When I was eighteen, I had a doctor’s appointment in New York City’s Chinatown. I was one of two people in the waiting room. The other patient was a Chinese woman in her mid-forties and when we made eye contact, she struck up a conversation with me. How old are you? Where do you go to school? Your family is from Hong Kong? I’m from Guangdong, China. The conversation steered toward Chinese politics and I was, at the time, woefully ignorant of politics outside of the United States. When I told her so, she smiled at me and told me that I should always be informed about what is going on in China. “But I am American,” I had replied. She leaned in, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Because you have a Chinese face, you have to pay attention to China.”
I nodded out of politeness, but I didn’t understand what she meant, having just reached adult age and learning how to navigate the world. I must have recognized some significance in her words because it is twelve years later and I still remember this interaction.
I first heard of the new coronavirus through my family group chat. With the exception of my parents, my whole extended family is based in Hong Kong and they got wind of the virus long before my peers in the States. They spoke of this virus in Wuhan, China, sharing links with theories about its origin and recommended preventative actions. When the American media started covering the spread of Covid-19, my parent’s fear was me getting sick and mine was them facing xenophobia. My parents somehow got their hands on a box of disposable masks and dropped it off at my apartment. I accepted it to ease their worries, but I didn’t want to be a person with a Chinese face wearing a mask when very few were doing so in public. Pay attention to China, indeed.
Because racism is partly a visual bias, my Chinese face would rat me out no matter how I dress, what I consume, or how Americanized my accent is. That means, unlike the children of immigrants of Irish, German or Scandinavian descent, my children and my children’s children, if they inherit my monolid eyes, will never be able to achieve full assimilation in America. It is similar with many Black and brown people as well as other entire communities of minorities who cannot pass as white, living under the burden of stereotypes and limiting narratives. There is an instant judgment people make when they look at you and that snap judgement can make someone spit at you or slash your face. For some, it could mean the difference between a police officer kneeling on your neck ‘til you can’t breathe or being taken into custody alive.
I spent the first few months of the pandemic with my ears tuned to pick up any incidents of racism, any inappropriate comment. When people spoke about their fears of the virus, I searched for undertones of racism, did they fear it for public health reasons or did they fear what was branded as foreign. The narrative of the virus being caused by the Chinese was so prevalent that when Italy was hit particularly hard last March, my mom called me to say she felt guilty that the Italians were getting sick. When I told her that it is absolutely not her fault, she said she knew, but she still felt guilty.
Asian discrimination has always felt like a one-two punch of people being cruel to us and the general public finding it excusable. In July of 2020, an 89-year old Chinese woman was slapped and set on fire in an unprovoked attack in Bensonhurst, where I grew up and where my parents still live. I developed an obsessive habit of checking to see which news outlet covered this. Local stations of ABC, NBC, and CBS, yes. CNN, no. New York Times, no. I don’t know why I was tallying up this information, but I found myself refreshing my Google search every few hours, about six or seven times a day, keeping the tabs open to see if new articles popped up. When a Filipino man was slashed in the face with a box cutter in the New York City subway, I kept track. When a Chinese woman was thrown to the ground in Flushing, Queens, I kept track. Sometimes I turned to social media, looking at the POTUS and VP Instagram accounts to see if anything was said in response. At the time, there wasn’t.
On the morning of March 17th, I didn’t have to go looking for anything because the internet was flooded with news about the murder of eight people at three massage parlors in Atlanta, with six of the victims being women of Asian descent. Every news outlet across the country was covering this, doing live updates and calling it breaking news. My Instagram became an endless scroll of people sharing news clippings, tweets, and reposting suggestions of how to be a good ally to the Asian American community. Did I feel solidarity? Maybe. But mostly I felt like I was drowning.
It was my dad’s birthday the next day. I called him and we talked about how he was going to celebrate and his upcoming vaccination appointment, both of us dancing around the topic of what happened the day before. Instead of bringing up the shooting, he told me about the attack of an elderly woman in San Francisco’s Chinatown who fought back and sent the assailant to the hospital in a stretcher. When we hung up, I became curious about the incident. Until then, I had avoided watching videos of any attacks, too afraid that what I saw would replay in my head and keep me up at night. I thought perhaps, in light of everything, watching an elderly Asian woman with the bravery to fight back against her attacker would feel empowering. It did not.
I Googled “San Francisco Chinatown Asian woman fights back.” A video popped up of Xiao Zhen Xie, having already beat up her attacker, holding an ice bag to her swollen eye. At 29 seconds, she points her weapon, a wooden stick, at the man on the stretcher and sobs to a police officer in Cantonese. The police officer did not appear to understand her, but I did. “He bullied me,” she said. Not “He hit me,” or “He punched me.”
I had only ever heard the word “bully” in Cantonese coming out of a child’s mouth in the context of, “He bullied me. He pulled my hair.” My aunt, who I grew up with, and still resides with my parents, had a neurological condition that stunted her brain’s growth at the age of seven. She often speaks and behaves like a child. When my dad refuses to let her eat more than a bite of dessert due to her diabetes, she throws tantrums saying things like, “He bullies me! He never lets me have ice cream!” Hearing this 75-year-old woman cry, “He bullied me,” after a man punched her in the face, unprovoked, gave me the impression of a child or my aunt, compounding my sense of her vulnerability. It wrecked me.
Like the eighteen year old in that doctor’s office, I am still sometimes confused about how to navigate the world as a Chinese-American. I forget that I have a Chinese face until someone reminds me. I am reminded when a stranger whispers, “Konnichiwa” as they walk past me. I am reminded when someone asks me where I am from and no amount of saying I am from Brooklyn would satisfy them. I am still drifting between two cultures feeling slightly displaced in both and not knowing how to bridge those differences.
One thing that has changed is that I no longer aspire to fully assimilate. It doesn’t make the injustices of being categorized as different sting less, but it does help me identify all the ways in which being a Chinese-American has enriched my perspective. It has given me a second language in Cantonese, a second home base in Hong Kong, an expanded palate for food, and a sense of empathy that only those who have felt marginalized can possess. I am grateful for it all.