New UCLA student documentary unpacks anti-Asian hate during Covid

Say that covid changed our lives would be an understatement – ​​’disturbed’, ‘upset’ or ‘destroyed’ would be more appropriate verbs for many people. Asian communities, in particular, are among the groups disproportionately affected (DI) by Covid, not thanks to an increase in anti-asian targeted hate sentiments and crimes.

For Nox Yang, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Chinese international students are a subset of Asian communities in America that are overshadowed in public discourse. As a major in sociology and a minor in film studies, she felt compelled to bring them to the fore by making a documentary.

Nox Yang in San Francisco

Yang’s upcoming documentary sheds light on how Chinese international students navigate life in a nation full of hostility towards them. The film is in post-production and will be released before the end of the year.

In an interview with the young storyteller, RADII learns more about pandemic life through the eyes of Chinese students studying abroad in 2020.

The humans of LA

Born and raised in central China’s Henan Province, Yang moved to America to continue her studies at UCLA in 2018. Armed with her camera, she explored Los Angeles in her free time – field trips that resulted in photos of interesting personalities and stories that she’d share on her blog.

An exciting opportunity awaited Yang at the end of her freshman year: a professor enlisted her for a documentary he was making. The project served as Yang’s first introduction to the film genre, which she would quickly embrace. Following her teacher’s film project, she will create her first documentary about a colorful artistic community in Los Angeles.

LA Arts Community

Nox Yang with the subjects of his first documentary

“Not only did they support each other, but this group never forgot to have fun. They also taught me a lot about American society and different industries,” she says, referring to the artists featured in her first documentary.

The experience solidified the sociology student’s appreciation of documentary filmmaking as a powerful medium for storytelling.

The art of documentary filmmaking felt like a natural transition from her days of blogging, which involved taking photos, interviewing people, and recording her interactions. Plus, she found that the former was an even better way to connect with her audience.

ucla student documentary

Nox Yang

“Making documentaries humanizes communities because it allows you to see people for who they really are,” she muses.

When Covid hit China in early 2020, the budding storyteller didn’t have to search too hard for her next human-interest story: she decided to profile her own student community.

Capturing Covid

When Covid first swept through China, most UCLA students imagined the pandemic would be isolated in China. Sympathetic to their homeland, Chinese international students led fundraising campaigns – and Yang was there every step of the way.

They raised funds to buy medical supplies which they mailed to China. An organizer, a friend of Yang, allowed him to follow him as he toured warehouses, checked supplies and made sure deliveries were going smoothly.

ucla student documentary

Nox Yang (center) and her film crew filming at UCLA

Yang points out that the Chinese students were actually doing a lot to help people in their home country. In addition to running their classes at UCLA, many were actively communicating with local organizations and hospitals in China. Yang also played a role in ensuring that these laudable efforts were well documented.

In February 2020, however, things started to get complicated. While it was traditional for the group of Chinese students at UCLA to hold a Spring Festival show to celebrate the holiday together, many Chinese parents advised their children against the event, knowing how the contagious virus had flooded China.

Yang followed a debate among the students, who decided that a public vote would democratically determine whether or not to cancel the event. Despite their parents’ concerns, the majority insisted on the show going ahead, especially since they had invested a lot of time in its preparations.

“I went behind the scenes, talked to students and documented what they thought about the situation and Covid,” Yang recalled. “Fortunately, the event has not been cancelled.”

UCLA students

UCLA students posing backstage on the day of the Spring Festival show

the death of doctor Li Wenliang is a significant event in the global Covid timeline that is covered in Yang’s documentary. The respected doctor, known as the “Wuhan whistleblower”, was the first to issue warnings about the severity of Covid, but was silenced by authorities.

Li’s life has been honored by memorials around the world, including one just outside UCLA. In addition to paying his respects, Yang filmed the memorial and spoke to several attendees.

Nox Yang

Nox Yang at Doctor Li Wenliang Memorial

To his surprise, most of the mourners weren’t UCLA students.

“I talked to some memorial students,” says Yang, who soon found out the reason for their avoidance. Afraid of being caught on camera, many had decided to leave aside this politically sensitive event.

Declining virus, rising hate

As things improved in China, Yang noticed a shift in the wind to the west. Chinese students, especially those from Wuhan, began to face targeted discrimination. One of these students agreed to talk to Yang about her experiences.

“After interviewing her, I thought about ways to avoid exclusion based on a person’s origins,” the documentary filmmaker shared.

And then it happened.

In March, America was hit hard by the virus and cities, including LA, were eventually locked down. Consequently, more Americans discovered the origins of Covid and coined or adopted harmful terms such as “kung flu” and “Chinese virus”.

“We’ve seen a lot of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese things happen,” Yang sighs. “There have been a lot of misunderstandings and misrepresentations.”

Seeing that her documentary was impacted by the lockdown, she turned to social media to crowdsource video clips from the Chinese student community. Participants had the freedom to choose their own format and content.

Chinese international student

A clip submitted by a Chinese international student wearing a protective face shield during a flight

anti-asian racism

“Because we are Chinese they threw eggs at our door,” read the caption of one of the submitted clips.

Yang patiently combed through and compiled the clips with one end goal in mind: to portray real stories and the real life of the Chinese student community amid the Covid pandemic.

“We are not a brand. We are not a stereotype. And we are certainly not the virus.

The time-consuming task proved eye-opening for the young filmmaker. A lesson in adaptation and patience, much of the content describes students adapting to the new situation and enduring unpleasant confrontations.

At the end of the day, Yang realized that most of his subjects were just children living away from their families and in a foreign country where they lacked support systems.

She names a clip titled “Statement Against Discrimination” as a particularly memorable submission. “If you discriminate against us…” warn two Chinese students in a brutal way while brandishing a toy gun.

chinese students against racism

Screenshot of “Statement Against Discrimination”

Other submissions offer more heartwarming content, especially videos of Chinese students supporting each other through difficult times.

Yang may have filmed his still-unnamed documentary two years ago, but his message still rings true: Anti-Asian sentiment is still hugely problematic in America. Looking back, Yang feels empowered to have been able to document the story.

UCLA student documentary

A Facebook post by Yang

Additionally, the project further fueled her passion for social justice.

“Every individual in society is affected by social injustice. Personally, I have experienced this as a woman, as an Asian and as a migrant in America. Everyone should learn about social justice, because we’re all in it together.

All images via Nox Yang

Comments are closed.