Wuhan, China is an enormous city with a population of more than 11 million people, bigger than New York City, but overshadowed by other urban centers in China like Shanghai and Beijing, which are twice as large.
A little more than a year ago, it did not have much name recognition within the United States, but that all changed, of course, when it emerged as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak that would become a global pandemic.
Suddenly, association with the city elicited an immediate and specific kind of reaction — something Pierson High School senior Alex Makoid knows well. Alex, 17, was born in Wuhan, and lived there until she was 1 ½, when she was adopted by her parents, Tracy Mitchell and Blaze Makoid.
While she has lived virtually her entire life in the United States, Alex has remained connected to the city and country of her birth, staying in touch with her “sisters,” young women the same age as her who were also adopted by American families around the same time. Because of COVID, they were unable to meet up for their annual visit this year. But Alex was busy with another venture that has the common thread of helping her stay connected to her cultural heritage, and, more importantly, raise awareness about Asian culture and traditions in her hometown.
Last November, Alex joined with fellow senior Nicole Cheng to start an Asian Culture Club at the high school. The club, which is advised by Pierson math teacher Zoey Zhu, puts out a weekly newsletter and hosts weekly meetings (via Zoom, for now), with the goal of educating the school and larger community about Asian culture, and increasing awareness of and appreciation for the cultures and traditions of the vibrant and unique countries that fall under the eastern Asia umbrella, including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Alex said last week that the impetus for forming the club was simple — they wanted to create an environment that could foster greater understanding of Asian culture and act as a force against ignorance while also opening peoples’ minds.
“Me and a couple of my friends and others I know have experienced some comments in different situations, and we wanted to create a sort of community, and have a place where Asians or any other people that wanted to join could embrace the culture,” she said, pointing out that Sag Harbor is generally lacking in diversity when it comes to the village and student body populations.
Nicole, who serves as the club’s president, expressed similar sentiments.
“I’m really glad we started the Asian Culture Club,” she said. “It has created a sense of community a lot of us craved. This is the start of a new chapter at Pierson, and I hope the club will move on to bigger and better things and continue to spread more awareness in the future.”
The club has a website, and its newsletters focus on a different theme or topic each week, such as information about Lunar New Year, or the way the media functions in Asian countries. They also plan certain initiatives they’d like to see adopted in the school, such as providing chopsticks as utensils for school lunch.
While the pandemic has limited the extent of the club’s reach when it comes to meeting in person and planning events, in many ways the presence of the club is more crucial than ever. Anti-Asian sentiment and instances of violence have risen sharply during the pandemic, fueled by racist rhetoric on the part of world leaders, like President Trump, who repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as “the China virus” and used other derogatory terms that attempt to place blame on China for the pandemic.
After several publicized racially motivated attacks on innocent Asian men and women across the country, the situation came to a head on March 16, when a shooter killed eight people at an Atlanta-area massage parlor. The murders have not been formally been charged as hate crimes, but many people and activist groups across the country are adamant they were racially motivated, as six of the eight victims were of Asian descent.
Alex has certainly felt the ripple effects of the last year. She said that while she has not experienced overt hatred or violence, she has noticed a marked difference in the way people react whenever she shares where she is from.
“When I’d mention Wuhan, people would laugh,” she said. “In a way, that it was just sort of unbelievable to them, that I’m from this one place where COVID started. When I would talk to my Chinese sisters, when this all started, we would kind of joke about how no one knew about Wuhan before this, because it’s not a city like Beijng. Now, where we came from is known, but it’s just because of this huge negative thing.”
Ms. Mitchell said it was “disturbing” and “disheartening” to hear from her daughter that people within the school and larger community were reacting in that way when she shared her city of birth.
“I’m wondering what effect this is having on my daughter and her friends, both those who are Asian and who aren’t,” she said. “These things can fester, even in small communities, and if you don’t shut it down, it grows. We’re seeing it all over the country. I’m the mother of a kid who is about to graduate high school, and I’m sending her out into this world, and it makes me crazy. It makes me angry. This is not a natural disaster — it’s a man made problem that we need to fix.”
While the rise in anti-Asian sentiment has been disturbing — particularly the killings in Georgia — Alex said there has been a silver lining surrounding the national discourse that has been started in the wake of the racially motivated crimes.
“Since we started the club, people have definitely become more aware,” she said, adding that newsletters providing information on the different countries that comprise eastern Asia have been enlightening, even for her. “I think that Asians and Asian culture have been, not necessarily overlooked, but on a lower tier of what people are trying to help, but because of recent events, it’s become more of a priority.
“Last year, when there were big movements for women’s rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations about gun rights, my mom and dad would tell me that it’s a really monumental point in time,” Alex continued. “But I think it’s important for every issue or topic to be brought up, and I appreciate that Asian cultures are fighting for that.”
Alex will continue to use her voice, but in a different environment next year, as she is on track to graduate at the end of the year and will head to college. She is interested in pursuing a double major in political science and communications, with a minor in environmental science, hoping to advocate for another cause important to her heart — the threats posed by climate change. She hopes that the work the Asian Culture Club started can continue to flourish even as she moves on.
“I hope that we laid the groundwork and they can recruit more kids, and I hope they get even more support, not just from Asians,” she said. “We have a few middle schoolers who come now, too, so I’m really hoping the club can recruit even more middle schoolers.”
Ms. Mitchell said she is proud of her daughter’s part in starting the club, and in her determination to combat ignorance in a positive and proactive way.
“I’m just grateful that I have a really smart daughter who takes things into her own possession and says, OK, I’m going to do something to make a real change,” she said. “This is a small town and there are a lot of very sophisticated people who come here, but there is also an element of people who buy into that negative rhetoric, and that’s not acceptable. We don’t have to all think alike, but we do have to respect everybody, and realize that change starts with the individual, and we’re all responsible for doing our part.”