Hate has No Home Here
Last week, a man went into three Asian-owned businesses and killed eight people: two clients and six Asian women. I rarely post about current events, because this newsletter is not really focused on the news. This week, however, I had a hard time writing something new. I’ve spent the past few days processing what happened and thinking about what it means.
I shared a post on LinkedIn and Facebook discussing my personal feelings and the hashtag #stopasianhate. Over a million people viewed it, and thousands shared it. I guess it struck a nerve, one that I must admit I feel unqualified to touch. In the comments (yes, I know, “never read the comments”), I saw several people asking why I was making something about race when these killings were about something else. A few others asked why we should single out Asians when we should be trying to stop all hate. While I don’t have all of the answers to those questions, I do know that when someone goes to three Asian-owned businesses and opens fire, it is saying something, even if we are not ready to hear it.
Connecting the Dots
Atlanta is close to my heart. I grew up in a small town near Charleston, South Carolina, and at least twice a year, my parents would take us on the six-hour drive to Atlanta for Chinese groceries. My sister went to Georgia Tech, so we spent even more years wearing down the roads between our home and the city where I hoped to live one day.
After college, David and I settled in Atlanta. We married at the Atlanta Chinese Christian Church and held our Korean-Chinese rehearsal dinner and traditional ten-course Chinese wedding banquet on Buford Highway.
After the events of last week, I connected with many of my Asian American friends, many of whom, like me, grew up in places with few people who looked like them. They recounted stories of coming of age as Asian Americans and being perpetually treated as “the other,” and discussed how it affected them personally. Some of these people I have known for over two decades, but what I noticed was that none of them had ever opened up about their experiences before last week. I always assumed that it was just me, that I didn’t try hard enough to fit in, or that maybe where I grew up was simply different. In particular, the words of one of my oldest friends, whom I first met when I was six, shocked me. He shared how he was terrorized for being Asian in his school, and how it impacted him. In all the years we have known each other, this was the first time we ever connected about something so disturbingly common where we were from.
Running from Race
I don’t speak about race lightly or easily. I spent so many years of my life pretending that it didn’t matter, that I was beyond those issues, as a way to distance myself from it. When I met David, he was the president of the Asian Students Association at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I remember, at age nineteen, baldly declaring to him, “I don’t get why you are into that Asian stuff.” He used to impress upon me how important it was that Asian Americans had a voice, and I pushed back, saying that it was better if we didn’t stand out so much and instead tried to fit in.
For me, it was easier to pretend that race didn’t matter -- that we could all just be judged on our merits. I even pushed back against my parents when they told me that two of the seminal events in my life were driven by the discrimination they had experienced.
When I was six, I moved from Queens, New York, where I was born, to South Carolina. I never understood why my parents left behind the multi-ethnic borough of Queens, all of their friends and family, and the amazing city of New York, for a state they had never even visited. For years, my sister and I begged to move back because we resented living in a place where we are bullied relentlessly, but our parents stood firm. Later, when we were older, they sat us down and explained that the company my father worked for had refused to honor his engineering degree, instead keeping him as a technician at substantially lower pay. He strongly suspected that it was because he was one of the few Asians, but his company wouldn’t budge, so he decided to uproot his family so that he could work for the government at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. The only person he knew there was an Indian American friend, who had moved from New York to South Carolina and told him that the government doesn’t discriminate. My father started anew as an engineer and spent twenty years of his life working for the government, retiring with a full pension. An act of discrimination in a company in New York changed the course of all of our lives, but I struggled to understand it.
I had an even harder time processing the second event. Our family attended a Southern Baptist church in our neighborhood, and I remember how much I loved the Sunday School and the community. One day, though, we abruptly stopped going. I was confused. It turned out that my parents had requested to become members of the church during the open invitation. When I asked my parents why we left, they simply said, “They didn’t want us as members, so we found a new church that would accept us.” This was a church that supported missionaries to Asia, and yet they didn’t want a family from Asia in their midst. My parents became Presbyterians and remained so since.
I spent years not wanting to accept that these two things had happened. I wondered if they could have been misunderstood, or if there had been some kind of mistake. I tried to convince myself of this even as I was bullied relentlessly at school and taunted for being different. I doubted my parents’ experiences even as I listened to people on the streets tell us to go back to where we came from.
I believed if I was American enough -- if I fit in enough -- people would stop commenting, harassing, and bullying. But living in a state with a population that was less than one percent Asian, where I was one of a handful of people who looked like me, meant that nothing I did was ever quite enough.
Asians as the Forever Foreigner
My freshman year at Duke, when I was writing a paper on the portrayal of Asians in popular culture, I searched through the stacks at the Perkins Library and found a section on Asians in America. There I opened a thin tome from the early 20th century, written by a Western adventurer, talking about his journey to China. The language used in the prologue was overtly racist, referring to "the Chinaman" as shifty, overly sexual, and untrustworthy. I held the book in my hand, frozen, before hastily putting it back on the shelf.
Americans of Asian descent occupy a strange place in our society. Asian Americans are the most educated racial group, with 58 percent attaining a college degree, well over the 36 percent of the total US population (ref). But the reasons why are partly the reasons my own parents came here. In 1882, immigration laws changed to make it illegal for Chinese people to immigrate to the US (ref). Though they made up less than 0.002% of the population, their presence was seen to be taking away jobs from Americans. It was these laws that kept Asians out of the country. Even after things loosened up in the 1940s, strict quotas remained until 1965, when a new set of laws opened the door for people like my parents to come to America for college (ref).
The reason most Asian Americans have such high educational attainment is because of discriminatory laws. Only those with wealth and education could enter the country, even temporarily. Many of those immigrants are the parents and grandparents of the Asian Americans who are here today. But there is also a little-known fact that Asian Americans have the highest income disparity in their ranks (ref).
Asians have been seen as the model minority because those who came here were often educated and well-off compared to the general population of the countries they left. My parents had parents who could send them abroad, even if there were times my father barely had enough to eat during his college days. He told me of how he often ate milk in rice because that was all he could afford. My father never ever let food go to waste, and for years, he never let us leave food on our plates.
My parents came to America knowing it was a one-way trip, and for years and years, they struggled to make a life here. To see elderly Asian Americans beaten in the street for no other reason than what they look like breaks my heart. In each of these stories, I see my parents, and the hardships they endured to survive in a foreign land and give us a better life.
America has No Place for Hate
When I look at my kids, I see them growing up no less American than anyone else. We are fortunate to live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic community where they are unexceptional. They can hardly believe the stories we share of our childhoods in the South, and I am sure they are as incredulous about those experiences as I was dismissive of my parents'.
A friend who grew up in the South shared a few days ago how her kids in an Atlanta school have been subjected to taunts about being the source of the “China Virus” since March of last year, which continues to this day. The March 16th shootings happened only miles from their home. It is heart-wrenching to see elementary school students being tormented by their peers for the same reasons I was taunted three decades ago. I had hoped we could be beyond this in 2021, that we could see America as a place where everyone belongs.
We are all Americans, regardless of where our ancestry or ethnicity. No one is more, no one is less. Hate has no place here.