As the academic year winds to a close, we at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU have taken time to reflect upon the unprecedented moment through which we are living and its significance for Asian/Pacific Americans in particular. Certainly, when last fall we launched our yearlong focus on “In the Wake of War”—by celebrating Artist-in-Residence Ocean Vuong—none of us could have predicted that in a few months a global pandemic would bring most of our daily life and work to a standstill. And as we think ahead to the months and years to come, we share the anxiousness about the many challenges that our colleagues, students, staff, and community members face. We worry about the health of our friends and families, as well as the economic, social, and political impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this context, I have found myself repeatedly returning to the theme “In the Wake of War,” in order to help make sense of the current crisis and the uncertain future. Building on our commitments to the migrants and refugees that constitute Asian/Pacific diasporas, we had wanted to better understand the many wars—whether international conflicts, civil unrest, or the “war on terror”—that put people into motion across borders and compelled them to forge new lives.
This perspective instructs us to be cautious and skeptical when official and media discourses resort to the vocabulary of war to describe the pandemic. Personally, as a scholar of language and literature who believes deeply that words matter, I have been troubled by how easily metaphors of war have been used to frame our struggles with the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Especially when such a battle is fought against an “invisible enemy,” it proves all too easy to scrutinize and police those bodies who are assumed to harbor such an elusive foe. As Asian/Pacific Americans find themselves in the cross-hairs of such antipathy, we are reminded that there is a long history to such racist representations. We are mindful also of how the jingoism that the rhetoric of war inspires can paper over the extremely uneven effects of this public health crisis that lands most harshly on the already socially vulnerable communities of this city and this nation.
But we are also inspired to learn from the struggles that Asian/Pacific Americans and others have faced in the past to guide us in moving forward. We are better served by a different language, one of care and solidarity, to imagine the world we want. With this end in mind, we look forward to being together with you again—whether in person or virtually— in the fall, to take stock of the challenges and possibilities that have arrived for Asian/Pacific Americans. As we spend the summer preparing next year’s programming, which will focus on “Our Politics, Our Selves,” we wish you a summer of rest, recuperation, and renewal.