“F—ing Asians!” This abusive exclamation isn’t exactly something you would expect to hear when walking around downtown St. Joseph and peacefully enjoying frozen yogurt with your friends; but it happened to me, and it hurt.
Two Fridays ago, my friend and I decided to go to St. Joseph for lunch. The weather was perfect, I was craving fro-yo and the town had an abundance of Pokestops. Overall, it was turning out to be a great outing until a white guy drove up behind us with his windows rolled down, stopped and yelled at us.
Initially, the abrasiveness and abruptness of his insult had me speechless—almost as if I couldn’t believe that what he said really happened. Then it just reminded me of my time in elementary school being the only Asian in my campus and never quite fitting in with the rest of my Hispanic classmates. So I remained silent while my friend was ready to confront the guy, and we kept on walking anyway because I asked him to; we thought that was the end of it, but it wasn’t.
On our way back to the car, two white girls standing a few meters away from us started mocking an Asian language as we walked past them. Once again, my friend and I had the same reaction as the prior encounter; this time, however, we were a bit more irritated.
At that point, he said something that struck me as near-genius: “Kyrk, if you’re bold enough to talk, be bold enough to square up.”
There are so many things about what transpired that day that I could write about, from the opposite ways my friend and I processed the matter, the trauma it reminded me of, or the fear, anger and shame that engulfed me when it happened; however, I’ll just focus on one: the fact that this actually occurred.
At Andrews University, my home town, and America at large, being Asian-American has never really seemed to be a problem for me; I can interact fluidly between culture groups. I’m culturally white enough to be a standard, I’m ethnic enough to mingle comfortably with other minority groups and I’m just Filipino enough to fit in with the older generation of Filipino-Americans. My identity is safe because for so long it has been an accepted part of Western culture; I can be comfortable in who I am because people affirm my distinction. Yet, I am still other. I am Asian/Filipino before my hyphenated American.
Even now, when Asian culture may find some sort of niche within Western society thanks to the efforts of movements like the Korean and Japanese Entertainment Wave, the Asian-American community is still subject to constant bullying and pressure from the duality of their cultural identity. Already, at home and with ourselves, we fight to remain relevant to our society. We look for ways to be a part of the America that we live in and to be part of the Asia that is intrinsic to us, but we are never fully one or the other, or at least that’s how I feel personally. Coupled with the shaming and abuse we get from others because of our physical ethnic traits, the Asian experience can get pretty rough. For me, being targeted by a couple of strangers in a span of minutes specifically for how I looked only solidified and magnified that internal struggle.
In the Politics of Race and Ethnicity class I took last year, I was introduced to the unfair treatment of Asian people in global history when it came to public policy. Asians have historically been exploited as service laborers by Western society due to its repressive views on Asian femininity, subservience, and work-ethic. Our race and culture turned into a commodity for Western expansion, pleasure, and wealth. A few centuries pass and we become a threat, we immigrate to “their” territory, we become competitors, prisoners and then allies to Western society. We were accepted as neighbors and co-workers, but still mistreated because we didn’t look like the standard; our culture was strange, our men were weak and our women lecherous—ideas that still linger today in forms of fetishes and other microaggressions.
In retrospect, I implicitly saw and felt these repressive ideologies in the ways non-Asians would categorize my friends and my relatives. I grew up trapped in a society where yellow-fever and Asian stereotypes were normalized; I thought it was okay because that’s just the way it was. It didn’t apply to me so I didn’t have to react unless I became a target. But it’s not okay. It never should have been.
The truth is, I have never felt that scared and hurt because of my culture and appearance since elementary school. For grown and matured people to hate and mock me and my friend just because our eyes are smaller or we look different elicited dark emotions that day; it consolidated everything I learned from class and materialized the lessons and theories that jaded me. To antagonize us for our otherness while they hide inside a car or behind a sculpture only makes them look ignorant and childish. How can one be so lazy that they would hate a person for their race instead of hating who they are as a person? It puzzles me how this could have happened in a place where I usually felt comfortable walking around; yet it has now become my reality.
Growing up, I was taught that resilience and resistance is measured by your successes not by your reaction. That is my culture. My friend was raised differently: resilience and resistance, for him, is not allowing anyone to walk all over you – to show your strength not only through words but through action as well. My suburban culture taught me quiet resilience as a survival mechanism against conflict while his urban upbringing instilled in him a more active approach. One thing that we did share, however, was the malcontent we felt from this experience.
I write this today feeling ashamed of myself because I couldn’t stand up for the very community I advocate for. I write this today because my friend encourages me to be a little bit braver every day. I write this today because I don’t know how to use my hands to fight. I write this today because words are my weapon. I write this today because my experience—my community’s experience—matters. Finally, I write this today because even if it doesn’t motivate others, it certainly challenges me. I cannot let oppression and fear silence me; if they’re bold enough to talk, then I must be bold enough to do something about it.