As I got ready to drive away, like anytime I leave the house for literally anything, my mom came outside to wave me goodbye and tell me to be careful. It didn’t matter where I was going or if I was going anywhere at all, this was her routine.
But last weekend, she added a timid, “there are a lot of hate crimes recently.”
I’ve been lucky enough to have grown up and lived in a protected bubble my whole life. My classmates and peers have been primarily Asian and most of our interactions outside of home/school/work have also been within this same community. My dentist is Taiwanese, my longest tenure eye doctor is Korean; I can find my way through any Ranch 99 but always get lost in Safeway. And I think that says more about me and my family than it does about the general state of things on a macro level, but I know there is at least one person out there who has a similar story. Hopefully they’re better at telling it than me.
My mom always tells me to 小心. From a literal translation, I never understood why this combination of Chinese words meant “be careful.” When I think of a “small heart,” I think of carelessness in the broadest sense. The heart is so physically constrained that it cannot possibly be so conscious of its surroundings. To this day, I still don’t understand how the definition works, but maybe it has to do with intimacy and attention to detail which both are “small.”
All my life I’ve been hearing this warning. Be careful jogging around the neighborhood, be careful driving to work, be careful driving at night. I’ve learned to walk with my backpack on my front instead of back so it doesn’t get grabbed from behind. I don’t have my headphones in when walking alone at night. It’s an unspoken rule — almost deeper than girl code — to text someone when you’re going from A to B. It’s always better to, just in case. You never know.
Be careful. I think this small phrase captures a lot of my struggle to find stillness. Instead, I’m constantly on the move to make myself smaller — hyperconscious of where I stand on the sidewalk waiting to cross, afraid to block the view of others (as if my massive 5ft 3 body had that capability). Striving for perfection in academics and my career just to be on the same line as everyone else.
The crazy part is, all of this has been within the “safety” of a highly Asian region. There was not just one, but at least three well-established weekend Chinese school branches that parents could choose from. And let’s not even get into the density of boba shops around here. Maybe that’s why it hurts the most to see these attacks on elderly. To my limited understanding, Chinatowns were established because there was nowhere else we could go. Together, we created these enclaves, but these places are where many of the reported attacks have been happening.
Yet, I have been fortunate enough to benefit from all that history such that I can choose where to live. I am not bound to the invisible lines and protective gates of Chinatown.
Maybe it’s some weird manifestation of survivor’s guilt, but it surely makes me question what my role is. I’ve never had my lunch made fun of at school, although I did wish often I could trade my egg fried rice for a sweet PB&J and Capri Sun. My Mandarin has been praised, but no one has ever asked me why my English is so good.
I think it is exactly this clash of instinctively laying low while also trying to climb to the top that gives legs to the model minority myth. Notice how we have not taken to the streets across the nation, how people in power have decided to talk about March Madness or St. Patrick’s Day instead. We are saddened and frustrated, exhausted and confused but still muster up the voice to “spread awareness” and reaffirm our stance against AAPI hate. Collectively there has been $2.6M donated to the GoFundMe community fund, which is almost double the total amount since I checked yesterday.
But at the same time, what can we do? It’s easy to make steps against an institution that is rooted in policing race, but how do you make sense of thousands of separate attacks against innocent individual lives? Why does it feel like there are so many pieces to pick up, so many defensive tactics like community walk groups or alerts, instead of something we can actively do to silver bullet a true understanding and appreciation for intersectionality in everyone’s minds?
Maybe the hate and bigotry really is that simple. There’s nothing “more” to get, no deeper “why.” Maybe that’s why our Asian moms are always so worried. It’s not, like we always joked, because we’re “Asian.” It is quite literally because we are Asian.
Who is “we” anyway? Why is it that aside from a blip in American history about building railroads and Japanese internment during WWII I knew nothing about my history?
As a second-generation kid who has still never been to China, what is my history anyway? I am not descended from those miners or railroad workers, but I also feel no connection to those families who were forced to flee Communism or reform. Can I even say I am carrying on the experience of my parents, who despite being only one generation away, know a completely different California? I am too Asian to be American, and too American to be Asian. That is the irony and origin for the hypen kid.
It feels like there are so many resources on how to be an ally, and many of my AAPI peers were loud and fierce during the BLM protests. But for some reason it’s so hard to reconcile these feelings. Maybe it’s because this is the all-too-late final straw, the unwanted mainstream representation. Only we, the different intersections of generation, class, gender, can even begin to see the flavors and diversity within the “Asian American” label.