Over the past several weeks, I’ve seen and heard many of my fellow Asian Americans express how issues in our community are so often overlooked. I didn’t realize until I was an adult how much I suffocated my own feelings in order to make other people more comfortable.
A few years ago, I took my kids to an exhibit. When I was buying our tickets, the guy selling them asked where I was from. When I told him I was born here but that I was Chinese, he replied, “Oh, I don’t know anything about Chinese people except that they look like this,” as he stretched the corners of his eyes with his fingers. The sting of that gesture — all too familiar to many who look like me — momentarily took away my capacity to think. I took our tickets and walked away.
I replayed that moment in my head this week, still wishing that I had reacted differently, to show my children that casual racists deserve a public, and very loud, shaming. But for years before that, my default setting had been silence. In Asian American culture, it’s often valued to put your head down and work hard. Don’t make waves. Swallow your pain.
I’ve talked before about my experiences with racism growing up, when middle school bullies tormented me and called me an ugly chink every day. And, sure, you could chalk some of it up to the behavior of immature kids. But when I did speak up, our school’s vice principal did nothing. The bullies’ parents did nothing (they insisted that that didn’t sound like something their sons would do). Later that year, when my 7th-grade French teacher made “ching chong” noises in class while describing how Chinese people talk, I wished I could disappear. Adults and people in positions of authority simply didn’t care to hear my voice. So I learned to shut up.
In more recent years, I’ve endured — and ignored — my share of “ching ching” jeers in the street and blocked truly offensive dog-eating memes sent to me by Twitter trolls. I’ve had road ragers shout “go home to China” at me, and I’ve been stopped by security at my office building (where I’d been going for years) because I was presumed to be an Asian tourist.
Now, the misplaced frustration and anger of the pandemic has been placed on us, with hate crimes against Asian Americans experiencing a disturbing uptick. And some of the most vulnerable among us, our elders and even small children, are being targeted. When actors have to offer a reward to help find a hate crime suspect to make people care…and when outraged individuals have to tag news outlets — and produce a collective scream so loud that it can’t be ignored — in order to finally have our stories covered, it’s clear that the system is broken.