In late March, I was casually taking what would turn out to be one of my final rides on the #2 train. At the time I had no idea that in a few days I’d be stuck at home because of the spread of the coronavirus, fearing for my mother’s life because of her lupus. As the train rumbled along, I was hard at work doing what mattered to me most: studying, while wrapped up in the sounds of “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls coming through my earbuds.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a woman eyeing me intently, with a look of abject hatred and disgust. I felt I was likely her target because I was Asian and had on a face mask.
Most New Yorkers know that our subways have their fair share of bigots, creeps, and people looking to scam or harass strangers. And I usually react the same way other New Yorkers react when they encounter these hagglers. I make no eye contact and pretend I haven’t noticed a thing.
But now I silently watched through my peripheral vision as this woman obviously slinked away from me and muttered a few words to a man beside her. I felt like she viewed me as a virus-making machine straight from China, a place that a ton of ignorant folk believe all Koreans, Burmese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Laotians, Singaporeans, Thai, Mongolians, Cambodians, and other Asians hail from.
I felt worried, even scared. It almost felt like a crime to be Asian.
A Double Threat, Driven by Hysterics
Soon, everyone in my family seemed to experience these hysteria-driven slights. In early April, while my father waited four hours on the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, he saw a lady dash away from him when she saw his Korean face.
My mother came home from grocery shopping one day frustrated because a man on the line berated her for not wearing a face mask. She was speaking at 100 words per minute in rapid-fire Korean, as she always does when she’s upset. Here’s what she said, translated:
“I was just standing on the line scanning carrots and this man came up to me and told me to wear a face mask, or I might spread the virus to everyone.”
The irony was that he wasn’t wearing one either; maybe he thought he was immune to COVID-19 due to his whiteness. A realization dawned on me as I listened to my mom’s words: This double threat of a pandemic and verbal consternation was our new reality.
Chipping Away at My Faith in Humanity
Lately I have mused that if I, the ordinary high school girl to whom nothing ever happens, was suddenly on the receiving end of such a barrage of prejudice, there was no way it wasn’t happening to others like me across the country. Turns out, everything from the front page of the New York Times to my Instagram feed has stories that follow the same tragic pattern: an East Asian is assaulted physically or verbally for nothing more than being an East Asian.
A kind grandma gets oil poured on her by a neighbor as she waters her plants. Asian doctors and nurses get harassed by strangers—strangers whose family members these essential workers work day in and out to treat. Children—children!—get spat upon on the sidewalk.
Unprovoked attacks like these chip away at the faith I have remaining in humanity. Racism has been brewing (not just towards Asian-Americans) in the U.S. for centuries. Police brutality. The president’s inflammatory words and actions. Now, I’ve seen so many of these stories of attacks against Asian-Americans that my reaction has shifted from an enraged Instagram post to nothing more than a frown upon reading the headline. It’s saddening to see how few people retain basic biology facts from high school. Viruses can’t see race.
Assimilate and Power Through
In Korea, we have an age-old saying that roughly translates to listen to your mother and in the morning you’ll eat candy. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like anything more than a way for Korean tiger moms to gently lure their children into their iron grips. But every Korean knows that the adage runs far deeper than that. It’s a clever way of saying, as we blunt Americans put it, suck it up. Assimilate, power through, succeed despite the prejudice, and untold benefits await us on the other side. Or so they say.
A long time ago, my family’s financial situation was bad. We had no car and that summer, my mom dragged me and my brother on the bus to Flushing to purchase Asian groceries, which were scarce in our mostly-white neighborhood.
One day we were taking the long bus ride home to what I’ve affectionately nicknamed “Almost-Long Island.” While making our way to the exit, my mother, who was holding fistfuls of plastic bags filled with soy sauce, cantaloupe, and bok choy, accidentally jostled a man. He promptly assailed her with racist comments.
Stunned, my brother and I said nothing as we followed our mother, who also was silent, out of the bus. We were only children, but we knew the gravity of the stranger’s words.
“Mom, that man cursed you out for bumping into him, and he called you a ‘ch-nk,’” I said.
“I know, Yunah.” My Korean name.
“Why didn’t you do anything about it?”
“That’s just the way it is,” she said.
The greatest irony for us first-gen Asian-Americans is that, while we don’t think twice about haggling over the lowest prices for durian in supermarkets, we’ve been taught to unhesitatingly bow our heads and conform to some of the largest evils of society. Racism. Sexism. Xenophobia.
We often see such institutions as immutable in the same way that we view the Confucian family hierarchy. Bow to your grandparents, or else you’ll get a royal ass-whooping from both your parents. (Our moms are some of the strongest, fiercest people in the world; great symbols for feminist equality, not so great for disobedient children.) Bow to society’s racial biases, or else you’ll cause a fuss. Cause a fuss big enough, and you’ll see your life going down the drain.
So, we keep our heads down in the face of prejudice and discrimination. We let it make our lives more burdensome. We believe that the problem lies within ourselves rather than in society as a whole, and we simply work harder to overcome the obstacles of individual and institutional prejudices.
But unless we are more vocal about this discrimination, it will continue to crush our spirits and make it more difficult to achieve our goals no matter how diligent we are. Such is the nature of large-scale racism: At a certain point, it cannot be transcended by the individual alone. Now’s the time where we can and should combat this virus and racism, together.