It was March 16th. I remember heading to bed upon reading the headline that there has recently been a series of attacks in Atlanta, Georgia. As someone who reads the news daily, I am no stranger to violence and have unknowingly been desensitized.
On hearing details the following morning, I realized that from the eight victims of this tragedy, seven were women, and six of whom were of Asian descent. This was no longer “just” a shooting. This was another hate crime involving race, gender, and class. This was another hate crime, now a part of the continuing tale of racism in the United States.
While I have been rendered emotionless to such news of rampant racist violence, almost as a coping mechanism to keep me sane and safe, it was as though the Atlanta hate crime broke through the barrier I had built. And I was not the only one hit particularly hard upon hearing of Atlanta.
The headline came at a time when I, and so many of my friends of Asian descent, have had to do so much compartmentalizing of the hatred we see. What terrified us most was the fact that it could have been any one of us who was not protected by the boundaries of our boarding school. After all, the victims of such crimes looked like us, and even shared some of our last names.
This was also a time where the alarming surge in racial discrimination and racially motivated violence towards the Asian and Asian American communities was hard to ignore. While many hate crimes go unreported, research from AAPI Support Groups and Frontiers in Communication show that in previous months, there have been weeks when over 100 reports of hate crimes have been filed daily.
From March of 2020, when COVID-19 was first reported in the United States, many media outlets and government officials have had a part in increasing the stigmatization and blame towards Asian communities for the spread of the disease. The prejudiced rhetoric used directly emboldened the racist ideologies that still persist in American society, and made those of Asian descent a scapegoat —the group singled out to bear the blame — for the ongoing pandemic.
While news that tends to make headlines often focus on racially motivated crimes that leave victims in physical harm, the harsh truth is that hatred is so much more common. And it comes in a variety of forms. From microaggressions like “your English is so good, for an Asian person,” to “you don’t eat dog back home, right?” I realized that I had unknowingly faced subtle racist remarks.
While I tried to tell myself that I’m luckier than so many other victims of hate crimes in that I was never physically harmed, I had to swallow the bitter pill that hatred should never be normalized — no matter how subtle. What starts as microaggressions and benign ignorance can grow into something much more dangerous.
This realization goes hand in hand with another reason why the news of Atlanta evoked such a response from me: the news came at a time when I had not only embraced more of my Asian culture and heritage but was now also vested with a deeper understanding of the racial politics of this nation.
And it made me realize my place in the eyes of society.
Back home, in Vietnam, I am praised by relatives and admired by family friends. My experiences abroad almost always become a topic of conversation, and my fluent English is my most desirable trait. But here in the United States, I am first and foremost a young Asian woman. That is certainly the first thing anyone will see before they see my other qualities — if at all.
And as much as I hate to admit it, my identity is what makes me vulnerable.
In times like this when I feel lost and afraid, I started to question the decision fifteen-year-old me had made to go abroad.
Back then, in hopes for a better education and future for myself, I was blinded by the prospects of the “American Dream” and thought the hardest challenges that stood in my way were finding time to call home and how to fit my life into two suitcases. The reality, as I have come to learn firsthand, is much harsher than the rose-tinted aspirations many students like myself have nurtured.
I shared my realizations with a teacher of mine in the days following the news of Atlanta. At the end of our conversation, he told me something I had heard one too many times. He told me that I was brave.
And I agree. It takes a great deal of courage to fly halfway across the world to a school I have never seen in person, it takes ample nerve to leave my family behind and live life in two time zones, and it takes a certain grit to keep going in spite of the seeing women like myself hurt on the news on the basis of their features, their color, their race.
And if you were to ask me if I would give it all up for the safety of home once again, I would instantly say no. Being here, no matter how excruciatingly terrifying and drastically hard, this foreign land has given me the experiences, knowledge, and friendships that the safety of home could never provide.
But at the end of the day, and as thankful as I am for all the growth this country has given me, I don’t want to be brave.
I simply want to be.
But, really, is this possible? Or is this another product of assimilation that the American Dream has projected as attainable, but actually is not?