July 15, 2020
Peter Tsai, the Taiwanese American inventor of the N95 mask technology, shared his thoughts on working in a time of rising anti-Asian sentiment and anxieties due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tsai, who immigrated to the United States in 1981 to earn his doctorate, volunteers his time and expertise to fight the virus and its transmission. While the pandemic has been marked with an uptick in hate incidents toward the Asian American community, Tsai, who's based in Knoxville, Tennessee, told NBC Asian America that he jumped at the opportunity to work.
Tsai, who patented the filtration material used in N95 respirators in 1995, said he has been inundated with questions about how to sterilize and maintain the efficacy of his technology since the beginning of the pandemic.
"I just thought I had this responsibility to help. So I came out of retirement," he said.
Tsai has experienced a fair amount of internet fame in recent weeks. He has become a sort of hero in representation for many in the Asian American community and beyond because of his critical contributions during the pandemic, as well as his background as an immigrant from Taiwan who came to the U.S. to study at Kansas State University. Many have hailed Tsai as a role model for working in spite of the difficult conditions for many who have similar backgrounds.
Not only have hate incidents toward Asian Americans grown significantly, with more than 800 incidents reported in California alone in the three months since the reporting tool Stop AAPI Hate launched, but the Trump administration also has sought to limit immigration.
In June, the president signed an executive order to freeze new H1-B visas for foreign workers through the end of the year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also recently tried to force international students on F-1 and M-1 visas, who are learning remotely, to leave the country. The rule has since rescinded as of Tuesday.
Tsai, once an international student himself, acknowledges that the environment is tough and that in his decades of work and in his past, he has had experiences with racism. However, he said, he has tried to tune out injustices, keeping the greater purpose of his work front of mind, instead.
"I did encounter something like this," Tsai said of discrimination, "but I just do my work, and I think what I do is good for the community. My technology is good for humans, then no matter how they treat me I did not care that much."