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Unmasking Anti-Asian Racism

Image Courtesy of Julia Kestner Designs

By Regina Vahey

I was born in South Korea and was adopted at four months old. Since I boarded the plane to the U.S., I have resided in suburban New Jersey and have never been to Korea. I am also in my third year of studying biomedical engineering at The Catholic University of America. The attacks on the Asian community in recent headlines have created the space where I finally feel comfortable and vulnerable enough to share my story.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are labeled as the “model minority” which is the myth that Asians are polite, lawful, and successful citizens because of their “pull-yourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps” attitude. This belief is especially damaging because it is not seen as a typically negative bias. What’s wrong with being categorized with a group of successful people? Well, it is a blatant stereotype that fails to recognize the differences and diversity among Asian Americans. The myth also diminishes the struggles and discrimination Asian Americans face and assumes we have benefited from a system that is actually perpetually racist. Another problematic feature of this belief is that it pits Asian Americans against other minorities in the sense that if Asians are doing well, other minorities should just work harder and move past centuries of oppression to become successful too. The Asian experience is different from the Black experience which is different from the Indigenous experience which is different from the Hispanic or Latino experience. Turning minorities against each other distracts from the greater goal of creating an equal society for all. 

As a Korean transracial adoptee, I have always struggled with my identity. I was raised by a white family, but I clearly did not inherit the privileges of having white skin. On the other hand, I do not come from an immigrant family or marginalized background, and people assume that my life is better here than it would have been in Korea. But I also do not know much about my Korean culture; I do not speak the language, I do not know the recipes, and I do not celebrate the holidays. My parents always encouraged me to embrace my Korean culture and celebrated the day they got me, a day my family refers to as “Airport Day.” They also brought me to a Korean culture summer camp specifically geared towards Korean adoptees, and I am grateful for all of their efforts to connect me with my Korean culture. Still, I do not completely align myself with either group, and I feel an intense case of imposter syndrome in social settings.

When my parents were filling out my adoption papers, friends and family made comments warning them about adopting a child from an Asian country. The first racist experience I remember is when I was about five-years-old, and I was playing on my cul-de-sac. One of my neighbors, a ten-year-old boy, approached me and said, “Go back to China with your Chinese eyes.” I was confused, but I knew the comment made me feel less-than, so I told my mom. My mom confronted my neighbor’s mother, who denied the comment and accused me of lying. Fast forward to my first-grade class’s Mother’s Day tea party. I was sitting with my mom when one of my classmates turned to me and sneered, “That’s your mom?” I sharply replied, “I’m adopted, duh.” Sometimes I wish I had the same courage and sharpness as my six-year-old self.

Throughout elementary school, my classmates would pull their eyes back and sing a racist rhyme about Asians. They would do this when teachers or other adults were around, and no one stepped in to reprimand them, so I taught myself to laugh despite feeling self-conscious and embarrassed. In middle school, I started to experience the typical “Asian” stereotypes when I did well academically. This negated all of my hard work that went into achieving the grades that I received. These stereotypes were perpetuated in my high school that had a prominent Asian international student population. During one of my AP U.S. History classes, another history teacher walked into the room to talk about how one of his Asian international students brought in candy that was “disgusting.” Everyone in the class started laughing, including myself, being trained to go along with the racism despite feeling uncomfortable. The teacher looked at me and said, “Why are you laughing, aren’t you Chinese?” 

Unfortunately, this racism has even followed me as a student at Catholic University. I was tutoring calculus at the Math Center, and someone commented on my organizational skills. The tutee I was working with at the time said, “Well, it’s because she’s Asian.” Throughout my life, I have been conditioned to think of these “innocent” remarks as compliments, but they still startle me, leave me in a state of shock, and allow me to elicit only a minimal response in my defense. 

Since the pandemic began, I have been participating in remote learning from my home in New Jersey. During the scarce times, I ventured out of my home, I would receive dirty looks from strangers. Trying to invalidate my initial thought, I would ultimately tell myself I was probably reading too much into the situation, and their glares were not directed at me. As more Asian Americans are recalling their racist incidents with strangers in public, in the wake of the former President blaming the pandemic on people from China, I am starting to realize these looks could have held the hostile intention I was trying to ignore.

Even more recently, I was at my local indoor rock climbing gym, and there was a group of boys about nine to eleven years old getting their picture taken. I heard one of the kids say to another, “What face was that? It’s like you were doing Chinese eyes,” and proceeded to laugh. It is disappointing but not surprising that anti-Asian racism among children is still common. Anti-Asian racism is sewn into the fabric of American history, and this past year has brought out the hatred and xenophobia that has always lived on American soil. 

Racism is not always physical, brutal acts. Racism is microaggressions, objectification, and commodification. While I have not outright encountered hypersexualization from strangers or peers, these situations are far too common for AAPI women. We are looked at as exotic, forbidden, and submissive creatures instead of human beings. We are taught to receive these stereotypes as compliments, which is especially harmful to many AAPI women because racism and sexism are inextricably related. Recently, I have been reading Pachinko, a generational tale about a Korean family who immigrated to Japan, by Min Jin Lee. One quote that struck me is, “Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.” I am not a Halloween costume. I am not a fetish. I am not a joke. 

It is terrifying to be an Asian woman in America today. Data from the Stop AAPI Hate national report reveals that 68% of anti-Asian hate incidents in the past year were reported by women. The mass shooting in Atlanta that took the lives of eight people, including six Asian women, is traumatizing. The thousands of other incidents that are reported and those that go unreported are horrifying. The fact that my uncle felt the need to tell me that he would defend me if anyone “gave me a hard time” in the past year is sobering. I am scared, but I am hopeful. The dialogue that comes out of tragedy is comforting. I have been able to find solace in talking to my Asian American and Pacific Islander friends. We are finally shouting, but are you listening?

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