the US since their campuses shut and other classmates headed home to finish their semesters online. But students say the pandemic has done more than disrupt travel plans and studies. It has also brought them face-to-face with an increase in anti-China sentiment and a surge in racism against Asians and Asian-Americans. Some are questioning what that means for their futures in the US. Among them is a graduate student in Tennessee who said he was picking up groceries when he overheard two men call him a “Chinese virus”, a term that has been used by US President Donald Trump. ‘An epidemic of hate’: Asian-American starts anti-racism campaign to counter abuse over coronavirus “It was just after the ‘Chinese virus’ was first used on social media, and I was called [that] by two men when I was getting out of my car and wearing a mask,” he said. The student described how the mask made him feel safe from infection, but he felt his ethnicity put him in danger. “It changes my feelings about the US and my interest in being in the US. I hope I can be respected and not be attacked when I am living here. To be honest, living in the US is making me feel unsafe right now,” he said, giving this as the reason he did not want to be named. The rise in racism against Asian and Asian-Americans in the US has been well-documented. ABC News recently reported that the FBI had warned of a surge in hate crimes being committed against Asian Americans in an intelligence report distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide. An analysis published on April 8 by the US non-profit Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks online hate speech, found “acute increases” in targeted ethnic hate and Sinophobia on niche forums, which was then spilling over onto the most popular social media websites. A reporting platform for coronavirus-related discrimination set up late last month by the California-based groups Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action received more than a thousand reports of such incidents in two weeks. The initiative is in collaboration with San Francisco State University’s Asian American studies department. Anxious to avoid confrontations, some Chinese students said they had changed their daily habits. Eva Chen, a recent graduate working in New York, decided not to wear a mask on the subway to avoid attracting attention. She felt the rise in racism was linked to US criticisms of Beijing for its management of the outbreak, but was being directed at Chinese citizens and that made some “start to blame Chinese people”. New York University second-year student Lyujiang Chen has stopped taking the subway altogether after hearing stories of friends being harassed for wearing face masks on trains. He said he loved New York and hoped to work there after he graduated but was worried about how welcome he would be. US in a word? ‘Trump’, ‘arrogant’, ‘money’ and ‘racism’, for starters “The thing I’m concerned about is the citizens, what’s their opinion about China now? Will they think because the first outbreak was in China that China is responsible for the disaster? I’m not sure about this, so that’s something I worry about,” he said. Calvin Lei, an anthropology and cognitive science student at Vassar College in New York, said he had felt “a lot of love” on a personal level but witnessing racism in the public sphere and inequalities in the health system had taught him more about the country. “It makes me have second thoughts about what it means for me to stay in this country. America traditionally prides itself on being the country of freedom and diversity, but [all] this does not reflect that spirit,” he said. As students eye a return to China, they also face concerns back home as the authorities try to contain the rise in imported cases of Covid-19. These measures have prompted complaints of racism and discrimination against foreigners – most notably in the city of Guangzhou, where Africans are reported to have been evicted from their homes or hotels or subjected to forced quarantine – but Chinese citizens returning from overseas have also faced prejudice. Students returning home have faced calls that they should be banned from re-entering the country because of concerns they could bring back infections. China to ease coronavirus rules for African nationals after racism accusations Lyujiang Chen, who was able to return to China before flight restrictions were implemented, followed these comments online before and during his 14-day mandatory quarantine and said it made him feel worse. “It’s like we’re from some virus area going back to China,” he said, although he thought this was fringe opinion that had been amplified by social media. Yue, who remains on campus in California has been watching that situation closely, too. Since the outbreak, he has seen people, some of whom he knows, obviously go out of their way to avoid him. He also said he was not so surprised by the rise in racism and discrimination, because he knew these were deep-seated issues in America and “it’s just that this virus has brought the Asians to the front of the stage this time”. But what has surprised him was the opposition to Chinese students coming home. “There’s always this idea that’s implanted in me that whatever happens I’m still a Chinese citizen,” he said. “But this attitude online has been pretty saddening. It’s like you wanted your family members to appreciate you coming back, but they actually shut the door on you.” Sign up now and get a 10% discount (original price US$400) off the China AI Report 2020 by SCMP Research. Learn about the AI ambitions of Alibaba, Baidu & JD.com through our in-depth case studies, and explore new applications of AI across industries. 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