In April of 2020, my boyfriend and I were walking through the streets of New York’s Lower East Side for our daily morning stroll. The coronavirus had reached America’s shores just a few weeks prior and the air was heavy with a sense of foreboding and fear, like any small thing could push us all into the throes of mass hysteria (and if you included supermarket fights over toilet paper, our destruction was already well underway). The streets were mostly empty and our walks mostly monotonous, but I looked forward to them each morning because they were the only thing preventing me from becoming one with my couch. Today, however, I noticed a man in tattered clothes and glassy, blood-shot eyes walking unsteadily first towards my boyfriend, then towards me. It seemed at first he would just stumble past, but as our gazes locked, I saw a jolt of something pass over his eyes like a shadow. “Your country did this to us,” he slurred into my face.
A few weeks later, I had a virtual consultation with a doctor for a trendy health subscription company. She asked the requisite questions—age, health habits, do you smoke, do you exercise—then for my ethnicity. “Chinese,” I answered, my mind already wandering to what I was going to order for lunch. “Oh! So you’re to blame for all of this!” she laughed, like she had just said the world’s funniest joke. On instinct, I laughed with her. When I realized what she had said, I felt a strange sensation—a prick from deep inside that was both foreign and familiar. I wanted to tell her this wasn’t funny, but instead I said “Sorry!” and kept laughing.
It’s a complicated experience, being an Asian person living in America. Society tells us we’re the “model minority,” and that this label is a good thing—that hard, steadfast work pays off in the form of assimilation and acceptance, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. My parents were proud of being labeled as such. They came to America with 100 dollars, two suitcases, and hearts brimming with hope of the American dream. They worked doggedly with no rest for years; my dad studied for his double Masters at the University of Missouri and washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant at night, while my mom took care of me, waitressed at that same restaurant, and took night classes. A few years later, my dad got a call from a small company called Amazon, and their lives changed drastically after. They are the embodiment of the immigrant American Dream, but what made them uniquely Chinese was their worldview—a mix of intense sacrifice coupled with extreme familial obligation and pressure to succeed—which they instilled deeply into my own upbringing.
As Asian Americans, we are told from birth that if we are kind, and jovial, and do not stir up trouble, that we, too, can achieve success in America. That our dreams will never be out of reach if we just turn a blind eye to our injustices, which are nothing compared to those suffered by others. In fact, we should be grateful for being handed such a clear equation to success, leaving no room for error or misjudgment.
But this week, two elderly members of the Asian American community were murdered in broad daylight, and suddenly, I’m finding it hard to stick to the plan. I’m feeling that twinge deep in my stomach again, except this time, instead of a prick, it feels like a tsunami building up in my throat, leaving me nauseous. One of these was Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man living in San Francisco; in Oakland, just a town over, a 91-year-old Asian man was pushed violently to the ground while walking outside. In New York, a Filipino man’s face was slashed on the subway; in San Jose, an elderly woman was mugged in broad daylight. These are just a few recent accounts of many anti-Asian crimes that have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic. As author and essayist Cathy Park Hong wrote, “We don’t have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.” Until recently, media attention on all of these cases was scarce; instead, the horrifying videos and headlines were circulated mostly on Asian-centric Instagram accounts like Nextshark or through Asian activists’ personal pages. But the numbers don’t lie: Anti-Asian hate crimes in the first three months of 2020 were nearly double the incidents of the last two years combined. And it’s no coincidence—our previous administration's finger-pointing and incessant use of the term “China virus” played a direct part in spurring our country’s anti-Asian sentiment. The worst part? This isn’t anything new—it’s just the first time in a long time we’ve been forced to pay attention.
The truth is, anti-Asian sentiment has always had a part in America’s story. During the gold rush in the 19th century, Chinese and Japanese people immigrated to the U.S. for the same hope of opportunity as the Americans and Europeans they toiled alongside. Instead, they were ostracized after their expansion threatened white Americans and as a result, blamed baselessly for diseases like syphilis, leprosy, and smallpox. And let’s not forget the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first racially discriminatory immigration law in American history that made it illegal for any Chinese person to enter into the U.S.; not many people realize that Chinese people were our nation’s first illegal immigrants. Years passed, and Asians remained invisible in mainstream media. When they were shown, they were usually typecast into one-dimensional characters that furthered harmful stereotypes, like the docile Asian woman or desexualized Asian man, always complete with heavy accents meant to inspire mockery. In 1936, the main role of O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was not given to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, but to German-American actress Luise Rainier, who utilized the makeup technique yellowface to appear more Asian. She won an Oscar for her role.
In recent years, we’ve made some progress when it comes to representation. Thanks to newer films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Asian Americans are finally seeing ourselves represented in mainstream media and in leading roles. But even these portrayals seem to support the notion that we are doing just fine; glitzy reality shows like Bling Empire and House of Ho have brought Asian faces to our television screens, but they continue telling the story that we have prospered greatly. Meanwhile, movies like Tigertail and Minari focus more on the Asian immigrant experience, which are worthy stories to tell—but why does it seem like Hollywood only wants films about rich Asians or struggling Asians? What about a main character whose Asianness is just another nuance of their personality, rather than the entire premise?
When the Black Lives Matter movement happened last year and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more innocent Black individuals were murdered simply for the color of their skin, I wept alongside the Black community. I shared links, donated to causes, marched, and made it my mission to bring on more Black writers and highlight Black voices. It was a small thing I could do to help the cause, and I only wish I had prioritized it sooner; there wasn’t a second that I believed otherwise. But when I saw a video of two Asian girls in Australia getting spit on, yelled at and attacked by a white woman spewing racist slurs in the middle of the street last year, I felt horrified—then unsure. I showed the video to a few friends, and one of them said, “Well, that woman yelling is clearly uneducated and from a rough part of town.” It didn’t soften my pain at all, but I wondered if it should have. When I heard about the woman in Brooklyn who had acid thrown in her face outside of her own house, my heart pounded with fury—then I paused. Was it worth sharing on my personal account? Would it detract from the BLM movement? Would I make people uncomfortable because they’d feel like they’d have to respond to me? I’m ashamed to admit it didn’t even occur to me for one moment to discuss how we could elevate Asian voices on Byrdie the day after. And as I remained quiet, so did everyone else—I didn’t see a single news article, story, or post in my Instagram feed. It reminds me of the quote actor Steven Yeun said that has been going viral: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about my Asianness in light of the recent attacks, and if I have been subconsciously subduing my Asian qualities all of these years to make myself less intrusive. I was born in Shanghai and moved to Columbia, Missouri with my parents when I was two. Seven years later, we moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in a suburb of Seattle where I spent my formative years. I went to a fancy private school and most of the kids in my grade were white. I never experienced othering or outward discrimination, but looking back, it’s clear there was some sort of unspoken code that everyone including myself subscribed to, which is that being white was the best and that Asians were somehow inferior or less desirable. That went away mostly after I started college in Los Angeles, where my friend group got much more diverse, then entered the workplace, which was much less diverse, but where my race was never held against me. It never prevented me from getting hired, or getting a promotion; if anything, my Asianness emerged when necessary—like when I wrote about the difference between monolids and hooded eyelids—and was tucked away neatly in a corner to be undisturbed at all other times. My friend group outside of work was mostly Asian, and I told myself that was enough. We celebrated Lunar New Year together, went to dim sum hungover, bought snacks at Asian grocery stores; that was my way to tap into my heritage, I thought. Meanwhile, I kept this side of myself invisible at work. I had an extreme hunger to succeed, and to me, success looked like my white peers.
I keep thinking of when I laughed with the doctor who said my people were to blame for America’s pandemic, instead of telling her that was offensive. I think of all the lunches my mom packed for me in elementary school—steamed rice, gleaming pork ribs, juicy bai cai—that I would throw in the trash each day before anyone saw, wishing for a PB&J sandwich. I think about the time in middle school when my friend said I was “basically white” and I said “thank you” in return. Was it fear? Shame? Denial? Over the years, I’ve worked so hard to build a facade of the “right” type of Asian to succeed in mainstream American society—one without a Chinese accent, one that wore the right clothes, hung out with the right people, laughed at the right jokes, even if they had racial undertones. I’ve distanced myself from the “wrong” type of Asian, with the glasses and the “fresh off the boat” accent and unpronounceable name, because I told myself distancing myself would protect me, even though my legal name is unpronounceable, and I wore glasses until I was 14, and Mandarin was my first language. I think of the time I secretly feared the quiet grandma on the train next to me was somehow harboring the virus, just because she happened to look Chinese. And then I remember the time I stepped on the train just a few weeks later, when a woman looked at me and immediately held her scarf up to her face, breathing through it like a shield to protect herself from me. The funny thing about racism is it’s not discerning—there are no nuances, no examination of fact to draw a logical conclusion. It does not care how Asian you are, how tidily you’ve folded up your Asianness throughout the years to be as insignificant as possible. To racism, you are Chinese, you are the coronavirus, you are something to be blamed for our country’s problems. And by subscribing to white society’s lies about my acceptance—if only I would quiet the sides of me that made me different and access them when others deemed it cool or interesting—I was no better than that woman on the train, wrapping my face with a scarf out of unfounded fear.
But no more. The recent events have proven that if we do not speak up for ourselves, no one else will. I will not cloak my Asianness to make others feel more comfortable. I will not stay silent when my people are being persecuted and spit on and harmed. Until now, most of us have never experienced the feeling of seeing someone cross the street out of fear of walking in our path. Now it feels like someone’s ripped a blindfold off our eyes and we’re cringing into the glaring, ugly truth: that working hard and staying silent is not enough as long as the white supremacy exists—that it will never be enough. Our race is not “protected” and we are certainly not equal. We’ve been living a lie, and worse yet, a lie we’ve told ourselves because we wanted so badly to believe in its cellophane promise. The truth is, our charmed existence and supposed equality is a facade, just as easily stripped away as it is benevolently given. And if we do not dispel the voices in our heads that tell us to stay subdued, to keep pressing on, to not draw attention, then our people will continue being persecuted.
The Asian American experience is being taught to constantly be grateful for having a seat at the far end of the table when other minorities are still fighting for a seat at all. As it turns out, our seat was actually a high chair, and the adults' table was somewhere else completely. I only wish it hadn’t taken violence and murder to help me wake up to the fact that being American does not mean that I have to deny my Asianness; that my Asianness is not docility or meekness like society tells me, but rather strength and resilience and ferocity. It blooms like a flower within me, roaring through my veins, bursting with pride for my 3,000-year-old lineage, my traditions, my culture.
But even as I access this long-dormant pride, I also feel a growing fear. The Asian people getting persecuted look like my grandparents, like my parents, like me. I get nervous when my mom goes on her weekly grocery store run in Chinatown; I ask her to not speak in Chinese when she talks on the phone in public. When I return to New York, I will think twice before going anywhere on my own. But this fear is a wake-up call, like dunking yourself in an ice bath and suddenly feeling the brain fog lift away. I know now that we have never been equal, and it’s time to change that. Those of us in privileged positions must take it upon ourselves to speak loudly for the millions of Asian Americans who cannot, who remain invisible, who live in poverty but only receive a minuscule slice of our country’s social services. We must speak up for them because no one else will. Because in the face of racism, there is nothing that separates us.
The Asian American experience is being taught to constantly be grateful for having a seat at the far end of the table when other minorities are still fighting for a seat at all. As it turns out, our seat was actually a high chair, and the adults' table was somewhere else completely.
Most importantly, I remind myself that fighting for my own race doesn’t mean I can’t shout equally as loud for others. Somewhere along the way, we’ve fallen for the lie that in the battle to dismantle white supremacy, we must choose between ourselves and those around us who are hurting a well. But why do we have to choose?
The truth is, as long as injustices exist, my breath will never run out; my oxygen will flow from me in an endless supply. We cannot believe the harmful rhetoric that fighting for our Black and Brown peers means we cannot fight for ourselves. We must tell this to our parents, our grandparents, our aunties and uncles—all who have grown up being told there is only enough room at the table for a few of us. We must build a bigger table, together. It is not us or them. It is all of us, altogether, united. Dismantling white supremacy will never be achieved at the hands of one race. We must learn to embrace the very qualities that spark fear in the hearts of anyone who looks at us in suspicion, in fear, in hatred because we are different—and come together, united, speaking loudly for each other’s heartaches and pains. Then, it’s time to pick up the mic and speak for ourselves.
Resources to Support Asian Americans: