I was 14 or 15 when my immigrant mother asked me what I'd do if the U.S. ever went to war with China. As a freshman in high school—who had only ever made the decision between skim or chocolate milk for lunch—the hypothetical situation felt ridiculous; impossible even. Without really thinking about it, I chose America. "Because I was born and raised here, this is my home," I responded. "You may feel that way inside," she said. "But you’ll always be Chinese to them. It doesn’t matter if you were born here and raised here. You don’t look American. And they’ll hate you for that."
I’ve been swallowing that pill ever since I was old enough to play with other children. "Where are you from?" my white classmates would all ask, even after knowing me for six years. "What are you?" "How do you swear in Chinese?" "I can’t tell you apart, all Asians look the same." "Go back to China." Pulled eyes; pantomimes of Chinese words; being told I look like Lucy Liu or Michelle Kwan because they were two of the few well known Asian American women in the media at that time—I’ve heard pretty much every othering microaggression. As much as I hate to say it, there was a nugget of truth in my mother's awful honestly: It doesn’t matter if I was born on U.S. soil, or that I was raised on in a house purchased by U.S. immigrants, or that I was educated in the U.S. school system. I’m always registered as Asian first, and then a woman. American rarely ever makes the list.
I feel this sentiment more than ever in the midst of the pandemic, of course. My parents were panicking about the virus all the way back in January 2020, insisting I start wearing masks and try to quarantine. My family WeChat group had a constant update on rising numbers of cases in China, Europe, and the U.S. states my family is scattered across. And without really saying it, my parents encouraged the idea of quarantining because it was safer. Because they knew, just as I did: America was angry with Asian people and the closest scapegoat for their rage was us, Asian Americans. The ambiguous monolith. The foreigners that can’t be distinguished apart from each other, which makes them basically interchangeable. The bat eaters, dog eaters, cat eaters—it was all our fault that America was sick.
There’s a distinct kind of humiliation and fear that one feels when they feel unsafe in their home country. You’re totally self-aware of how ridiculous the situation is, but the fear you feel is so terrible because it’s so close to home. Going outside frightened me, and I never left my apartment without extra masks, sunglasses to cover my eyes, and some sort of self-defense tool. I dreaded when my boyfriend left home for something as simple as a run or groceries. I scanned the streets anxiously when I would meet up with my sister, watching out for a cruel stranger to shove me into live traffic or to scream that this was all my fault that Covid-19 had come to America.
My nighttime skincare routine nauseated me whenever I exfoliated, because I could not stop thinking about the horrible irony of choosing to put acid on my face when a woman in Brooklyn was the survivor of an acid attack right outside her home. The fox eyes trend made me want to hit something, a feeling so foreign and uncontrollable to me that I wanted to cry. When I laid back in my bed at night, unable to stop thinking about the family in Texas that went to a Sam’s Club and went back home with two children with stitches from where a man attacked them with a knife. Or the grandmother in New York who was set on fire, or the pregnant woman who was verbally assaulted less than five minutes from where I live in front of her child. Especially not the grandmother who was stomped on a New York street in broad daylight, as a security guard closed the doors on her crumpled body. Even in the safety of my own home, I could not escape the fear and pain that I knew was happening all around me.
#StopAsianHate trended for a while, but it seems like it has died down. Though I’m saddened, I’m not surprised. It’s not so different from any other online social media justice movement. And I’m not foolish enough to think it’s lost steam because there’s less Asian hate. There is Asian hate happening everywhere, every day. It’s happening in homes, where parents grumble about the "China Virus" in front of their children. On the street, where strangers assault Asian American elders. In restaurants, where Asian American waiters get called every slur under the sun. In our government, when public officials use anti-Asian slurs in their private correspondence. In the beauty industry, when brands colonize Asian ingredients for their benefits without acknowledging and standing by the Asian American community when we’re so vulnerable and so afraid.
Looking back on my mother’s question, I realize she was asking me to look into the abyss. To look in and see what America was, to see it for all the horror that it can do. I’ve looked into the abyss, and it’s looked back at me, showing me the terrible hate that it can bear in its heart. And yet, in spite of all my fear and all the hatred I’ve seen this country can do, I know that it’s also capable of incredible beauty and kindness.
I see it in one of my best friends openly confronting her supervisor’s anti-Asian comments in her med school rotations. I see it in the Asian representation in movies and TV (I can’t tell you how emotional I felt when I saw The Chair, Turning Red, and Raya and The Last Dragon). I see it in the editors I work with, who give me the opportunity to write my anti-Asian hate stories and essays and articles, who never water down my voice. I see it in legislation that fights to protect Asian Americans and bring our history in this country to greater prominence in classrooms. I see it in the rising Asian American activists online using their platforms to stand for our stories and human rights. I see it in the allyship of other communities that are standing with Asian Americans, constantly reminding me that I don’t just belong here, I deserve to feel safe.
Because for all that America wants to reject me and my fellow Asian Americans, it can’t. We’re Asian Americans—America is literally in our name. This is our home. This was the country I was born in, that nurtured my mind, my beliefs, and my dreams in its classrooms and with its teachers. I could have lived a thousand different lives. What if my parents hadn’t immigrated to the U.S.? What if my parents married other people? It is so miraculous that instead of any of those other lives, I have this beautiful life, where I get to chase my dreams, and love who I want to love, and fight for what I believe. In another life, I might have never been able to be a writer. I might have never been given the opportunity to grow my talents and gifts. But in this life, where my parents got married to each other and they came to the United States because they wanted more opportunities for their daughters, I became exactly who I wanted to be.
I am under no illusions that anti-Asian hate is going anywhere. But neither am I. While I’ve seen a glimpse of America’s worst side, the beauty of its best side gives me hope. I’ve seen what America is capable of at their best. And that’s why I haven’t stopped hoping that if we keep working and fighting racism and hate, America will someday give us all of its best.