What it means to be Asian American
This was written as a response to the Atlanta massage parlor shootings in March 2021.
As other first generation immigrants can relate, our parents immigrated to America with nothing. My mom used to tell me that when she first worked at a baby clothes store she couldn’t even afford McDonalds for lunch, and so resorted to eating kimchi in the bathroom stall. With no resources, no understanding of the language, our parents were motivated by a dream to raise a child in a country that promised a prosperous life. As we grew up, we inevitably absorbed cultural values of autonomy and individualism while inhabiting White cultural contexts. Yet our home was a microcosm of Eastern values that emphasized collectivism; that we pursue careers that would benefit our families, that we take care of those around us first and foremost. Having to balance both of these values creates a dissonance that we are forced to reckon with our entire lives. We grow up realizing that while we might share the same values as our white friends, we inevitably look very different. We encounter little microaggressions here and there about our small eyes and our pungent foods, but it’s imbued in us to not cause a commotion. To not rock the boat, to not disturb, to simply go with the flow because the needs of those around you come first. As much as I grew up appreciating the same Western values and pop culture references of being a ’90s baby, I knew that I would always look different and thus be treated as such.
After I went to college, my parents decided to move back to Korea. I remember one of the first things I thought when I visited my new home in Seoul was how comfortable it felt to be surrounded by people who looked like me. This homogeneity meant that I didn’t stick out against the majority like I did in America. Yet these warm feelings dissipated quickly once I realized that I didn’t belong here either. Koreans regarded us Korean Americans as too white, too loud, too Americanized. The linguistic expectations of the Korean language to address those of higher status is so foreign to us American born Koreans accustomed to speaking a language as egalitarian as English. Despite looking the same, I still felt ostracized and rejected for not being “Korean” enough.
In Korea, we’re considered too White. But in America, we’re not white enough. Imagine what it feels like to never have a location where we are fully accepted for who we are. Imagine living a life where you’re constantly having to adapt your values, your appearance, your tone to desperately to fit in to whatever cultural context you find yourself in. We only have ourselves, a community that comprises less than 7% of the US population, to find solace and comfort in understanding this niche experience.
Add on top of that the cultural values that we grow up with that teach us to silence ourselves and to not share our problems. To not disturb others with your problems, to not concern ourselves with burdening people around us with our troubles. Then you can begin to imagine what it feels like to not just feel like an outsider wherever you live, but to also be conditioned to downplay how that experience affects us constantly. To downplay every single time someone questions if I can see with such small eyes, to shrug it off when someone asks why I’m not a math prodigy. It’s in our nature to not talk about it, to not think about it; just to put our heads down, and to work harder.
Present day, we have an unprecedented rise in Asian American hate crimes. Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta massage parlor shootings and Captain Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office is quoted saying “Yesterday was a really bad day for [the shooter], and this is what he did.”
We are tired of justifying our existence in this country. We are tired of this “model minority” myth that is perpetuated to undermine the racism that we face in America. In no thanks to the xenophobic comments from our last utterly incompetent president, we are living in fear for our safety and well-being.
Please understand that as a community, we are going through a lot. Not only with having to deal with these devastating and horrifying news, but on top of that we’re unpacking the guilt we feel for having the attention be on us. Understand that we’ve been conditioned to reject help and attention for our problems in order to survive; in order to not disturb the peace of the collective unit around us. It’s a complicated experience filled with a lot of different emotions exacerbated by the very idea that those women killed are someone’s friends, sisters, and mothers.
Check in with your AAPI friends and see what you can offer, whether it be giving them space to process their emotions or a place to vent and cry. Consult anti-racism resources and read up on the contributions of Asian Americans. Most importantly, increase your awareness of these issues and uplift Asian voices and experiences when you have the opportunity. Support your local small Asian businesses and restaurants if you have the financial means.
Let’s make one thing very clear here. The root of the issue at hand here is not asian racism, it is white supremacy. Do not think for a second that this is not at all related to the Black Lives Matter movement. I leave you with this quote from Jennifer A. Richeson’s article from The Atlantic that explains how imperative it is that we take clear, decisive action to combat white supremacy:
This is the time to strike, the time to take audacious steps to address systemic racial inequality — bold, sweeping reparative action. The action must be concrete and material, rather than solely symbolic, and must address current gaps in every significant domain of social well-being: jobs, politics, education, the environment, health, housing, and of course criminal justice. A window has opened, and acting fast is essential. It is possible that something has permanently shifted in the American psyche; we should hope that this is true. But history and psychology suggest instead that this window of clarity and opportunity will close quickly — it always has in the past. For one thing, success often proves self-limiting: Implement audacious new measures, and the temptation is to dust off your hands in satisfaction and declare the problem solved. For another, as the historian Carol Anderson demonstrates in her book White Rage, any significant advance toward racial justice will be met with a backlash. The passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments was followed by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and a new era of racial subjugation in the form of Jim Crow. The landmark legislation of the civil-rights era was followed by Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and the ascendance of racial dog whistles as a central tactic of American politics.
We should not think of the next year or two as the start of a decade or more of incremental progress. We should think of the next year or two as all the time we have, and a last chance to get it right.