I never thought that I would seriously contemplate buying my mother a gun, but here we are. With much of the rise in Asian hate crimes being targeted towards vulnerable people, my mother fits the perfect description for an attack. I can’t believe that I find myself worrying about her now. She lives in the suburbs, but apparently, even that’s not safe anymore.
It’s traumatizing to watch footage upon footage of older adults randomly getting attacked by strangers in broad daylight. Even if I don’t personally know these people, it still feels personal because these people getting attacked both look and live like my parents.
Of course, I haven’t bought my mother a gun. Instead, I bought her some pepper spray and a keychain alarm. I know it’s just a false sense of security. I know that if someone really wanted to hurt her, this won’t stop them.
To ease my anxiety, I’ve tried telling myself that I’m overreacting. However, there’s just no denying the heartbreaking statistics of the rise in reported cases of hate crimes and incidents against Asians, and I’m no bystander here. I’ve also submitted a report. Fortunately, I wasn’t inflicted with physical violence, but the fear and demoralization that linger and are truly damaging to the psyche.
So, how long will this continue? I’m not just talking about the recent rise of cases of Asian hate. I’m talking about the centuries-old mistreatment and disqualification of Asians from even entering the conversation of racism as a valid voice.
Many people have heard of the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but how is it that so little people have heard stories of acts of racism prior to these events? How do they think that these horrifically racist events came to be? They’re merely the symptoms of a more dangerous and powerful systemic racism that invaded our country long before its formation.
With that being said, Asians have been making voyages to the Americas as early as the 1500s, and what happened to those early Asians does have a trickle effect on us, the Asians who live in America today.
Historian Erika Lee documents in her book, The Making of Asian America: A History, that with the discovery of the Americas, the first migrations of Asians to the Americas happened around 1565, and it was numbered to be between 40,000 to 100,000 Asians from China, Japan, the Philippines, and South and Southeast Asia. They arrived in Acapulco (present-day Mexico) on Spanish ships called Manila galleons. These people came as sailors, servants, or slaves, and by the 1600s, the majority of sailors recruited on these Manila galleons were either Filipino or Chinese.
Now, the conditions on these Manila galleons were inhumane. The provisions that were brought onboard were infested with maggots and both rats and disease ran rampant on these ships. Because most of the space on these ships was devoted to cargo, many sailors had to sleep on deck, so it was common for a couple of men to be found dead each morning from the cold. On top of that, the Asian sailors received half the rations that a Spanish crewmember would receive.
On these ships, wealthy Spaniards would also bring aboard Filipina concubines, and they have been known to leave these women stranded in the Americas once the voyage was over despite that fact that some of them would be pregnant with their children.
So, even back then, Asians were viewed as reliable, but dispensable labor. This is a centuries-old stereotype that won’t go away by sweeping it under the rug. Because this attitude has been kept hidden and unaddressed, this is still the history and context that Asians of today walk into when they enter America. It doesn’t matter which country and culture we come from. We are all lumped together despite our diversity. Whether we like it or not, we are tied to the Asian American history that began centuries ago, and we are all interconnected simply because of the way we look.
If we really examine Asian American history, we can see even more ongoing trends. For example, with the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, the company president of the Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford, praised his Chinese workers as “quiet, peaceable, industrious, economical,” and also credited them saying, “without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great National highway.”
Compare these remarks to the stereotypes that Asians have today. We’re still viewed in this way and although the word choice may sound positive, it pigeonholes us into being seen as meek and acceptable targets of attack when someone is having a “bad day”.
And, here’s another heartbreaking trend — none of the Chinese railroad workers received any credit for their work. Although 12,000 Chinese men worked on the railroad and a recorded 1,200 lost their lives in this work, not a single Chinese face can be found in the official photographs taken to commemorate the moment when the final spike connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads was put in place. From back then to now, we have been silenced with a slap to the face.
Also, consider the fact that prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the migration of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s was labeled by anti-Chinese immigration activists as the “Chinese problem”. I can’t help but think of how similar that sounds to the attempts of placing blame on Asians for the pandemic by naming coronavirus as the “China virus”.
I say all this because I want people to know that things haven’t really changed, and the problems that affected Asian Americans centuries ago are too similar to problems that affect Asian Americans today. It feels like if any progress was done, it was done to cover up the shameful stories of the mistreatment of Asians in America. There are many more stories of millions of Asians who came to the Americas and did the backbreaking work to help establish our country. Yet, their voices are omitted from mainstream American history. The system that we live in has managed to keep us silent to this day.
I, too, once believed that my story didn’t matter and that it wasn’t worth the trouble to bring up racism against Asians. But now, I’ve been shaken by a very rude awakening.
Growing up, I did everything right and did my best to play by the rules of the American Dream. I stuck to these rules — even held my tongue in those moments when I wasn’t treated equally because “at least I didn’t have it as bad as other minority groups.” I focused on my education and worked until I got a higher degree.
I took to heart John F. Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I certainly didn’t ask what my country could do for me, but I definitely did ask myself what I could do for my country. I pledged my allegiance and constantly fought to prove my love for America. I play the role of a good citizen. I work an honest living. I haven’t broken any laws. I even donate both my time and money to worthy causes and look for ways to positively contribute to society.
But… all for what?
I am still treated as lesser than. At best, I have a seat at the table as an honorary white but not as an Asian. I’m not even really included in the conversation of racism. And now, my country won’t even protect my family and me from racist incidents and attacks. Just like the LA riots, it feels like we are left to fend for ourselves again.
I desperately want things to change, but honestly, I don’t know where to start. It’s hard to rally and mobilize Asians, and I have to wonder if it’s because we’re just not used to having a voice. Our stories have been silenced for so long. We’ve fed into the lie that if we work hard enough, we will be treated equal to a white American. And on top of that, it can even be seen as embarrassing within our own communities and cultures to speak out against the injustices we see in our country.
So then, I have to acknowledge that although I may have been fed lies by institutional racism built to favor white Americans, it’s also other Asians (myself included) who have heavily reinforced these lies. How often have I shrugged off acts of racism against me because if I acted out, it would embarrass my family? What would the others think? I was taught to keep my head down. I had to save face, and I could just prove all the haters wrong by working hard to succeed.
If we’re going to have a conversation about race, we can’t just point the finger at others without looking at ourselves. If we are serious about leveling the playing field, we also have to be willing to honestly look at ourselves and see that we are not perfect. We are not exempt from having biases, prejudices, and even hate within us, and we also have things that we have to change about ourselves. We constantly have to re-evaluate our motives — am I truly demanding justice or am I motivated by hateful vengeance? Do I really want equality for all or just superior treatment for myself?
I’m not entering into this conversation to say that I have a solution to the problem. I might have some ideas for some next steps to take, but I certainly don’t have all the answers. However, one thing I do know is that because the Asian experience hasn’t been validated for so long, many of us don’t even know how to share our stories of injustice and pain.
With the mixture of saving face in many of our own cultures and the perpetuation of the general American attitude towards Asians, we’ve been taught to be silent, keep our heads down, and try to blend in as best as we can.
With this perpetual silencing, we’ve come to believe that our stories, experiences, and pain don’t matter. We’ve bought into the lie that our needs and our dignity come second to others. We don’t play to win. We play to not lose the little that we have.
So, it seems that even though this may look like a baby step, it’s a giant leap of courage to just acknowledge and validate our own disadvantages. I don’t care how micro that act of micro-racism was. Racism is racism, and if it hurt, then acknowledge that it hurt. Acknowledging pain, vulnerability, and weakness are greater displays of maturity and strength than suppression, downplaying the situation, and the unwillingness to even have an open conversation.
It’s time to start believing that your story and your presence in this country matters. Your story is a part of a rich history of Asians before you, and we must share our stories. And to be completely honest, I’m not the type of person to speak out against anything. I’m the type of person that if a waitress gets my menu order wrong, 99% of the time, I just let it slide.
But, this is bigger than enjoying a meal. It’s about doing the work to honor the efforts of the past generation of Asians, create a better present for ourselves, and invest in the future generation. For those who say that racism cannot be eradicated in our lifetime, I do have to be realistic and say that I mostly agree. But, I’m not disheartened because it’s not just our generation’s job to fight against racism.
There are generations of activists before us who did the work to dig up the deep roots of racism in our country, and when their time was up, they handed the shovel to the next generation. We now hold this shovel in our hands, and we have got to continue this work in our lifetime. When we can no longer do our part, we pass the mantle to the next generation until racism is uprooted.
So, for those who are frustrated but don’t know where to start, I’m right there with you. It can be overwhelming, so just take baby steps — crawl if you have to. Start small by examining your own life experiences and discovering your narrative. Have honest conversations with your trusted friends. Write and contribute to the #StopAsianHate blog. One small step that I’ve personally taken is to intentionally celebrate AAPI Heritage Month through a podcast I co-host by dedicating a 4-part series to AAPI topics.
Do what you can. At this point, anything helps. Continue to report Asian hate incidents, and most importantly, start sharing your story. Let the collection of stories grow until it’s absolutely undeniable that Asians are a significant and strong force in this country, that we have been mistreated and underappreciated, and that things have got to change.
Your story matters. Don’t let it fade into the backdrop of history.
And finally, dear America, I just have to know one thing. For 12 years, you made me pledge allegiance to you every morning and tried to educate me on the history of the rich and privilege. Well now, it’s your turn. As a natural born citizen who has equal rights to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, I have the rightful audacity to make this demand: go educate yourself. Read the story of my life, and you’ll see that I have already done so much for you. So, no. I’m no longer going to ask what more I can do for you. Instead, I’m just dying to know — what will you now do for me?