The day after a white terrorist killed eight people, six of them Asian, I checked in on some of my closest Asian American friends. Throughout the day, we exchanged links to news articles and screenshots from Twitter about the mass shooting. We asked each other, “How are we feeling?”
My best friend from college: “I just want to hide and cry.”
My close friend here in Tulsa who’d just been out receiving her second vaccine dose: “I feel nervous being in public right now — even just getting my vaccine.”
Finally, I called my mother between work meetings: “What’s wrong? Why are you calling in the middle of the day?”
My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan when they were 25 years old. They never shared any personal stories about racial discrimination with me or my brother (mostly anecdotes about being dirt-poor college students), but I’m sure it happened.
My parents gave up their familiar lives and families in their beautiful oceanside hometown in search of the Great American Cliché: a better future for their children, better education, better resources. Just, better.
On the phone, Mom and I made small talk for a bit about my workday, about my dating life, about the weather, about what Dad was up to, until my voice cracked and we could no longer avoid the topic. I told her I was upset, that I had never felt targeted like this before, that I was worried for them.
“I know this is new for you,” she told me, “That’s why you’re so upset.”
She’s right. The recent violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has been the most overt and harmful level of racism against people who look like me that I have witnessed in my lifetime.
I learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese internment camps and Vincent Chin in college Asian American History classes. But those events happened so long ago. I had naively and incorrectly internalized the idea that we as Asian Americans had collectively paid our dues. We’d settled into white society pretty well, right? I thought our time to be discriminated against was over?
Discrimination against me had never escalated past schoolyard insults and microaggressions. In elementary school, kids pulled back their eyelids and made comments about the “weird” lunch I’d brought. When I was in sixth grade, an older boy called me a “chink” on the back of the bus (I open-palm slapped him across the face). As an adult, family members of white boyfriends would make off-handed, ignorant comments in an attempt to make conversation (“I thought I saw your parents at Costco but it was just another Asian couple, haha, isn’t that hilarious?!”). People will forever ask me where I’m from (“Norman, Oklahoma. Yourself?”). Annoying — but not life-threatening.
Now, at least six Asian people were dead following a disturbing trend of violent crimes against Asians in America, and Mom and I were having a conversation we’d never had before: about the state of this country and our place in it. She revealed she and my father were having the same conversation.
“I asked your dad, ‘Did we maybe choose the wrong country? Is this maybe not the country we thought it was?’”
My parents love America. They would not have stayed if they didn’t love this country. Our entire extended family lives in Taiwan, and my parents dutifully and regularly make visits back to care for their aging parents, but they still choose to make their home here. Mom and Dad became U.S. citizens in 2003. Dad is an award-winning professor at OU who’s taught more than 2,000 students; he and I get riled up every single election season and keep each other updated about who we plan to vote for. Mom has her hands in all sorts of volunteer projects in the community.
Mom later reassured me she has no regrets, that she has faith they made the right decision in choosing America. But to hear this temporary glimmer of doubt, a crack in the veneer of the glossy American Dream, is heartbreaking.
I feel betrayed.
Ingrained in the Asian American experience is the pressure to excel. Keep your head down. Don’t make too much noise. Do well in school, make good grades, go to the best schools. Do so well they can’t tell us we don’t belong here.
We have tried so hard to fit in that we’ve been dubbed the “model minority.” This is a myth that characterizes Asian American people as polite, submissive rule-followers who have achieved success through some magical combination of natural intelligence and immigrant perseverance (“We get the job done!”)
It’s a story that gets passed around to justify the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mandate — because if this group can do it, so can any other! It’s a tool wielded by white supremacy to pit minority groups against each other, holding white-defined standards of “good” and “successful” above our heads.
What we’re being shown is that no matter how hard we work or how “well” we assimilate, it simply does not matter. We are still being beaten in the streets and shot by white terrorists.
Fully sobbing now, I asked my mom to stay home as much as possible.
“I am in a bubble here,” I told her, referring to my diverse neighborhood and progressive workplace and liberal friend group. “But we don’t know what could happen to you and Dad.”
Mom assured me they’d be careful. “We won’t go out. We still stay home.” We told each other we loved each other and hung up. I felt no less worried about their safety, but took comfort knowing she could feel my love and care and concern.
So many people have checked in on me — asking me how I’m feeling, letting me know they’re thinking of me and my family. I am so grateful. But when they’ve asked how they can help, I haven’t had an answer, until now:
If you love me, tell me how you’re challenging prejudice in your own life, in your own family, in your closest circles.
Tell me how we can create pressure together to dismantle white supremacy in our society in small and big ways.
Tell me you, too, picture a country in which some media outlets and law enforcement officials don’t begin to defend the suspect’s character and motivations before ever telling us the victims’ names or stories about their lives, or try to explain away this hate crime as “a sex thing, not a race thing.”
Tell me you believe there is something inherently wrong with policing as it exists today because you see how many white male suspects are arrested, unharmed, while Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and countless others were suspected of doing far less — or nothing at all — but were killed.
To my Asian sisters, brothers, and non-binary individuals: Let’s be done with keeping our heads down and trying to prove we belong here. This is our country. Let’s make noise and let’s do the work to change it for ourselves, for our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and other marginalized friends, for the generations to come after us.