“Go back to where you came from!”
It was a phrase I had only ever heard in stories from friends or family members who had experienced discrimination and racism. My father stayed silent, refusing to acknowledge the man shouting at us from his white truck as we waited for the light to change. I followed his lead and faced forward, too.
As early as the 1800s, bias against Asian immigrants was engendering legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act. As America’s businesses became industrialized and its cities grew, so did the disparity between rich and poor. As immigrants took on low-paying jobs, many Americans feared for their livelihoods. Hate and discrimination against immigrants thrived.
Today, expectations like buying a house or sending kids to college, which used to be part of the middle-class “American Dream,” now seem out of reach to many people. The disparity between rich and poor has been growing for decades. Once again, Americans are frightened and angry. Is it so surprising that they would look for scapegoats when the pandemic struck?
As COVID-19 spread, so did the malignant virus that is racism. Asian immigrants and Asian Americans became victims of brutal assaults. It didn’t seem to matter if they were Korean, Chinese, Filipino — or, like me, the American child of an Indonesian mother and a Chinese father from Hong Kong. In Oakland’s Chinatown, three elderly people were attacked. In a New York subway station, a man was slashed in the face with a box cutter. An elderly woman was stabbed while taking a walk in San Francisco. A young man was pushed onto subway tracks on Long Island.
With each new report, I wonder: Is it safe to go outside? If I go to the market to help my mother run errands, will I make it back home? What if the next person does more than just yell at us from their truck?
My parents moved to America before I was born on the promise of freedom and new opportunities. In Indonesia, my mother had faced intolerance, discrimination, and violence. They moved to California with the dream of moving freely amongst their neighbors, without fear. As their American daughter, I attended a school where I pledged allegiance to equality and liberty for all. My school community seemed very accepting, making me feel like I belonged.
Now it feels like all of that was a facade. For my parents and many other immigrants like them, this latest rise in anti-Asian hate crimes brings back the same fear they experienced before coming to the United States. For Asian Americans like me, it is a reminder that our sense of belonging, our status as part of the community, can be revoked at any moment. We look different. We are easy to spot, easy to target.
Even as our technology advances at an exponential rate, as a people, Americans remain unable to progress past the racist values embedded in the foundations of our country. Working hard and minding our own business has not protected us. If we remain silent and continue being the “model minority,” change will never occur. My parents taught me to work hard too, but they also told me to stand up for myself and my beliefs.
Americans need to educate ourselves and others about the wrongs of history, the truths of the past, and the current discrimination and injustices that persist in our society. We need to take steps to change border and immigration policies that treat some people as less than human. We need to end the idea that people from other places and races are threats or competition to “real” Americans. We need to remember that no one is trying to replace us. We need to open our hearts to understand and learn from each other’s experiences. We need to unite to combat the inequalities plaguing our world.
Remembering that moment at the stoplight — one vehicle silent and still, the other lurching and loud — I can still feel my hot, fast breath trapped by my cloth mask as I felt trapped in that car. At the time, I’d focused on the red light, willing it to turn green so that we might move past the hatred beside us. Now I wish I’d spoken out. That is the only way we can protect our parents and grandparents — by standing up for ourselves. That is how we create a world in which children can grow up embracing rather than being ashamed of their differences.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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