I was standing in front of the boarding gate when a message arrived from my AirB&B host in Portland: “We’re sorry but our place is no longer available.” I read the message over and over again. Did my host just cancel my stay? At the last minute?? Just the night before, they had been texting me information on how to get to their place from the airport.
It was hard not to panic: I had a twenty hour cross-ocean journey ahead, I had never been to Portland, and less than fifteen minutes to decide if I wanted to get on the plane or arrive in a foreign city without a place to stay.
I had it all planned out: I would fly to Portland and spend the night at a lovely AirB&B place with a retired artist and her son, before proceeding to Tin House’s Winter Workshop. But with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, Singapore (until South Korea’s outbreak in Daegu) chalking the highest number of cases outside China, and widening travel restrictions, I began to worry if I could make the trip at all. “Americans are very simple-minded,” my husband reminded me. “They just watch Fox News and think, oh! Asian face! Virus. You better make sure they’re okay.”
“Nah,” I told him. ” It’ll be fine. Writers are nice people.”
Still, the responsible thing to do, was to inform my AirB&B host and Tin House that while the virus situation was getting more serious, I had not traveled to China or gone near any of Singapore’s clusters, and more importantly: I was in perfect health, and would not travel if I wasn’t. Tin House said that there was no issue, while my AirB&B host replied, “I’m not sure what the situation is like at the airport,” not seeming to have much idea what was going on.
In hindsight, my attitude of open disclosure appears to have triggered their panic button. Right before I left for the airport, a strange message arrived from the host’s son, asking me to “please remember to bring hand sanitiser and gloves for your flight. People are catching it from planes and cruise ships.” It was a world of difference from his enthusiasm two months ago when I made my booking, when he messaged me several times in Chinese–even though I only wrote in English.
I may never know the real reason for their last minute cancellation, or the gag-worthy U-turn from welcoming me in Chinese to turning me away without any explanation. I have launched a complaint with AirB&B, and they are currently investigating. Obviously, it would be the easiest thing in the world for them to give a weak excuse, and AirB&B to say “they tried, but have no reason to doubt their reason given”. We’ll see. But I wanted to share my story to raise awareness of discrimination in the West against travelers from Asia–and also warn my fellow Asian-face people to be careful when making bookings through AirB&B.
I couldn’t help wondering: if the Covid-19 virus has a face, is it Asian? What the hell does ‘Asian’ mean in the first place? Did my host somehow confuse China and Singapore? Mostly, though, I feel sorry for them. Did they spend hours scaring themselves reading up about the virus on the internet? In the initial days of the outbreak in Singapore, my antennae went up every time I heard someone cough or sneeze–especially if they spoke with a mainland Chinese accent. So to be fair, I don’t begrudge them their fear. It is human to fear what you don’t know. But the moment you give in to fear, the virus takes over your life. Even if you haven’t contracted anything. And that, frankly, could be more dangerous than the virus itself.
My story has a happy ending: thanks to the generous help of a fellow Tin House workshop writer, I ended up staying in a lovely place (above photo was taken at their backyard) with a very kind family, who incidentally also lived in Seoul in the 1980s–which as some of you may know, is the backdrop for my novel! Later that night, I called my husband.
“See what I told you? Writers are nice people.”