Living Through a Racially Politicized Pandemic as An Asian American Woman
I grew up under the guise of an all American family. My parents were good people, Christians. My father was a business owner that specialized in telecommunications. My mother was a stay at home mom. I went to a private school until first grade, we had a dog.
I always thought that I was normal. I thought that people looked at me and thought that I was like everybody else.
The second decade of the millennium, however, quickly proved that thought wrong.
It’s no surprise that both 2020 and 2021 were strange years for me. They were strange years for everyone.
2020 marked the beginning of a societally crippling pandemic that changed the course of life as we knew it. And 2021 was no better, with the creation of a vaccine opening some doors for normal socialization but still not eradicating the illness in the way that we initially hoped for.
And these two years have been hard. Even without factoring the numerous losses America has had to face, there was the extreme isolation, and sudden halting of modern life as we knew it.
While I went share all of those experiences, it was a bit different for me.
My first brush with the pandemic was the first week into it, back when we thought social distancing, isolation, and wearing masks would mean that we’d be over this thing in a month, at most. I was working at Starbucks at this point, a job that I’d had for over a year.
I was working my normal night shift, where I was alone for the entire four hours. I was doing my thing, making drinks, cleaning the counters, when a couple came up to me.
The woman started to order, but then she stopped and looked at me. She paused, looked at her husband. They gave each other a look, you know, that look when you know that people don’t want you there? And they asked me, “Are you alone?”
I didn’t really register what was going on, so of course I said yes.
“Oh, well, you know with the virus and everything…” She stammered, trying to make up an excuse. And then they left. They just left.
See, I knew that racism existed. I knew that there were people out there, people in my hometown even, that didn’t like me because of the shape of my eyes, or the shade of my skin. And although I’d had a few really questionable moments, like a woman asking me if I spoke English, because I didn’t look like I spoke English, most of these events weren’t that extreme or malicious.
However, that changed right after this new pandemic was named “The China Virus”. I am not Chinese. I have never been to China, or Asia, but for some reason, very quickly, I learned that didn’t matter.
Most people didn’t think anything about that interaction. I would tell people about it and they’d say things like, “Well, that’s terrible but don’t let it define you.”
While I understand that it might just seem like some mean words, some ignorant people being ignorant, that single interaction really showcased what some people thought my place was.
I never really grew up thinking that me being Asian affected me at all. I mean, my family had different traditions than the families of my peers. We did mochi soup for New Years, I was given a pair of learning chopsticks as a child, I had a Hello Kitty bento box, and that was about it. I was pretty American. I grew up in a small town with only 4 Asians in my graduating class, and while I was “one of the Asians”, that’s how it always was. And, that aspect of me growing up as an American kid felt normal. I felt normal.
I knew that people saw me as different, but I didn’t think they saw me as different.
I was not the only person affected by this post-pandemic outlook on Asian people. According to new FBI data, they estimate that anti-Asian hate crimes have risen over 70% in 2020. Not to mention the 2021 racially motivated killing spree carried out against 6 Asian women and 2 other victims in the Atlanta spa shooting.
Asian people have long had the “model minority” title put onto them. People have even gone so far as to categorize us as honorary white people, minorities that don’t face oppression like other minorities. This year, as an Asian person, I really had to deconstruct that belief.
White people only liked the label “model minority” as it served them. We were like them, in the suburbs that we lived in and the tax bracket we shared. We were like them in the way that we assimilated to white homogenous culture rather than separating ourselves from it. But we weren’t like them when it became inconvenient for them. We weren’t like them when 59% of Americans stated that they would be concerned about being near a person of Asian descent during the pandemic.
During the 2020s, I had to sit with myself, alone, watching the news about the rise in Asian hate crimes. I had to walk through Little Tokyo in LA where there were “Protect Our Elders” signs on every store front. I lived every day hyper aware of the fact that people might want to hurt me because I look like I do.
It’s hard to explain what the Asian aspect of my identity has had to do with my personal experience in this pandemic. Because on one hand, I haven’t experienced horrendous act of vandalism or physical assault myself. I haven’t seen the worst of the worst when it comes to racism. On the other hand, I know that the climate concerning my race isn’t the same as it was before 2020. On the other hand, I’ve seen the statistics. I’ve seen the videos. I’ve talked to other people in my community. I’ve experienced it.
It has been lonely, and confusing. And for a while everyone seemed to talk about it, but now that it’s not trending, people have forgotten. For me, though, I can’t forget. This is still my reality, with anti-Asian hate still existing, and having existed before the pandemic even started. This is still my reality, where people started using a virus to other us, and still haven’t stopped othering us, virus or not.
Sometimes I miss 2 years ago, when it was just that people didn’t understand my race or my culture, when it was just when people asked me if I “spoke Asian” out of utter ignorance, when it was just when someone said my American name didn’t “fit me”.
It’s harder this way, knowing that people don’t look at me as the norm, and they don’t view me as being as American as they are, but it has taught me a lot about myself. My Asian identity cannot be separated from me, because it is me. And no matter how much I assimilate, I will always be Asian.
So, in the midst of a year full of hate and bigotry and fear, I had to learn how to love those parts of me that people hated.
It has been scary. Writing this now is scary, knowing that people will think I’m whiny or dramatic or that I have a victim complex. Knowing that people might not think there’s a problem, so it might not ever get fixed.
While this entire ordeal has been hard on me, my story is not an abnormal one. My story isn’t groundbreaking or special. My story is one that millions of people have experienced; one that millions of people today are still experiencing.
As we move into 2022, I’m not sure what the next year will bring. I’m hoping that many of these stories of strife concerning race come to an end, and I’m sure it won’t be that easy.
So for now, I will sit, and I will wait, and I will talk about it. And every day I will hope for a tomorrow where I can just be Asian, and be American, and it doesn’t mean anything other than that.