As an Asian-American, I feel othered
By Hoe I Yune, May 27, 2021
Trigger warning: This story contains mention of racial attacks.
Last week was a milestone moment when the United States (US) President Joe Biden signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. The legislation aims to make the reporting of hate crimes more accessible at local and state levels by boosting public outreach, providing training for law enforcement, and ensuring reporting resources are available online in multiple languages.
In the US, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in particular have been the target of racial attacks due to blame towards China for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This includes a shooting in Georgia that killed six women of Asian descent, a man kicking and stomping on a 65-year-old Filipino immigrant woman near Times Square while yelling “you don’t belong here”, and an attack in San Francisco on 76-year-old Chinese granny Xiao Zhen Xie, which gave her two black eyes, a swollen wrist, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The organisation Stop AAPI Hate documented 6,603 hate incidents from March 2020 to March 2021*.
In light of what has been happening, we speak with 35-year-old Chinese-American Ada who lives in New York. She shares how she and her family, including her 64-year-old mum Candy, see the US as their home, in spite of the way in which racism and discrimination permeates their everyday lives.
My name’s Ada and my parents are from Guangdong Province in China. My parents came to New York after the cultural revolution, in search of better work opportunities and freedom. At first they lived in Chinatown with my paternal grandparents, but once I came along, they moved to Brooklyn where I was born and raised.
I remember in third grade, I wore a sweatshirt to school with Sailor Moon graphics printed on it when a boy in my class made fun of me for it. He called it stupid because he couldn’t recognise the character and said that I shouldn’t wear it to school anymore. I liked the Sailor Moon series thanks to an introduction from a family friend’s daughter around my age, and I remember feeling so embarrassed and humiliated.
My classmate didn’t understand Asian culture. Had I worn a sweatshirt with, say, an American cartoon character on it, he might not have made fun of me. I went to pretty multi-cultural institutions and many of my classmates came from immigrant families — be it from Asia or elsewhere like Russia. Yet I was not exempt from casual racist remarks, even if they didn’t immediately register as racism back then.
Watching mainstream entertainment, I noticed how the Asians portrayed in television shows and movies tended to be the butt of jokes. I felt angry and ashamed: angry because I know some of these stereotypes to be untrue, and ashamed because I think some characteristics are.
Stereotypes were that people of Asian descent have small eyes, speak with accents, are studious and good at math, and are quiet. In high school, I became more self-conscious about being perceived as Chinese or Chinese-American; wanting to fit in, I tried to dress and present myself in certain ways, so as to seem “more American”. I stopped consciously trying to wash away distinctive Chinese characteristics once I pursued university education at Boston College, but I was probably still doing certain things by default.
It’s a work in progress but I began to embrace my Chinese heritage when I was in my mid-20s. A friend pointed out how you can’t hide who you are — I thought about it and realised he was right. I had been trying to erase a part of myself all my life but to no avail. Since — especially in more recent years, I’ve been much less ambivalent. I think the rise in online Asian communities in recent years, which are always encouraging us to be proud of who we are, have also helped give me confidence.
The Chinese-American experience is quite unique because it means being a person of two cultures. It means speaking a mix of your home language (in our case, Cantonese) and English. I don’t read or write Chinese characters but growing up, my dad taught me Chinese poems by reciting them. So I would learn based on listening and repeating them after him. That has always been very special to me.
I find that Chinese values and American values aren’t always the same and I think I have a bit of both, but perhaps leaning more towards Chinese values. This is probably because they’re what my parents raised me with. For instance, respecting the elderly is really important to me and I remember when I was younger, if my mum reprimanded me for doing something wrong and I tried to defend myself, I was told “not to talk back”. I think Asian parents possess a more authoritative role than American parents. American parent-to-child dynamics are more friendly, especially when the children are grown up.
My parents, sister and I are a close-knit family, although I went through a teenage phase when I felt so angry and misunderstood by my parents. It took time before I realised that it wasn’t because they didn’t want to understand me but sometimes there was just a lack of communication or miscommunication. I think this was partly because they didn’t have the same experiences that I had growing up in America. In the last six to seven years especially, I’ve put in more effort.
Sometimes, my dad drives me around and I would talk to him about politics, history, and current affairs. Our conversations have made me realise how much we have in common. With my mum, I would spend quality time with her by going shopping.
Sometimes, I think my mum has a pretty unique point of view because of her optimistic personality. I always get the sense that she can go with the flow, no matter what happens.
Despite the racism and discrimination that Asians and Asian-Americans face here, both my parents feel like the US is a better place for them. It’s home to us.
I’ve never exactly lived in another country for more than a month, but I always feel homesick at the end of my time away. I love walking around on the streets of New York City and hearing different languages spoken. I also love seeing performers in the subway stations, which adds such a liveliness to the surroundings. Whether they’re playing the guitar, steel drum or erhu, many of them seem to be very good at their craft.
They say that people come to New York to pursue their dreams and it’s 100 per cent true. I suppose it’s the ambition and drive that gives the city this vibrant energy.
While my parents love the US, it’s still important to them that my sister and I understand Chinese culture and Cantonese, which is why we’re exposed to so much of it at home. And the new anti-hate crime Act is a mark of progress because President Biden could have not signed it. I think it signals to potential attackers that they cannot get away with the violence.
Racism has always been around and maybe it’s because perpetrators see that there are no consequences so it spurs them on. When we caught wind of the COVID-19 outbreak at the start of 2020, there was a rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans in the news.
I was so angry when I heard about the attacks on Asian-Americans and Asians because it felt as if whenever a racist attack happens to someone Chinese, it doesn’t draw the same gravitas as when it happens to another person of colour. Instead, it gets brushed aside. I was also very scared and worried that I or anyone I knew could become a victim.
It felt no different from the case of Vincent Chin – a Chinese-American – who was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two white auto workers who thought he was Japanese. The two white men were allegedly angered by the state of the US car industry and the encroachment of foreign Japanese cars. They were given three years’ probation, fined US$3,000 and were described as “not the kind of men you send to jail”.
The case is something that still comes up in my conversations with friends about past Asian hate crimes. The lenient sentence was akin to saying you can get a $3,000 licence to kill Asian-Americans, and Vincent Chin’s family never received justice.
There have also been attacks in the New York subway so I’ve personally been carrying my pepper spray and a sound alarm (when you pull the plug, it produces a really loud sound) around. I take the subway to work thrice a week so to have these things on me helps give me a peace of mind. I think knowing that my parents get around via the family car keeps me from worrying more than I do. If they were still commuting via subway, I would definitely worry a whole lot more.
According to the reports, many of the women who were targeted have been elderly women — perhaps it reflects an intersection between racism and sexism and Asian women in particular are perceived as easier targets. My mum is always the one looking out for us in that she tends to be the one reminding my sister and I to steer clear of deserted paths and be careful even when taking cab rides. She says when she first arrived in America, she was worried about the crime rate here and wouldn’t go out at night. But back then, the concern was more to do with gangs and drug addicts, whereas now, it’s primarily anti-Asian hate crime.
It’s so horrifying to see the elderly being pushed around, shouted at, and murdered in public and under broad daylight. I wrote a poem just to express my anger and frustrations, which I briefly shared on Instagram. In elementary school, we had this class called LEARN, which stood for Let’s End All Racism Now. I learned that racism is something that exists and that it is wrong, but only after entering university did I start to realise how racism isn’t always immediately apparent.
It could be disguised as jokes by comedians, making fun of Asians in front of an audience, which creates a ripple effect in society. It’s a question of representation: when the only representation you have of your ethnicity in the media is the butt of a joke, it’s demeaning.
I think the media landscape is changing with movies such as The Half of It, an American coming-of-age comedy-drama film that was written and directed by Alice Wu, who’s Chinese-American. The main characters in both her films so far have been Chinese-American.
Overall, I feel that representation is always good, so long as the narratives aren’t always the same and that the characters are unique and multifaceted.
With Asian-American or Asian female characters especially, there’s more to us than just being agreeable and submissive. I think the characters should represent how we all are in actuality: we are all different with different personalities.
I think sometimes the stereotypes, even the supposed good ones like how Asian-Americans are smart and hardworking, can feel limiting and be a lot to live up to. Not all Asian-Americans want to become doctors, accounts or lawyers; some of us want to pursue creative professions like being artists or musicians. Because of this, I think it helps when more Asian-Americans and Asians share a wider breadth of experiences. I’ll admit that I don’t think I’ve done very well in terms of speaking up, especially among my multi-cultural groups of friends, but I hope that by sharing my story today, I can help present another side of the Asian-American story.
The more we share, the more I think we can help build a sense of belonging among more communities.
Even before COVID-19 spread to the US, I had coworkers who made negative comments about Chinese people based on rumours and fear. Most weren’t directed towards me but I felt hurt and targeted regardless. One coworker joked along the lines of “stay away from me.” I was in too much of a shock to respond.
I think racism also persists in the form of systemic racism, and people of colour don’t have the same privileges as white people. In-built into the fabric of society, it could be a Black person not being able to move into a certain neighbourhood or people of colour having to raise children in neighbourhoods where schools are under-funded.
Until now, I haven’t spoken up against hate crimes on a public platform but my friends and I would check-in on one another should there be any major news updates. I have one friend in particular who I discuss racism and discrimination in the US more in-depth. She is Asian-American like myself and we both agree that even though Asians and Asian-Americans are being especially discriminated against right now, it is important to note that we also have our own prejudices that need changing.
For instance, I feel that within the Asian community in New York, there’s fear and racism towards Black people among the older generation. More work needs to be done to overcome racism because people fear what they don’t understand; some neighbourhoods might develop a bad reputation because of the way in which crime is attributed to a particular race in the news. The misconceptions are fueled by a racial hierarchy formed on the premise of white supremacy, and to overcome these deep-seated prejudices, I think we need to talk about racism and discrimination within our own circles.
When talking with my family, extended family members included, I would try to share with them what I understand about the history of Blacks in the US and what are the systemic biases against them.
I believe they understand, although to unlearn some myths and stereotypes takes time. Knowing that they influence who I am as well, I have to be aware of my own prejudice against people who are different from me.
If we’re to overcome racism in society, it should mean equality for all races and I think a first step to that is understanding the challenges and having conversations about them.
I don’t think the hatred and bias is unique to the US, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve it.
Despite how critical I am about the US, I do feel that at the end of the day I am an American and part of that is wanting and knowing there can be progress.
The US is one of the few places where a person can voice their opinions freely, push for change where change needs to be made, and I have faith that if it’s for the good of all, it will happen.
*The organisation Stop AAPI Hate documented 6,603 hate incidents from March 2020 to March 2021 in its Stop AAPI Hate National report. Women report hate incidents 2.3 times more than men and Chinese are the largest ethnic group that report experiencing hate; businesses are the primary site of discrimination, followed by public streets and public parks.
Photos provided by Ada and Candy.
My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve previously written about my relationship with my parents, learning to live in peace with my sister during the Circuit Breaker period, and the random conversations that I have with my boyfriend.
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