HomeChinese AmericanFirst Person: A life of being a perpetual foreigner

First Person: A life of being a perpetual foreigner

By Veronica Li

I was sitting on my mother’s bed when she asked me what I was doing that weekend.  I burst into tears.

“I have no friends,” I blurted.

“Your family are your friends,” Mom said.

I sobbed louder.  This wasn’t what a seventeen-year-old wanted to hear.

My family had immigrated to California three years earlier, one of the first from Hong Kong to take advantage of the 1965 Immigration Act.  We were middle class, well educated, and fluent in English—my mom was an English teacher and my dad a businessman.

I went on crying while my mother sat helplessly next to me.  Words were useless because I couldn’t explain myself.  I’d done everything I could possibly think of to worm my way into my classmates’ hearts. 

When they came to me with, “Veronica, you’re so smart, can you show me…” I would let them copy my homework.  I went to all the football games, cheering for the school team until my voice was hoarse.  I joined extracurricular activities such as Treble Clef and caroled with my schoolmates at Christmas.  But at the end of my senior year, when social aptitude was the only skill set left in the high school curriculum, I flunked miserably.

Back in Hong Kong, my peers had liked me well enough to elect me class monitor.  In America, nobody ever said an unkind word to me, and yet loneliness sat like an elephant on my chest.  I was totally mystified, but that day at choir, one person blew the mystery wide open.  Ken, the blind boy I spent time with during choir breaks, said to the tenor next to him: “We’re both outcasts.  Why else would she hang out with me?”

It took me a few blinks to realize he was talking about me.  His words struck like lightning, and for a few seconds the truth flickered before me, painful and liberating at the same time.

Fast forward twenty years.  I was a confident officer of the World Bank, traveling around the world to help poor countries develop.  I bought a home in Vienna, VA, a prosperous suburb of the nation’s capital. 

While walking in the neighborhood with my ten-year-old boy, several teenagers sang “Ching chong chang” as we passed.  I told my son to ignore them.  They’re teenagers, I said, as though that explained everything. 

On Halloween, somebody threw a pumpkin at my door.  When a guest of mine parked on the street, somebody keyed an ugly scratch on his car.  The acts of vandalism dissipated over time. 

I thought it was because my neighbors had grown used to my overzealous German shepherd barking at every passerby.  I thought that until a Black Zimbabwean coworker stayed with me for a couple of months while waiting for her new house to be completed.  One morning, I went out and found the back window of my car shattered.  Lightning flashed: my German shepherd wasn’t and had never been the problem.  I called the police to report a hate crime.

Fast forward another thirty years.  I was a gray-haired retiree when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.  Several days after President Trump coined the term “China virus,” I was stocking up on essentials at the pharmacy.  There was only one worker in the store, an older woman with a hostile face that warned me to stay away.  From a safe distance, I asked her when the next shipment of hand sanitizer was arriving.  She couldn’t or wouldn’t say; it was hard to tell.

I took the last few rolls of toilet paper to the self-checkout register. The machine kept dinging at me. When I asked for help, the woman told me to ignore it.  Then I overheard her talking to another shopper, something about a stupid customer who couldn’t figure out the checkout machine.  I got into my car, and suddenly the sky cracked open.  The stupid customer she was mocking was me! 

After fifty some years in America, this transplant has grown deep roots.  Unfortunately, some of my countrymen still view me as an invasive foreign species.  Hostility bubbles below the surface, and when politicians dial up the heat, the simmering erupts into full-throated hatred. 

At the start of the pandemic, Asian American organizations donated to hospitals large amounts of face masks and other PPE’s as well as meals to frontline healthcare workers.  But the assault on our communities didn’t abate. 

Verbal abuse such as “Go back to where you came from!” has escalated to physical attacks on Asian seniors and finally, the unthinkable and yet logical sequence of events—the mass shooting of Asian women.  Some say the killings aren’t a hate crime because no such intent was expressed.  But lightning has struck me enough times; I recognize what I see. 

We can’t wait for attitudes to change.  We need the government to protect Asian Americans with action and the full force of the law.  The bill sponsored by Representative Meng and Senator Hirono to address the recent hate crimes is a good start.  Congress must pass this bill quickly to end the injustice inflicted on Asian Americans.

(Editor Note: The Senate overwhelming passed the bill this past week. The House will have its own vote. Then the House and Senate will have to work out the differences between the differing bills before it goes to President Biden for his signature)

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations on your important article, it is so sad what the past admin has contributed to the increased discrimination. I am proud of knowing you and Sverry. 👏🏻💐😅

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