I had the immense privilege of taking the day “off” today. I texted my understanding boss, put up my “Out of Office” autoreply, and hopped in the car to one of my favorite destinations.
It did not escape me what a privilege this was. Not all Asian folks can just up and decide to take the day off. Think of all the frontline healthcare workers, nail techs, teachers, drycleaning shop attendants, gas station owners, street sweepers, sex workers, shop gals and guys, restaurant workers, health and sanitation superheroes, who worked today despite feeling all of the rotten emotions we felt. In order to honor this privilege, and my fellow AAPI who could not take time from work, yes I went to one of my favorite local sanctuaries (Society Hotel in Bingen Washington), but importantly — I also committed that I would channel the hurt, fear and rage into something more productive. This writing is partially the result of that commitment I made to myself, and to my fellow people who are also hurting.
Thank you thank you thank you to the numerous friends and family who reached out to check on me. My family and I are deeply touched, and also very grateful. When I got the text from my husband last night alerting me of the shootings, and asking if I felt safe making my way home by myself…my first thought was — as usual, he’s over-reacting <insert massive eyeroll>. How awful that this was a senseless crime committed by another unknowing 21-year old. Before leaving my friend’s house in Lake Oswego, Oregon, I made a quick mental checklist. I live in Portland. This is one of the most epic liberal and progressive bastions of America. Could this happen here? No. No? No! No?
How dark was it out? Was there a streetlight outside of her house? Would the quiet glow from her porch light reach my car, only a mere 50 feet away from her front steps? Sure. I think.
Would someone jump out of a bush behind me and try to ambush me? Why would they do that? Who would know I was here? Has anyone been watching me? C’mon Ang…you’re thinking crazy now.
So I texted Matt, “Coming home.” I said bye to Megan, jaunted 6 quick steps to my car parked near the curb, and slid into the driver’s seat. Then I locked the car. Whew. Huge sigh of relief. Followed by an immediate self chastisement that I was being silly. Why would anyone want to hurt me? Oh well, it’s late. Who cares. I was safe. I am safe. Or was I? Am I?
I made it home, Matt was waiting up, and I sashayed to bed in utter exhaustion. It had already been a long day.
Upon waking yesterday morning, I didn’t think of the murders. But I made the mistake of logging onto my social media. First thing I saw was from a great friend of mine in college (white male) whose partner is an Asian female doctor, about to go on a month-long assignment to Oakland. He was scared. He shared this publicly. I wrote to him to sympathize. “I am just so so sorry.” He responded: “I am just so so sorry for you! No one’s targeting white men, but there is a lot of hate for people who look like you, my partner, and both of your families <ugly tears crying emoji>.” He continued: “I’ve been thinking about calling my partner’s mom and asking her to buy some mace, but that might also freak her out. It’s just frustrating bc it’s like ‘What do you do?’”
I was stunned. My heart was crushed. Why should this loving person have to be so worried about his partner’s basic safety? At this point, my eyes are being forced open, seemingly against my will. I texted a colleague. I texted two friends. All Asian. “Just checking in” I say. “All good?”
“No I’m not good.”
“My mom legit told me to wear sunglasses to E’s soccer practice yesterday” said my Asian friend who was advised by her mom to hide the shape of her eyes, a dead giveway of her ethnicity.
Another friend publicly shared a recent story of being in a neighboring town, and waiting for her husband and toddler to use the bathroom while she nursed her infant daughter. When she was done, she wanted to seek out the rest of her family, but felt unsafe, thought better of it, and instead locked her car doors and stayed put until her husband returned.
These stories crushed my heart. I hadn’t cried until I read them. Then I decided I need to get outside of my head (and my house) and found an excuse to get my husband coffee at the local coffee shop. As I stood there on a sunny corner in NE Portland, waiting for my craft ice coffee to be made, the juxtaposition was so real.
A white woman came the wrong way down a bike lane, not wearing a helmet, and whistling her cares away. For a moment, I just wanted to be her. What’s it like to be that carefree in today’s day? It occurred to me the numerous privileges some people get the privilege of having. And mostly, I bet those people with those privileges probably don’t stop to give thanks for those privileges, and maybe also reach a hand out to pull up those less fortunate. I’ve always thought this was a damn shame.
I got several texts from friends and family this morning. I received a slew of texts that I’d get from friends on a “regular” day, without acknowledgement of what had happened. I envied their privilege. They didn’t have to know, and maybe they felt it didn’t personally impact them. I also experienced the other end of the spectrum. My in-laws texted me over and over, surely worried by my silence. Some friends were really knowing. I got one from a friend and colleague (and sleepless new Mom), “I hope you don’t mind me asking — just checking on you. Are you doing okay? Things are not good out there right now. <Frowny emoji>”. Many asked, “How can I support you?” To them, I said “Thank you!” And I also had to admit, I did not know. Is there a chance you can help me and my family not be Asian? Wishful thinking.
Then I got to thinking. I grew up in White America, aka Vancouver Washington, aka Vantucky. I remember being one of approximately 10 Asian kids in a class of 400 at Columbia River High School. Most of my friends from that era are White, because that was the color of Vancouver. I went to college and made it out with mostly all White friends. Even though there were more color options in a great liberal arts college like Tufts University, I think subconsciously, it was easier to hang with the “in” crowd. It assured me I wouldn’t be picked on, would mostly be overlooked, and could just go on flying under the radar, which is exactly where I wanted to be.
The thing with having all these amazing and close white friends is, they cannot relate with my experience. And honestly, they can’t even understand it. And as kind and touching as it is to be asked what it’s like, it’s also really exhausting. I’m just beginning to confront it myself. So I thought I’d start with my lived experience, and give you all a glimpse of what it’s like to be an Asian girl, teen, woman in America today. If you’re a friend who has asked me, and received this link from me in response — I apologize for the slightly “impersonal” nature. I am tired, from what turns out has been a lifetime of living in a racist fishbowl.
As a girl…
I danced ballet from age 3 to 14. I quit ballet for basketball as a middle schooler because ballet was feminine, weak, Asian. I balled in long shorts that extended below my knees that I constantly had to pull up while I played. I felt like a badass because I was Asian and athletic. Many commended me for this, because that combo had theretofore been non-existent.
As a teen…
All I wanted to do was fit in. I made myself the blandest version of myself possible. It was just easier that way. I wouldn’t get picked on. My friends would say I wasn’t like the other Asians. I was cool. I was athletic. I wasn’t like them. I was proud of this!
A close Asian friend complimented me on my eyes. I later learn she considered getting a blepharoplasty because it would fix “the problem” and she would feel prettier.
As a young adult…
My first class in my first semester of college was Asian Americans in Film. It was taught by two Asian upperclassmen and I was one of eight (7 of us Asian) impressionable freshmen in the class. I came home for Thanksgiving break and my aunt queried me, “How racist is it in Boston?” To which I replied, “Not at all!” <SMH & Insert facepalm>.
I felt a very real responsibility to the Asian race. The whole friggin’ race. Don’t complain. Stand up straighter. Be tougher. Don’t ask for help. Do all the things right. Do them happily. Praise the people leading/in power. Stand in line. Whatever you do, don’t toe the line. And absolutely don’t consider crossing it. Not even your big toe. Don’t question authority. Just listen. Keep. Your. Head. Down. I felt the responsibility of lifting up the Asian race on my shoulders. I wanted to show everyone that Asians are great too. And anytime I came across an Asian who asked for too much, wasn’t acting in accordance with the above, or was just all-around creating trouble, I would scowl and curse them under my breath — believing that they were ruining the chances for the rest of us. Model Minority Myth, be damned.
On the cusp of getting married, my then soon-to-be-husband and I discussed who would be taking whose name. My loving FIL (jokingly) advised me not to take their last name, because who would want something so hard to pronounce. (It’s P-L-I-T-C-H). At the time, I was just starting to be okay with being Asian. And “Lee”, my maiden last name, was a dead giveaway of my ethnic identity. I was still very aware this was not always to my advantage, so in addition to wanting to give my husband the gift of taking his last name, I also considered that it was “trading-up” not to have to be immediately be judged for being Asian as it was more often considered a de-merit.
As an early career professional…
I was hit on incessantly by two men in my first workplace after I received my Master’s degree. I looked young, and I was young! I traveled with one to a SE Asian country for work, and he warned me as we strolled the promenade after dark that people would think I was his sex worker. He said this with a chuckle. He then took me to a bar where I sat next to him as two young Asian women gave us both massages (over our clothes). The other white men patrons (not my colleague) would buy all the girls drinks, as a badge of honor and celebration. And when this happened, the bar owner would ring the bell. There were rooms for hourly rental upstairs from the bar. When bar patrons moved upstairs, the bell was also rung. My colleague laughed at this scene, and elbow nudged me too, encouraging me to find delight in how foreign and odd this was. I’ve never spoken about it…until now.
In another African country, the married male colleague who accompanied me joked about how all men are unfaithful to their wives. Then because it’s Africa, we all squeezed into the backseat of a car on the way to an assignment. He was definitely too close for comfort, and it was unfortunately a situation where I felt uncomfortable asking for an alternative mode of transportation. I did not want his leg next to mine. And to this day, the non-existent hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up when I think of this grossly gross situation.
In my professional role, I’ve consistently been coached to develop my “leadership voice”. “Speak up, we want to hear from you! You have great things to say and a lot to contribute.” This advice is always offered to me by white males in leadership positions. I think it must be nice to be listened to every time you open your mouth. I say “I think” because I’ve never had this experience. Mostly when I speak up, people furrow their brows. I’m probably too self-aware. It sucks to be this way. Does what I say have any credibility? Do I know what I’m talking about? Fairly or unfairly, that’s what those faces convey to me. There’s also the classic white-male-is-talking-room-falls-silent-so-he-can-carry-on-with-his-monologue. Conversely, when I speak, it’s hard to tell if people are even listening because I’m constantly interrupted, and those that interrupt are cheered, high-fived, and slapped on the back for the great points that they make. Kind of makes it hard to develop my leadership voice.
As a Mom…
A fellow mom and a really great friend shared today that she was grateful that her son is only half-Asian, because maybe that meant he would be spared some of the world’s hatred for us. I finally admitted to myself I’ve had the same exact thought. That for the most part, my daughters (one more than the other) look ethnically ambiguous. Whew! And maybe if you squinted pretty hard, most would/could mistake her for a White American.
As an adult…
Unfortunately, I did not have to search far back into my memory to think of the most recent incident of racism. Or was it sexism? Or maybe ageism? We were at a house inspection last week. My realtor’s roofer came to do an assessment. Tom never looked me in the eye, and actually he couldn’t even be bothered to look in my general direction. He didn’t seem to have a problem talking directly to my realtor though, even though I was the theoretical client. Afterwards, I reflected if anything about my demeanor or way of acting could have been a turn off. Was it because I am Asian? Or a woman? Or short? Or maybe because I was really smelly? Yes! That had to be it…I forgot deodorant on that day! My realtor asked him to send his quote. Well, news flash Mr. Tom-I’m-glad-I-don’t-know-your-last-name: I do not need to see your quote. I will not be giving you any of my hard-earned dollars.
Unfortunately, the incident above was not just one acute incident on a specific day. In fact, it’s every single day. And it’s a million micro- and macro-aggressions and racist comments, looks, lack-of-comments when there should be comments, and everything in between. The cumulative effect of all of this is incredible pressure. Pressure to always be at my friggin’ best. I cannot afford to have a bad hour, let alone bad day or week. Because lest that bad day be your first impression of me, and lest you think that all Asians are [INSERT] (tired, lazy, quiet, diminutive, deferential), I would have done my whole race a massive disservice.
Just FYI — I do not like that it took me all of three minutes to think of the above examples. And unfortunately for all of us, I have 100 more…in each of the above categories.
To quote Trevor Noah — Why do we want always try to solve the symptoms, and not the cause? For those who care — how do we solve the cause? To all those kind souls who reached out asking what they could do…I tried to put some brainpower to this today…on my day “off”. In my opinion, here are some (not exhaustive) things we can all be doing, that fall into the following actions: (1) Get Educated, (2) Take Action, (3) Celebrate.
(1) Listen, watch, read, learn. Do your own research to find Asian (and minority) voices that appeal to you. Could be in magazines, blogs, podcasts, novels, television (movies, sitcoms), Tik Tok, etc. And find ones that don’t appeal to you. What are they saying? Why are they saying it? What is their lived experience? Reflect on it. Is it the same, or different than your own? How? Why? Some of my recently discovered favorites: Minor Feelings (Cathy Park Hong), The Body Papers (Grace Talusan), FE: A Traumatized Son’s Graphic Memoir (Bren Bataclan).
(2) Do you know what the Chinese Exclusion Act was? Good, neither do I. Let’s learn together. What about the US occupation of the Philippines? Japanese internment camps? American Indian Boarding Schools?
(3) A very good friend and I were chatting today. She said it was so important that we make time to listen to voices that are under-represented, quiet, and unheard. I agreed with her! Then pushed us both to take a step further. What if we sought out those that we don’t traditionally hear from? Ask them what their experience is/has been? Seeking out takes effort. It takes emotional intelligence. It takes time. Invest and commit to this.
(4) If you’re white, and you haven’t yet read Peggy McIntosh’s “The Invisible Knapsack”, please look it over. If you have time, and a heart, internalize it. And then do your part to dismantle the white supremacy we all inherently and incessantly feel.
(1) My husband pleaded with me not to pick up takeout from the Japanese restaurant I wanted to patronize tonight. He thought it would not be safe. I pleaded back that we must support Asian-owned businesses during this time. He was very, very worried about my safety, and that of our girls. Instead, we compromised, and he ordered us takeout and delivery from one of our favorite Portland-based Thai restaurants (@thaifarmhouse).
(2) Asian-owned businesses are going to feel the pain of this racism most acutely. Patronage will slow as we all want to protect ourselves. They truly are the biggest losers. Find ways to support them. If you do not feel safe going in person, can you get delivery? Can you double down on your tip? Can you tell your friends how amazing the food/product/service is, so that it can perhaps enable/inspire them to also show their support through their dollars?
(3) Support Asian artists and businesses. When you have occasions to buy gifts for yourself and others, can you take a little extra time and seek out the under-represented artist, who has most likely struggled with oppression and racism all of his/her/their lives? Some of my favorite include: @abacusrow, @omsom and @fulamingo_. It was actually hard for me to think of other Asian-owned businesses, and I can personally (and reticently) attest that I am an epic shopper. Time to do better! Please send me your faves so I can open my pocketbook and give support where it’s been long overdue.
(4) If we really want to address systemic change, start with tomorrow’s leaders, today. That’s our youth. When you’re educating your kids, point out the differences. Celebrate them. Don’t hide behind them or make any of it colorblind. Talk with them sincerely about the differences and explain that differences make this world a more rich, more fun, more inclusive, more innovative, and just plain all around more better (!!!) place to be. Different is beautiful. We should never forget that. The books Matt, the girls and I like lately are: What We’ll Build (Oliver Jeffers), The Little Ghost Who Was A Quilt (Riel Nelson), Keats’s Neighborhood (Ezra Jack Keats), The Patchwork Bike (Maxine Beneba Clarke), Ada Twist, Scientist (Andrea Beaty), Little You (Richard Van Camp), Time for Bed, Miyuki (Roxane Marie Galliez), and anything by the prolific, daring and colorful — Oge Mora.
(5) Kids, kids, kids. Double down on your investment. If you can (virtually or in person), go into your kids’ schools and teach something from your own personal history, tradition and values. Schools are often under-resourced to provide this type of cultural enrichment, plus — you are your own greatest cultural advocate. When kids see how fun it is to celebrate different cultures (the food, the music, the dance, the stories), it’s hard to be so hateful. At least that’s my theory. If you are White, you also have a culture! Bring that too, and share with the rest of us. We want to celebrate you too.
(6) Donate to organizations that are on the front lines combatting white supremacy, investing in under-represented communities, and supporting communities of color. I unfortunately cannot vouch for any organizations as I haven’t done my research, so it’s on my to-do list. If you learn of any that you feel are credible and impactful, please share.
(7) Policy and Politics. I wish I knew more in this arena. I don’t. Still need to do the work to understand. In the meantime, I’d like to shine a light on Yuh-Line Niou, my oldest friend’s older sister — who is the first Asian American elected to represent New York’s 65th Assembly District which includes Chinatown, the Financial District, Battery Park City, and the Lower East Side. She ran against the hand-picked candidate selected to replace the crook Sheldon Silver. While she lost in the special election, she came back to run again in the primary and won in a historic, landslide election. She is now a vocal voice on the AAPI experience. I am proud to say I knew her when…and will always, always be rooting for her and all that she so humbly and proudly stands for.
(8) Reach out to your Asian friends. It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what to say. We don’t know how to respond either. Say something. Just about anything will do. For now. A good place to start might be — “How can I support you?”
All of the above is work, work, work, work, work. I hope you’ll join me in committing to at least a portion of the above, because it’s worth it, and we all deserve better. When you’re exhausted by the work of it all, don’t forget to celebrate. AAPI are doing amazing things every day. Just look around and you’ll see it. Champion these folks, who have had it doubly, triply, quadruply hard to make it to where they are today. Raise them up, so they are more visible to all and let them rest on your shoulders (it’s undoubtedly been a long road for them). I promise you’ll gain strength from doing so, and the rest of us can worship some real heroes. We all need more of them.
I’ve stayed silent for a long-ass time. It was always easier to stay out of the way, stay under the radar, not let people see the real me. Because the real me is Asian. I’ve stayed silent too long. We’ve all stayed silent too long. We could have all predicted this would happen, and yet we did nothing to stop it. Our collective silence is deafening. And it is killing people! People with lives, hopes, dreams, kids, and families. We have to rise the hell up and Make. Some. Noise.
My advice to all of us — me included? Find your Why. And use that as gasoline for your fire.
· Are you committing to and investing in change because you’re Asian, and you’ve been the victim of racism and violence?
· Are you doing this because you’re a person of color, and believe deeply in MLK’s quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
· Are you doing this to right centuries of wrong, to atone and repent for the sins of your ancestors, and while you’re at it, your slow-to-catch-up family, friends, mentors, coaches, politicians, teachers and neighbors who still have their TRUMP 2020 signs on their lawns?
Here’s my Why. I do it for these two, small people. Who I have the privilege and responsibility to raise into upstanding human beings. The look at me with those glimmering, soulful eyes, and a whole ton of naivete that this world is their world. I want to help that be as true as true for them. And for all the small people who should always have that as their highest dream and biggest goal.
Will you join me and Roar?