When I was in junior high, my friend Henrietta* and I walked home from school every day. She was also of Asian descent and we didn’t think much of it in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood and school. One afternoon, as we were walking home from school, two boys threw rocks at us and yelled some racial slurs at us. I remember turning around and yelling something back with the word “Yankee” in it (I don’t know why I thought that would be a good comeback.) and the next day, I promptly went to my school’s principal and reported the two boys and the incident. I don’t remember what happened with those boys, but it started my campaign for multicultural awareness and eventually helping to pen a multicultural constitution in high school. I think that incidence planted some political activist roots in me.
By the time I was in college, I was fully immersed with a bunch of Asians through a local church and didn’t think twice about it. I had my fill of being the minority and thought surrounding myself with people who looked like me would help me to feel like a majority. It did not make me feel like a majority and I regret a lot of the ways that I ended up making and keeping friends in college, but that’s another story. It wasn’t until I left college and was living in West Philadelphia, that thoughts of race came up in my head. I could not stand the injustice that I saw and I wept frequently at the plight of inequality that befell my neighbors and the children at the local elementary school I taught at briefly. I felt powerless and didn’t know what I could do to change this situation, so I left for the bright lights of New York City.
While working in New York, I encountered workplace discrimination for the first time. I was outraged all the time by the men where I worked, especially those that identified themselves as white. I had never felt so put-down and objectified on top of feeling that the glass ceiling was quite close to my head. In the midst of that, terrorists struck on September 11 and changed everything. Taxi cab drivers who looked remotely like they were of Arab descent had U.S. flags taped to their windows and of course, airports were even more restrictive. I felt suspicious of everyone and I felt they were suspicious of me. I made sure everyone saw my American flag pin that I wore everyday. My dad, in Seattle, had American flags everywhere on their car and at their house. It seemed like the right thing to do. It made me feel a little safer – like it would somehow help us to distinguish who was and was not a terrorist.
The bright lights of Manhattan quickly grew dull for me and I made my move up to Boston where I wondered why everyone was either Asian or Caucasian. Maybe it was where I was living or maybe it was the people I was hanging out with. Nevertheless, I was living in this place when I witnessed history that I thought would never happen in my lifetime. I was amazed that Barack Obama was actually elected and I sat with high hopes for my unborn daughter’s future while I avidly watched his inauguration.
I have purchased numerous books that highlight girls of all different races doing all sorts of amazing things. I welcomed the Asian looking doll that my daughter received as a first birthday present and when she thought she lost it, I immediately purchased another one because I wanted to make sure my kid had something that looked a little bit like her in the midst of all the Disney princesses with their golden hair. I have never felt scared for her safety as I think my parents did when I was a kid. They were always telling me that I look different from the “white people” no matter how I sounded, what kind of education I had, etc. I was always warned with what happened to the Japanese in the United States during World War II.
I dismissed those things for my daughter. After all, we elected a president who looked different than the presidents of the past. It felt safe, even in spite of the fact that we were still targeting certain people groups on the way that they looked and the color of their skin. But recently, on Facebook, a friend of mine posted something about this movie that is coming out soon and the reaction that has come from it. Suddenly, I felt quite scared. I read this article from the Atlantic Wire several times.
It made me concerned, especially as North Korea has been in the news lately. People still ask me if I am from North or South Korea, even though I was born in the States. I grew up here and I identify 99% more as an American than I do as Korean American. I haven’t been to Korea in over two decades. I’m scared because you can’t tell that I’m American. I’m scared because you can’t tell that my daughter is American. I’m scared because this was people’s reaction to a fictional movie.
I don’t know how to necessarily alleviate that fear or how my thoughts should end here. I feel a discomfort rising in me and I wonder how I talk to my 3 year old daughter about some of this. I feel like that junior high schooler, again, getting hit with rocks. This time, though, I don’t know where to go. Does this make you feel concerned or scared?
*Names have been changed