From Feeling Safe to Feeling Like a Stereotype

After believing I was unseen for most of my life, I'm in an unwanted spotlight.

by Christina Li

My fondness for the sport was growing. Even though I was just a substitute in our gym class soccer game, I cheered excitedly, watching my teammates try to score a goal.

My voice was hoarse, but I felt like part of the bigger group, a united community. And then BAM! Suddenly, I didn’t.

Pain was shooting up the side of my left leg. Wincing, I looked down and saw a ball rolling at my feet.

“Oh, sorry, can I have that back?” I heard a girl’s voice say.

When I turned toward the voice, I noticed a few kids peering through the gap of the gym wall that separates the junior and the freshmen physical education classes. As soon as she made eye contact with me, she ducked behind her group of friends. One of the boys looked at my face and grinned. Then he shouted, “Corona!”

The group burst into loud laughter. The girl cruelly smirked, and then they were gone before I could comprehend what had happened. I stood there, dazed, wondering if they had thrown the ball on purpose.

A classmate picked up the ball at my feet, threw it into the freshmen’s side of the gym, then ran back into play.

The game continued.

Feeling Seen, But Not in a Good Way

I stood there, under the white lights of the gym, as my leg throbbed and my class continued to compete and run. My friend, who was standing next to me, tried to engage in small talk, but none of her words registered. It was as if I were underwater. Everything sounded muddled and inaudible. I nodded in response, despite not knowing what I was nodding to.

An uneasy feeling made its way through me.

In early March 2020, people at school started talking about COVID-19. Despite the rise in fear and anxiety, public schools had remained open and I still attended my classes. On my train ride to school just two hours before, I had watched videos on my phone of assaults on Asian Americans. They showed up all over my Instagram feed, with language like “Asian people deserve this,” and “Who told Chinese people to go around eating bats? Now there’s a virus going around and it’s all their fault.”

I put my phone away, wanting a break from the racism. Then I noticed the man sitting next to me shifting uncomfortably in his seat. When I looked at him, he quickly got up and walked to the other end of the car.

My senses were heightened as I got off the train and walked to transfer to the L. I noticed that although the station was crowded, people weren’t bumping into me. Then I realized some were actively making sure not to touch me. It was as if I was an outsider that society was othering or even worse, like I was the virus itself.

I felt scared and ashamed that I was being associated with a virus. Unsettling thoughts about my safety began to creep in. I began to wonder if I would be the next person to be spat on or attacked for walking down the street just because I’m Asian.

Throughout my life, I actively sought to find characters like me, but I never saw much of myself in the media, news, or books. It felt as if my race didn’t exist.

Now, for the first time in my life, I felt seen.

As a Chinese American, I felt like I never received much attention living in the U.S. In discussions about race, in school, online, and among friends, I felt like others viewed me as nearer to whiteness than other minority groups, thus dismissing my own struggles with my identity. This was puzzling because my pursuit for social change stems from my racial identity, understanding how it feels to be marginalized. Still, like many Asian Americans, I didn’t feel like I could speak up and add my experiences in a conversation about race.

No Tolerance

During science class, my teacher sternly informed us that the pandemic isn’t connected to any race, ethnicity, or nationality, combatting my doubts and fears. She told us to wash our hands and cover our mouths when we cough, and then explained the new bathroom procedures implemented by the school, such as refilling the soap every two hours.

“There will be no harassment, physical or verbal or otherwise, of any kind,” she said strictly. “There is absolutely no tolerance for that.”

Her firmness and her unwavering gaze at the class made me feel safe.

In a school that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, I’ve always been proud to attend Brooklyn Latin. It has a strong, supportive community. During this time, I didn’t feel as if I had to navigate the school community the same way I had to with the outside world, where so much painfully reminded me of my racial identity and the history of oppression that comes along with it. I didn’t have to worry about my classmates perceiving me as “dirty,” or believing that I ate dogs, or assuming that I can’t speak English correctly. My school made me feel as if thinking about my race doesn’t always have to be so painful and confusing.

I See Myself Everywhere

Yet, I was standing under the gym’s blindingly white lights with a bruise on my leg, and scars to my psyche after being verbally targeted for my race. I couldn’t hear my friend’s words, and the freshmen that had laughed at me were on the other side of the wall I was leaning on.

It felt like all of the lights in the gym were shining on me. I had a strong urge to close my eyes. I felt blinded by the light. I thought, How easily the model minority myth can be flipped to the yellow peril.

How easily feeling safe at school can be flipped to feeling unsafe.

I felt lonely. Even in my diverse high school, where my science teacher tells us through her unrelenting tone, so sure and so confident, that harassment will not be allowed, it is not a safe space.

The lights are far too bright. The first time in my life, I see myself everywhere. I also feel fear for my family, my friends, and my safety.

On the news. In the hate crime videos. Among the cruel comments. Between the tweets of language such as “the Chinese virus” from our president.

In the shout of “Corona!” and the laughter of students from my school.

I feel like I only exist when people want to use my racial group to pit us against other minorities or to blame for a pandemic. Those are the only two times, I realize, I have ever really felt seen as a Chinese American.

Waves of sadness and loneliness like I’ve never known before crashed into me. It threatened to suffocate me. I felt like my heart might break.

“Hey, Christina,” my team captain exclaimed, sweaty and tired. “You’re in. It’s a new game. You’re defender.”

It was as if I was an outsider that society was othering or even worse, like I was the virus itself.
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