Let me just start with this: when there are days you want to just hide away from the world, it’s wonderful to be under quarantine in a hotel room that you’re not allowed to leave.
It reminds me of when I worked in Shanghai, where I felt like I hid away for not just a day but almost an entire year. I was so carefree and happy; my biggest worry was that my life was too hedonistic, as if the burdens of the world didn’t exist, leaving me free to pursue pure pleasures like food and travel. But it was true, certain burdens of the world didn’t exist for me in Shanghai: for example, I was free from the concept of race.
When I left in 2015, I reflected on my time in Shanghai:
“…for the first time in my adult life, I also forgot about “race”. Isn’t that funny? I went to a place where everyone looked like me, where I suddenly was no longer a “minority”…and I completely stopped thinking about racial stereotypes…It’s hard to explain, but at times I feel like it’s difficult in the US to feel totally American – for example, why “Asian-Americans” and “African-Americans” who have been in the US for generations are still labeled with the Asian/African hyphens, but white Americans don’t get hyphenated into “European-Americans” unless they’ve just recently immigrated? This was the type of question I was honestly glad to be away from (even though I know can’t be avoided forever).”
As the 24-year-old Susan noted, it was indeed impossible to avoid these questions forever.
People often ask me why I want to be in Asia, especially now that I’ve moved to Taiwan for a full-time job even after school ended in Singapore. My answer varies depending on how serious of a conversation I want to get into: if I’m feeling lazy, I just say, “Food, duh,” but when I’m feeling a little more candid, I give a different reason. “I’m so much more comfortable when I’m in Asia,” I explain, “Because I don’t have to explain as much. I never feel inferior just because I’m not white. But in the US, I feel like no matter how good my English is, I can’t trust that I’ll always be seen as ‘equal’ or ‘normal’ or even ‘American.'”
This is, of course, due to a lifetime of conditioning.
I grew up being warned by my parents, when certain events transpired, to never forget that I was not “the same.” At the time, I brushed it off; “No one’s racist anymore,” I’d roll my eyes, “Look at my friends! And my teachers! I fit right in with everyone.” My parents would sigh at my stubborn idealism, knowing better than to continue their futile attempts to warn me against the pains they could not shield me from.
But even as I said this, deep down, I knew something was off.
I could tell in the way I tried to hide my food, reaching into the brown paper lunch bag that looked just like everyone else’s on the outside, sneaking pieces of sushi rolls one by one straight into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to take it out in its entirety. I was afraid of people asking questions, of giving friends another reason to call me “so Asian,” even innocently, because it meant that I was different, that I didn’t fit in.
I could tell in the way I tried to make sure I had friends who were not just Asian but all the other races, an intentional diversification of my friend portfolio, a habit I still haven’t quite shaken off. I was afraid of being associated in a group that was all Asians, of people pointing us out like some nameless homogenous entity that held only broad stereotypes and no individual traits. Despite my efforts, I of course still hung out with my Asian friends, but when I did, I always worried about whether others were thinking in their head: “There are the Asians.”
I didn’t want to stand out, and I didn’t want to blend in.
This, I realized, was because I would be standing out or blending in for the wrong reasons. It was because I wanted to be seen as an individual, known as a person, understood as a soul. Any generic association with the term “Asian” was a direct threat to my identity, and a potentially ‘inferior’ one at that: even though they called us the “model minority,” I knew that no one was modeling themselves after us. Except ourselves.
In 2016, I moved back to Chicago and wondered, as I walked around with my white then-boyfriend, whether people saw me as another stereotypical Asian girl dating a white guy – because, if I’m being honest, I looked at other similar pairs and thought that too. In 2017, I grew frustrated when a friend told me she didn’t want to go out for Korean food because she’d had Thai the previous day, as if all Asian foods were the same (“They’re so different,” I fumed, “It’s like saying you can’t have pizza today because you had pasta the night before. But worse!”) In 2018, I was walking in Chicago’s Chinatown when a man taunted me with “Ni Hao”, and, just like every other time, I just played deaf instead of addressing it head-on because I was scared. In 2019, I grimaced as a horrible hookup experience consisted of the guy smiling at me, “Since you were born in Japan, you must be obedient, like a geisha.” In 2020, I realized that even at an international business school, subtle divides in culture and race were unavoidable, and ugly. I heard, months down the road, that in some ways, I was stuck in an impossible impasse – some classmates assumed they’d have nothing in common with the Asian students (“but I found out later, she’s actually pretty cool), while other classmates joked that I myself was biased (“she only started hanging out with us after the white people left”).
But 2021, I have to say, has been the worst of them all. Unlike the above experiences, none of the recent anti-Asian American violence were personally directed to me or even anyone I know – and yet each one I read about feels more painful than anything I’ve experienced before. Perhaps because now, the hate is fearless, out in the open of broad daylight and patchy security cameras, neither of which do much to deter violence. Perhaps because now, the stakes feel higher, a death count growing to twist the knife even deeper, as if mere verbal or physical assault wasn’t excruciating enough on its own. Perhaps because now, the cries are louder, and yet somehow still not as supported or shared or comforted in the way we deserve. Perhaps because now, my heart feels more tender, every attack on an elderly grandma or grandpa reminding us – me – of the family I haven’t hugged since 2019, the family I’m dying to see.
I hid in my bed for most of the day today, simultaneously wanting to avoid the world and wondering why the world wasn’t reaching out. I alternated between digging through news and distracting through Netflix, trying to muster up the energy to write about this topic that has been looming over me since the start of this year – the violence of this week is not just from this week; Asians have been targets of violence for months and months and months. I tried to avoid thinking about whether I was a coward for just moving to Asia again, because it was just easier, rather than standing my ground by establishing my life in the United States and living through the discomfort. And all of this on top of the glaring fact: I am in such a position of privilege compared to those Asian American women who don’t speak English as well, who have less of an education, who are working labor intensive jobs, who are living in poverty.
As I squirmed and moped and mused through today, I realized: being an Asian American is the single most important part of my identity. It is what helps me to stand out, and it is what helps me to blend in; it is also what makes me the individual that I am. And right now, it feels really, really, really terrifying and worrying and infuriating and agonizing to be an Asian American, to even entertain the unthinkable thoughts of this hitting closer to home than it already has. But as exhausted as my heart is, I feel a patch of hope: today, I am prouder than ever of being Asian American, and of being part of this brave, beautiful, bold community that is broken but not defeated.
P.S. If you’re looking for a cause to support, SafeWalks NYC is a service of volunteers who began walking people to and from NYC subway stations in light of recent anti-Asian violence. Learn more about them and donate here.