Imagine a 27-year-old woman, born and raised in California. She went to college in the Midwest and now lives in New York City. After work, you can find her at the neighborhood Pilates studio. She spends Saturdays and Sundays watching football and summers on a river in Montana, fly-fishing with her parents.
Are you picturing a white woman?
A few years ago, the person I just described would have appreciated the assumption. After all, she spent so much of her life wanting to fit a “whiter” image, although she does—I promise—love Montana and Pilates.
But she is also a third-generation Chinese and Korean American woman who is just beginning to realize how much she unconsciously suppressed her Asian heritage. I would know. I’m her.
Even before a global pandemic erupted, I had started to grapple with the pervasiveness of anti-Asian racism—and how I’ve survived it, dealt with it, and even internalized it. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about activism or justice. I just wanted to understand my own life better. But recent events surrounding the coronavirus outbreak—from its mislabeling as a “Chinese virus” to the discrimination and violence it’s caused—have compelled me to speak up.
I grew up in Marin County, California—a wealthy, liberal suburb of San Francisco. I didn’t live the first-generation experience. My parents were also raised in California, where all four of my grandparents also spent most of their lives. I had a privileged upbringing. I’ve gone to good schools, have wonderful parents, and have always felt loved and supported. I also grew up, largely, with white people.
On some level, I must have understood that to be seen as Asian in America meant living with some brutal biases.
For most of my life, I didn’t think this was a problem, or that it even affected me. I was in denial about how much work I did to fit in with the people around me. Now looking back, I see that I wanted to avoid seeming “too Asian”—whatever that meant. On some level, I must have understood that to be seen as Asian in America meant living with some brutal biases.
Good at math, bad at driving. Quiet and submissive. Not violent or even athletic, but hyper-strict with their children. Tiger moms. Violin lessons. Obedient wives. And on and on.
Of all of them, the stereotype that offends me the most is the notion that Asians are submissive. It hurts because it is the most misunderstood: a hallmark of Asian culture is an emphasis on respect—for elders and superiors, in particular. I consider it a beautiful aspect of Asian culture, but it’s often misconstrued and warped. It’s used as a trope, painting Asians as defenseless and weak. It hurts to see us represented like this, and even as a little kid, I tried to run from that ugly narrative. But it is even more painful to realize that submission and silence are at the core of my own story.
I attended a small, progressive private high school in the heart of San Francisco. I loved my school and had an incredible close group of friends, all of whom were white. But there’s a certain feeling that you can understand only if you’ve experienced it—the feeling of walking into a large room of people and realizing you are the only one who doesn’t quite fit. It’s not fun, and like so many others, I did what I could to minimize my “difference.” When someone put on a phony Asian accent and called me “Dana Ree” (my last name is Lee), I laughed along. When my friends made jokes about Asians, I didn’t speak up.
A part of me always felt embarrassed and defensive. But I didn’t want to get into a fight over something like that, so I let it slide. These were my friends. They accepted me. They liked me. I never called them out.
But the constant stream of discrimination I experienced didn’t just come from other people—not in high school and not after. The truth is I would also make fun of myself. If I wasn’t getting an A in math, I would joke about how I was “the worst Asian ever.” It was the classic defense mechanism—a survival method. If I could make fun of myself first, other people’s jokes couldn’t hurt me, right? But pushing down my feelings, brushing off the comments, and refusing to be “too Asian” added up to my pushing away some essential part of who I am.
Looking back, I wish I had stood up for myself. But I’m also working to forgive myself, to recognize that I did what I had to do to have a good time in high school (which, by and large, I did). How ironic that in an attempt to ignore comments about stereotypes, I reinforced one: submissiveness.
I continued “blending in” with the people around me throughout college and into graduate school. But in 2018 I visited China for the first time. And that’s when things started to change.
Instead of feeling like my Asian heritage was out of place, or something I needed to suppress, I felt something like belonging.
I made the trip with a group of friends, all of whom were white. But this time (and maybe for the first time ever), when I looked around, I wasn’t the one standing out. I was surrounded by people who looked like me, and I felt a surge of pride for my culture and background. I excitedly explained to my friends which foods had originated in Hong Kong, not mainland China. I recounted the Christmases I used to spend with my grandmother, who made wonton soup with us and showed us how to properly fold a wrapper around the filling. I taught them how to say “steamed pork bun” in Cantonese (“cha siu bao”), a phrase I knew because it had always been my favorite food.
Instead of feeling like my Asian heritage was out of place, or something I needed to suppress, I felt something like belonging. I felt empowered. And I started to realize what I’d been missing out on for 25 years.
When I got home from the trip, I refused to let go of my profound new sense of identity. The veil, as they say, had been lifted, and I could finally see clearly.
Ever since, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about past experiences and critiquing my own reactions. But I’ve also been attempting to make up for lost time. I cheered when Ali Wong became a household name and shattered the myth of the submissive Asian woman with her back-to-back Netflix specials. I raced out to Crazy Rich Asians and watched it dominate the box office. When Sandra Oh became the first female Asian actor to win multiple Golden Globes, I beamed. And even though I knew we had a lot of work to do as a nation, I believed Parasite sweeping the Oscars represented a turning point.
Then President Trump decided to label COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”
The first time I saw him use the phrase, I felt like I had had the wind knocked out of me. It hurt, physically. This was a virus with a real, scientific name. And the president chose to rebrand it to blame Chinese people. Yes, we know the outbreak started in China, but it is now a global pandemic. It doesn’t have a race or a passport. Viruses know no borders, and this one does not discriminate.
But thanks to this dangerous rhetoric, the novel coronavirus that is affecting people of every race is now associated with one, as if it were written into our DNA. It puts an undeserving target on Chinese people (and, sadly, all Asians), labeling us as a threat, even as some of the best government responses have in fact been in Asia, with South Korea setting an example I wish we were following right now.
And Trump hasn’t just used it once; the phrase “Chinese virus” is reverberating across social media, not just because Trump has repeated it over and over, but because some conservative media outlets are echoing him.
As fear of COVID-19 spreads, attacks against Asian Americans are on the rise and Asian-owned businesses and restaurants have been decimated. It hurts to imagine what a young Chinese and Korean girl, like I once was, might have had to endure before school was canceled. This prejudice didn’t start with President Trump, but he’s encouraged it and validated it.
I’ve spent a lifetime being submissive and quiet about racism toward Asians—absorbing both subtle jabs and blatant attacks. But the stakes are too high for me to keep brushing it off. Calling the virus that causes COVID-19 a “Chinese virus” is despicable, wrong, and racist. And it offends me, personally, as an Asian American.
It took me my whole life to get here, to develop an appreciation for my Asian roots, to be able to call out prejudice when and where I see it.
People like Trump want me to feel ashamed of my heritage, but for the first time in my life, I can say that’s a part of myself that I love, unreservedly. No remark from a friend or coworker or the president of the United States can take that from me.
Even now, even in this period of heightened discrimination and fear, I think of what Sandra Oh once said and feel instant, heart-swelling recognition: “It’s an honor just to be Asian.”
Dana Lee was born and raised in Marin County, California, and attended the University of Michigan. She lives in Manhattan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour