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A Chinese American Entrepreneur on Anti-Asian Bias in the Pandemic: ‘I’m on High Alert’For Celine Tien, the pandemic has brought opportunity for her health care startup. It’s also brought pain and fear.

Celine Tien is the co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Flowly, a app that uses virtual reality experiences and biofeedback, such as heart rate, to help people better regulate chronic pain and anxiety. After two years of working on the concept, Tien and her team launched Flowly in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, raising $2.5 million to date, including a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Drug Abuse. “Covid hasn’t slowed us down. It’s made us work faster and harder to get the product out there,” Tien says. “It’s easier to talk to [investors] now because they understand the pain point much faster.”
At the same time, for Tien personally, the pandemic has laid bare the kind of bias she has experienced since moving to the U.S. in grade school. Below, she reflects on how becoming aware of her “Asianness” shaped her path to becoming an entrepreneur. –As told to Lindsay Blakely

In February 2020, I decided to treat myself to a manicure for my 24th birthday. This was right when Covid-19 started taking over headlines but before the lockdowns began in the U.S.

The nail technician, a Vietnamese woman, took a look at my hands and suddenly asked me if I was Chinese. “Are you from-China Chinese?”

    When I told her I’m from mainland China and Taiwan, I was not prepared for the rant that came next. She told me that Chinese people are scary and eat “weird” food. “I don’t like you. You are so bad, so bad and so gross,” she said.

    I was so angry. The thing that really shook me in the moment was not the comments she made. It was that, even though she had spoken loudly enough for everyone in the salon — customers and employees — to hear, not a single person said anything. It was absolutely silent.
    A few days later, I returned with my mom and two friends to speak to the entire staff of Vietnamese women at the salon about my experience. They were afraid of Covid and associated the virus with simply being Chinese — not surprising given the sensationalistic headlines and that our own president at the time would refer to Covid as “the China virus.” But as the conversation went on, one woman revealed that she had been mistaken for Chinese by a customer, and she, too, was interrogated about whether or not she had the virus.


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