A conversation that begins with, “If something happens to me, these are the arrangements I want you to make” is never a pleasant one. A year ago, we had it as the pandemic was quickly spreading throughout the world. We had this conversation again at 8:13 p.m. on March 17, 2021, except this time it was in reaction to the increasing numbers of attacks on the Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. The night before, eight people were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, with six of the victims being Asian women. Processing this horrible tragedy continues to be difficult as it reopened, exposed, and deepened wounds we both have felt for our entire lives and were told to just ignore and rise above. Despite both of us being American-born and raised in the United States, and any number of accomplishments or achievements between us, we are still asked: “Where are you from originally?” What continues to be bewildering throughout this experience is that the word “xenophobia” is being used to describe the Asian-American Pacific Islander existence and experience, as though we were never really American, to begin with. The shootings in Atlanta further stressed the point that too many of us are still not seen as American, or even seen as human.
Anti-Asian racism isn’t new, and it didn’t come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a long history of racism and violence towards the AAPI community that existed well before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Japanese imprisonment camps of World War II.
Actor Steven Yeun, star of the film Minari, described the Asian-American experience in a recent feature in the New York Times: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
As violent attacks against the AAPI community continue to escalate, especially against those who appear the most vulnerable, anxiety and sadness continue to fester. Seeing these attacks on the news or shared through social media is truly enraging. We asked ourselves if anyone called the police, or why doesn’t anyone intervene and help. We fear for our parents’ safety, as one of them asked us to buy them a baseball bat for their peace of mind. Whenever we would go out, we watch over elderly Asian people and Asian mothers with their children to ensure they are not harassed by anyone.
Though we are appreciative of the continued support from our friends and allies, there have been mixed feelings. The dialogues we’ve shared also helped us to see everyone who truly cares about us, and we’re grateful. Real talk though, we want to repeat what Bowen Yang said on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update:
For example, start with learning how to pronounce AAPI names. If we can learn to properly pronounce names like “Schwarzenegger,” “Favre,” or “Cumberbatch,” “Nguyen” or “Zhang” shouldn’t be hard.
Learn to pronounce and respect the names of foods and dishes correctly. Everyone knows how to say “lasagna” or “pierogi,” but somehow “bulgogi” and “lo mian” are always pronounced incorrectly. Eat and embrace the food without hesitation or commenting on how it looks or smells! If you can eat sauerkraut, kimchi isn’t that much more of a stretch.
Stop exoticizing, appropriating, and othering AAPI culture, and normalize their inclusion into the American story. Recognize that people or their cultures aren’t here for your amusement or your image enhancement. They are people, and won’t be defined by how you think they can enrich your experience.
Continue to be supportive of your AAPI friends and family members. Listen when they share their feelings and experiences. Don’t argue. Just listen. Those conversations are about them. Resist the temptation to divert the focus away from them. Also recognize that people are exhausted, and it’s not their job to tutor anyone on AAPI-related topics. Self-education is essential to combat racism, take the initiative and don’t depend on others to hand you all the answers.
We are encouraged by people like Xiao Zhen Xie. Not only is she an Asian elder who fought off her attacker in San Francisco, she also donated all the money raised by a GoFundMe to AAPI causes. She represents what can happen when we fight against the “Model Minority” myth that is placed on the AAPI community. It perpetuates the idea that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders will follow the rules and won’t cause trouble, will never fight back or stand up for themselves in the face of racism. It thrives on the stereotype that the AAPI community will simply take all the abuse without protest. It allows people to defend their microaggressions and racism by saying, “Well, that one kid/co-worker/waiter/etc. I said that to didn’t mind.” In truth, they probably did. Xiao fought back against this myth, and though not the first to do so, is not alone in the fight.
To all those who have faced, and will continue to face, racism we encourage you all to use your voice and speak out. Building your voice is like strengthening a muscle, and the more you use it, the more powerful it becomes. Tell your story and speak your truth, or risk someone else telling it for you.
If you’re still working on lifting your voice, be like the elders playing cards in the middle of an AAPI rally we attended on March 20, 2021. They were simply living their lives without fear in that moment, and it was truly inspiring.
Most of all, racism is not your fault, it’s the racist’s problem, and it’s theirs to fix. Maybe we can’t erase racism, but we can work together to do something about it. Instead of keeping your head down, proudly keep your head up. Stand in solidarity with others who have been marginalized, especially in the wake of a police shooting that resulted in the death of another black man in Minnesota. You are not alone in how you feel. You have the right, you are seen, and you belong here.