When I was in first grade, a friend and I were playing pretend on the playground. While choreographing our own Power Rangers fight scene, he accidentally kicked me in the spot where no man wants to be kicked.
I doubled over. My friend quickly apologized, gave me a pat on the back, and then… we started laughing. Cracking up. It was like a cartoon. My tears of laughter replaced my tears of pain while he pranced around, kicking and punching the air.
Recess ended and we went inside. The class gathered around for story time. Out of nowhere, I started weeping uncontrollably.
My teacher sent me to the principal’s office. I struggled to explain my delayed response to her in between gasps for air. “I don’t know why I’m crying right now.” Snot bubbles popped under my nostrils. “I know he didn’t kick me on purpose.” I slurped at my own tears. “I know men aren’t supposed to cry. It just hurt.”
The principle mopped my face with tissues. “Sometimes we need a good cry, even if we don’t know why. And men are allowed to cry. In fact, my father cries every time he hears the American national anthem.”
I took her wisdom very seriously. Since that day, I have been very good at crying. I cry every time I watch “This Is Us”. I cry when I see people being mean to each other, and also when people are nice to each other. I cry when I see other people crying.
Over the last year, 3,795 Asian American hate crimes were reported. Asian Americans across the country have been harassed, spat on, pushed, punched, cut, shot, robbed. Killed. Too many incidents happened less than a few miles from where I live. Too many incidents happened to elders.
When I read headlines, my blood boiled and my teeth hurt, and yet, I couldn’t find the tears. I couldn’t find the right words to describe how I felt. “Sad” or “mad” just didn’t sound right.
On March 16, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta. Three Asian American businesses targeted. Eight people killed, including six Asian American women.
Their names were Soon Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels.
The tears finally came. Not all at once, like a great, cathartic release. Instead, I wept slowly and quietly throughout the day.
I cried while listening to a panel of Asian American leaders at work talk about their experiences.
I cried on the toilet after Capt. Jay Baker said the murderer had “a really bad day” and the attack was motivated by “a sex addiction” and a desire to “eliminate the temptation”.
I cried after learning that a 76-year-old Asian American woman had been attacked in San Francisco just one block away from where I used to live. I smiled at first because the headline read “ELDERLY WOMAN BEATS UP HER ATTACKER”, but broke down when I watched the video and saw tears and panic flowing from one of her eyes and blood flowing from the other.
And then I cried a couple more times throughout the day for what seemed like no reason at all.
I wasn’t able to get any work done that day. I was too busy crying, doom scrolling, or looking over my shoulder in my own home. Loved ones and coworkers asked me how I felt, but I didn’t know what to say. Again, the words “sad” or “mad” didn’t sound right.
I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that prioritizes wellbeing. Today, I’m taking a mental health day so I can sit down, reflect, and finally identify my emotions.
During the panel at work, I felt pride. I had never seen so many beautiful, inspiring, vulnerable Asian American leaders in one room before. I felt pain and joy when they told stories that sounded similar to mine. I felt a strange sense of longing. Longing for more Asian American unity in the past, present, and future.
While I read Capt. Jay Baker’s statement, I felt rage. How dare law enforcement describe a massacre and act of domestic terrorism as a “bad day”? How dare this murderer view Asian American women not as humans, but “temptations” to be eliminated? I felt fear for all my Asian American sisters who have been fetishized and demeaned by misogynists and white supremacists.
When I saw the news about the 76-year-old Asian American woman who beat her attacker, I felt relieved that she survived. Delighted that she was able to defend herself but so, so, so sorry that she had to. Exhausted by how the attacker was wheeled to the hospital without handcuffs, treated with more dignity than the minorities of this country.
Our story in this country is filled with betrayal and conflict. America has manufactured conflict both against and between Asian Americans and has enforced conflicting, harmful stereotypes.
America dismisses Asian Americans as docile and obedient in the good times. In the bad times, we are targeted as threats, sick men of Asia, terrorists, Chinese Virus.
We came here for a better life and built the railroads that supported America’s westward expansion. We were welcomed with xenophobia, discrimination, and policies that denied us citizenship, the right to testify against white people, the right to own land, and so on.
During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps. Racist propaganda put Chinese Americans on a pedestal while dehumanizing Japanese Americans. Years later, the model minority myth would be used to drive a wedge between the Asian and Black communities.
Growing up, America told me that I belonged to the most prosperous ethnic group. Meanwhile, my dad left for work before I woke up in the morning and didn’t return until I was asleep. I still qualified for the free and reduced lunch program at school.
My non-Asian peers rubbed elbows with me so we could team up on group projects, only to pretend we were strangers outside the classroom. Some of my Asian peers challenged my Asian-ness when my first SAT score was sub-par, only to shun me as a “tryhard” when I spent every waking minute studying for the next exam.
One time I told a teacher about my tennis coach, Mr. Huang. He joked, “Who’s that, your dad?”
One time a bully called me “Roger Lamb Chop”. One time a teacher called me “Roger Lame”.
One time I asked if we could turn on subtitles for a movie we were watching in class because that’s what my family does at home, and the room erupted with laughter.
One time a man approached me in a store and asked, “Do you like rice?” I didn’t know what to say and for 5 long seconds of silence, I was afraid. Then, he pointed at the Rice University shirt I was wearing and chuckled. We shared a nice, uncomfortable laugh before I walked away with a sigh of relief like so many times before.
Two months ago, I moved to a neighborhood with a large Asian American population. While I waited in line at an Asian-owned pharmacy, a man waltzed in, scooped whatever he liked into a large garbage bag, and left without paying. The week after, I watched an Asian American bakery-owner offer a customer a 2 for $3 deal that wasn’t on the menu in broken English. The customer loudly accused the owner of “trying to cheat him of his money” and made a fuss. Who knew a language barrier could lead to such conflict?
I’m lucky. I have never been directly attacked and I know many Asian Americans have had much more difficult experiences. But I still felt alienated and powerless. An outsider. Other.
Unlike my former principal’s father, I don’t cry when I hear the American national anthem. I’m not always proud to be American, especially during times like these. However, I am incredibly proud to be Asian American.
We are smart, but also strong. We are not all rich, but we do come from rich cultures and histories. We are resilient, but we bleed like everyone else.
I want to be a good Asian American. For most of my life, I thought that meant being quiet, being a good student, being successful, and staying in my lane. Make my family proud!
Now I recognize that my role as an Asian American is to support marginalized groups like mine and help undo the damage against us.
- I will seek to understand different cultures and celebrate our shared experiences.
- I will empower people to do what they love and amplify their work. We can succeed together.
- I will push for positive representation and speak up against racism. I will shout if I have to.
I hope I can make my Asian American family proud.
To my allies out there, please check in on your Asian American friends. We are hurting. Listen to our experiences and spend time learning about our history and the biases against us. Support Asian-owned businesses and donate or volunteer if you can. Report hate crimes and learn how to safely intervene. Thank you.