The first: If you feel unsafe and are able to, leave the area. The second: Stay calm, limit eye contact, and maintain neutral body language.
I did neither of those things.
It happened a few weeks ago, when a white woman in the Huntington Botanical Gardens’ Chinese Garden snapped at my friend and me, “Why don’t you go back to China!”
I did not leave. Enraged, I drew closer instead of farther away. I started moving toward her, like the elderly Asian-American woman who attacked her attacker in San Francisco. And I most certainly did not remain calm.
No part of me felt calm. My body moved forward without me even knowing it.
I’ve been verbally assaulted in a racist fashion many times. But I’d never had that kind of out-of-body experience before that day. As heat rose to my head like a steaming kettle, I propelled myself toward the woman … to do what?
To demand an apology? To shake her silly? To look deeply into her eyes to search for a shred of humanity? To tell her that she was dehumanizing me? To tell her she’d be lucky to go to China? To make clear to her who exactly inspired the stunning landscape design that she was enjoying, or suggest she sample the sophisticated culinary traditions on the menu in the Chinese Garden’s Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle House?
This woman didn’t seem to care about the irony of what she was saying, or to see me and my friend as fully human.
Though I felt unsafe, I had no intention of leaving. The Huntington, after all, was my safe space — my backyard where I used my membership every single week. It was where I played and relaxed. I was enraged that she was othering me here, of all places.
I didn’t want her to leave, either. I wanted to throw books at her to read — history books about the “Yellow Peril” and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Page Act of 1875. Books about the Asian-American experience so that she could develop some empathy.
I wanted for her to inhabit my body like in some kind of weird “Freaky Friday” — the Racism Version — and to make her feel what I felt when I was 12 years old and my middle-school bully called me an anti-Asian slur and slapped me in the grey-walled hallway. I wanted for her to inhabit my 11-year-old body as a random man shouted a misogynistic, fetishizing epithet at me while I walked home from school.
THEN, THE GASLIGHTING
How did this start?
My friend and fellow writer Esther Tseng had simply told the woman at the Huntington to put on her mask, because she wasn’t wearing one.
That request — that we were asking her to protect the health of others, as well as herself — was apparently what angered her so much. Add another element to the Venn diagram of anti-maskers, politics, privilege and race.
But something even worse happened next, after the woman snapped at us. In my rage daze I turned to point at her, telling other visitors around us, many of whom were of Asian descent themselves (San Marino’s population is 60% Asian), what she had just said. As I started to follow her, taking a photo of her back as she walked away, a young, muscular Asian American man turned to us.
I’ll never forget what he said: “Don’t make a big deal out of this, you guys. You’re making this a bigger deal than it is.”
He spoke to us in a familiar tone, as if we were all part of one club, and he was its president.
I thought I had reached my pinnacle of outrage. It turns out I hadn’t. Though my voice was fairly calm, I was beyond angry.
“If you don’t fight the small things, you’ll never fight the big things,” I told him.
Esther spoke more succinctly: “You’re part of the problem,” she said, pointing her index finger directly at him. (I still laugh when I think about how great she was, returning an idiotic statement with a zinger.)
What that man said still bothers me, even more than what the hateful woman said to us. He gaslighted me, telling me that my feelings weren’t “a big deal,” making that decision for me. Another instance of a man telling me what to do and what to think.
But more than that, it felt like a betrayal. While Asian Americans represent multiplicities of viewpoints, I had hoped that another Asian American in this country, someone who himself has likely experienced racism, would have empathy and provide support.
NOT THE FIRST TIME, NOT THE LAST
In the past several months, I’ve experienced two other incidents of racist hate that seared me to the bone.
Driving with my windows down one day, a white woman in a Jag pulled up to the left of me and yelled, “It’s because of you monkeys that we have COVID!” She then injected a choice slur into her pithy speech. Shaken, I was just glad my son wasn’t in the back seat. But I do have a “Baby On Board” sticker — did the woman not care that she was potentially hurling such hate when there might be a child present? I guess not. Perhaps my child wouldn’t count as human to her.
The second incident occurred when I was strolling by the Silver Lake Reservoir on one of my few days off. Completely in my own world, I was taking photos of the names of Black people killed by police that had been embroidered into the fence surrounding the reservoir.
As I did this, a white man rode by on his bike and casually lobbed an anti-Asian slur at me. I mean, casually. Like he was just riding by and saying “Hello.” Stunned, I texted a friend and my husband to vent.
I’d like to say that these incidents don’t grind me down. But I’m often unable to focus on work afterward, full of bitter grief and anger.
After the incident at the Huntington, I wandered through the next few days in shock, anger and mourning. The rage I feel afterward sucks up my attention and focus, and takes away my time that could be spent furthering my relationships with my family, my career, and my happiness.
Growing up, I experienced so many of these incidents — including fetishizing incidents stereotyping Asian women — that it’s a wonder the dream of America didn’t die sooner for me.
But I keep fighting for something. This Los Angeles is my home. It’s mine — I claim it as belonging to me and so many others like me. I own its streets, from the cruise down PCH to the boba shops of the San Gabriel Valley, from its beaches and galbi joints to its corporate high-rises and City Halls. I will not be forced from it. I will not be moved from it.
You may try to humiliate me — you may beat me down for a day or two. But it won’t be for long.
Because there’s so much work to do. My fight, as I told that Asian American man at the Huntington Gardens that day, is against both the big and small. Because white supremacy is not seen most often in those sharp incidents, but in the dull dusty corners of life that will never be reported on.
Everyday white supremacy is much more insidious, like when a bank manager won’t give an immigrant entrepreneur of color a loan because “her credit isn’t good enough.” When kids giggle at and mock an immigrant kid’s accent. When the white workers at a company exclude co-workers of color from career-boosting social events like golf outings. When an Indian food writer is told that a magazine “already did an Indian food piece this month,” even though the magazine published multiple Italian recipes the same month (yes, I know people this has happened to).
When a corporate employee of color is told they “just doesn’t fit into the culture here” and is let go. When the Chuck Berrys of the world can’t get the musical promotion and support that the Elvises of the world easily get. When Colin Kaepernick is shunned by NFL owners while lesser quarterbacks are recruited, even though his football stats are excellent.
When the TV sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock greenlights an episode mocking Asian American activists. Pop culture and entertainment matter, and it matters what stories get the greenlight and the funding. Representation matters. Asian-Americans should be able to tell our own stories in widely-watched venues, ending the long history of being caricatured and fetishized by others that contributes to the cruelty and violence.
YES, THIS IS OUR COUNTRY
Yet when I tell my story about what happened to me, someone who claims to be an ally will undoubtedly react with a shocked, “This is not our country!”
Well, this is our country — you just live in another version of it.
When I look at my one-and-a-half-year-old son, so innocent and beautiful, I know he will experience the same racism. But I’m not waiting for some president on high to grant us a more just world by signing an executive order — I’m demanding justice, fighting for it, making that road by walking. My parents didn’t have the English, the agency, the socioeconomic power, the political skills to fight the racism foisted upon them as new immigrants to this country. I do.
I’m also taking this time to delve deeper into reading about the Asian American experience, books like Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong. I’m studying the multiplicities of our experiences. I want to revel in the diversity within our communities.
I know I’m still understanding who I am and owning my pride — as an Asian American and a Korean American, as the daughter of immigrants and as the mother of a Korean American boy. I want for him to own his identity. I’m fighting not just for this generation, but for the next generation.
So, no, for my son’s sake and for his generation of Asian Americans, I’m not going to accept a racist Facebook-posting Atlanta sheriff’s captain saying that accused Atlanta shooter Robert Aaron Long was having “a bad day.” Not when people of color have been systematically oppressed for generations.
To the woman who told my friend Esther and me to go back to China in the Chinese Garden: Just know that fighting racism and wearing your mask to protect others is the epitome of being American. You just don’t know it yet.
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