Originally published on Medium, 2022
When I tell people that I’m always angry, they look at me like I’m joking. I’ve always been a fairly quiet person, generally in a mellow mood, preferring to keep a calm exterior. It’s impossible to see how, on the inside, I feel like I’m either at a slow simmer or at boiling point, ready to spill over.
It was only recently that I managed to identify what these feelings were. Before, I had suppressed it, mostly pretty well, and had identified it as just a symptom of my chronic depression or anxiety. I thought it was a temporary situation, and that it would resolve itself. And I did feel better during good days, almost enough to forget about it. But soon it would bubble up again, making me feel nauseated until I was able to put a lid on it and harness the energy into something like making art, or chores, or something else that seemed productive.
Yet, it is always there. It never goes away. I like to think I’ve made peace with it, but I would be lying to myself.
Anger, to me, feels like a white-hot knife has been buried in your gut. It’s painful, unbearably so, and awakens within a primal self, ready to defend itself even while it dies, gnashing its fangs and clawing at the wound. At its lowest point the wound feels like a scar that might throb painfully at times, but is usually unnoticeable by virtue of always having been there, a familiar and forgettable nuisance.
Since I’d moved away from New York and its congestion and into a calmer, much less harsh neighborhood in western Washington, I hadn’t felt the anger inside nearly as much. Surrounded by nature, much more polite and fewer people, and my family, I felt comfortable and at home. But of course, it all changed once Covid hit. At first, things were still okay. We’re a family of introverts and we didn’t mind staying in. As the disease washed across the US, there were more and more reports of anti-Asian violence.
Anti-Asian racism and violence isn’t anything new, if you are Asian-American. Many of us have been subjected to taunts, bullying, the laughably old fashioned (but annoyingly persistent) “ching chong”. Some, including myself, have experienced physical altercations and predatory behavior. I always thought it interesting that a lot of people who are not Asian are oblivious to this. In part, I think it’s because of the fact that we ourselves stay silent (gaman, as my folks would say) and put on a front that we’re not bothered by it. Talking about it acknowledges that there is an issue, and it’s much easier to just not have to deal with having to address it. Plus, if we stomp out the embers of the hurt and pain we feel, it’ll go away. Most people are good, the world is an alright place, you should be thankful for what you have.
Some of us, of course, are a bit more vocal, articulating our feelings by talking amongst others who don’t want to tolerate this. We have learned about racism in college or online, where there is community and an ability to access resources we never had when we were children. However, what I have encountered in talking to some people about this issue isn’t understanding, but a temporary pity or outright dismissal of our lived experiences. “What’s this ‘microaggression’ thing, anyway? They’re just stupid jokes,” was a common sentiment I’ve encountered. Because it’s usually useless explaining to them that yes, they’re jokes, but enduring them hundreds of times over a lifetime wears away at your soul, I have told them about my experiences with assault. I usually don’t have the will to continue the conversation after they’ve said “well, that’s too bad, but I’m sure that was a fluke.”
Because, what if they’re right? Maybe these moments were all just flukes? Maybe it’s not that big of a deal. It probably was a coincidence that an old white man started talking about “those Chinese” when I sat down behind him on the ferry. After all, my friends and I grew up middle to upper-middle class, having gone to a good school, probably college, and eventually were able to land jobs. Our problems are nothing compared to bigger issues in the world.
The thing is, though, that’s not even true. Asians in general are high income earners — the household median income for Asian-Americans was $87,194 in 2018, 38% greater than the national median income of $63,179.1 However, 12.3 percent of Asian-Americans live below the federal poverty level, ranging from 6.8 percent of Filipino Americans to 39.4 percent of Burmese Americans and almost 20 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.2 In New York in particular, Asian Americans in 2014 represented 17.9 percent of people living in poverty and had the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group at 29 percent.3
Being that I grew up in a “decent” suburb, many of the other Asian kids around me had nice clothes, the latest electronics and sometimes even a new car once they started driving. At the same time I noticed that some of the other Asian kids came to school dressed in the same clothes day after day, were taunted for smelling like cooking oil, and took the bus. One of those kids told me that their parents had moved them into the area precisely so that they could be placed in that school district, working 7 days a week at a local Chinese restaurant. They had heard from their customers about the district’s high reputation for producing students who got into good universities.
I suppose the fact that Asian-Americans have the lowest chance of rising to management when compared with African Americans, Hispanics and women4 also doesn’t really matter to some people, because hey, at least we (some of us, anyway) have good jobs. Keep your head down, be obedient. You should feel lucky to have the opportunities you do in the US.
I’ve found that this dismissal and minimizing the effects of our issues has always been a part of Asian-American experience. My history teacher in high school, after hearing about the first hand experiences from a Japanese American internment camp from a woman who had been held there, told me “well, it’s not like she was in Auschwitz.”
We do it to each other, and we let others dismiss us, because we have to retain the Model Minority status we have. What would we be without that? The US is ruled by rich white people, and they wouldn’t give us a piece of the pie if we don’t behave. Acknowledging that we’re not being treated fairly is pointless anyway. Nobody would care.
I turned into an unfeeling robot somewhere along the line. However, I was not one of the useful, robot drone Asians5 that were prized for their uniformity, obedience and industrious nature — I failed out of classes and skipped school. The anger that simmered inside me was my fuel, but I kept all that hidden underneath a blank, expressionless exterior throughout it all. Somehow I managed to graduate and obtain a degree and become employed. Making friends who were not in my small, immediate circle in the suburbs did wonders for my mental health, despite the drug and alcohol-fueled weekends. I started learning more, at the same time, about the history of oppressed people in the US. It was eye-opening to learn about the LA massacre, Chinese Exclusion laws, Vincent Chin and his murder, and other hate-fueled violence that Asian-Americans have faced. However, those events were in the past, right? Surely that couldn’t happen again. I felt safe in my small bubble. The worst I had to endure were name-calling and catcalls sometimes, and a new coworker asking me where I was “from”. No big.
Of course, I hadn’t been aware about the struggles that other Asian-Americans were going through all this time, because they barely made headlines. Chinese delivery workers were getting shot and killed at a rather alarming rate, usually for the cash they carried.
South Asian and Arab-American friends sometimes talked about the discomfort they felt after 9/11, and the treatment they still got, and similar sentiments were at times expressed by short opinion columns, but quickly buried under other, “more important” news.
So, when Vicha Ratanapakdee was murdered in Oakland, and a spate of violence against Asian elders had started becoming reported, I felt blindsided. What struck me after the grief was the rage. It boiled up again, so fast and so intensely that I felt breathless. How could this happen? I cried silently in the kitchen, gritting my teeth to keep any sounds from escaping. It was supposed to be different for her. I didn’t want my daughter growing up how I did. I had had so much hope that the world was changing for the better, and that the strides made in social progress in the last few years were good for all of us.
As the number of reports of the violence came, day after day after day, I grew bitter and cynical. I still am, actually. Despite the fact that activists are fighting for recognition and justice, the cases are still happening daily. I fear for my friends in New York, many similar in age as Christina Yuna Lee, and I’m nervous every time I head into Seattle.
And yet, it seems like it was just a blip in the media, and it felt like it was being brushed aside like all of our problems. I wonder how many deaths it would take for people to actually care. I also wonder if we are going to tire of fighting when there is such indifference towards us.
2 , 3 https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/asian-americans-are-falling-through-cracks-data-representation-and-social-services