Asian American All the Way
Issue 14, Volume 111
By Calista Lee
I’ve never been ashamed of my Chinese ethnicity. Rather, many of my fondest memories are closely tied with this part of myself.
In elementary school, after winter break, while everyone else waited for Valentine’s Day or the Super Bowl, I’d wait eagerly for Chinese New Year. I was so excited for the party we’d throw in class, where I’d proudly share the traditional treats my grandma would make.
In the days leading up to the holiday, I loved teaching my non-Asian friends and teachers how to say blessings, such as “gong hei fat choy,” in Cantonese.
In 2016, I was elated when NY’s public school system recognized Lunar New Year as an official holiday on the school calendar, closing schools for a day to allow Asian families to celebrate.
In sixth grade, my social studies class held a cultural feast, where everyone brought a dish from their background. I brought in Chinese steamed sponge cake that I had made, and I swelled with pride when a classmate came up to me, saying my dish was the best one they had tasted that day.
When I saw someone that looked like me declare that he was running for office for the 2020 presidential elections, I felt inspired and proud.
But for the first time in my life, I’m terrified of my Asian identity, of my skin color, of the traditions and background I was born and raised in. When my father showed me a video of a woman being attacked forcefully in broad daylight in Manhattan, my stomach curdled and my mouth went dry. It’s terrifying to think that my grandparents, my parents, my sister, or I could easily be going through that exact same thing. I was even more horrified when a doorman, who had a full view of what was happening to the woman, didn’t call for help and instead closed the door . Wasn’t the logical thing to see to the woman and call for help?
There are no words to capture just how egregious this attack was. I’m repulsed. I’m hurt. I’m angry. I’m in disbelief as to how another human being can commit these atrocities––beating, kicking, pushing another human being.
It’s one thing to hear about the hate crimes, but another when you visually see videos of the physical attacks. When I watch that video my father showed me—when I watch a man beaten and choked until unconscious on the J-train, when I watch a woman being pushed outside the bakery in Queens—the reality sinks in. And there are even more of these attacks that are not being reported because of fear of retaliation from the attacker, language barriers, and uncertainty whether reporting it will be fruitful, among other reasons.
This violence has made me scared of not only my identity, but the city we live in. New York City has one of the highest rises in Asian American hate crimes in the nation. In a report released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, Asian American hate crimes in NYC rose from three in 2019 to 28 in 2020. Compared to other major cities listed in the report, our city saw the highest increase. As a result, there’s a sort of tension in the atmosphere, like a rubber band pulled taut, and you don’t know what to expect until the band snaps. Now, my imminent return to school this fall has my family and I worrying about my safety, especially since I take the subway, as do countless other Stuyvesant students. We worry about my grandparents when they purchase food from the supermarket, despite it being only a few blocks from our house.
However, the optimistic side of me can’t help but see some of the good, however small, that can come out of this. I can’t help but hope that born out of this disrespect comes respect, born out of this heartlessness comes a society with more heart, and born out of this outrage comes change. Now that there’s more recognition and attention given to this discrimination, society can start to debunk some of the stereotypes of Asian Americans, particularly the model minority myth that paints us as successful and obedient people. I hope that we can encourage the majority of Asian Americans who fear reporting hate crimes to share their stories, condemn the usage of words such as the “China virus” or “Kung flu,” advocate for the community to reach out, provide support for one another, and raise awareness about the daily struggles Asian Americans face today as well as how this racism is rooted in America’s past and its policies. It’s saddening to think that it took a pandemic and such cruelty for this issue to be highlighted, but COVID-19 has an ability to reveal some of the biggest inequalities in our country—Asian American discrimination is one of them.
Even though I want to hide and stay fearful for my Chinese ethnicity, I feel as though this is a time that calls for me to embrace it all the more. At a time when we are being attacked for this very reason, I should not succumb to violence. Rather, I will remember those moments filled with joy and pride I had from sharing and participating in my culture’s traditions, draw strength from these memories, and hope that I will be able to create more of these in the future.