I’m Asian American. Specifically, Japanese American. I was born and raised in New York, but I have spent half my life in Michigan. In my life I have experienced different situations of racism, sometimes blatant, sometimes so subtle you could have missed it if you weren’t paying attention.
Asians in the US are placed awkwardly in the racial tiers of society. Some of the subconscious (and not so subconscious) biases about us are that we’re smart, we’re good at math, we’re not so good at sports, Asian men aren’t sexy, and so on. We are a mix of positive and negative stereotypes. It’s ingrained so well in the rest of non-Asians that they all accepted former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s refrain: “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math!” I don’t know about other Asian Americans, but it made me feel slightly uneasy that he was using a common stereotype about Asians as a basis for his campaign.
Memories of Encounters
There are various encounters related to race that have shaped me to be the way I am. It’s important to note that the aggressor or agitator is not always the same race. We all carry an implicit bias within us that makes us react to different people in various ways. It can even happen within the same ethnic group.
High school, senior year. I’m riding the subway home from our school in the Bronx with my boyfriend, my friend, and her boyfriend. We are all Asian, representing three different countries. Several young black boys are hanging out in the same car. They’re about 13 years old. One of them notices us and starts to taunt us. He’s pretending to speak with an Asian accent, making fun of our features, making us feel very uncomfortable. None of us knows how to respond. He seems to think we’re all immigrants or that we don’t understand him well.
My friend nervously lets out a Japanese tongue twister, which delights him even further. He yells and repeats nonsense syllables back to us. All the while, he has been moving closer, his swagger increasing. One of his friends keeps telling him to leave us alone, “dude, stop that, man.” I want him to listen to his friend. I’m not sure what he was going to do once he reached us. I was afraid that he was going to turn physical. I felt ashamed of how he was making fun of us. I was angry that no one was stopping him. I felt powerless.
He starts making fun of Chinese food. At that moment, my brain instantly went to a movie I had just watched recently, Dude, Where’s My Car. There’s a scene where they’re trying to order food from the drive-through, and that’s where my mind went to.
“Hey, hey, have you seen Dude, Where’s My Car?” I chose to speak completely nonchalantly, trying to remain calm, trying not to show the fear in my voice. “You know the part where they’re trying to order Chinese food, and the person on the intercom keeps saying, ‘And then?’ You know that part?” He physically withdrew and looked completely different. He suddenly realized that we had understood everything. His eyes went to the floor and he went back to his friends. I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured this was the best outcome for me and my friends. We stayed tense for the rest of the ride.
College Episode 1
A few years later, I’m a college student walking through a parking structure in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m walking towards the staircase to get to my car to go home. A group of black college students comes walking down. One of them sees me, and yells out, “Oooh, ching chong chang!” I slowed down and could only blink in response. Once again, I’m sad, mad, hurt, and confused. Now as a young adult, I wondered why one minority group would make fun of another.
His friend laughs and says to me while walking away, “sorry, he’s drunk!” They all laugh as they saunter off. If I could go back to that time, I wish I could have stopped them and had a conversation. I would have asked them, “why is it ok for you to make fun of what I look like when you know how it feels?”
College Episode 2
A few more years later, I’m still in college and dating a Korean guy. We’re friends with a large group of Asians of different backgrounds. We frequently go out to the clubs to party on the weekends. One night, the club has closed for the night and we’re all streaming out onto the sidewalk. A drunk Arabic guy looms close, looks at him, and calls out, “hey, sushi!” My boyfriend, also drunk, lurches forward and grabs onto him. Friends on both sides grab their respective friend and try to tear them apart. I’m once again fearful and worried that a brawl was going to break out.
“I’m not Japanese, I’m Korean!” He declares, his nose only inches away from the other guy. The guy is not impressed. “Whatever, man,” he slurs and continues to lurch toward him as his friends held him back. My boyfriend continues, deliberately, “You’re such a f#@%ing Chaldean.” As background, Chaldeans are a Catholic ethnoreligious community originally from northern Iraq. There is a large community of them in the Detroit area.
This angers the other guy, as he now lunges forward and yells, “F#@% you, I’m Lebanese!” To which my boyfriend replied excitedly, “Exactly!” He had turned the slur said to him back to the other guy with the appropriate context. The Lebanese guy understood it as well. “Dude, man, I get it now, man, I get it!” He was still lurching toward him, friends still keeping them apart, but now they were gripping each other’s hands and shaking them. Everyone lets go and we all went home.
College Episode 3
There was another encounter with this same group of friends. It was another evening after clubbing, and we were all lined up outside of a local fast-food Mexican joint. We had some friends visiting from out of town and everyone had come out. It was a group of maybe ten to twelve of us.
A college-age white guy comes out of the restaurant, sees us all, then throws a mock martial arts move, yelling out, “hiya!” Most of us just stare at him in disbelief, but one of my friends had been having a bad week. “Seriously, dude? Come on, man.” The white guy, clearly drunk, continues to leer at us. His blatant lack of remorse or his understanding of what his actions meant to us angered me. We must have all felt the same way, because at this point, one of our out-of-town friends grappled him and held him in place.
An all-out fight breaks out. My male friends are throwing punches at him. He’s punching and kicking back. It pauses momentarily when two of his friends emerge from the same restaurant. When they hear about what happened, they laugh and say that he deserves it. They drag him away to their car that is parked a few spots over.
We turn away to go back to our cars but he didn’t want it to be over. He left his car, ran back, yelling and punching again. It’s one of him against about 8 angry guys. He’s quickly overcome and the pummeling continues. I’m feeling conflicted. It feels extremely gratifying to act against the oppressor. It was going against the stereotype that Asians are meek and will take anything without a fight. At the same time, I did not like that only violence was being used to oppose him.
The fight broke up when someone yelled that the cops were coming. We all left the scene quickly after that. Reflecting on that time now, there was a lot of anger that was pent up inside all of us from similar situations. The time just aligned back then for some of us to act on them. I can’t help but wonder what the white guy thinks of this encounter. Does he now have a more negative view of Asians? Did he feel remorse? Did he even remember when he woke up the next day?
College Episode 4
I’m in college and flying home from Detroit to New York. It’s an extremely small plane, with only two seats on each side of the aisle. I’m holding my bags close to keep them from hitting the people already seated. I’m sleep-deprived and exhausted. “Uh-huh, that’s right.” A disapproving voice cuts through the mental fog of my sleepy brain. A black woman sitting in a window seat is looking at me with pure disgust. What?
“That’s right, you go ahead and clutch your bag because otherwise, we might just swipe it from you!” She huffed and kept staring at me angrily. Once again, I could not speak, and I kept shuffling past her on the plane. It has been years since this encounter, and yet it still evokes strong emotions in me. Confusion, at why she would think this. Anger, that she completely misunderstood the situation. Sadness, that what she thought was probably confirmed by my actions. Fear, that she might have escalated the situation and kept attacking me.
But now there’s a new emotion, given the recent events. Wondering, what happened in her life that made her react this way? Did she have an encounter or more with Asians that left her with so much anger and suspicion towards all Asians? I still don’t know what I could have said to have a conversation with her.
Asians also need to act
Humanity is a never-ending circle. What we experience in our lives, we pass on to our children and the next generation, whether we mean to or not. The majority creates pop culture and the “norm” of society. Implicit fears, anger, and even apathy are passed down. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change from the bottom up.
But we need to act for that to happen. There are enough amazing moments that I’ve heard about that show this is possible. Like the story of “Hotel Corona” in Jerusalem, where both Israeli and Palestinian patients recovering from the Coronavirus had to stay until they were recovered. Everyone ended up becoming friends and even had seder together. Like the sheriff in Flint, Michigan, who took off his riot gear and joined the protestors in their walk.
There is a lot of hate, but there is also so much hope. I have hope that most of America know what’s right from wrong. It’s easy to become apathetic and give up on a cause without even trying. I know I can’t stay silent forever. As deep in the hellhole of depression that I have been in, I can appreciate the simple good things in life and I value them greatly. I want to preserve that for all humankind.
As Asians, we are in a unique position. We experience some of the privileges that our lighter skin and supposed smarts give us. At the same time, we have been on the brutal end of racist actions. We’re told to “go home,” that our eyes are too narrow, that because some of us speak with an accent we don’t understand what you’re saying.
We need to remember that there was a time when we were vilified and stripped of our civil rights. We need to act to support the black community and restore their civil liberties.
History of Asian Immigration in the US
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law restricting a certain ethnic group from entering the United States. It also prevented Chinese immigrants and their US-born families from becoming citizens. It ended up lasting through 1943 through a series of extensions.
The Immigration Act of 1924 banned all Asians from immigrating to the US. It also introduced the quota system for all countries represented by immigrants. This exclusion was repealed by the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.
I can’t go without mentioning the Japanese internment camps established during WWII from 1942 to 1945. People of Japanese descent were interred in isolated camps. About 117,00 people were affected, the majority of whom were American citizens.
Changing the cycle
The common emotion throughout all of these interactions is fear. Fear of an unknown culture, fear of something different, fear of change and losing control of what you have currently. Fear leads to ignorance, anger, and a refusal to learn more about the other side. Further interactions of fear produce more divide.
We can stop this cycle. Let’s talk to our children about diversity and racism. Let’s talk to them about basic rights. Find the courage to find your racism inside you. We all have implicit biases and fears. Face them, acknowledge them, and do something about it. I write because this is how I can share this message. We can donate (if able), we can amplify messages from the black community, and we can peacefully protest. We can vote in all elections to choose who we want to run our towns, our states, and our country.
There’s still hope. Lets do something about it.
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.Edith Wharton