By Caleb Nguyen, Oct. 11, 2022
My 엄마, or umma, meaning mom in Korean, dropped me off for my usual weekly cello lesson at the music store, struggling to find a parking spot. While pulling into the parking lot of the nearby grocery store, an older white man claimed that our car was not allowed in the lot.
At first, me and my 엄마 were convinced that he was joking about the fact that we were parked so close to the grocery store rather than the music store. However, his tone aggressively shifted, adamantly claiming that we didn’t belong there.
After reflecting on the incident and the many before it, they were nothing I hadn’t dealt with before. The man was claiming that this was his land, his space and that anybody who didn’t look like him was unwelcome and unwanted in his supposed territory.
This occurred in high school, before the pandemic increased the rates of Asian hate crimes by 339% in the United States, meaning this sentiment had always persisted. Much like COVID, hatred for Asian Americans in the US has spread. This just gave those bigots an excuse to express it.
The man wasn’t the first to share a similar sentiment as other middle school children, fellow churchgoers and even a teacher would all make assumptions based on my race, disparaging me and who I was.
My only regrets now are playing into the model minority stereotype that my parents wanted me to mold into. I was silent. I didn’t fight back. I allowed them to say I viewed every movie in “widescreen,” due to my small eyes. I simply listened to their comments, shut up and put up with it.
Sure, I’m studious and my immigrant parents stressed to me that my education would be the ticket to a happy and successful life. Obey the law, keep my head down and simply work.
I adopted this mantra at an early age, but such a line of thought made me complacent in addressing underlying issues concerning my racial identity.
It led me to ignore kids who would say I ate dogs or chicken poodle soup, sometimes even regrettably laughing with them to avoid seeming like those cruel statements negatively affected me.
Constant struggles in my math classes made me feel “less Asian” since the perpetual stereotype that I’d heard all my life was that this subject was meant to be my best.
Attending college to pursue a journalism degree was met with unspoken shame from many peers in high school going into STEM fields, since Asian American parents typically prefer their children have careers in science, technology, engineering or math.
Even my efforts to break away from stereotypes from years of misinformation seemed futile to the restrictive conventions that society had confined me to.
Jeremy Lin was basketball’s feel-good story for Asian Americans in 2012. After struggling to secure a long-term roster spot with an NBA team, Lin went from sleeping on a couch in New York City to being the starting point guard for the New York Knicks after a slew of injuries to their rotation.
Many fans, including myself, didn’t think much of it at the time. Most thought that after he played out his first 10-day contract, he would be released for the team and never heard from again, as is common in the NBA landscape for fringe rotational players.
Expectations were shattered as Lin came off the bench to record 25 points and seven assists, electrifying a Knick team that desperately needed that jolt of energy.
Madison Square Garden couldn’t believe their eyes and neither could I. Someone who looked like me achieving the impossible inspired me as a child. He looked like a trainer, according to security at the arena, but to fans around the world, he became a superhero — my superhero.
His magical season was cut short by a knee muscle tear, but the “Linsanity” phenomenon filled the hearts of many.
Lin didn’t just hold the candle. He set the league ablaze far beyond the Knicks, New York or even the NBA itself. Lin showed me that I could believe in myself and my abilities to achieve greatness simply if I wanted to.
While I could appreciate these moments, being called “Jeremy Lin” in pickup basketball games simply because I’m Asian and playing basketball isn’t the compliment it seemed. Others got nicknames for their abilities and skills, while I was shoehorned as a stereotype.
All of these combined events stripped me of my individuality. I felt more like a statistic than a human being. I lived for the expectations of others and was a punching bag taking the hurt from every angle. I was restricting myself to believing there wasn’t anything I could say or do to hit back.
While all these microaggressions against me are minimal compared to the hate crimes suffered by many Asian immigrants, especially those who are elderly, all this anger came from somewhere.
It is not my job to recognize and correct the racism in others, but it remains their duty to be accountable and realize for themselves that their supposed joking comments truly hurt, even if we don’t outright say such out of fear of repercussions or discomfort.
Seeing headlines about attacks against those who look like my grandparents, my aunts, or even my cousins makes me upset and sad, but none compared to my feelings after the 2021 Atlanta shooting at an Asian nail salon.
While the eight victims of the tragedy included six Asian women, my sadness over their passings quickly turned to anger as the police captain on the case said that the suspect of the shooting was simply “having a bad day” and that this was the shooter’s way of eliminating the problem of a sex addiction.
I do not care how many bad days you have had in your life. There is no reasonable justification to killing these women, let alone anybody, based off an initial fetishization of Asian women and their line of work.
Even as the captain was later dismissed from the case, the damage was done as the horrid nature of the crime was compared to stepping on gum with the bottom of your shoe.
“Parasite” became the first Asian directed film to win the 2020 Oscar Award for Best Picture. The movie was about class struggle and how the rich exploiting the poor affected society.
At the time, the award win brought great joy for me as a Korean American. It meant being seen by the industry that had portrayed my culture through martial arts for male actors or through high fetishization for female actresses.
Just two months later, due to the constant vitriol against Asians in wake of the pandemic, that same pride I had for my culture turned to resentment of my own skin. The hateful reactions against Asians made me feel as if I was the parasite myself.
I recognize now that the problem was never with me. I can’t change the color of my skin or how I sound when talking to my mother in Korean. I can’t rectify the attitudes of those who shied away from me during lunch just because I had brought a particular-smelling food.
For your information, I don’t eat dogs, and I’m tired of being beaten down like one from idiotic comments like that which aim to get a reaction out of me.
The supposed American dream that was promised from the land of the free and home of the brave has turned into a nightmare of the land of the oppressed and home of the bigoted. This constant vitriol against me will not continue.
I refused to accept the microaggressions, starting from that day in the parking lot with my 엄마.
You can love our anime, our K-Pop, our sushi, our Korean barbeque, our boba tea, our clothes or our video games but those feelings quickly go away when you ignore the spilled blood of our elders, the sweat we wipe from our brows in the fight to be treated equally and the tears we shed over their early gravestones.
Just because these parts of the culture are less convenient for you to truly appreciate us as a people, that doesn’t excuse your silence in our collective fight to simply exist for who we are.
The incidents like the parking lot and the ones that happen now with the pandemic are still present, and there will inevitably be hateful encounters in the future.
They have been seen, are being seen and will be seen.
This punching bag can hit back. This “model minority” will break the conventions set by past generations. This “yellow” kid shines and burns with the rage that his past self would not express.
No matter how small you think these “widescreen” eyes are, they can see the injustices around me all the same.
Feature image by Lauren Wong
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