Hear These American Voices

Dear Reader,

I and others have been noting, with a breaking heart, the rise in violence against Asian Americans. Senseless, brutal, upsetting, bigoted violence against innocent strangers seemingly everywhere, including in the most supposedly progressive cities in our country. Asian Americans have been slashed, sucker-punched, and shot. Last week, six women of Asian descent were murdered in Atlanta. More horror and heartbreak.

As an Asian American myself, I am angry and sad. But every American should feel that way. This week, I want to use this space to bring you the words of some eloquent Asian American voices, which deserve your attention more than ever. I hope you find many of these reflections as moving and eye-opening as I did:

(R.O. Kwon, “A Letter to My Fellow Asian Women Whose Hearts Are Still Breaking,” Vanity Fair, 3/19/2021) Lately, every time I’ve heard about, read about, or encountered a fresh incident of hatred, the quiet refrain belling in my head like a chant, or a dirge, is: our hearts are breaking. I’ve found this frustrating, for who does it help, what action is involved in having a breaking heart? I’m listening more, though, today, to this refrain. Minutes after I first read about the attacks, I started thinking about what I should do, how I could be useful. Maybe I need to take another minute, maybe several minutes, to sit with this breaking heart.

I will carry for a long time, for instance, the moment I first saw the Korean victims’ names written in Korean. In hangul, which I associate with joy, with homecoming. With deep, good safety. It is the language written on the books in my parents’ house, on the menus of restaurants I turn to when I really miss my mother’s food, in the birthday cards my parents send, retelling me the story of my birth in Seoul. This time, the hangul marked the passing of women shot for what they looked like, killed by a racist gunman and by this country’s white supremacy.

(Viet Thanh Nguyen and Janelle Wong, “Bipartisan political rhetoric about Asia leads to anti-Asian violence here,” Washington Post, 3/19/2021) In the 1980s, officials from both parties cast Japan as the economic enemy; now it is China, one of the few issues about which Democrats and Republicans agree. And yes, it’s true that China is an extremely bad actor when it comes to espionage and human rights. But decades of official U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric from the pundit class have had a unique effect on Asian Americans. When the government frets about Russian hacking and election interference, there is little consequence for Americans of Russian heritage. When officials express fears over China or other Asian countries, Americans immediately turn to a timeworn racial script that questions the loyalty, allegiance and belonging of 20 million Asian Americans. Most Americans are not skilled at distinguishing between people of different Asian origins or ancestries, and the result is that whenever China is attacked, so are Asian Americans as a whole.

(Dr. Jen Ho, “To be an Asian woman in America,” CNN, 3/17/2021) To be an Asian woman working in the US South in the massage industry means being an object, not a subject; being neither Black nor White and thus seen to have honorary white status, which in practice conveys a false belief that you aren’t subject to White supremacy; being invisible except when you have been killed by a white man who claims it’s not his fault — it’s his addiction. It means further disappearing: being one of six women killed in what people aren’t even calling a racially motivated crime, although can there be any doubt that it was misogyny and toxic masculinity that killed you? What can we do? What can YOU do? Do not look away. These are not one-off stories.

(Cathy Park Hong as quoted in, “‘We’re both the comfortable and the afflicted’: What gets overlooked when we talk about anti-Asian racism,” Vox, 3/17/2021) I do think that Asian Americans are just beginning to come together as a community and think about their place in this country and really speak out. There’s been a lot of work that’s been done this year because of the hate crimes, but also because of Asian Americans wanting to be allies for Black Lives Matter. That’s not to discount the Asian activism in the ’60s and ’70s, but it’s a different kind of mentality when you’re second- or third-generation Asian American. I think right now, more people feel that they have more permission to question their racial standing in this country. Many of us are no longer settling for what white people say about us — which is that we’re doing fine, we’re successful and racism doesn’t exist for us, that we come from nuclear families, and all of us are scientists, and so forth.

(Lucy Feldman, “‘We Are Always Waiting Our Turn to Be Important.’ A Love Letter to Asian Americans,” TIME, 3/18/2021) I searched for the news, found it: eight people, mostly Asian women, shot and killed in Georgia. Immediately, I pictured the stunned and grief-stricken faces of their loved ones, their world shattered by an unwelcome phone call in the night. Then I recalled the video image of an elderly man shoved to the ground, the gash on a woman’s forehead from an attack. An activist on the news, head bowed and gathering the strength. A neighbor in my own building, just over a year ago, seeing my mother with a suitcase and saying with disgust, to the woman I love most in the world, “I hope you didn’t just come from China.”

(Jean Chen Ho, “Sex Work Is Care Work,” GQ, 3/22/2021) Both Misun, my stylist, and Judy, the microblade artist, are care workers. Their bodies—their hands—are necessary to their labor. Massage parlors like the ones targeted by the white gunman exist in a similar realm of personal care, like hair salons and permanent-makeup studios. These are all places where clients can pay for the intimacy of touch, the pleasure that touch affords. The difference, of course, is that what we call sex work—a kind of care work that is criminalized and socially opprobrious—happens there. And because it is labor that carries the threat of penalization, the burden of stigma and illegitimacy, the women who do this work become simultaneously more vulnerable, while their essential contributions to society remain invisible, devalued. One substantiation of Asian American melancholy lives in this intersection. This paradigmatic conundrum might be applied, more broadly, to the attacks Asian Americans have experienced in the past year, from verbal assaults and racist epithets to grotesque physical altercations.

(Heidi Shin, “I’m Helping My Korean-American Daughter Embrace Her Identity to Counter Racism,” New York Times, 3/19/2021) In March 2020, my daughter was in first grade, eager to talk about a school assignment that asked her to write about a problem and how to be a part of solving it. Her response was that women should be paid the same as men. I felt proud.
But then she continued. A classmate had written that coronavirus was a problem and that keeping Chinese people out of the country was the solution…

…Asian-Americans have our own, less well-known place in the civil rights story. Asians also lived in the South in the 1950s, and we, too, would have been told to move to the back of the bus. In the 1860s, there were segregated schools for Chinese-American children, for families that looked like ours.

I am finding the language to share this with my daughter. I will tell her about these injustices and I will remind her of Fred Korematsu, an American civil rights activist who objected to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and others who in their bravery spoke their minds when they disagreed with what our systems condoned.

(Cindy Lee, “Am I a Conditional American?” Transformations, 2/10/2021) As a child in school, I learned that settlers in the U.S. had killed Native Americans. I learned that the Japanese in America were interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I thought, “We Americans did that.” We. I identified with U.S. history, even though my Korean ancestors had not been responsible. And when Neil Armstrong was the first person to step foot on the moon, saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” I proudly felt as an American, “We did that.”

But, in practice, the truth is that “we” is not always we. My lived experience had not prepared me for this disillusionment and hurt.  At 64 years old, I’ve come to realize that my feeling of safety is conditional. My acceptance is conditional. My Americanness is conditional. The rules are not up to those of us who are “other.” Despite how we feel, who we are or what we’ve done, someone else gets to decide if we are dangerous, diseased or even American.

The American Dream can be bestowed, and it can be withdrawn. Now, the American Dream is less dreamy for me, less sure. For too many, it’s never been.

(Alafair Burke, “Who will march for Asian Americans after the killings in Atlanta?” Washington Post, 3/17/2021The “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans that is used to argue that we are an exception to the gravitational force of American racism — good students, hard workers, nonthreatening people of color — is constantly weaponized to simultaneously demonize Black and Latino communities and constrain Asian American activism. Under the prior administration, the Justice Department blatantly pitted Asian Americans against other people of color by suing elite universities in an attempt to ban admission policies that valued diversity and inclusiveness. When communities of color fight with one another, the racists win.

And finally: Because people in power see us as either model minorities or the permanent foreign, subservient class, they assume we won’t make noise, that we won’t fight back and that we have no allies to stand up for us. Let’s all prove them wrong.

On Asian American Identity:

(Wesley Yang, “Paper Tigers,” New York Magazine, 5/6/2011) Asian-American success is typically taken to ratify the American Dream and to prove that minorities can make it in this country without handouts. Still, an undercurrent of racial panic always accompanies the consideration of Asians, and all the more so as China becomes the destination for our industrial base and the banker controlling our burgeoning debt. But if the armies of Chinese factory workers who make our fast fashion and iPads terrify us, and if the collective mass of high-­achieving Asian-American students arouse an anxiety about the laxity of American parenting, what of the Asian-American who obeyed everything his parents told him? Does this person really scare anyone?

(Hua Hsu, “The Stories We Tell, and Don’t Tell, About Asian American Lives,” The New Yorker, 7/19/2019) Within a racial paradigm that positions black and white as opposing poles, those who, like Asian-Americans, don’t fit on either side occupy a state of flux—they can be recast as “good” or “bad” depending on the political mood, becoming an alien threat one moment and a model minority the next. The students of my generation, people who were born in the seventies and eighties, came of age at a reverential distance from the civil-rights era and in the shadow of the Cold War; many of us wanted to figure out how our family’s experiences fit within broader stories of racial struggle…

…Identity isn’t a prescriptive solution. But when you’re uncertain of your place within society, it can help to have ready-made categories or narratives, even if you choose to reject them. There’s a power in being able to recognize our struggles as the result of paradoxes we live within rather than seeing them as purely private failings. It’s a step toward imagining lives that we might be the authors of, with endings that we write ourselves.

(Kristina Wong, “The First Asian-American Woman to Win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama Was Not Me,” NBC News, 4/20/2016) In the Pulitzer’s 100-year history, no Asian-American woman playwright has won for Drama. David Henry Hwang has received two nominations. Rajiv Joseph received a nomination for “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo” in 2010. There has been only one Asian-American winner for Drama in its 100-year history (“Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar in 2013).

As Asian-American women, we do not take up enough space in history or culture. And the opportunities for awards for when we do make waves in mainstream culture are far and few between.

So we must keep writing our lives into existence. Awards or not.

(Laura Kim, “When Society Takes Your Personality Test,” New York Times, 6/23/2018) This renewed national debate surfaces stereotypes that many of us have confronted over the years: We’re worker bees who get the job done. We don’t have the personality it takes to manage people. We’re just duds, who keep our “heads down and stay very quiet.”

But we can’t be neatly contained within the model minority myth. We are not a monolithic group. Many of us have our heads and hands up high, asking for a seat at the table.

Now I know what to do when confronted with egregious stereotypes: Look directly into their eyes and flatly demand an apology. The problem is, not all people reveal their own biases, or even know about them at all.

(Vivian Wu Wong, “Getting it Right: Schools and the Asian American Experience,” National Association of Independent Schools, Winter 2011) At Stanford, my friends and I who were active in the Asian-American Students Association worked hard to dispel the myth that Asian Americans were a model minority, seeing the harm that it caused, especially for students of Asian descent whose needs, we felt, were going unmet. We lobbied the university administration, for instance, for an Asian-American dean, an Asian-American counselor, more Asian- American studies courses, and a new space for the Asian-American Activities Center, which had been located in an old dilapidated firehouse. We also worked with leaders of the black, Chicano, and Native American student organizations to demonstrate our commitment to larger issues of justice and equality. Joining multiracial efforts to have Stanford divest from South Africa, change its Western culture requirement, and support the United Farm Workers grape boycott helped us to build relationships across racial lines that eventually spilled off-campus into statewide efforts for educational reform.

Combating the model minority myth was a constant part of our work. Asian-American students were always asking us, “Why should we care about this issue?” Non-Asian students were always assuming that Asian Americans would not care about issues of social justice. No matter how many workshops we conducted about Asian-American history and stereotypes, we continued to confront students who had bought into the myth.

(Gish Jen as quoted in, “Horror Has Become Normal: An Interview with Gish Jen,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 7/8/2020) In an earlier work, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, I wrote about what it means to have been born into a culture — the Chinese culture — in which the individual is not assumed to be the fundamental unit of society, and one’s obligations to others are primary. Having grown up in America, of course, I’m halfway between that culture and mainstream, individualistic American culture. I’m not Chinese Chinese. Still, I have a pronounced sense of responsibility to my readers, the country, and the world, which I don’t attribute so much to my gender or color as to my non-Western-European cultural background. That’s to say that while I’m hardly the only writer to feel she had to say something about where this society could be headed if we stay on our current path, I felt it acutely.

My best,


In Body Image

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— Listen to Third Degree, the new podcast from Elie Honig. In the latest episode, “Prosecuting Hate Crimes,” Elie assesses the likelihood that hate crime charges will be brought against the shooter who killed eight people, including six Asian women, last week in Atlanta.

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— Listen to CAFE Insider, “When Hate is a Crime,” where Preet and Anne break down the multiple recent mass shootings, the latest in the Derek Chauvin trial, and the charges against two men accused of assaulting late Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick during the Capitol insurrection.

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Tamara Sepper, Adam Waller, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Jennifer Korn, David Tatasciore, Matthew Billy, and Nat Weiner.