Growing Up In a Racist America

Growing up in a racist America. Just the sentence makes me want to curl up in a ball and hide because it is such a complicated and hard conversation to have. Conversations like this require vulnerability -and I don’t like to be vulnerable, which is why I haven’t really shared my own personal experiences about being an Asian American woman in America, until now.

Why am I just now opening up to the general public? Because I’ve spent 26 years hiding behind a face I’ve constructed to blend in into society. This “nice, innocent Asian girl” I portrayed would help me network and find jobs, make friends easier, get along with coworkers, get a free cup of coffee just because the white male cashier with Chinese dragon tattoos on his arms thought I was cute… said “ni hao” and smiled, probably hoping for a response. I’m not even Chinese.

But the recent events and the posts that have surfaced in the media from my fellow Asian community has given me the fuel to feed my courage and share my own experiences of trauma rooted in racism, and hope that my voice will carry some weight.

To friends, family, colleagues, professors, managers, coworkers and neighbors: below you will read about some experiences that are recognizable, as you may have been witnesses to them. Or you have lived them with me. Or you were the one who inflicted those experiences onto me.

Please read and understand that I’m sharing this in hopes to make you understand that, that Asian person in your life -whoever it may be, has stories just like these but may just not be ready to share them.

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I must have been in either 1st or 2nd grade in our elementary playground during recess when I was playing with a few white girls from class. I think my parents had just packed my first home lunch. They told me I eat weird food and told me I couldn’t play with them. Confused and a little hurt, I went and found the other Asian girls. They told me I couldn’t play with them either because my face was “flat” and I’m not “their kind [of Asian].” I went to play with the white boys instead for the rest of that recess period. This experience went right over my head until it distastefully popped into my brain when I drove by the Elementary school a decade later. That was when I realized I must have had my first encounter with racism. I was 7-years old.

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The moment I started to look over my shoulder once I leave my house, I was with my mom in our public recreational park. We walked the trail that we always took, as did other families in the area. We hit the part of the trail parallel to the road that leads to the park entrance when a couple of young white men driving by in a white Ford pickup truck screamed, “Go back to China!” They circled back a few minutes later to throw Chinese food at us from their window. I think the fact that they had Chinese food at the ready was more shocking to me than them taking the risk to make an illegal 3-point-turn on a road known to be littered with cops. I was 14.

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I don’t remember a night in my life not going to bed before double-checking we had all of our doors locked. My dad had cameras installed in the house when I started middle school. I was 10.

It all started on the school bus when the next-door neighbor told me that his parents think my parents’ house “stink of Chinese food” when his dad came over to borrow a tool from my own dad. He asked me if we “really do eat dogs.”

The next day on the same 0632 bus, he blatantly stated that he will throw clay -which he stole from art class, at our brick house. I said, “you wouldn’t dare.” He did as soon as we got off at our shared bus stop. That happened when I was 10. I am now 26 and they had just moved out last year. They took their confederate flag with them. Seeing this flag in North Carolina is more common than people think.

I went home during Covid-19 the summer of 2020 to be with family and saw that the camera installed at my bedroom window angled towards our driveway next to their own driveway is gone. I can now open my window and let the sun in. My dad doesn’t have to worry about them stealing the tire air caps off our cars anymore.

Because of this unfortunate experience, we never really had the heart to get to know our other neighbors in our cul-de-sac. The only family we really interacted with were the Robinsons. They didn’t live in our cul-de-sac, but at the corner of our high school bus stop. They came to us for our phone when they were locked out of their house. Then my parents did the same when we were locked out of our house 2 weeks later. They only lived in that house for a few years. They were also the only people of color family besides ours in this part of our neighborhood.

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Then I went to college. I thought I’d finally get some more inclusion there for a university known for its diversity. My first “friend” told me not even halfway through my freshman year, to do her laundry. I asked why and she said, “Because you’re Asian. That’s your job.” I ended our friendship a few days later after friends made me realize how wrong that mistreatment was. I was so shocked I was in denial for 3 days. She was from NOVA, aka North Virginia. I was 19.

When I moved to Washington DC for my Master’s degree, I remembered her being from NOVA, so I looked her up again. She had found a job in Bethesda, MD and lives there now. Bethesda is only a 5-minute drive from where I lived. I thought about reaching out because I reconnected with her my senior year and we made amends then and I needed friends because I was new in town. I decided it was better to start new healthy friendships instead. I was 23.

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During my junior year of college, I encountered my first discrimination from an older white male. There was the university newspaper that I will argue again: I should have gotten the student reporter position for the Fall of 2015.

I was the only Asian candidate in that program and spent that entire semester pitching, interviewing and writing stories as a series of practical tests. The final process of the trial was a written exam. I tested and placed first place out of all the candidates in the program. The next day, I found out I was the only one rejected.

I went to the head of the newspaper to ask why. His answer was that I didn’t have a phone. I said I survived the entire semester and placed first out of the entire program during the written final exam without a phone. I am positive I will survive the rest of the year without one. I also reassured him I was going to get a phone the following week because I had just saved enough money to buy one. His response was, “you just wouldn’t fit into my program.”

Completely flabbergasted and thrown off, I went to the other publication on campus and interviewed for their position as a student reporter. I started the next week, bought the phone I had promised I would, finished that Spring 2016 with no missed deadlines and applied for the Editor-in-Chief position of that publication. I went in for my board interview for that position at the end of that semester, in which he was one of the interviewees. The majority vote was to offer me the position. I accepted knowing I’d be working closely with him for the next full year of my senior academic career. I was 21.

Sure, we had small conflicts here and there throughout that year, but the biggest one was the hashtag my team and I handpicked and put together. He heavily disagreed and so I had to go in to our university media board meeting to defend our publication ideas. The board included professors, University organizational presidents, heads of fraternities and sororities and ECU departmental heads. They normally never attended these editorial board meetings. I stood up in that oval meeting room feeling like I had just stepped in front of a train and answered the list of questions in the meeting, in which he led. The majority voted for our creative freedom. We printed 500 copies of my publication. I was 22.

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My third and last year into graduate school, Covid19 infested planet earth. Like many others, I had to adjust by working from home and tuned into meetings with my own crew on the weekends to complete my master’s thesis. As a break from my remote work, I spent my time walking outside for fresh air. I took that 10-minute walk to the metro almost 2 or 3 times daily pre-Covid with no problems. But that day walking to my local grocery store by my metro stop in Washington, D.C., I listened to the birds sing in the neighborhood and the whooshing of cars on the road next to me. Among those noises, I also heard coughing behind me. Thinking nothing of it, I kept walking. But something made me clutch my purse closer to my side and balled the reusable grocery bags in my fist.

I adjusted my face mask instinctively upon a second fit of coughing. Taking a peek behind me to see the source of the coughs, I see a trio of high school boys with skateboards. Most likely students of the high school by the metro stop. They were laughing to themselves and pointing at me. I couldn’t believe it. I only read about these encounters in the media or from family members and friends who themselves had experienced racial discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic.

Pulling out headphones from my purse, I pretended to call someone on my phone and couldn’t help but quicken my pace. That only fueled their laughter. I notice a white lady getting into her car, parked by the side of the road we were walking on. Her eyes were narrowed in curiosity and disapproval -from me or my antagonizers, I had no idea. But I knew she wouldn’t help me. She got in her vehicle and drove off.

A little scared and clueless as to what to do next, I continued walking at that fast pace, pretended to talk to someone at the other end of my phone and ignored their fake coughing fits until I walked through the sliding double doors 2 minutes later. They skateboarded off towards the high school behind that Whole Foods. I was 25.

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With these experiences of racial discrimination that I have buried so deep within myself, it hurts me so much for them to be dug up again seeing my family and friends threatened, attacked and rejected of basic human rights when Covid-19 hit.

I am now 26 and it hurts even more now seeing family and close friends be stripped of their own human rights and have their cries be drowned out in silence. If you made it to the end of this, I ask that you use your empathy and have some compassion. Reflect on the pain of your own sufferings and lend a hand to those who are suffering now. Use your voice and say something when you see something. Say you will fight for each other. Say you will fight for humanity.