Despite increasing racism, being Asian American during this time has been a blessing in disguise

Justin Chan

As the U.S. continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have found themselves not only fending off the virus itself, but the discrimination that comes with it. In March, for instance, the FBI warned of a spike in hate crimes against the Asian community as an increasing number of Americans began to associate the coronavirus with outdated stereotypes of the East Asian community. Since the end of that month, the Asian American blog NextShark has counted nearly 1,500 reported incidents of hate crimes against Asians, 69 percent of which involved a female victim. 

None of this should come as a surprise at this point — President Trump once called the coronavirus the “China virus,” sparking a backlash from Asian American activists and politicians, who accused him of encouraging xenophobia against one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographics. He then doubled down, claiming that the virus came from China. Countless Asian Americans, including former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, have since shared their fear about being targeted for simply beingAsian

For many, including myself, misconceptions of and racism against Asians can be traced to the very moment we were born, and it has long contributed to struggles that we, as Asian Americans, face when balancing a bi-cultural identity. 

I was born to Macanese American parents in Manhattan and spent the first six years of my childhood in Woodside, Queens. Unlike Chinatown or Flushing, Woodside didn’t have a large Chinese immigrant population — most residents around me at the time were either Southeast Asian (mainly Filipino) or Central American. 

It was a weird time. My parents weren’t too fluent in English, so they relied on neighbors and family friends to take care of me — even though none of those people could speak Cantonese, my parents’ native tongue. While we didn’t share the same language, we all shared the immigrant experience. My father, for example, had come to New York in the early 1980s to study at Baruch College, and my mother followed soon after to be with him. Both had come from humble beginnings — my father was one of nine children who lived in a shack that was the size of a walk-in closet, and my mother was one of five whose home only had a queen-sized bed and a single bunk bed to share among seven family members. 

Despite my weekend trips to Chinatown and occasional vacations to Macau, my early exposure to Chinese culture was limited. I went to school with English-speaking children who were more interested in “Power Rangers” and “Legends of the Hidden Temple” than Street Fighter and Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl.” The only connection I could make to Chinese culture was through my father’s work ethic. 

Me during my childhood

The Chinese are known to be extremely hard workers and take a particular pride in it  — in 2019, Alibaba founder and billionaire Jack Ma, for instance, openly championed the “996” schedule, a 72-hour work schedule that most Chinese tech employees are expected to be able to manage. Though my father has never worked in the tech industry, his ethic was equivalent to that of someone in it. In his early 30s, he worked as a bank clerk while going to school to support both me and my mother. 

No matter how long he worked or how late he would come home, we were still dirt poor. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have instant noodles and spam for dinner every other night. We’d often have to place a small rubber bin in the living room to catch water drops from a leaking ceiling. Cockroaches were rampant in our apartment. 

I vividly recall one day my father took us for a stroll and unexpectedly panicked because he had lost five dollars — five dollars. Perplexed, my mother soon found him searching underneath parked cars. At the time, I was about 4 or 5 years old and naive. I didn’t think much of the incident because I was too young to understand the value of a five-dollar bill. I had also selfishly expected my father, the family’s sole breadwinner, to come up with the financial means to support us no matter what happened. But, as I look back, that incident really spoke to his character as the typical Chinese immigrant. He had been raised in a slum and had barely had food on his table — five dollars was a lot.  

About a decade later, my father’s steadfastness, coupled with his seemingly excessive ambition, landed him in an executive position at a bank. His rags-to-riches story — from being mockingly called “Peking Man” for his then-skeletal frame to using some of his earnings to open a small Chinese antique store in Manhattan’s trendy Upper East Side neighborhood — epitomized the American Dream. 

Although I had moments where I somewhat connected with my Chinese side, they were rare. When my family and I moved to the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Forest Hills, I wasn’t worried whether I would stick out among my peers. By the age of six, I was very much American. All of my interests, at that point, were rooted in Western culture. Favorite superhero? Batman. Favorite sport? Basketball. Favorite band? *NSYNC (yes, you read that right). And all of that worked in my favor — my knowledge of American pop culture was enough for me to find friends in an Israeli, a Colombian and two Dominicans. 

My parents were incessantly worried that I’d lose touch with my identity as a Chinese American. In elementary school, they enrolled me in Chinese language classes and insisted that I speak Cantonese at home. My father refused to answer me if I couldn’t ask him a question in Chinese. He would convince my mother to do the same. It irritated me — I would walk away, curse under my breath and mope in my room. It made no sense that my parents had traveled thousands of miles to the U.S., given birth to me and expected me to not speak English around them. 

Me (right of center) in elementary school

Over the next several years, I came to hate every single expectation my parents had of me. I didn’t want to learn Chinese — I didn’t have that many Chinese friends to begin with, and it didn’t help that there wasn’t a Chinese American outside of my family that I could look up to. Every single time I turned on the television, the people I would watch were white. Every artist that my parents forced me to listen to in the car — from the Eagles to Richard Marx —  were white. Every classical piano piece that my father told me to learn was written by a white composer. At a certain point, I was confused by the mixed messages my parents were sending. Did they want me to be American or did they want me to be Chinese?

My refusal to appreciate my heritage, along with my knack for being a rebellious child, led to a lot of self-resentment. I would hide the lunch that my mother had made from my classmates because they would make an offhand remark about its smell. I would try to impress my peers by cracking a self-deflating joke, and I would look down at the floor when they, in turn, participated in the ridiculing. I would omit my Chinese middle name when filling out school forms. 

My attitude worsened when my parents decided to enroll me, then 12 years old, in a Catholic school in Chinatown.

Most of the children were not only Chinese but had grown up with each other. They had come from a tight-knit community, where parents would shower them with a not-so-meager allowance or couple of expensive gifts as long as they behaved. Even though the students and I shared a common ethnic background, we never saw eye to eye. They would make fun of the hand-me-downs I wore and unabashedly engage in the Chinese mannerisms that we were often vilified for: spitting on the street, talking loudly, walking briskly around the neighborhood while unintentionally shoving people along the way. 

Me in middle school

It was embarrassing at first, but the more I saw these different behaviors, the more I normalized them. Doing so, however, didn’t really change my relationship with my classmates. I still got into fights. I still hated the fact that their parents could buy them North Face jackets and Nike Air Force Ones. I still could barely make out the Cantonese they spoke. Even though we all had yellow skin and slanted eyes, I didn’t care about being in solidarity with them — none of them had been exposed to other cultures that I, the “all-American” kid, had been fortunate enough to experience. 

In high school, I refused to join the Asian students club because every person in the group seemed to embody Asian stereotypes. Most were passive, endlessly talked about anime and played handball. They seemed quick to judge whenever they came across something that was taboo in Asian culture, whether it was smoking weed or openly talking about sex. They were too traditional for me, and they seemed to feed into the worst characteristics that made Asian Americans unattractive: emasculated, submissive and out-of-touch (I realize now that my impression of them was just as superficial as the labels I had wrongly reinforced upon them). 

I quickly found myself gravitating toward the Black students at the school, although my only exposure to Black culture was “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” (a 50 Cent album that had been released just before my freshman year). Nonetheless, I was intrigued by how comfortable they appeared in their own skin and defied every single anti-Black stereotype that the Chinese community had peddled to me for years. It was through their acceptance and friendliness that I gained a sense of community in ways myown couldn’t teach.

Over those four years of high school, I immersed myself in Nas, Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek, Fabolous and The Diplomats. I paid attention to Black streetwear trends, even though I rarely had the money to afford brands like Rocawear and Phat Farm. I watched Black shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters” and “106 & Park,” almost religiously. By the end of my senior year, I had aligned myself more with Black culture than Chinese culture, to my parents’ disappointment. Even the few Chinese friends I had made during my time in Chinatown noticed that I was unnecessarily making jokes at myself to fit in a community that I didn’t belong to. 

I reasoned the problem was that I had long lived in a country where almost everything — from politics to entertainment — was defined through a Black or white lens. Asian American culture simply didn’t exist, and, in order to avoid being typecast as a foreigner, I had to find the next closest culture I could relate to. I didn’t want to be laughed at like MAD TV’s Bobby Lee, who more often than not played up stereotypes on the sketch comedy series. I didn’t want to be called “Ling Ling,” as I had so often seen on TV or heard on the radio. I just wanted to be treated for who I was: a Chinese American who was a native New Yorker at his very core. 

Me (far left) at my high school prom

Spending time with my Black friends led to a heightened appreciation of myself as a minority. Even though I wasn’t Black, I saw how proud my Black friends were of their culture and how quick they were to put others in their place if an offensive comment was made. It forced me to reevaluate myself as a Chinese American and the pain my ignorance had brought on my parents over the years.

In college, I took an Asian American literature course and spent almost every day reading about China. None of the news coverage I came across during that period was particularly positive, and, at times, it made me flat-out embarrassed to be Chinese. I didn’t want to regularly read about the unfair trade practices, the sweatshop labor, the “exotic” cuisine and the human rights violations that China was known for. Even my father, a proud Macanese American, would even make snide comments that seemed to validate why I spurned my Chinese side in the first place. 

Still, I pushed forward in my journey of finding myself as a Chinese American. I spent more time in Chinatown. I made a few more trips to Macau, where my relatives would often crack jokes at the fact that I was simply too American and argued that I needed to respect my heritage more. Yet, perhaps the most formative moment came when I experienced a racist altercation that was eerily similar to what many Asian Americans have to currently endure. 

One night in 2011, my father waited patiently for a car to pull out of a parking space in front of a Walgreens, when another driver, a white man, pulled into the space. Annoyed, my father rolled down his window to confront him and was promptly told to “go back to China.” I was incensed, and I could feel my heart beating faster and faster as I struggled to keep my mouth shut. 

I knew that my father was more American than anyone else. After all, who the hell was this white man to tell my father that he didn’t belong in a country that was taken away from Native Americans, built on the backs of African American slaves and later became a nation of immigrants?

I looked at my father, who remained stoic. It saddened me that, despite the tremendous battles he had gone through to successfully provide for himself and his family, he still had to come face-to-face with the fact he wasn’t accepted in a country that he had lived in for over 20 years. The encounter was a chilling reminder that no matter how hard my family and I had tried to assimilate in the U.S., we would never be fully accepted. 

That episode is part of the reason why I’m in journalism today. It’s also why I’m so persistent in giving Asian Americans a voice they have long deserved. This country has conditioned us, as Asian Americans, to reject ourselves and take the Western perception of Asian culture at face value. It has propped us up as the “model minority,” pitting us against the Black and Hispanic communities — the very communities that helped give rise to the Asian American civil rights movement. It has minimized our struggles because we have been so cultured to put our heads down and follow the rules. 

When I graduated from Queens College with a degree in English and political science, my father insisted that I go straight to law school. It was the safe option and would lead to a financially stable career, he argued. As a 21-year-old, I knew better though. I had reached an age that required me to avoid constantly relying on my parents for guidance. I had to decide what was best for me, so I chose to devote my energy into carving out a space in the media for Asian Americans.

Me (center) after graduating college

Fortunately, in 2013, the millennial publication Mic put out a call for a columnist who could touch on Asian American issues. It was an opportune time for me: I had just completed my Master’s project on the lack of Asian American leads on Broadway as a Columbia Journalism School student and wanted to write more. 

In December of that same year, while writing for Mic, I explored whether Asian men were undateable — an issue that has plagued East Asian men in the U.S. for decades. The article later caught the attention of Al Jazeera America, which invited me to speak on the definition of modern manhood. Prior to that appearance, I had never been on a major news network and had doubted whether I had actually made a difference with my columns on anti-Asian racism and the gentrification of Chinatown. But with that one brief time on air, I knew, then, that my voice actually mattered. 

The following year, I freelanced for the pop culture publication Complex, where I touched on the lack of Asian Americans in Hollywood. Ironically, several months later, in 2015, I was invited by MSNBC to discuss the importance of restaurateur Eddie Huang’s ABC show “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first to feature an all-Asian television cast since Cho’s “All-American Girl.” At the time, I was admittedly grateful that the media was giving my community the recognition that it deserved, and I couldn’t help but think that I had made a contribution — no matter how small or subtle it was — to the empowerment of Asian Americans. I had leveraged the identity I once hid to shed light on an issue that not only affected myself but thousands around me. I had made an impact

The success of the box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians” three years later, in 2018, further confirmed that I had made the right choice in publicly advocating for my community. I couldn’t contain my happiness as my parents sang along to the film’s Mandarin songs. Even my non-Asian friends raved about the movie and argued that films needed more Asian representation. For the first time in my life, I had never felt more respected as an Asian American. 

That feeling, however, seems fleeting nowadays. 

When the pandemic started to take shape in China in January, I immediately noticed the effects that it had at my home in New York. The once-bustling neighborhood of Chinatown suddenly turned quiet. Nobody seemingly wanted to support a business in the area. Every restaurant I passed by had, at most, five or six customers. The bars lacked a vibrant atmosphere. The supermarkets seemed fully stocked because of unnecessary fears over their Chinese goods. 

In my own neighborhood of Forest Hills, I learned that a Chinese father and his 10-year-old son were attacked by a stranger for not wearing a mask. It made me think twice about whether I should even step out of my apartment. Mask or not, I could potentially be assaulted for simply being Chinese, I figured. 

The reality is that these past several weeks amid a pandemic have been particularly trying. As a writer and one of the leads of my company’s Asian employee resource groups, I feel obligated to speak out against racism whenever I see it, although I worry about the attention it could bring. For a long time, my father has cautioned against my being too outspoken out of a concern for my safety. Just recently, one of my best friends from high school begged me to tone it down after I shared a story in which I had sent a lengthy email criticizing a Twitter user for posting a racist animation.

“Why are you spending so much time on individuals like this?” my friend, who’s Jewish, wrote to me on Instagram. “Half the country is like this. You’re only gonna spend your own energy like that. Think bigger. You’re getting too small potatoes.” 

Me today

Nevertheless, in light of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I feel more determined than ever to protect not only my community but my own identity as a Chinese American. 

As an advocate, I understand the responsibility that comes with that role. I’ve told myself time after time that I can’t tackle the larger issue of anti-Asian discrimination without addressing the individual and more personal incidents that feed into it. 

The coronavirus hasn’t made me ashamed to be Asian; it has done the exact opposite. 

When Chinatown shops suffered from a lack of business, I admired how quickly members of the Chinese community came together to ensure that those restaurants remained open. In March, for instance, Jennifer Tam, a senior communications manager at Foursquare, and Victoria Lee, a corporate travel and meetings strategist at the Estée Lauder Companies, launched Welcome to Chinatown, a grassroots initiative that feeds healthcare workers with meals provided by Chinatown eateries and funded by donors.

After writing a story about Tam and Lee’s effort to keep those businesses alive, I received a message from the founders thanking me for spreading the word. 

“If I had to guess, by the way, because of the reach of your piece, it helped us raise enough funds to feed at least an additional two hospitals this week,” one of them wrote. 

At that moment, I had never felt more accomplished. It was clear that I hadn’t just effected change within my own community but also outside it. Since then, Welcome to Chinatown has sent out over 3,800 meals to those fighting the pandemic on the frontline and put back $33,000 into the neighborhood. The initiative’s recent success has reaffirmed the fact that the Asian American voice — not just mine, Tam’s and Lee’s — carries just as much weight as those of the white, Black and Hispanic communities, that Asian Americans need to demand respect by reclaiming their identity and that the strength of the Asian American community is in its numbers.

As I press on as both a journalist and activist, I’m reminded of one short but powerful quote from Japanese American essayist Mitsuye Yamada that can be aptly applied to my experience as an Asian American thus far: “To finally recognize our own invisibility is to finally be on the path toward visibility. Invisibility is not a natural state for anyone.”

Edited with the generous help of Maia McCann, Dillon Thompson and Amissa Pitter.

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