“Ching chong nee how ma!”
The words were terse and scornful. The empty park echoed these slings, and my face burned as I looked over at my brother, hoping I had misheard. The bewildered expression on his face confirmed that I hadn’t. I was 14, and we were in Southern Croatia. My brother and I, bored with the hotel’s bad Wi-Fi, had decided to explore the park across the street.
As the more assertive sibling, I retorted with a, “Hey, screw you! Are you kidding me?”
The teenage boys who spewed the slurs suddenly slinked away. My parents shrugged the incident off as a byproduct of southeastern Europeans’ limited exposure to people of Asian ancestry. We’re foreigners, we were told. Don’t take it personally, and be grateful you live in the wonderful diversity of the Bay Area, where differences are embraced. Sadly, that notion seems to have been a dream, turned into a gruesome nightmare.
Former President Donald Trump pierced that fleeting veil when he first coined COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or the “kung-flu.” Because the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China, many people around the world began placing virus blame on the Chinese. In response, Asian Americans, by virtue of our skin color, seem to have been swept up in this misinformed sentiment. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen by 150% compared to previous years. Approximately 25% of these hate crimes, 708 incidents, to be exact, occurred over the past 12 months in the Bay Area, more than any other region in the country.
While the past year has been a jarring revelation for racial injustice, these past few months have also opened my eyes to the simmering tensions right here at home, the Bay Area, our presumed utopia of racial tolerance.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2019, 39% of Santa Clara County residents were Asian, compared to only 6% in the entirety of the United States. I recognize that growing up as an Asian American from the Bay Area is a very different and ever-evolving experience. Sometimes, I don’t even feel like a “minority” because I’ve spent my entire existence living around so many people who look like me. I think that’s what makes these hate crimes feel so unsettling. Had I grown up feeling less safe and more “other,” I might have had more armor in my arsenal, more combat tools, more know-how on fighting against these feelings of helplessness and betrayal.
The worst part for me is the dehumanizing form of these incidents. Hate crimes turn people into nothing but a single piece of “color.” The attacker doesn’t see these victims as living, breathing and feeling entities; they are merely objects. For lack of better phrasing, recent events have made me realize that indeed I am not “white alike.” I am not safe, and I will likely always be viewed by some simply as a skin color or an unfavorable stereotype. Whether it’s covert or overt, the normalization of Asian racism has always been around, bubbling quietly beneath the surface.
Until Asian Americans start to become more vocal, report more hate crimes and call people out on racist behaviors, we will continue to be burdened by the “model minority” myth. America only wants to see the Asian doctors and engineers who have achieved the American dream. The media rarely talks about the 1 in 4 Asians who live in poverty in larger cities such as New York or Boston. Due to language issues, Asian poverty and unemployment rates are grossly underreported. Sadly, we often become a rounding error in national statistics. For Asians with low English, there is limited knowledge of and access to assistance programs, not to mention cultural barriers. In addition, there is perceived shame for publicly asking for help.
It’s part of Asian culture to minimize our emotions and not be a burden to others. However, to combat this misdirected hate, Asian Americans must learn to become more vocal. We must battle both the legitimacy of being perceived as a “true minority” as well as change our cultural norms to be seen and heard. We need to demand increased resources for more anti-racist programs in schools and at work. We need to ask our non-Asian friends to help, to listen and to condemn hate. In the befitting words of Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim, “Include our stories because they matter. … We are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. … We are united and we are waking up.”
Kelly Yang is a Los Altos resident who attends Castilleja School.