My mother would make incredible lunches for me to take to school, often full of some of my favorite Filipino foods and treats. She’d pack noodles and broths in a thermos, slice up a mango, and maybe even include some rice crackers or polvoron — a Filipino shortbread.
And for a while, I loved it. That is, until I got old enough to notice the stares, and other kids started to comment on the “weird, dirty food.”
So I took the lunch box with me to school, but left it in my backpack every day. Of course, mother noticed. Eventually she started to pack sandwiches and hot dogs, Little Debbie snacks and Capri Sun instead of those special meals.
Not long ago, I brought up this experience to her again, explaining how now I regret it. I only did it, I said, because of how the kids would point and tease.
“I don’t know why,” my mom said. “I tried to raise you like all the white parents.”
It was not until I was into early adulthood that I began to feel pride in my Asian heritage. Although I am biracial, I never checked a race identification box as anything other than Caucasian until college.
I regret not embracing that part of me sooner, and my heart breaks for the mother who felt she had to abandon all she knew for her children to be accepted.
Today, I wish I had not spent so much time hoping to be like everyone else and instead found joy in the things that set me apart. I don’t want my own children to feel that way, and I’m not alone.
Second generation and young Asian Americans are becoming increasingly outspoken about their desire to both value and honor their heritage — and be seen as fully contributing Americans; to be individuals, not just assigned to a box on a form.
Which makes it all the more painful to see the increase in violence against Asian Americans, including Wednesday in San Francisco, when two Asian women, in their 60s and 80s, were attacked by a knife-wielding man at a bus stop. In broad daylight. During May’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
What is to be done?
This month marks one year since George Floyd’s murder, which set off protests and outrage around the world. The stories of life as a Black American have been both heartbreaking and eye-opening.
Likewise, news reports on attacks on Asian Americans has spurred heightened awareness of their experiences.
Hate crimes and acts of discrimination are hard to track, but there’s no denying the data pointing out the increase of recorded hate crimes — up to 150% in some places. Many attribute the increase to anti-Asian rhetoric used at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the World Health Organization purposely giving the virus a generic name to avoid stigmatizing people, the nickname “China virus” caught on and was used repeatedly by then-President Donald Trump.
Anti-Asian hashtags spiked. Suddenly people were the virus, not the disease.
A 61-year-old man was attacked April 23 in New York. A 65-year-old woman was attacked at the end of March, also in New York. An 84-year-old man was attacked in February in San Francisco, also like the two women stabbed this week. The stories keep going — a man slashed with a box cutter. A 75-year-old was assaulted in Oakland, California, later dying from the injuries he sustained.
Most visibly, 6 of the 8 people killed in the Atlanta spa attacks were Asian. After that I wrote why #StopAsianHate resonated with me. In the news of every attack, it was like seeing members of my own family. In response, I received an onslaught of hate mail and comments that made personal written attacks on my mother, defended the stranger who approached her (as written in the article), and said my feelings were a result of paranoia.
Mine was just one voice of many that started to speak up. I wasn’t surprised to find the majority of them were young.
These millennial and Gen Z Asians were organizing rallies, speaking out on behalf of their communities and telling not just their own stories, but those of their parents and grandparents.
Understanding our past
Palakiko Chandler, who is half Chinese and half Hawaiian, believes speaking up will become the new normal and is a break from tradition.
“My parents were taught to assimilate. And that’s not our goal,” Chandler said.
“As the younger generation I feel like our goal isn’t to assimilate, our goal is to emphasize what’s different about us. And to say that we’re fine — we don’t have to change into this American culture.”
One should be able to enjoy and honor all the greatness and opportunity offered in America without shedding their cultural identity.
It’s not uncommon for Asian immigrants and their descendants to choose silence over reporting incidents or speaking up; to keep their head down and not complain, just work harder.
That message isn’t always conveyed in words — my experience with school lunch is one example. It’s also evident in the way I was told to ignore comments about my English skills, smile whenever someone called me “exotic,” and to just work twice as hard to prove doubters wrong.
While I appreciate a strong work ethic, it became my pattern not to speak up, blend in and trust that my work alone was enough to change perceptions.
That pattern is changing.
U.S.-born Asians are younger than the rest of the Asian American population — their median age is just 19. A quarter of Asian Americans also live in multigenerational households, and the news of increasing hate crimes on older Asians has felt too close to home.
It’s these young voices coming out to protect their parents and grandparents, pave a new future for their own children and preserve their stories.
They’re also tackling the language barrier that has kept the Asian American experience from being fully understood.
A Pew Research Center survey found one-third of Asian Americans feared a physical attack against them. Eighty-one percent believed the violence against them is increasing.
The report on the survey, though, highlights the problems pollsters face with getting an accurate representation of Asian Americans. While math is part of the problem, Asian American estimates in surveys are only based on English or Spanish answers.
Remedies to survey limitations, like being able to administer them through the internet and not just by phone, are helping, but aren’t quite there yet.
That language barrier has been an issue for hate crime reporting, too. Many experts estimate that the higher numbers are still an underrepresentation of how vast the problem is, largely because many who are targeted do not feel comfortable reporting the incident because they don’t speak or feel comfortable with their English.
To help dissolve that barrier, one woman in Los Angeles created a booklet available in six languages on how to report a hate crime. Nonprofits like Stop AAPI Hate are trying to make it easier to track and gather data on incidents by providing a way to report in several different languages.
One, but not the same
The first time the census allowed respondents to choose their own race was in 1960. There were 980,000 individuals who chose to self-identify as Asian. In 2000, that number was 11.9 million.
The most recent census puts the count at more than 23 million — a 95% increase in just 20 years. And that growth isn’t projected to slow any time soon.
Asian Americans are predicted to be the largest immigrant population by the middle of the century.
It wasn’t until college that I dared to check a box other than Caucasian/white on the race portion of a form. Until that point I had prided myself, as biracial person, to be able to check that box and think of myself as “normal.”
Since data on race and ethnicity is based on self-reported information, there may well be others like me who have skewed those numbers in the past. Even though many forms now offer a ‘two or more races’ option, not all do, and more and more Americans identify as mixed race.
Therein lies a large issue with our current views on race — everyone must fit inside a box. In reality, race is more fluid.
I call myself biracial, but what does that really mean? To some, I’m not white enough to avoid questions or assumptions about my ethnicity, but I’m not Filipino enough to avoid being called “mestizo,” or “mixed person.”
If I am not fully accepted on either side, then where do I fit? I’d argue that I’m 100% of both. My blood doesn’t determine how much of each culture I’m allowed to participate in. Boxes don’t account for the nuance that is our modern melting pot.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s a long label that shoves people from half the globe under one name.
Asia is the largest continent in the world and is made up of 48 countries and some 2,300 living languages. To homogenize people whose geography spans half the world erases culture, nuance and individuality.
It’s the reason that people of Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese heritage have all been subject to the name calling and attacks reported in the last year. It didn’t matter if it was called the “Chinese virus” — many see all Asians as the same.
Previous to that 1960 census, the conglomerate term Asian American didn’t exist.
The change was an outcome of the pan-Asian movement, which sought to unify the separate groups through common history, prove belonging as fellow Americans and dissolve the inaccurate and antiquated term “Oriental.”
What is the model minority stereotype?
The model minority stereotype paints a minority demographic as being socioeconomically successful. Achievement is typically measured through education level, attainment of high-level professions, household income, crime rates and marital/family stability.
This group is then often used as the reference group for other minorities, thereby being the “model” that other groups should aspire to.
The model is controversial among many, and model minority group have historically been used by the majority to indicate no need for government intervention or assistance among minorities.
In the United States, this model has often been used to contrast Asian Americans and Jewish Americans against African Americans and Hispanic Americans to further the argument that minorities have the ability to achieve success without assistance.
This argument, however, has been routinely disputed through data and personal accounts, and the model minority stereotype is now seen by many as a fabricated myth.
Doing so was progress at the time and its honorable roots shouldn’t be erased. But the term erased both class and ethnic lines. Suddenly multigenerational families that were long separated from their ethnic origins and Southeast Asian immigrants struggling to make a decent living were lumped together. Refugees without any formal schooling and top of the class, elite students could now, for all intents and purposes, be seen equally.
Since then, the number and diversity of those with Asian ancestry has increased enormously.
Homogenization does not come without side effects. Asian Americans are the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the United States.
Daryl Maeda, professor of Asian American studies at the University of Colorado, said most people wouldn’t respond to a question of their race with the term “Asian.” They’d list a specific country.
“‘Asian American’ — rather than describing our personally felt identities or describing our family histories — expresses an idea,” Maeda told NBC in 2018.
“That idea is that as Asian Americans, we have to work together to fight for social justice and equality, not only for ourselves, but for all of the people around us.”
In other words, Asian American is a good way to describe a cause, not an individual.
The combining of Asian American and Pacific Islander is also a source of confusion and tension for some.
Chandler is half Chinese and half Hawaiian, and has experienced it firsthand.
“For a very long time, all the way up into my early adulthood, I only identified as Hawaiian,” Chandler said. “As a Hawaiian and as a Pacific Islander, we see ourselves so differently than Asian Americans or Asians in general.”
Pacific Islander and Asians may have a few things in common — commitment to family values being the primary one — but many similarities stop there. Many have intermarried and have mixed families, but the two groups retain unique characteristics.
America — and Asia — is in the heart
In April the Senate passed an anti-hate crimes bill aimed at addressing the surges in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. The bill would create a Justice Department position focusing on the issue of hate crime reporting, and was passed with a sweeping bipartisan 94-1 vote.
Speaking of its passing, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, one of two Asian Americans in the Senate, shared an experience of her mother being harassed at the grocery store because of her heritage.
“This bill will allow me to go home to my mom and say we did something,” Duckworth said after the bill’s passing.
Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino American immigrant and poet, wrote “America Is in the Heart,” published in 1946. It’s one of the earliest books to share the experience of a working-class immigrant from an Asian point of view.
Even then, Busolan expressed the opinion that America is not found in a single race or class. His words are, perhaps, more relevant than ever in 2021:
It is but fair to say that America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society of men: of a system that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering. America is a warning to those who would try to falsify the ideals of freemen.
This America — one that is a prophecy and not an existing achievement — is one that, to be fulfilled, requires all backgrounds and experiences.
I can’t pinpoint what, exactly, prompted me to reclaim and embrace my Asian heritage. More than likely it was a combination of factors — seeing pages or hashtags on social media, meeting people of similar backgrounds who seemed to at peace with themselves and learning from classes and research about the history of Asian Americans.
Mostly, though, I was faced with a reconciliation of my own denial. I had hidden away a part of me for so long that finally accepting and being proud of my upbringing was a freedom I didn’t know I needed. It was, and continues to be enlightening. I feel proud of my roots. I feel whole. And now I can raise my voice to battle the insidious attacks on our elderly.