My Asian American Story: The Good, The Bad, & Moving Forward
The past few weeks have been a reckoning in my identity as an Asian American woman.
I have always known racism and violence against people like me existed and have been a target myself, but it was easier before to presume negative events were the exception, not the norm, and get over it at an individual level with a hopeful mindset.
The killings in Atlanta and at home in the San Francisco Bay Area pushed me over the cliff of silence. I feel deep anguish in relating to the victims because they look like me and my family and were perpetrated solely because of our Asian appearance. I feel unsafe. Angry. I want to cry, fight, and hide at the same time. I struggle with expressing myself on this topic even with my closest loved ones. My emotional dam broke the night of March 16 as I doomscrolled in bed through news of the Atlanta shootings. I turned to my husband and all of a sudden I was crying inconsolably in his arms. I went from tears of grief for the victims to angrily searching for a defensive weapon to weary fatigue.
After several days of contemplation, I determined writing will be my outlet and medium for fighting back. I believe storytelling can increase understanding, compassion, and solidarity for any cause. The written word is also how I feel most comfortable being vulnerable and expressing myself right now. I also hope this means my story will reach more people who will become more understanding and supportive of Asian Americans as a result.
To start, let me share who I am and why I want to write about my experience. I am a proud first-generation Chinese American wife, daughter, and soon-to-be-mom. I am married to an amazing third-generation White American whose love for me sustains my belief in the goodness of people and interracial relationships. My dad immigrated to the US from Hong Kong in 1974 seeking the American dream. My mom came a decade later when she married my dad; she grew up in the United Kingdom where she often experienced racism. Both grew up working for their family businesses without real childhoods.
I have been blessed with successes and challenges that molded me into the puzzle that I am proud to be and am still piecing together today. People say I am the most organized and productive person they have ever met. I identify with that, but I actually think my most striking characteristic is how sensitive I am. It is my greatest strength and weakness and what simultaneously drives me to write this post and also worry that it will not do the topic justice. I am at the point where I am not striving for perfection, but what is just right and true to myself.
I want to dedicate this post to my mom, Julie. She was my first example of how strong an Asian American woman can be and is in part why I feel compelled to write this post.
When I was 6 years old, my brother and I watched from our car in a Ralph’s grocery parking lot as a man on a bike mugged our mom. He snatched her first luxury purse — bought after saving for months — and cycled away. Lo and behold, my mom took off after him. She sprinted until she caught up and made him fall out of surprise. At that moment, she realized the danger of one-to-one contact if he had a weapon. She backed off and let him clamber back on to his bike, but not without scaring him and giving him a piece of her mind. This also allowed for witnesses to get a good look at the perpetrator and help the police eventually return my mom’s purse to her.
I learned a few key lessons: 1) Asian American women are strong and fierce. 2) Fight back wisely. 3) Don’t piss off my mom.
Thank you, Mom, for your strength and example. I hope to live up to the first and second lessons through this post.
I want to start with what I see as “The Good” of my Asian American experience. Though my sentiments as an Asian American woman are darker now than ever before, there is a lot of beauty that serves as my armor of light and hope for the future. I hope you also find the good in what I share and that it nurtures your understanding and respect.
Growing Up in Los Angeles
I was fortunate to grow up in the very diverse city of Los Angeles with many well-intentioned people with open minds. My friends at school were Mexican, Russian, Black, Native American, Korean, White, Jewish, Filipino, and more. Ironically I had no Chinese friends because my brother and I were the only Chinese kids. I thought it was the norm to see different faces, hear different languages, and observe different approaches. That was life. My friendships developed out of the many similar interests my classmates and I had beyond our ethnicities — playing MASH for our crushes, sports, Lisa Frank, video games, dancing to Destiny’s Child, you name it. In this environment, I felt my brother and I were seen for everything we were inclusive of our race and that was validated by how our schools and classmates recognized us.
My brother, Leiman, in particular had a big impact on my childhood and perception of Asian males. If anyone knew him growing up, they probably have a hard time reconciling his image with the common portrayal of Asian men as weak and effeminate. Leiman was the alpha male voted “Most Athletic” whom every girl of every race in school liked. Girls in his class would be nice to me hoping that it would win his favor. The boys in my grade worshipped him. They would talk to me in awe about his latest athletic feat, like when he jumped over the long jump pit or did a perfect somersault without any lessons. I had no idea that my brother’s experience and the broad respect and admiration he garnered might actually be impossible in other places.
I, too, was seen for my qualities and not my race. I was naturally athletic like my brother. I was the fastest girl in school and boys would ask to race in PE class everyday. My first crush was a black boy. The boys who liked me were diverse and they liked girls of different backgrounds. My teachers emphasized my achievements and improvement areas irrespective of race. We talked about cultural background with appreciation and would celebrate our different cultures with an annual school party or fair. As I got older, I dated Mexican, White, Korean, Jewish, and Chinese guys, appreciating them for their whole selves inclusive of heritage.
My mom set another meaningful example for me as a strong Asian woman when I was in high school and she played competitive tennis after work. She was the #1 ranked woman of the USTA in Southern California for her level. We used to receive voicemails from male players asking for rematches after she beat them. I found it simultaneously funny and inspiring. The men who called were often prototypical “All American” men who respected my mom as a person with impressive tennis skills. They saw her not as a weaker woman or Asian, but as their equal.
My mom’s example, in addition to my learnings from personal challenges, empowered me to be strong and compete to the top of my abilities in sports, school, and later in work. Further, my childhood environment was not tainted by systemic racism. I did not know how someone was treated could be contingent on how they looked until I was exposed to more of the world (more on that in “The Bad” below).
I also see a lot of good in how Chinese families like mine uphold the traditional Chinese values of filial piety and honor. Filial piety is “a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors.” Honor is also known as saving “face” and generally means to uphold character and moral standards, and avoid disgrace.
These values are the fabric of my family. What we do and how we do it is often because of these values. This can be seen in small habits, such as serving tea at dim sum to the eldest relative and then all others with yourself last, to bigger activities, like dropping everything to be there for a family member in need. These values connect us together and serve as a foundation of strength, community, and integrity. Without a doubt, we know we will always be there and try to do things right for each other even when we do not understand each other or have other challenges. This understanding provides me and my family with immense faith in each other and enables us to weather the ups and downs of life together.
The good is also evident when I think of contemporary and historical Asian success stories and people. To illustrate (not an exhaustive list; feel free to contact me to add anyone I missed):
- Academics & Intellectuals: Chien-Shiung Wu, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Roger Tsien, Samuel Ting, Sun Tzu, Tu Youyou
- Ancient History: Great Wall, Silk Road, Invention of: Cast Iron, Compass, Crossbow, Bronze, Gunpowder, Paper, Printing, Seismograph, Silk, Umbrella; Oldest continuously used system of writing in the world
- Actors and Actresses: Bruce Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, Dev Patel, Donnie Yen, Gemma Chan, George Takei, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Cho, Kelly Marie Tran, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Ming-Na Wen, Olivia Munn, Pat Morita, Priyanka Chopra, Sandra Oh, Simu Liu, Steven Yeun, Yuh-Jung Youn, Zhang Ziyi
- Business: Guy Kawasaki, Jack Ma, Peggy Cherng, Justin Kan, Satya Nadella, Steve Chen, Sundar Pichai, Tony Hsieh
- Comedians: Ali Wong, Ken Jeong, Margaret Cho
- Culinary: Cecilia Chiang, Eddie Huang, Roy Choi
- Directors: Ang Lee, Chloe Zhao
- Fashion: Anna Sui, Chin Twins, Chrissy Teigen, Kimora Lee Simmons, Vera Wang
- Films (US): Crazy Rich Asians, Joy Luck Club
- Government (US): Andrew Yang, Daniel Inouye, Elaine Chao, Hiram Fong, Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris
- Journalism (US): Connie Chung, Dion Lim, John Yang, Joling Kent, Julie Chen, Lisa Ling
- Military (US): WWII 442nd Regimental Combat Team
- Musicians (US): Bruno Mars, Chloe Flower, Lea Salonga, Mike Shinoda, Steve Aoki, Yo-Yo Ma
- Retail (representation in mainstream US brands): American Girl Emerson Doll
- Social Media Influencers: Jean Wang, Michelle Nhu, Yan Yan Chan
- Sports: Chloe Kim, Collin Morikawa, Jeremy Lin, Kim Ng, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Michelle Wie, Nathan Chen, Shida Hikaru, Tiger Woods, Yao Ming, Zhang Weili
- Writers: Amy Tan, Celeste Ng, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ken Liu, Lisa See, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ted Chiang, Viet Thanh Nguyen
Additionally, widespread appreciation for the Asian culture can be seen when it comes to:
- Food: Japanese sushi, Chinese take-out, Korean BBQ, Indian curries, Vietnamese noodles, Thai stir fry, Filipino lumpia
- Healing: Chinese acupuncture, Indian yoga
- Martial arts: Korean taekwondo, Chinese kung fu, Japanese karate
- Written characters: Art, Tattoos
There is so much good. I am proud of my Asian heritage and to be Asian American. And thank goodness for that, because it steels me to fight against “The Bad” of my experience.
I dreaded writing this section because it feels heavy and uncomfortable, but that also signals to me that it is even more important for me to press on. Pain is unfortunately a very effective motivator for change. I will explain the painful aspects of my Asian American experience and why I am driven to write this piece. I hope your understanding of the pain that I and my AAPI community feel improves as a result.
There is no shortage of news depicting the uptick in violence against the AAPI community. The uptick has been attributed to Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the “Chinese virus.” His explicit association of Covid-19 with Chinese people has led people to blame Chinese and other Asian people for the pandemic and all of the turmoil it has caused. More than 2 million hate incidents have been reported since the pandemic began, crimes committed against Asian Americans are above the average across races, and these incidents are often unprovoked attacks against our most vulnerable: the elderly.
Below are images from a recent incident in New York against 61 year old Yao Pan Ma. He lost his job due to the pandemic and was collecting cans to support his family when he was attacked from behind.
There is no shortage of other stories.
In the Bay Area, 84 year old Vichar Ratanapakdee died after being shoved to the ground and 75 year old Pak Ho died after being assaulted and robbed. In New York, a 65 year old Asian woman was kicked and stomped on with people watching. An elderly Filipino woman was punched on a trolley in San Diego. Then there are the non-elderly stories. At least it’s not our most vulnerable age demographic, but it is still disturbing and wrong. Six Asian women died in the spa shootings in Atlanta. A “Slap an Asian” elderly or woman challenge was spread in San Francisco. US Olympian Sakura Kokumai was the subject of an anti-Asian rant in Orange County. This is only a handful of stories out of the millions since the pandemic began.
Unfortunately, Asians can be oddly easy targets for hatred and blame without much fear of repercussion because of our cultural tendencies and past experience. We tend not to speak up when trouble comes our way, preferring to put our heads down and let time and focus on other things diminish the effects of the trouble. We also tend not to trust that anything good will come from speaking out. We could face retaliation, nothing could come from it, or only pain would come from sharing it with our family.
This is partially why Asians are the least likely to report hate crimes. As an Asian who has experienced racism personally and shared the experience with Asian friends and family, I can say this is the norm.
During a dinner event for my first job out of college, a white coworker who I considered a friend made a racist “joke” towards me. He said: “Susanna, I can’t take you seriously right now because I can’t see the whites of your eyes.”
Initially I laughed it off and went about my night. But then I couldn’t sleep and rode a days-long emotional roller coaster. I kept thinking,
What did he mean by that? Why would he pick out something that applies to me just because I’m Asian? Are my eyes too small? What’s wrong with me? How could someone I consider a friend say that? Why do my racial attributes make me the butt of a joke?
I shared what happened with Asian friends and one told me to “try and just let it go” because it wasn’t worth the trouble. We are so used to being quiet, pleasant, and not causing any friction. It is no surprise that a common Asian stereotype is that we are small, subservient, and shy.
I did not let it go though. I thought it would be worth the trouble to let my coworker know how hurt I was by his “joke” and to try to understand where it came from. I caught him after work one day and asked him if he knew why I was upset. He said yes and that he had felt bad since that night. He went on to say, “I’m sorry, but I grew up in a frat and we said things like that all the time. I didn’t think it was a big deal until I saw your reaction.” I told him about the impact it had on me with tears, disappointment, and anger. I asked him to be more thoughtful in the future not only with me, but all people who may not have the same background as him. Your words have power and meaning and I thought you were a trusted friend, I said. He felt terrible and kept apologizing throughout our conversation and afterwards.
Going forward, he made an honest effort to be more considerate and looked out for me in the years we kept in touch. He sought me out at every social gathering, listened carefully to everything I said, and apologized virtually every time he saw me. Sharing my pain with him and trying to understand his perspective had a lasting impact on both of us. I learned two things that can be applied to the #StopAsianHate movement.
- Discomfort is fleeting. Have the uncomfortable conversation. It is worth it for your own growth and the other person’s, and your relationship.
- Unless you speak up, nothing will change. You will continue to feel bad and the thing you wished could change will not even have a starting point or space for change.
There have been too many incidents and not enough understanding. I write with the hope that sharing my story increases understanding, compassion, and the likelihood that people feel more comfortable talking about this complex topic. If only even one person reads this and is more supportive of the AAPI community as a result, I will consider that a success.
Almost a decade before my coworker incident was my first recalled experience with racism. I was 15 and my family and I were making our way to an Olivia Newton John concert at the Greek Theater. A group of white 20-somethings asked if we knew what concert we were at. I obliviously responded: “Yeah, Olivia Newton John” and one commented back: “You know, it’s like country,” then laughed. As they turned away, I heard: “I never thought we’d see Asians here.”
On the surface, I shrugged the experience off as a one-off due to ignorance from a small group of people. But I would be lying if I did not say how much that experience still affects me today. My husband and his family love country music. They have introduced me to Johnny Cash, George Strait, and Sturgill Simpson. I love listening to them and sharing in their appreciation for the down to earth stories and twangy tunes, but as I shared with my husband: I am actually afraid of going to a country music concert again for fear of being targeted or judged like when I was 15. I cannot imagine feeling comfortable, let alone excited, after that experience. The spirit of country music is beautiful and seemingly inclusive, but I still carry the hurt that came from fans who did not demonstrate that spirit. My learning that day was that people could judge me and my family completely based on our appearance with little room for acceptance of anything at odds with their own narrow understanding.
Why couldn’t they just let us be?
I have had other racist experiences throughout the years; enough to know it exists in varying degrees and can happen subtly to explicitly and with strangers to friends. Some people express it with the intention to hurt, which is obvious based on the crimes reported in the news. Others do not even recognize their own bias, which can be even more concerning. I have more experience there as I have often been the token Asian friend and/or friends forget that being Asian is part of my identity once they have defined me primarily as their friend. This is an illustrative list of some of my experiences:
- A friend of a friend commenting that she does not like yellow as a color because it is “so Asian”
- Overhearing a patron at a landmark Hollywood restaurant comment on how out of place my family appeared to him at the restaurant
- Getting asked where I am “really from” during a consulting recruiting dinner by a firm partner
- A friend telling me that there “isn’t much difference across the Asian cultures”
- Being on the receiving end of faltered smiles from strangers after they smiled kindly at my husband
- Meeting my friend’s friend who comments after talking to me that I’m “not a fobby Asian” and nods appreciatively
- Hearing from Asian friends about their fear when traveling to remote rural areas in the US for work
- Knowing my marriage to my husband would have been illegal in the US only 55 years ago
- Fielding questions about racism against Asians in the US from my cousins in the UK
- Listening to my husband share that a group of his Asian friends couldn’t hail a cab in San Francisco until he helped
- Only one friend checking in with me during the #StopAsianHate movement
This is my reality. Sometimes experiences like this really affect me and sometimes they do not. I tend to focus on the positives in life and if there is something negative that comes up, I get over it by fixing it or addressing it in some other productive way. Significant racist experiences can be in a league of their own, though. It is not so easy to fix them or even know how to respond to them, such as the current #StopAsianHate movement.
Writing about them here has been therapeutic. I have been vulnerable with my pain and expressed pride in my Asian American experience at the same time. I do not know what kind of impact my words will have on anyone else. I hope they will resonate with other Asians and inspire them to share their stories too. I hope they will help my non-Asian friends and family better understand the #StopAsianHate movement and feel more comfortable talking about it and supporting it. I hope.
And there is reason for this hope. It gets stronger each day as I see more strength and support for the #StopAsianHate movement. AAPI individuals are fighting back, non-AAPI allies are voicing their support, and there is progress at the institutional level.
I especially like the story of the 70 year old grandma who fought back against her 30 year old attacker in San Francisco and the son who wielded a machete to scare robbers away from his elderly parents in Oakland. At a larger scale, AAPI celebrities like Daniel Dae Kim, Gemma Chan, Jeremy Lin, Olivia Munn, and Sandra Oh have used their platforms to amplify the movement.
We are strong and will fight back.
Then there are the non-AAPI folks who have shown their stolid support. Some have stepped in during attacks, such as the good Samaritan and bus driver who helped an elderly couple in New York. Others, like celebrities Steph Curry, Rihanna, and Reese Witherspoon have vocalized their support to their millions of followers in their own way. Then there are community builders like Jacob Azevedo who founded Compassion in Oakland, which offers walking services to anyone who feels unsafe walking alone in Oakland’s Chinatown.
Institutions are also making headway from the history of exclusion, erasure, and invisibility of Asian Americans in the US. The 19th century was marked by the Chinese Exclusion Act. The 20th century saw the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II at the same time that the 442nd Regiment (made up of Japanese Americans with interned families) became one of the most decorated units in military history. Now here we are in the 21st century in which there are finally no laws enforcing exclusion or racism against Asians, but instead new laws proposed against hate and showing support for the AAPI community, including the anti-Asian hate crimes bill passed by the Senate and a bill mandating Asian American history in schools passed by the Illinois House.
We are getting better.
So yes, I have hope. I with my almond-shaped eyes, golden yellow tan, and most importantly, Asian-proud voice.
Can you support the movement too?
I hope my post has inspired you to think of ways you can support #StopAsianHate. Here are a few ideas to get you going:
- Check in: with your Asian friends. Even a simple text saying“Happy AAPI month” or “thinking of you” can go a long way.
- Learn: about AAPI history.
- Share: your support using #StopAsianHate.
- Donate: to AAPI organizations.
- Report: a hate incident if you experience one or see one.
- Volunteer: for a local support group.
Thank you for reading.