Introduction

International students from China continue to be the largest group among all international students in the USA (Institute of International Education, 2021). The outbreak of COVID-19 caused stress and anxiety among all international students due to interruptions in academic work, disconnect with communities, inability to travel back home, and restrictions on immigration policies (Bilecen, 2020). The challenges for Chinese international students have been tremendous and multifaceted under the unique sociocultural and political circumstances between China and the USA (Chen & Wen, 2021; Ma & Miller, 2020). In a previous study that examined the impact of COVID-19 and the sociocultural circumstances during quarantine, we interviewed a group of Chinese international students and visiting scholars through semi-structured focus group interviews and individual interviews. Four themes were identified that include safety concerns, the salience of the English language, intersectionality of policies and complex decision making, and unexpected support and benefits (Xu et al., 2021).

Findings of the previous study suggest that unconscious racism is an ongoing issue among Chinese international students or scholars, through their stories and struggles related to racial biases, particularly within the context of COVID-19. Each of these individuals shared their stories and experiences from different perspectives, with one common experience needing further examination: they all struggled in one way or another, and they lived in these struggles. Some thrived; some survived; some gave up. That common thread, through interwoven connections, points to the same core construct: race and racism. It forced us to take a closer look and expand on our initial research plan. We realized from our previous study through the exploration of Chinese international students’ lived experiences that racism was an implicit theme, although it was never explicitly stated by any participants. Yet, their stories, their struggles, and even their successes suggested that the impact of racism has been part of their lives, whether they realized it or not. For example, they had to worry about how others thought of them for wearing masks because they look “Asian.” They felt obligated to explain certain behaviors because they might act “Asian” or “Chinese.” They felt guilty for “bothering” their professors with too many questions because they did not speak “perfect” English. They were hesitant to ask for help because they might be misunderstood. This list could go on, but an implied theme was emerging: their race as Asian and their ethnicity as Chinese needed to be explained or excused in much of their daily interactions in the US university system. With this finding, we adjusted the focus of our research from the initial goal of supporting Chinese international students during and post COVID-19 with resources to understanding Chinese international students’ experiences in the USA. It is also clear that racism, specifically anti-Asian racism, exists among Chinese international students. Other than these, we know little about their day-to-day life as Chinese international students. Therefore, in the current study, we address the following research question: What are the lived experiences of Chinese international students with racism during COVID-19?

Racism Towards Asian-Identified Students

Building on a long history of linking pandemics with prejudice and xenophobia, the exploding racism during COVID-19 is disturbing but not surprising (Clissold et al., 2020). Two primary explanations for this are fear (e.g., of the disease, of infection, and of any carriers of the disease) and the role of the state (i.e., influential political figures that exacerbate, embolden, or legitimize bias through rhetoric) (Lantz and Wenger, 2022). In the USA, which is the origin of this study, both of these factors were present at the height of the quarantine and prior to the consistent distribution of vaccinations. During the approximate time period of March 2020 and December 2021, 10,901 Asian-specific hate incidents were reported (Stop AAPI Hate, 2021). According to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism (Center for the Study of Hate Extremism, 2021), hate crimes continued to rise in 2021 concurrent with spikes in COVID outbreaks but started slightly decreasing in 2022. Reports indicated that incidents were primarily verbal assaults (63%) with 16% comprising of physical assaults.

While Asian and Asian American students might encounter physical violence due to racism, verbal assaults occur more often (Brown & Jones, 2013). This type of abusive behavior includes swearing, being told to go back to China, negative comments on governments and countries, and aggressive laughter. Other “racial microaggressions” that may unintentionally pose racism to Chinese international students include avoiding sitting next to the students in lectures and avoiding group work with them. These behaviors may be subtle forms of racism but demonstrated to international students that they are less welcomed and did not belong in the community. Chinese international students continue to be vulnerable because of linguistic racism and language barriers. Linguistic racism causes students serious psychological and emotional consequences, and language barriers limit resources and support from the university and society (Dovchin, 2020). Unfortunately, this form of racism has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as nationalists target the Chinese community. For example, Schild et al. (2021) collected data from Twitter and 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board (/pol/) over 5 months to identify the use of Sinophobia racist slurs. They found increasing linguistic racism on both platforms, such as the use of the Sinophobia term “Kungflu” on /pol/ after January 2020 and the emergence of “asshoe” on Twitter, which aims to make fun of Chinese accents speaking English.

Ziems et al. (2021) provided a more comprehensive lens through Twitter on racial hate towards the Chinese and broader Asian communities. They created COVID-HATE, a huge dataset that contains 30 million tweets and a network of 87 million nodes. Through a 3-month period, Ziems et al. identified 891,204 hate and 200,198 counter hate tweets and found that hateful bots attracted more followers compared to anti-hate bots. They also found that hateful users were less engaged with COVID-19 discussion prior to their first hateful tweet, but they became more vocal and engaged exclusively (within the hate network) afterward. Although counter hate is slightly effective in discouraging hate in the first place, Ziems et al. (2021) confirmed that once the nodes were exposed to negative content, they were most likely to turn hateful. This research showed that hate is contagious and social media is an important battleground that anti-hate and anti-racism should win. Asian hate, though, is incongruent with the stereotype of Asians as the model minority.

Model Minority

Racial discrimination and injustice have always been challenges faced by Chinese international students; however, messages from this community have not had a chance to be delivered to the general public and leaders of the country. To quote Gao and Sai (2020),

Ironically, as Chinese, I have not been considered as a ‘minority’ from the eyes of other groups. I always hear ‘Oh, China grows fast and is rich.’ I remembered my recent conversation with a Black colleague about the Chinese ability in building an instant-hospital in 10 days to battle the coronavirus. And he didn’t think people who come from such a nation with great strength and wealth could have faced social inequality and inequity like they have faced. (p. 4)

Gao and Sai (2020) reported that Asian stands in between Black and White, and lots of times, Asians are omitted from discrimination, racism, and as an under-representation minority group. They are stereotyped as quiet and “ok with everything.”

Much of the research that focuses on Asian populations discusses the model minority stereotype. During the 1960s at the height of the US civil rights movement, the image of Asian Americans experienced a sudden shift from historically negative images to what seemed to be a positive image by being labeled as “the model minority” (Lee, 1999). The label “model minority” was defined by academic, economic, and social successes of Asian Americans as a group and values related to these successes (Lee, 1996; Wu, 2002). Yoo et al. (2010) further unpacked the myth of the model minority label into two parts. First, the label “model minority” was a comparative term. Compared with other minority groups in the USA, the Asian Americans are more successful. Second, the label suggested that it was Asian Americans’ value of individual hard work that leads to successes. At first glance, this seems to explain the more successful stories among Asian Americans. However, if we follow this logic, we would come to a misleading conclusion: if you do not succeed, it is yourself to blame because you did not work hard enough. Chen and Wen (2021) examined Chinese international students’ academic experiences in the USA based on interviews with students and faculty members, while findings yielded the common impression that Chinese international students were hard workers and diligent. They also found that the students felt excluded academically and did not belong to the university when discriminated against.

The juxtaposition of a “model minority” and overt and covert forms of racism provides insight into how participants in our original study may have experienced racism but either did not report it as such or did not recognize it. Hence, it led us to investigate this area more diligently and carefully by exploring what are the lived experiences of Chinese international students with racism during COVID-19?

Method

As a follow-up to a study that focused on the experiences of Chinese international college students and scholars during the COVID-19 pandemic (Xu et al., 2021), we sought to explore how these individuals perceived and coped with racism during this time. Hence, the research question was intended to elicit information about participants’ experiences with racism. Interview questions for the current study were informed by our previous study, and we began the process of interviewing with IRB approval. After one interview with one participant, it became evident that more in-depth information was needed to understand how participants would experience racism based on their individual backgrounds and understanding of the construct of racism. This one interview informed the research team that racism intersected with many other factors and was a specific and relative experience, so we decided to scale back the number of participants in order to capture these unique experiences and understand how the participants made meaning of these experiences. Therefore, the research question was modified to address how an international Chinese college student makes meaning from experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the impetus for the current study was based on the experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, we determined that narrative inquiry was the best methodological approach to answering the revised research question. One of the presuppositions of narrative research is that people experience their lives in a manner that resembles stories (Josselson & Hammack, 2021). To capture the experiences and the meanings of the experiences for the participant, acquiring stories related to the phenomenal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in the participant’s own terms was the goal. This includes analyzing these experiences for personal and cultural meanings, and the interaction between the two, that were connected temporally to racism experienced as an international Chinese student in the USA during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Role of Researchers

Consistent with narrative analysis, we examined our interactional processes during data collection and analysis to minimize researcher effects that potentially influenced the ideas we accepted and rejected, overlooked, and highlighted (Burck, 2005). A total of five researchers were involved in this study, and all are authors on this manuscript. Four of the five authors identify as female, and the fifth author identifies as male. The first two authors have an average of 21 years of experience as university professors holding doctoral degrees in their respective professional fields. One of the authors identifies as a doctoral student, one is a postdoctoral research associate, and one author is a program coordinator for an international studies center with all of them holding master degrees. Four of the five authors have experiences as international students, and three of the five authors are US citizens. Researchers have an average age of 38-years-old, and represent ethnicities of Chinese, Indian, and White ethnicities. Due to the sensitive and emotionally charged nature of this research project and the researchers’ experiences being or working with international scholars, we sought to mitigate the detrimental effects of our preconceptions about the central issue by bracketing our biases, presuppositions, assumptions, and prior experiences (Tufford & Newman, 2012).

Participants and Procedures

As described earlier, this was a follow-up study from an earlier study on the experiences of international Chinese students and scholars during the COVID-19 pandemic and was approved by the IRB board of the authors’ institution. The participants of the original study were part of the purposeful sample of this follow-up study. This sample identified themselves as Chinese international students attending college in either undergraduate or graduate college programs during the 2020 spring academic semester (mid-January through mid-May) (Xu et al., 2021). Additionally, two visiting scholars from China, one with a Ph.D. and another with a Master’s degree, participated in the study. Specific sampling procedures are described by Xu et al. (2021).

After the first interview was conducted with Emma (pseudonym applied) in this follow-up study, we decided to keep the sample as one to allow for further exploration of personal and cultural meanings of the COVID-19 experience. Emma, a 26-year-old female, identified as a third-year medical student and an international student in the USA since fall 2017. Although she identified ethnically as Chinese, her family immigrated to Canada when she was a young child.

Data Collection

Data collected in the initial study (Xu et al., 2021) was reviewed in order to create an interview protocol for this study. As added context, the previous study and current study were conducted during phase 6 of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO; 2009), phase 6 is where there is widespread human infection in multiple countries and different regions and infections were not remitting. In essence, this was a year-long period of active quarantine (not attending classes in-person or with significant limitations), mask mandates, and vaccination mandates in higher education for participants interviewed. In addition to protests related to Black Lives Matter in late spring of 2020 during this phase 6, ethnically related violence in the USA occurred with individuals who presented as having an Asian-related background (e.g., Atlanta, GA murders of Asian women) in spring of 2021. Questions that required the participant to define racism and what that meant to her, how she has experienced discrimination and/or observed it for others, and how her university has responded to discrimination of Asian students during the pandemic, protests, and overt racism of Asian individuals were asked. After this interview was conducted and reviewed by the research team, we determined that Emma’s background was unique due to her history of living in China and Canada and in how she spoke of her experiences in a storied format. Storying her experiences through a narrative analysis would center her experiences and possibly provide a counternarrative to the dominant cultural viewpoint in the USA (Iftikar & Museus, 2018).

After determining that more information was needed to explore how Emma understood racism before and during the pandemic, we planned for a second individual interview. In the second interview with Emma, more non-directive questions were utilized to explore how she developed her racial and ethnic identity. This included examining concepts that Emma introduced, such as model minority, cultural stereotypes, uniqueness, autonomy, and advocacy.

These two interviews were conducted by one member of the research team and were one to one and one-half hours in length. The interviews were conducted and recorded via Zoom and transcribed by a secure transcription service with the assistance of the interviewer for accuracy. The information obtained from the two interviews in this follow-up study and the data gathered from Emma’s initial participation in the original study (Xu et al., 2021) were included in the following data analysis.

Data Analysis and Trustworthiness

In narrative inquiry, reflexivity processes ensure methodological integrity (Josselson & Hammack, 2021). Thus, they were integrated into every step of the final methodological design utilized for this study and for every aspect of the data analysis. The research team met frequently to process the transcripts and subsequent interview questions that were guiding the process of helping the research participant in constructing her narrative. During research team meetings, the team members reflected on their own identities and life experiences and how these might be influencing the research process. For example, one white research team member who never had the experience of an international college student or scholar asked for clarification from other research team members with those experiences on how the participant’s experiences were being perceived and interpreted. This reflexive process, at times, led to follow-up questions with the participant in order to have an accurate understanding of the meaning she was attributing to her experiences.

For each of the three transcripts (e.g., one from the original study and two from the current follow-up study), the research team employed the narrative analysis guide to readings proposed by Josselson and Hammack (2021). For Reading One, the research team identified the initial thematic content and the overall gestalt of the narrative by listening to the audio recording as we read the transcript, annotating the transcript with our initial ideas, and writing an analysis memo that included initial impressions, thematic content, preliminary gestalt, and reflexivity. This required each research team member to listen carefully to how Emma structured her responses and made meaning of the life events and experiences she reported to the interviewers. In the first two interviews, it was apparent that she storied her events and connected them temporally (i.e., connecting her experiences with current prejudice with past experiences from her childhood). The research team, in the reflexive process, made adjustments to the follow-up questions that occurred in the third interview.

In the Second Reading, the transcripts were read again by each research team member with the intent to identify the voices, discourse, or ways of speaking that reflect systems of belief (Hammack, 2011) and potential master narratives illustrated through the experience (Josselson & Hammack, 2021). During this reading, the team identified multiple voices and discourses that included medical student, international student, immigrant, friend, individual with privilege, advocate, daughter, model minority, Chinese, person of color, woman, citizen, future self, worker, child, not unique, unique, partner, and group representative. The research team began an early analysis of the thematic clusters of these voices with recognition that some of these voices and discourses contradicted each other that reflected Emma’s developmental struggle at the time of the interviews.

For Reading Three, the research team’s goal was to identify thematic patterns of content within the narrative. This part of the analysis required each team member to take the annotated elements from the previous readings and identify the larger units of meaning in the text (Josselson & Hammack, 2021). For example, annotations of Emma’s narrative related to seeing self as unique, model minority, privileged individual, and not able to use privileges during pandemic were related to how she identified as a person yet were contradictory due to some new experiences presented with racism during the pandemic. Each of these annotations represented messages that Emma received in her life that she needed to be unique and Chinese students represented a model minority to many, but her experiences as a young adult and during the pandemic did not support those messages. Connecting the analysis from the Reading Three process to existing theories is part of the Reading Four process and will be described in more detail in the “Findings” and “Discussion” sections.

The reflexive processes required in narrative inquiry are a strength of this methodology and implies the importance of trustworthiness to conduct a credible study with integrity. Utilizing multiple researchers to plan the study and analyze the data while engaging in reflexive practices (e.g., journaling) and discussion during research meetings is one aspect of acquiring trustworthiness. Additionally, in-depth interviews with the research participant and requesting her review of the transcribed interviews allowed the research team to ensure that her experiences were captured and recorded accurately.

Findings

Through the narrative analysis process of readings, four thematic narratives emerged from Emma’s storied accounts related to her responses to COVID-19 and racism as an international medical student. Her perception of her own experiences and her observations of the others around her prompted her to explore her past, present, and future personal and cultural identity, experiences and interactions with racism, privilege, and advocacy and social responsibility. Emma’s process of identity formation as observed in her narrative will be included in the “Discussion”.

Personal and Cultural Identity

Emma identifies herself as a Chinese international student and acknowledges many newer experiences with racism since the advent of COVID-19. This required her to think more about her immigration experiences (i.e., moving from China to Canada) when she was 10 years old and how this was conceptualized in her community:

There’s like Asians, like me that either were born. I wasn’t born here, but like Asians that.

were born here or like me moved here at a relatively young age. So I was like 10-11, that’s pretty young, you know, I had to learn English at that age, but still, you know, I was fine. I wasn’t like 18 and that made it easier for me cause I knew all the cultural rules, the unspoken rules. And then they were like the Asians, like the FOBs (fresh off the boat), we would call them like I was a FOB.

This was one of the first instances that Emma differentiated herself from her Asian counterparts, either growing up or at the university. However, she reported that there was not much differentiation in expectations from Asian families for their children:

I was just that, I was like 17 and you know, I had normal kid interests, but, um, I guess it.

was very standard in terms of like what an Asian is expected to do. Like I did piano and I did like competitions and like math, like that is so standard. And it’s all stuff that I enjoy. But I wonder if, because we’re all sort of shaped to do this similar type of thing....like it’s, it’s like a joke among Asians that like, if you don’t play piano, you play violin, but it's going to be one or the other and I just wonder, like, it just, that make us all the same. Like, should we encourage something unique? Um, but that’s sort of like our culture, I guess. I don’t know.

However, Emma’s current experiences as a college student had her questioning these cultural expectations since these experiences had her doubting how unique she looked to university admission offices. Her understanding of “model minority” was more common among Asian students applying to college and made her stand out less to admission offices:

Asian Americans are like sort of the model minority in a way, in the sense that we are.

sort of known as hard workers and we have like a good reputation for always being willing to put in more work and all that, which is interesting. So that bodes well for me, in terms of the first impression, I feel like generally people, when they interview me, they will be like, ‘oh, you know, like you must work hard’ and that’s sort of to be expected...And part of me now after that big scandal involving Asian students [Harvard admissions] and how they have racialized pools...Like if you’re in a bucket of Asians, like it’s going to be hard (to be unique or standout) because the bucket is pretty good at standardized testing.

Emma continued to attempt to distinguish her uniqueness as a Chinese person in recounting how she experiences how others view her in the USA based upon physical appearance and verbal language:

As someone who is like a person of color going about everyday life, we just notice things.

like, uh, being, being categorized as like the other or like other otherness, I feel at a very visceral level. Like, even if you go to the grocery store, like, let’s say you’re on your phone and speaking in your native language to your parents or friends, like on the phone, people will be like, Oh, like staring at like, ‘what is she saying? Or like, oh, in this country we don’t speak whatever [language].’ And it’s like, not even the right language. So I’ll be like, ‘we don’t speak Korean here. And I’m like Korean’. So, um, those things I’ve always noticed.

Now as a successful medical student, Emma reflects on how she has gotten to this place in her education and career and if she will always need to meet a higher level of expectations because she is Asian:

Because I didn’t really grow up seeing anyone in that position [medical doctor], sort of growing up, I didn’t really have any guidance to like mentorship on how to even pursue this journey and I had to feel everything out on my own. So I feel like I would want to provide mentorship for people who look like me, who are immigrants trying to gain education in society...That makes me wonder, is that applicable to sort of my career in ways that I don’t even, I’m not even aware of, am I just having to meet like a different, higher standard? Because that’s like expected of me and my people that look like me.

Experience and Interactions with Racism

Because the purpose of the study was to explore Chinese international students’ experiences with racism during the COVID-19 pandemic, the initial interview questions focused more on current experiences. However, centralizing the study on one participant’s experiences and the meaning they made in the experiences illustrated a need to explore how Emma experienced prejudice or racism in the past. During the interviews, it appeared that she was becoming newly aware of how these past experiences were internalized:

Where I went to undergrad, I was at the library and I had made some delicious some rice.

and Korean pork belly. I packed some of that and some kimchi and I was at the library doing like my long haul, write out the note cards kind of studying...I opened up my kimchi and I started to eat and then this guy beside me, this white guy, was making a face and I just was looking at him like, ‘what is wrong with you?’ I just kept studying and then after 10 minutes, he goes, ‘um, excuse me, can you please put that away? Because it’s distracting me.’ I was just like, excuse me, like, are you trying to starve me, my culture’s food and it’s delicious. But, at the time I was embarrassed. I was also angry...So I felt like he thinks my kimchi is gross, therefore I am gross in a way.

Relating it to another food reference, Emma disclosed how she internalized as a younger child,

It’s just like when I was in middle school as well, like when I used to pack noodles and I used.

to like dump it out sometimes because people would just make fun of me for how it looked like worms. And now I’m thinking, ‘wow, I was so subjected to like a form of food bullying that I like would rather not eat, like, what’s wrong with me?’

During the pandemic, Emma reported more macroaggressions in personal and professional settings. She had expected to experience them coming from Canada to the USA, but did not experience it to the degree as when the pandemic occurred:

I’m from Canada….and I expected to encounter more incidences of covert and overt.

racism or xenophobia but haven’t experienced [attributes this to being in a diverse student body in a medical school]....I definitely felt that there has been a shift (since COVID)...not just a shift but a huge chasm has opened.

As a medical student, Emma had many opportunities to interact with the community outside of the university setting. Her responses to objectification illustrate vividly how this made her feel in those moments:

Even during vaccination events, like we’ve all been volunteering at these vaccination.

events as med students. Um, and it’s like, great. You get to help the pandemic on it and like serve your community. And we’re all like very gung-ho about it. Um, but she’s like, yeah, some lady like, sort of asking me about like my hair and like, could he touch it? Cause it’s like such a beautiful Indian hair. And I was just like, ‘girl, I know’, like people would just come up and like ask you the weirdest questions, like they’ll be like, ‘wow, your skin is so bronze or like your hair so straight’ or whatever, like just these things of like, why are you even like, I’m not a dog, you know, like don’t pet me.

This experience is coupled with patients refusing the help of Emma and how she learned to expect these requests:

I’ve had patients when I go to see them, say, or ask me specifically, and not the other.doctors or students…like where are you from, do you have COVID…um…things like that,

which are...seems shocking but it wasn’t to me anymore and I think it especially hits home for me because I was actually born in Wuhan.

More of a surprise and a disappointment was the lack of advocacy from the medical school and student body for Asian students who were experiencing discrimination:

One is that I’ve been disappointed with the lack of response in terms of offering students.

support from the med school administration. There wasn’t really any email saying you know, ‘if you need help or...we admonish discrimination, or we do not support discrimination of any kind.’ We never received an email of that kind which was surprising to me because when the protests started happening, immediately there was an admonishment of discrimination against African Americans. And this is not about who is a bigger victim at all, I’m just saying it’s definitely noticeable especially because....maybe a quarter or a third of our class are made up of Asian students and we have all shared stories of being discriminated against on our rotations.

Privilege

Keeping with the contradictory narrative about her early experiences with racism and the more recent occurrences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Emma described an array of privileges she has enjoyed due to her unique familial contexts. She began by ascribing the success of her family to her mother’s discernment about the drawbacks of the education system in China.

My mother moved us here predominantly because she wanted me to have another education system, where I could not be graded on one exam. She wanted me to just learn and understand instead of memorize because a lot of the high school education system, I guess, is focused on memorization, which she did not agree with.

She further explained Asians’ infrequent experiences with privileges of this nature. Furthermore, she described how her “default” setting as a child worked in her favor, a privilege not available to others in the Asian communities.

I know that that must be really hard because, you know, when you consider people who experienced racism, financial instability, and all those intersections, like, I don’t, I’m fortunate that I don’t experience poverty or things other than just being Asian. Like I’m heterosexual and I’m financially okay. And healthy, able bodied, like all those things that are very fortunate for me and give me a lot of privilege.

She continued to describe how her unique circumstances have enabled her to gain success as an international student in the USA. For example, she attributed her educational success to her family’s financial security.

My parents have been great with helping me with that [financial support], I would not be here without them but I don’t think that every international student has that financial security like I have, so I feel very grateful but I do think it’s a very important issue that the school needs to realize that some international students are stuck between a rock and a hard place where they can’t get loans but because they can’t get loans, they can’t get scholarships, and it just sort of snowballs into this huge debt!

Finally, she expressed her intention to better support and advocate for her fellow international students by taking advantage of her successful medical training and career.

And then also calling out my coworkers. I just think calling out is really important because if everybody was called out all the time, that would, you know...sure a lot of feelings will be hurt, but you know, what’s worse than dealing with the experience of racism. So, I’m leveraging my position in the future as well as just living my life as an upstanding citizen.

Advocacy and Social Responsibility

In several instances, Emma described leveraging her privileges to advocate for other Asian international students. These extended from institutional efforts to bring about structural changes to taking personal responsibility to counter racism and aid in smoother transitions for other Asian international students’ into their new educational endeavors. For example, during a meeting with the vice chair for diversity, upon inquiring about the funding availability, staff, and resources to address the race related issues, she was told that they have no budget.

I feel like from the institutional perspective, it’s all been very surface level, to be honest, like they hired this new vice chair for diversity, uh, something and inclusion ... we met with him last week after the Asian shootings, everybody started reaching out to the Asian medical student group and we were like, ‘Hmm, interesting’. Uh, never been funded before. And he, you know, he was like, what can I do? And we were like, well, do you have like a budget? Like, can we go to some meetings? And he was like, we have no budget. I was like, great. I feel like it just is like, they create this position and yes, the poor guy’s just trying to figure it out still, but he’s just, he doesn’t even have an operating budget, which to me shows the fakeness of it all.

She expressed a sense of social responsibility towards Asian international students because of her place of privilege. Specifically, she reported her plan to leverage her profession to provide mentorship to the future generation of Asian international students.

I definitely do plan to leverage my position as a physician, which in general is like a fairly well-respected profession, um, and like a trusted profession. And I would definitely take that very seriously. I feel like it, I would advocate for mentees who wanted to enter medicine. Like I’m the first physician in my family. And so, because I didn’t really grow up seeing anyone in that position, um, sort of growing up, I didn’t really have any guidance to like mentorship on how to even pursue this journey and I had to feel everything out on my own. Um, and so I feel like I would want to provide mentorship for people who look like me, who are immigrants trying to gain education in society. Like I definitely support that.

Emma also described her attempts to empower her Asian friend to advocate for herself at her workplace when her request for a raise was denied.

And I think Asians are perceived to be this hard working, self-sacrificing model minority and so we’re just expected to work over time without overtime pay kind of thing. And, um, she was talking to me about that the other day. ‘Like, I, I feel like I can’t ask for a raise because I feel like they just expect this of me now, but at what I’m really trying to do is I’m always just doing my best and it’s more than most people do at my like department. And it’s not being recognized because I feel like there’s like a culture of like Asian are so great. They’re just so hardworking this like Asian lady with her graduate degrees and all that.’ It’s just like, when I heard that I was like, ‘girl, you need to ask for a raise or change your job.’ Um, but you know, she’s like very non-confrontational. She was like, ‘I think if they thought I deserved it, then I will get one.’ I was like, I honestly don’t know if that’s how it works. So it just saddens me to see how in so many aspects of society, people who look like us are not progressing because of assumptions made about our ability and willingness to work basically for free. And so I think that’s very damaging...

Discussion

Interviewing Emma as an international student experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple social protests that centered around race provided a unique opportunity to learn how her own personal and professional identities evolved. The four themes identified through our narrative inquiry process were only the highlights of a complex self-reflection on how Emma identified herself as a Chinese immigrant to Canada and how her experiences as an international student in the USA affected her view of self and others. The first three themes of personal and cultural identity, experiences and interactions with racism, and privilege provide a more sequential story of childhood to current experiences. The theme of advocacy and social responsibility reflected Emma’s current thinking when privileges were juxtaposed in her life. She had some privileges, according to her student status, but society diminished formerly held privileges due to being seen as associated with COVID-19. This one aspect of her story was not fully acknowledged by Emma until she began to talk about advocating and being socially responsible.

We chose Emma as the sole participant of our narrative inquiry because of her unique background (i.e., Chinese Canadian international medical student in the USA) and her shared experiences during the COVID-19 as an individual with multiple identities. Through Emma’s story, we could see the impact of history on Asian Americans such as the model minority label and how it has influenced Emma’s value development during her growing up as an immigrant. Emma’s parents immigrated to Canada when she was a young child because they wanted her to have different educational experiences and more opportunities for academic success, which were expected leading to economic and social successes, as typically what we would define the “American dream.” However, the findings of this narrative inquiry tell us more of this model minority myth, particularly within the context of the COVID-19. If her experience with racism was hidden or implied during her childhood (e.g., being teased by eating noodles as “worms”) or college life (e.g., the look from a white guy because of the food smell), then COVID-19 makes racism emerge or reemerge in different forms. While we can clearly perceive and applaud her individual success as a medical student who will be in “a good profession” leading to economic success or potential social success, Emma’s experience with racism was evident and unfortunately will continue in her future career, because the nature of racism is fundamentally based on race, which was supposed to be a stable biological trait but has been arbitrarily associated with socioeconomic, cultural, or political characteristics. It is unclear to foresee how a post-pandemic world will continue to perpetuate Asian hate. Historically, the idea of “Yellow Peril” that originated in the late 1800s became a racist term that represents the threat of Asian countries and/or people (Keevak, 2011). Consequently, although one Asian community may be targeted as a threat to national security and safety, the effects of this racism is felt by all Asian communities (Siu & Chun, 2020). In essence, Emma is not perceived as an individual but an agent of the state meaning China and is perceived unfairly as a threat. This lingering suspicion may ease in the post-pandemic USA but will more than likely not go away completely.

The label of the model minority tends to ignore all other factors inherent in our social and political system, which unfortunately will continue. In other words, “to blame the victim” syndrome is the unwritten word in the model minority. The model minority label tends to focus on aggregated mean racial group differences while ignoring the significant details within aggregate group statistics represented by the heterogeneity of Asian American groups with significantly different levels of success (Yoo et al., 2010). Particularly the model minority label tends to neglect history and the role of selective immigration of Asian Americans. For example, the 1965 Immigration Act specifically changed the demography of Asian Americans in the USA today by allowing a greater number of educationally and economically successful Asian American professionals who could potentially contribute to American society (Takaki, 1993).

What is encouraging from Emma’s story is her experience being an advocate and the gradual development of social responsibility. The power of this narrative inquiry is embedded deeply through this unique individual whose story can be shared or sensed by many of us with similar or different experiences. According to Iftikar and Museus (2018), story informs theory and practice that can produce “positive transformative purposes” (p. 941). By storying her experiences, Emma assists us in centering her Asian and international student experiences to offer alternative epistemologies to those perpetuated by the dominant culture in the USA. This AsianCrit perspective builds on a commitment to social justice and advocacy to end all forms of oppression and exploitation, including the racism, sexism, heterosexism, and capitalist exploitation that Emma reported experiencing. Utilizing this framework and the findings of this study leads to implications for research and practice in higher education.

Implications and Recommendations

Findings of this narrative inquiry based on one unique individual with multiple cultural identities inspire us to explore additional individual stories representing the diverse Asian communities in the USA. With no doubt, Emma’s story mirrors many Asian Americans’ lived experiences prior to and during the pandemic. However, much needs to be explored behind their stories, such as the intersections between socioeconomic status, gender, and race, the impact of historical and political backgrounds, and the influence of the world’s power switches between developed and developing countries on recent immigrants, just to name a few. The AsianCrit perspective urges us to view the world from a different “mirror” through reflections and self-reflections, challenges, and opportunities. In order to accomplish these, researchers will need to be more open-minded, to be willing to acknowledge their own vulnerability, and to explore the deep meaning from the surface by questioning the social validity of their study. To answer these complicated research questions, researchers may need to apply mixed research approaches such as mixed-model designs and mixed-method designs (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004) to make meaning from individuals’ stories within the larger context. For example, a large-scale survey following a narrative inquiry could help researchers and educators identify factors and resources to improve our support system for minorities as individuals as well as communities. Research does not, should not, happen in the vacuum.

In addition to the development of more research, implications for institutions of higher education are numerous. Emma’s story indicates that admission and retention practices for international students need much more attention. Colleges and institutions attend to much of the best practices on student success that tend to focus more on undergraduate students. However, it is evident in this study that a set formula for admissions and retention practices, specifically with international students, has gaping holes that puts students at risk. There appears to be a significant reliance on global education offices to attend to many of the needs of international students and/or an assumption that student services can attend to the unique needs of all students. For example, can college counseling centers address mental health needs if language barriers prevent them from seeing a licensed professional? A second example is related to advocacy. In the case of Emma, the loudest advocate is put in the place of being the spokesperson for those with similar racial and ethnic identities. This does not allow for the within-group differences to be accounted for in new programming, when needed. Finally, higher education professionals need to address the lack of or minimal policy available to international students in all areas that impact their lives while attending colleges and universities.

Study Limitations

The nature of narrative inquiry and analysis is that it necessitates a need for smaller samples, such as reported in this study (Josselson & Hammack, 2021). Although it does not depict the experiences of large populations of Asian international students in higher education settings, it adds to the growing literature that centers these experiences and offers growing counter narratives to a dominant discourse about their experiences. Additionally, Emma’s story reflects one of an immigrant Chinese student that does not portray the stories of international Chinese students who are in the USA without prior experience with a dominant English-speaking culture and the influence of Western norms. Experiences of Asian international college students may also be dependent on additional factors, such as time spent in the USA, the size of the university/college, the resources available at the university/college, the location (e.g., urban, suburban, rural) and region of the university/college, and the network of Asian international students.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent social protests highlighted the need to understand the experiences of international students attending colleges and universities. For Chinese international students in the USA, experiences related to pandemic were compounded by socio-political issues promulgated by racially motivated crimes, political party machinations, and a looming presidential election. From this narrative inquiry study with Emma, we learned that she not only had to cope with all of these issues but had to self-reflect for a better understanding of her own identity. Her story highlighted issues that culminated in an acknowledgement of the racism she faces as an international student studying at a university in the USA. The hopeful continuation of her story lies in her next steps as an advocate and the implications for colleges and universities to address related issues in the programs and policies that impact the daily lives of international students.