HomeAsian AmericansFirst Person: Anti-Asian Racism Can Feel Like Death by a Thousand Cuts

First Person: Anti-Asian Racism Can Feel Like Death by a Thousand Cuts

From Unsplash by Fernando Aguilar

By Anna

“Wow, you speak English so good,” called out the man, sitting casually on the ground in front of a DC Metro station.

“What?” I blurted out in surprise. He had interrupted my conversation with my girlfriends as we were walking into the station. After I turned to look at him, he asked, “Hey, can you spare any change?”

Immediately, I could feel the anger rising up in me as a wave of heat. After a long summer of being harassed by more than a dozen men for being a young Asian American woman who dared to take public transit, eat at restaurants, or walk down the street, I had had enough. I exploded at him.

It’s been about 25 years, so I can’t recall the exact words I used. I know I raised my voice. I know I told him that I was born here, in the United States, and that my English was better than his. I undoubtedly told him to go f — off before I angrily stomped away to catch the Metro. My friends were caught off guard by my reaction and I remember their surprised faces. Perhaps the man sincerely thought he was offering me a compliment. But by that point of the summer, I was DONE with racist (and often sexualized) street harassment.

I had not lived outside of California, and in particular, outside of major metro areas like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles (with highly visible communities of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders), since I was a toddler. So when I moved to Washington, DC at 19 to pursue a policy internship for the summer before my junior year at UCLA, I was not prepared to be an oddity.

When my fellow UCLA roommates, also women of Asian descent, and I rode the Metro, went to restaurants, or simply walked down the street on our way to the July 4th celebration on the Mall, we were repeatedly harassed on the basis of both our race and gender identity. And this wasn’t limited to inside the Beltway. We experienced harassment on weekend trips to New York City and Boston, too.

Some of what we experienced falls under the definition of microaggressions, which Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, defines as the “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that members of marginalized groups experience in their day-to-day interactions with individuals who are often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way.” But many of the incidents were intentional acts of racist and sexist behavior.

We never reported any of the harassment to the police, nor should we have since I don’t think any of the offensive conduct would be legally considered a crime. Yet just because such offensive speech is legal doesn’t mean it isn’t cause for concern. Hate speech can lead to physical attacks. Thankfully, my friends and I were never spit on, punched, pushed to the ground, or physically assaulted (unlike other Asian American and Pacific Islanders who have been over the past year, as documented in the Stop AAPI Hate report).

The summer I moved to Washington, DC, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of aggressive and degrading verbal assaults, as men leaned out of car windows, approached us on the street, or came up to us in crowded restaurants.

These men would crow, “I’ve never f — ed a Chinese girl, I wonder what it’s like!” or leer in our faces, shouting, “Ching Chong, Ching Chong!”

I can’t quite recall all the insults hurled in our faces, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the men yelled out, “Me so horny!” or “Me love you long time!” This was the 90s after all, and 2 Live Crew and Sir Mix-a-lot’s hit songs were still fresh in many minds.

There usually wasn’t enough time to say anything in response other than “F — you!” when drivers called out their insults, as they drove by too quickly. But the few times someone walked up to us and made these comments, I recall being too surprised and scared to say anything. Usually, walking away was my first response.

On a less aggressive note, there were also the repeated questions asking us where we were from. “California!” was never sufficient. People kept trying to figure out “what” we were. I started to brace myself for the question every time we got into a taxi, as the male driver would inevitably ask and then follow up with, “No, really, WHERE are you from?”

If I tried to reply, “Well, I was born in New York City,” then the questioner would inevitably ask, “Well, where are your PARENTS from?” Sigh. I would have to reluctantly admit that my immigrant parents are from Taiwan. If I felt like the questioner was genuinely interested or would recognize the difference, I would add that their families were refugees from China who fled to Taiwan after the Communists took over.

Photo by tabitha turner on Unsplash

Sometimes, the comments were more innocent observations about our novelty. One Friday night, we went to TGI Friday’s for dinner and dared to talk in boisterous voices, laughing as we enjoyed our meal. We were not noticeably louder than any other group of four young people hanging out with friends after a long week of work.

Nonetheless, our waiter was stunned. He literally said to us, “Wow, you’re not like the Asians around here. You don’t walk around staring at the ground.” He then called over other waiters from the rest of the restaurant to come gawk at us.

Two waiters actually collided because they were too distracted while staring at us. Our confidence and casual ease were unfamiliar to them. I know they were not being mean-spirited, but I felt like an exotic animal in a zoo.

Sometimes, the comments were not sexualized. There was one middle-aged woman who screamed at us from across the tracks at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station. I recall we were holding plastic grocery bags from Chinatown, probably wearing t-shirts and shorts since it was a hot summer weekend (and unbearably humid for us Californians).

I mention this because we weren’t dressed in attention-getting outfits. We were waiting for the Metro after a morning of shopping in Chinatown. Yet this woman decided to start yelling at us from the other side of the tracks. I don’t remember her entire minutes-long diatribe, but what stuck with me was the comment about our hair. “You think you’re so hot with your shiny straight hair.”

I stared blankly at her in surprise, as I had struggled for years with changing my flat, stick straight hair into something closer to the big hair popular in the 1980s. I could never get it to feather or hold a curl, despite hours with a curling iron and a ton of Aqua Net. Ultimately, I begged my mom to let me get perms starting at age 11. I longed for full voluminous hair. While I stopped perming my hair by junior year of high school, I still couldn’t believe someone would verbally attack us because of it.

That incident inside the Metro station was early in the summer, so I was more embarrassed than angry. I worried we were drawing attention from the other Metro riders standing nearby. One of my friends, not wanting to let the insults go unaddressed, yelled back something like, “Well, at least we don’t smell!” Twenty five years later, the retort makes me chuckle, but at that moment, I had just wanted to sink into the ground and disappear.

We had multiple incidents throughout that summer. As the numbers grew, I stopped wondering what I was doing to provoke the others. I stopped being embarrassed. Instead, I was angry. Inhabiting an Asian body seemed to be the only constant. It didn’t matter whether I was grocery shopping or walking to the Metro station. It didn’t matter whether I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts or office attire.

I explicitly note this because the unwanted racist and sexualized comments did not stop even if I tried to blend in with others. My Asian features always gave me away.

I was relieved to return to California when the summer ended, but remained hyper-vigilant for racist, often sexualized harassment. While it happened far less often after returning to areas with a highly visible Asian American and Pacific Islander population, the most disturbing incident to ever happen to me occurred about 20 years ago in Berkeley, CA.

I was walking from my apartment to the downtown Berkeley BART station. Since I was headed to a summer internship in San Francisco, it was early in the morning and there wasn’t much pedestrian traffic yet. A young man on a bicycle suddenly appeared and followed me for several blocks until I got closer to Bancroft Ave (a main thoroughfare where we approached more people).

I tried to speed walk to get away from him but he just increased his speed on his bike. He continuously commented about my body and what he wanted to do to me, despite my telling him I had a boyfriend and asking him to leave me alone. As he became more graphic, I told him to f— off, threatened to pepper spray him, and then finally just ignored him for the last 2 blocks until he abruptly told me I was a bitch and left.

Did I think he would actually do me harm? I saw that he clearly enjoyed my discomfort and fear, but he never made a move to close the distance between us so he could actually touch me. He seemed to relish having that power over me. Even now, I still don’t know what I could have done differently.

I remember telling my then-boyfriend, now husband, later that day about how I wish I had thrown my shoe at him. Or maybe I should have rushed at him and pushed him off his bike. As it is, I never wore that outfit again because I cringed every time I saw it. It reminded me how he made me feel so vulnerable and helpless.

There were more incidents, but with the exception of one man — someone old enough to be my father — who slapped my ass as I walked past him on a busy street in Berkeley, none of them involved physical contact. Yet these all remain vivid in my memory even when many other happier memories have faded away.

I had fewer interactions with random members of the public after I finished my studies, married, and moved to the suburbs. For nearly ten years, I commuted to work via bus. Waiting for the bus, I stood in line in a suburban park-and-ride lot and on a University campus on the other end. This meant I no longer had to deal with street harassment.

Yet even then, as a young mother taking the commuter bus, I had a bus driver yell at me to shut up when I gave instructions in Chinese to an elderly Chinese couple. They didn’t know which stop to get off at and had asked me to help them. All three of us sat in shocked silence until we reached the couple’s stop and I signaled it was time for them to get off without speaking.

In retrospect, I wonder whether the driver assumed we were talking about her, as many people inevitably do when they don’t understand another language. Or perhaps she was just racist — believing that Asian people who don’t speak English don’t deserve any respect. When the couple got off the bus, they said thank you to me AND the bus driver, and they even waved kindly at her. I was fuming, yet I did nothing. I didn’t even bother reporting her rude behavior to the Transit Agency. I figured it wouldn’t do anything and she would continue to snap at anyone who spoke in a language other than English around her.

Today, in 2021, I’m a middle aged mom who is less worried about how to deal with racist and sexualized harassment, but who continues to worry about the influence of white supremacy on all our interactions. While most of the incidents I experienced earlier in my life involved white men, there were also BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of color) men and women who initiated aggressive encounters.

I also fully acknowledge that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are just as susceptible to charges of racism, too, especially newer immigrants who don’t question the anti-Black racism prevalent in so much of American culture. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders don’t always recognize how our struggles mirror those in other communities and that our privilege and yearning for “a better life” is often tied to the oppression of another community. White supremacy has brainwashed all of us and continues to impact our lives as Americans.

I think of how little has changed and I worry for young people, especially my own two daughters. I worry about the racist and sexualized harassment they will endure once we emerge from this pandemic and they leave our home. The one consolation I have is that they have better answers for anyone who questions their credentials as Americans. My husband is a fifth-generation American of Chinese descent. His great-great grandparents were among the Chinese who immigrated to Honolulu and San Francisco more than 100 years ago.

I can’t wait until someone tries to ask my daughters where they are REALLY from and then try to ask about their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Yet I also know that our faces mark us as perpetual foreigners in America, no matter how many generations of our family have lived here.

Some of what I’ve shared here will resonate with my Latinx brothers and sisters. Yet I recognize my experiences and concerns pale in comparison to my friends who worry about police and other armed individuals violently threatening their sons and daughters. I think this is why I, as an American of Asian descent, never felt like I could speak up about these relatively minor incidents knowing other BIPOC communities have had devastating stories of racism that led to much deeper and long-lasting pain.

Each individual incident I’ve recounted is like a small cut — not enough to sever an artery but enough to cause some pain and make us fear what might come next.

I know Asian American and Pacific Islanders are often portrayed as highly successful professionals because we are over-represented in many elite spheres. That is also a result of a skewed immigration system that severely restricted immigration from Asia until 1965, when then opened the doors to highly educated immigrants. The preferential treatment meant that top scientists, engineers, medical professionals, and other highly educated folks were over-represented in the immigrant communities from the Asia Pacific region.

Yet there have been Filipino, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and other immigrants from Asia since before the U.S. was a nation. Our history in the U.S. is also seeped in the blood of victims of violence — Chinatowns were burned and Chinese men lynched during the Gold Rush days, Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 because out-of-work auto workers thought he was Japanese, and Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed days after 9/11 because his attacker thought he was Muslim.

Anti-Asian sentiment has also been enshrined in the law for a significant part of our nation’s history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act (the only American law to exclude immigrants from a specific racial background), to the government-ordered incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII (a majority of whom were American citizens!).

Few Americans know this history, though. Moreover, the recent economic success of some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has overshadowed many of the struggles that lay the groundwork for current achievements. So the verbal abuse against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders isn’t contextualized and is often quickly dismissed by even Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders themselves. We cannot let our ignorance of the history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. shield us from the racism that has hounded generations.

Dismissing the behavior because the offenders didn’t cause physical harm means we don’t acknowledge that there is still cumulative pain. Moreover, as we have all learned recently after the murders of six Asian American women who worked at the spas in Atlanta (as well as the murder of a white female customer and white male employee), strangers targeting Asian Americans can absolutely lead to horrific violence. (Editor note: Anna wrote this story prior to the shooting deaths of eight workers at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, including four Sikhs). I think the behavior escalates when perpetrators get away with the “low-level hate.” So I speak up today because I think we must critically examine the racist and sexualized verbal abuse many BIPOC women have endured and address how it impacts us all.

For the past year, while we battled COVID, Asian American and Pacific Islander women have endured a disproportionate share of that abuse, per the same Stop AAPI Hate report referenced earlier. We need to stop the normalization of verbal abuse against anyone and in particular, against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2021. Bystanders need to speak up and support the targets of such abuse. Silence is deafening and only reinforces the power of the abuser. 

We should ask why these incidents are happening and do something. Dehumanizing my community is what leads to greater violence. Whether it’s a microaggression or it’s behavior that is more threatening, we need to address the racism that carves up so many of us. It’s time to take the knife away.

I sit on the Board of Directors for Chinese for Affirmative Action, a 51 year old civil rights nonprofit which co-founded Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition aimed at addressing anti-Asian discrimination amid the pandemic. We have been tracking acts of anti-AAPI hate since March 2020 and our report is available here. Donate to CAA here.

I use Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Asian American, and Asian descent in different contexts throughout this piece. Even though I am of Chinese descent, I identify as an Asian American. Politically, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been united as a single category for many purposes in the US, even though we face some distinctly different challenges.

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