A spring morning in Brooklyn required daily chores with my wife and my then 15-month-old daughter. On my way home, I stopped at a gas station while my husband climbed into the back seat to make some anxious pleas …
I lean against my car, stunned as I wait for the tank to fill up. I watch a few people filter into a nearby vintage clothing store. It would be nice to stop there soon, I think to myself.
Suddenly someone interrupts me while speaking, so I turn to my voice.
I immediately regret it.
“Damn,” he tells me, and staring makes me feel naked. His uniform at the gas station shows me he works there. He works on the clock, but may go on a break or end a shift, as evidenced by a low-hanging backpack covered in his blond tail.
I turn back, hoping that’s the scope of his conversation. After all, how many times have I heard comments like this? In my 32 years of life, I know what I should do now: avoid eye contact, ignore, and move on with my work. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, no.
“Are you one of those Asian girls who loves …” he continues.
At this point, I admit, I don’t remember the explicit words that followed. Because … how many times? Avoid eye contact, ignore and move on. I know the exercise. The drill is rooted in me. But this time, my daughter is sitting in the car. This time I’m doing a bad favor if I just ignore it. She may be too young to know, but I know. So this time I turn to him. And just as I was about to tell him to stop, my husband got out of the car.
“Hey, man, that’s my wife,” she tells him. “You have to stop.”
“Oh, I haven’t seen you,” the gas station attendant eluded the answer. Our windows are tinted so he can’t see inside. “Sorry, man.”
I guess he’ll walk away and we’ll get back in our car and go home. Instead, he defends himself, saying, “I just gave her a compliment, you know. If I had a woman like that, I would be proud, brother. “
My husband has more choice of words to say while the assistant continues to defend himself.
“I’m here,” I interrupt. “Stop talking about me like I’m not.” I’m not sure anyone can hear me.
Eventually we get back in the car and drive home. My daughter is asleep, but my husband is fidgeting. He is upset that someone might be so disrespectful to me. Yes, it infuriates, I explain, but it’s my experience as an Asian. That’s my norm. I further explain that, although I appreciated my husband’s effort to defend me, I did not like to be talked to from both sides, to be tortured like a girl in trouble when I could handle the situation on my own.
Fast forward three years. We have just surpassed the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. I reports appear more frequently in the media in connection with hate crimes against the communities of Asia-America and the Pacific islands. The victims are mostly elderly people. Terrible and heartbreaking.
But for the most part, I felt largely alienated from hate crimes. That is, so far.
The media may be hesitant to call it what it is in their headlines, but I will not: white men were recently shot and killed by six Asian women in a targeted hate crime. I am suddenly struck by the realization that avoiding eye contact, ignoring still – as I have done most of my life – will not be enough. Doing so to save face, not to exaggerate, not to make the scene do little more than silence my own voice.
Hate crimes are not limited to physical violence. They include verbal harassment. They involve the fetishization of Asian women. They include the demasculinization of Asian men. They also include a benevolent but detrimental perspective: I don’t even see you as Asian.
And while media attention to violence against Asians may be new, it is not new. And yet, we are in 2021 and these are not anecdotes from our parents ’generation. This is today. Yesterday’s news made me go through the past facing a roladex of memories that were painful.
Until recently, I worked at Trader Joe’s in California for over two years and although I loved my time there, the amount of micro-aggression I was getting from customers coming across my line was simply terrifying. “Konichiwa?” an old white man asked me. I shook my head. “Ni-hao?” he hit again. I said, “No.” “Arigato?” I ignored him. “What then?” he asked in disbelief. “Just a simple greeting is enough,” I said with a smile because customers always come first. “Yes, but where are you? from? ”
Oh, that question. That always leads to that question. Should I tell him what he wants to hear? Korean. Or tell him the correct answer? I was born and raised in America and I speak English.
I took my chances and started with the last one. He insisted. “No, but where are you? from? “At this point, I didn’t want to get a complaint about rudeness, so I made a commitment.” “My ethnic identity is Korean.” “Ah-ha! Well ahn-yeong-ha-sae-yo!” He replied triumphantly. I giggled uncomfortably, trying to complete the transaction as quickly as possible.
I hate to admit that I have had as many of these stories in just two years as I have worked there. I also hate to admit that the interaction at the gas station was not an isolated incident in Brooklyn. I have endless examples of racial sieges that threw me into the street as I walked with my daughter to a park or grocery store during my four years in New York City. And even in a place as beautiful as Lyon in France, where I studied abroad in college, men would draw the corners of their eyes to mimic what mine looks like. Proving that this is not a geographical problem. And as a child. Oh, so many incidents as a child. The way my cheeks would warm up when the kids shouted, “Chink!” or “Nip!” I would ignore it or laugh because the only other option was to cry.
So, what’s worse? The fact that this is happening today or that it is not new and that every other Asian-American has experiences in experiences that he can share with you, and which has suppressed most of his life? For many of us, we are just beginning to allow ourselves to face the history of injury from which we have become so good at separation.
For this reason, please log in with your colleagues and friends in the AAPI family to see how they are doing. Send text. Remind them to think of them and to see them. Because I guarantee you that many of them see and think of themselves for the first time in a very long time.
PS How to currently help support the Asian-American community, and illustrator Ruth Chan’s beauty uniform.