The Silent Suffering of the Asian-American

Growing up mixed race, a comment on my ethnicity would often be one of the first things people said to me. It didn't matter where I was – school, the grocery store, sports practice, a restaurant – people would casually bring up my race. From a young age, it started to feel like that is what defined me to others. For those of us who don't fit into the "All-American" mold, it often does.

Identity crises are a part of growing up, but I was sure mine would go away if I could just look like everybody else. I'd always emphasize that I was half white as if to say, "I'm not like other Asians so please don't treat me like one!" I ended up resenting my Korean-American father as being the reason for my pain. For feeling uncomfortable in my skin, alienated, and unwanted. I couldn't understand how aching it must've been for his child to subject him to the same abuse he once faced as a non-English speaking immigrant. 

He came to America as an eight-year-old boy. By the time he got through elementary school, he had gone to three different schools because of how many fights he was in for being a "chink" and not speaking English. 

One Christmas, all he wanted was a bike. So my grandma saved all she could to grant him his wish. As soon as he got it, it was gone. Riding his bike home from school, two kids knocked him over and beat him, prying it from his hands. When they went to the police, they were waved off for broken English and underlying prejudices. 

When my dad married a white woman, my grandparents were somewhat pleased because they thought it would protect us from experiencing the same things they did.

But the otherness that comes with being Asian-American persisted. I was still made to feel foreign. I was still subject to slurs, jokes and stereotypes. 

I wasn't able to find a home in the Asian community either. Being a "halfie" isn't Asian enough. But it is also associated with white privilege. I've been told that I'm "lucky to be only half" because then I could "marry a white guy and have white kids." 

Being "only half" still doesn't protect me from having my mere existence evoke racially fueled hate. Like the time I stood outside of a train station waiting for an Uber when two men walking by threw their hot coffee cups at me. As they walked away they just grunted, "Chinese." 

Maddie Lee with her parents, 2001. Photo by Jamie Lee

In the context of triggering events this past year, our community has been experiencing higher instances of racism and violence than usual. 

According to this Pew Research Center report, since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, many Black and Asian Americans have reported a rise in instances of discrimination. Between March and December last year, Stop AAPI Hate, an organization dedicated to tracking hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, counted just under 3,000 incidents in the U.S and Canada. 

The rhetoric used by former President Donald Trump has also brought painful consequences for the AAPI community. Blaming the Chinese and referring to the virus with terms like "Kung Flu" or "Chinese Virus" likely fueled a rise in aggression. 

The Asian community has been left to deal with this tidal wave of ugly attacks in solitude. Our elders have been bearing the brunt of the violence – being struck, punched, stabbed, killed. Almost everyday our community has to witness this, while mainstream media glosses over it. 

Our immigrant parents and grandparents endured their abuse in silence in the hopes of providing us with better opportunities. They shouldn't have to continue suffering in silence. They deserve to be protected.  

It took a massacre to get mainstream media to grieve with us. The Atlanta Spa Shootings in which eight people were killed, six of them Asian women, has become a defining moment for our movement. We're finally being seen on the front pages, but yet, it's still not being labeled a hate crime. Nicole Hong, a reporter for The New York Times, says that it's harder to classify Asian hate crimes because of a "lack of signals." 

Stereotypes may not count as a tangible symbol of Asian hate, but they should still absolutely be acknowledged as hate crimes. 

Part of the reason I've been so uncomfortable in my skin is because of the way my race is fetishized and hypersexualized. You're not seen as a person. You're an idea that will be thrown away if it doesn't meet someone's false expectations. So even if the shooter says that he was sexually motivated, and not racially motivated, it absolutely feels like these women were simply a disposable idea to him. 

In response, President Biden has issued a statement to "urge Congress to swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act." 

Although action is finally being taken bureaucratically, I still have barely heard or seen anything from my non-Asian peers. It's such a disappointing sting to call into the void and only hear the echoes of your voice.

We need help from louder voices, not just our own.

The model minority myth has isolated Asian, South Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders from the rest of the BIPOC community. The idea that Asian-Americans have managed to assimilate into white culture diminishes the discrimination we still face. Additionally, it pits minorities against each other, keeping us distracted from real progress. 

I want to clarify that asking others to include AAPI in their anti-racist work does not mean to take away from Black Lives Matter. Black lives matter now and always. These issues are not mutually exclusive. Nor do I mean to say that all the ways marginalized groups are discriminated against can be umbrellaed. 

But if you know what it's like to not have a choice in the way the world sees you. To be vulnerable or at risk because of who you are. To not have the privilege of simply existing. Then you should want to advocate for anyone and everyone who has ever felt your pain. 

I'm not an expert on this subject matter,  nor am I claiming to be. But I appreciate finally having the space to vent my internalized frustrations as an Asian-American woman. I know how long I have been waiting to be heard, but I didn't know if that day would ever come. 

Now, we are not willing to sit in silence. But are you willing to listen?