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As a Chinese immigrant, it’s hard to remember a time when my existence wasn’t politicized. Since coming to the United States at the age of 6, I’ve found my identity has been the subject of mass scrutiny for as long as I can remember—what I ate, what I looked like, what my parents did for a living, how “legitimate” my citizenship is, etc. I learned that to be Asian in America is to be “othered” and to be examined under a microscope by people who, by and large, have no idea what it means to be a minority.
This month in America, the media has covered a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. It’s important to distinguish that this is not the same as saying there’s been a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes in America this month—that would imply the attacks ever stopped. They didn’t. Like many in my community, we heard about these strings of violence early from our friends, our families, our neighbors, and the networks we’ve had to build out of necessity. As news stories started popping up about the spike, I sat with feelings ranging from grief to fear to rage, but I think I speak on behalf of many AAPI folks when I say none of us were surprised.
Having to reconcile America’s shock that anti-Asian hatred still exists is almost as exhausting as being exposed to it. Racism is not a polite guest that goes away if ignored. It’s the property owner of this not-so-great house we call America. But like clockwork, whenever there are many reports of hate crimes, white and non-Asian Americans want to clutch their pearls to express outrage that Asian American Pacific Islanders are facing the same vitriol we’ve been facing since the day this country was stolen.
Call it pandemic hay fever or post-Trump exhaustion, but I don’t have a single bit of grace left in me to play the role of the model minority who can just nod her head and say, “It’s just been so hard, thank you for your concern.”
What I really want to say is: Does your concern for me and my brothers and sister reach beyond this news cycle?
But admittedly, it’s easier not to have that conversation because even being put in a position of having to defend my right to exist—even to seemingly sympathetic ears—is exhausting.
When COVID-19 first hit the United States, there was a reported wave of anti-Asian attacks as Trump and his supporters adamantly fueled xenophobia. (I wrote about that period for Cosmo here.) But he wasn’t inventing something that wasn’t already there. By blaming innocent AAPI communities for a deadly virus, there had to have already been groundwork of anti-Asian sentiments to point fingers at. And I knew, without a doubt, that that same foundation would still be there even once Trump left office. Or to put it differently: You can change the keys to the house, but it’s still the same four walls.
When Biden was sworn in, there was a wave of blind optimism that with Trump gone, we’d finally have “unity.” But how? Without ever stopping to address exactly why it was so easy to fan anti-Asian sentiment, we never had a chance of stopping it. Now, almost a full year since COVID-19 shut down the country, we’re still in the exact same spot as we were not just four years ago but since the 1940s when America begrudgingly opened its doors for us.
I am fully aware that racism will continue to define my existence because I don’t remember a time when that wasn’t the case. But for the sake of the generations after me, I hope we can make enough progress so that future AAPI folks can grow up in this country and not only take pride in their identity but also experience the same acceptance and sense of safety that is all but guaranteed to every white person in America.
In the meantime, my life will continue on as it always had: carving spaces for joy where I can, giving back to community aid, and remembering the sum of my existence does not hinge on other people’s acceptance of my identity.
Because if it did, then I wouldn’t be here at all.
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