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My first trip to China was in 2017. I visited the French Concession in Shanghai, admiring the many London plane trees. I strolled the Bund, the city’s waterfront promenade, looking out over the Huangpu River. I went to Beijing to see the Forbidden City and hiked part of the Great Wall, which was far more challenging than I had anticipated.
But no matter where we went, I noticed something, even through the fog of jet lag: I was being stared at. One afternoon as I stood on a sidewalk in Shanghai, a passenger on a bus pointed at me and laughed. It was a reminder that I was the only black woman in a sea of Chinese faces, and that for many, I didn’t belong.
I returned from my second trip to China less than two weeks ago. In mid-February I went to join our team in Hong Kong, where The New York Times has been covering the coronavirus outbreak since it was first discovered in the city of Wuhan. This time, I noticed some Westerners who I thought were being insensitive toward the Chinese.
Most everyone in Hong Kong wears a mask these days, which felt to me like an act of solidarity and a symbol of the city’s effort to fight the virus as a community.
It was jarring to see many foreigners not wearing masks when the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population considered wearing them a serious matter of public health. Not wearing a mask, in my view, was a sign of cultural insensitivity. It even strikes me now as an early echo of the tendency of some to label the coronavirus the “China virus.”
China will continue to dominate headlines in the coming weeks and months, and I’m grateful for my experience in the country. I plan to use it to guide me as we cover this story — the biggest of my career — and to help me think about what makes us different and how important it is to be sensitive about those different social and cultural markers.
From Hong Kong, I watched in horror as the coronavirus spread across the world. In a pandemic, our differences matter very little. We all can get sick, and the only way to fight it is together.
We’d like to hear from you. Has the spread of the coronavirus made you more sensitive to cultural differences? Email us your thoughts at [email protected] We may use your story for an upcoming article.