MY PARENTS live on the outskirts of Atlanta, and I am worried about them. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a significant uptick in hate crimes against Asians in America.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen horrifying reports of Asian Americans being harassed and punched; an elderly man thrown to the ground and killed in San Francisco; another slashed in the face and left to bleed inside a New York City subway car; as well as countless videos of enraged people shouting at Asian Americans to go back to their countries and even spitting in their faces.
The recent turn of events is shocking, but not surprising. For many Asian Americans, anti-Asian sentiments are borne in silence and isolation.
I grew up mostly being embarrassed about my Korean heritage. In the U.S., we Koreans have to prove that we are American, even if we were born and raised here, by pushing ourselves to excel at school and work. As children, some of us refused to learn to speak Korean. By doing so, we shed much of our ethnic identities.
I was always acutely aware of how I should try to fit in. When I was 4 years old, we moved to Vancouver, Canada, where we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. When I started elementary school in the late 1970s, many people had never heard of Korea.
Another Asian girl in my class by the name of Ming Ming would sit at the corner of one of the long lunch tables with her thermos of noodles. The other children would wince at the smell.
I did not fare better. Next to her, I would open up my doshirak, a Korean lunch box packed with fried rice, meat and vegetables and a pair of chopsticks that fit neatly inside. Mimicking the other children, I would scrunch up my nose at my own lunchbox and pretend that its contents were equally offensive to me.
When I got home, I cornered my mother. Why couldn’t she just pack me a normal lunch like peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches?
“How is that even healthy?” my mother countered. “There are no vegetables in there!” But my mother obliged, and to my relief, I was sent to school with a Western-styled sandwich.
One of my mother’s favorite words in Korean is cham-ah, meaning to endure. It is what she and her family had to do when they escaped North Korea during the winter of 1950. Traveling on foot from Pyongyang to Seoul, they crossed icy rivers and ran for cover from bombings and artillery fire before riding on the roof of a U.S. military cargo train from Seoul to Daegu.
My parents arrived in Los Angeles in the 1970s and worked as janitors at the Shubert Theater, saving money to buy their first grocery store in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Unable to secure a permanent visa for our family, we moved to Canada, where they cleaned fish at a local market and bought a hardware store.
When my mom got her medical technologist certification, she found a job in New York and we moved back to the states.
Through all of their struggles to make ends meet, they instilled in us the concept of enduring. If someone mistreated us, we were told not to make a fuss. Cham-ah. When my schoolteacher told my parents that my Korean name was too difficult to pronounce, they consulted our church minister, who provided us with Americanized names. Giving up our Korean names was a small price to pay to fit in. Cham-ah.
Even today, I will rarely speak out when someone throws out a racial slur. I think to myself, is it really worth it? It could be so much worse. Cham-ah. At the counter of a sandwich shop, the woman who rings me up says very loudly with exaggerated enunciation how much my order costs, holding up seven fingers, in case I might be hearing impaired in addition to not understanding English. Cham-ah.
All my life I felt like being Asian in America was a shortcoming I had to make up for by working hard and not sticking out too much. But recently, this low-grade anxiety has morphed into actual fear. Fear for my aging parents, relatives and their friends.
I am hoping the coming herd immunity against the coronavirus might bring with it a new era of racial tolerance. That vanquishing COVID-19 might also mean diminishing these racial attacks, particularly on our elders whom we have been raised to respect and honor.
But we can’t wait for that to happen. It is time to speak up about anti-Asian hate crimes.