Note: I cannot and do not claim to know every Asian American’s story and the reasons behind why they’ve chosen to share or not share their struggle with the recent news, but I hope to help build a better understanding by cobbling together pieces of my own experience as a Chinese woman raised in North America.
I’ve seen the news as of late — the brutal, even fatal attacks on elderly Asian Americans across America. Most recently, six Asian women were killed in a series of attacks in northwest Georgia when a gunman decided to open fire at three different spas. At first, “motive unknown”. Now, attributed to his possible sex addiction.
Many are horrified to be learning about these attacks for the first time, but there’s a long history of racism and crime against Asian Americans that many — even I — were not aware of. As early as 1882, the Chinese were banned from immigrating to the U.S. via the Chinese Exclusion Act, on the basis that declining wages and a plummeting economy were at the hands of an influx of Chinese immigrants. Post-9/11, we saw an uptick in hate crimes against South Asians on account of Islamophobia. In 1982, 27-year-old Chinese-American Vincent Chin, mistaken as Japanese, was beaten to death by two white men who blamed the Japanese for the loss of auto jobs during the recession. Undesirable. Unwelcome. Untrustworthy.
In 2020, the NYPD alone reported a 1900% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Yes, you read that correctly: 1900%. Over the last year, Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 incidents nationally, spanning from online and verbal harassment to civic rights violations and physical assaults.
Countless stories like these have since seen the timer go off on their 15 minutes of fame, and still more remain untold, unshared. Why is that?
The model minority myth
Asians immigrants are often looked to as the “model minority” — the shining, poster child of what a well-educated, high performing, and successful assimilated member of society should look like. Built on stereotypes, the myth of model minorities perpetuates the idea that Asian parents are the most strict and raise the most perfect children that grow up to attend the most prestigious colleges, and have the most high-paying jobs.
My parents, immigrants to Canada from Hong Kong in 1989, wanted this life. How could they not? The life they could not have, they wanted for me.
When I was in the first grade, my mom volunteered at my elementary school and was often in classrooms helping teachers manage a bunch of finicky 6-year-olds. I loved reading from a young age, so much so that I got placed into a reading and writing class for second graders (big leagues, I know). Enter Carmen. Carmen was Chinese, one year older than me, and known to be a very quiet but smart student. She minded her own business, rarely asked any questions, and never got into trouble. At the dinner table on the same day that my mom met Carmen, she said to me, “You should be more like Carmen. Even when there was a lot going on around her, she did not pay attention to any of it. She kept her head down and did her work.” For the next few years, my parents revered Carmen. Be more like Carmen. Perfectly quiet Carmen.
My value as a daughter of immigrant Chinese parents lied in achievements. Get good grades. Go to a good college (and God forbid I become an Arts major — only STEM was acceptable). Get a high paying job. I failed at 3/3 of these things until my late 20s, when I found a career in tech. Through the years, I paid the price in the form of constant shaming — I wasn’t allowed to forget it. “I will make your life miserable,” my dad said to me, barely a teenager, after he found out that my classmate had finished all six pages of her Saturday morning math class homework before me (and always scored higher). The first memory I have of my father telling me he was proud of me was at age 30, when he discovered that I surpassed the salary that he made at retirement. I placed all my self-worth in my career and the number on my paycheques.
When it came to confrontations outside of the home, there were none, superficially. Injustices that my parents faced? I never heard about them. Blowout arguments that my parents had? Don’t tell the other aunties and uncles. Don’t talk about your feelings. Preserve your image. Keep your head down. Don’t rustle any feathers.
The picture I want to paint is not that of a sob story, but one that illustrates why you might not have heard from your Asian American friends, other than the occasional Instagram post or Tweet.
For many of us, our entire lives, we’re taught to sit down and be quiet. Do the work, keep your head down, and surely, you will rise to the top (I’ve learned this is absolutely false, by the way). When conflict arises, we are implicitly taught to back down and avoid confrontation at all costs. When you feel overlooked and invisible, don’t bring it up. Do not be assertive or loud. You will get what you deserve just by working hard. This is, in part, why Asian Americans have a relatively strong representation in the workplace in more junior roles, but are among the most underrepresented in managerial and executive positions.
We work and work, and we never ask for help. We build a life for ourselves. So, now, when we see people in our community being brutally attacked for no reason other than the color of their skin and a misdirected finger pointed in their faces for the responsibility of bringing a pandemic to the world, how do we even begin to talk about it? Yes, it’s heartbreaking and nightmarish to read story after story, and imagine that our parents or grandparents may very well be next. But it feels almost petty and inconsequential to talk about when there’s always someone that has it worse, so we should be grateful. We shouldn’t complain. In our silence, we are strong.
If I’m honest, I don’t quite know how or where to start a conversation on the issues — in part due to a long history of being taught to be thankful for what I have and to not raise a hand when I feel uncomfortable. I was always taught to preserve someone else’s comfort at the cost of my own. To suffer silently, much like my parents probably did—I don’t know, because there were a lot of things they did not tell me and my brother. If my grandma were a victim of an attack today, I am, unfortunately, 99% sure she would tell us not to contact the authorities or media, and to just let it be. No fuss.
If you asked me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how to help me. Truthfully, I’m still learning that myself—how to ask for what I need, and that talking about my pain doesn’t take away from anybody else’s. I don’t have the answers, but I know we have to be relentless. Relentless at calling out injustice, and sharing the stories of our community where they seem to be invisible.
I’ve seen many friends and acquaintances speak out in the past year about many injustices and bring to light causes that are much more global than what we see and hear about in North America. It’s encouraging to see the deserved support in these movements, but now it’s time to condemn hate and violence against Asians. If you’re reading this and wondering how you can help, keep sharing the stories and photos. Keep talking. Check in with one another. Protect each other. Volunteer locally. Read and learn. Call bad behavior out. Ask yourself how you can stop perpetuating Asian stereotypes.
Asian American friends — don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, whether from your friends, coworkers, or employer. This can be in many forms — conversations, space held, time to yourself, time to care for loved ones, or time to serve in your communities.
It’s time they heard from us.