More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

A Reflection on Being Asian

running as a kid

When I was in the third grade, I learned that being Asian was different.

I was having lunch at the school cafeteria, surrounded by kids with sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks. On this homogenized canvas, my lunch was a red brushstroke that clashed against the pastels of the familiar. Not only did the contents of my lunch stand out, but so did the box in which it housed them.

My lunchbox took the form of a mini-cooler, something designed to maintain the freshness of what was inside it. Paper bags were just fine for most people, but for my food, it wouldn’t suffice. My mixture of rice, fish cakes, kimchi, and seaweed needed further insulation to ensure that its essence was preserved.

Mom prepared each dish with love, and packed each dish with precision. Each time I opened up my lunchbox, I would be delighted to see how each dish had its own container, carefully stacked on top of one another like a little plastic tower. Even though all these dishes would end up together in the same stomach, they always seemed to scream out their individuality before they were devoured.

I loved that the contents of my lunchbox mirrored the contents of the dinner table. Whatever I didn’t finish from the night before would reliably end up in my box, and the way Mom packed it made everything taste better. I was proud of my lunches, and happy that I got a taste of home even when I wasn’t in it.

But one day, as I was taking each dish out of my mini-cooler, a kid came over and said, “Ewww… what issss thaaaaat?” I remember not knowing who this kid was, as he certainly wasn’t a friend. But next thing I knew, there were two or three other kids there, all pointing toward my box of kimchi and snickering.

I hate to admit it, but instead of getting defensive, I felt ashamed. It was quite unnerving to be the center of attention like that, especially for a kid just 9 years of age. But just before the shame, perhaps I felt a sting of utter confusion.

Why were they laughing at me? What about my food was so strange? Who determined that what I was eating wasn’t normal?

And in that moment, I learned that being Asian was different.

When I was in the sixth grade, I learned that being Asian could be scary.

It was nighttime, and Dad was driving us all back home after an evening church service. Mom was resting in the passenger seat while my brother was sitting to the left of me, probably asleep. I recall looking out at the haze of headlamps lining the streets as we whizzed by them, feeling my eyelids getting heavier with each passing blur.

As we approached a red light, I felt the familiar feeling of our car slowing down to accommodate the request. I felt the warmth of my seat enveloping me as I sunk in to an awaiting slumber…

But then it happened.

A car with its windows down stopped exactly to the right of us. I was half-asleep when I first saw it, but the moment I heard the yelling, my memory ensured that I was up to remember the occasion.

Two men were in the backseat, both screaming at the top of their lungs. One man had his fingers up to his eyes to slant them back, signaling his racism in the most unoriginal of ways. The other was yelling out slurs that don’t need to be repeated here, even though you could probably guess what they might have been.

Even though our windows were up, I could hear the tone of hate being directed at us. I could see the distaste etched onto their faces as they distorted them. They didn’t know who we were, but based on the quick glimpse they got of us on the street, their minds were made up. They decided that we needed to be threatened, that we needed to be belittled, that we needed to be chastised.

I recall looking over at my dad to see his response, and all he did was turn his head away from the madness. He fixated his gaze not on the screams of the ignorant, but on the roads that would take us home. Perhaps he had already experienced something like this before, and understood that there was no point in fighting hatred with more of it. That focusing on the path ahead was the best way to carry on in the face of adversity.

But in that moment, I learned that being Asian could be scary.

When I was in the tenth grade, I learned that being Asian was something to be proud of.

It was a weekend afternoon, and we were ecstatic that we finally won our first game of the season. The high school water polo team was off to a rocky start, so it was a relief to know that we weren’t going to go winless after all. Low expectations often translate to joyous surprises, and that elation was rushing through us that day.

As we strolled out of the locker room, my two close friends excitedly asked me where we should eat lunch. There were a couple of usual places nearby: the A&W burger spot, KFC, Taco Bell, and a bunch of other fast food joints that a youthful stomach could remarkably handle.

But on that day, the excitement from our first win got the better of me. I felt that this lunch needed to be an occasion. Something that had the potential to be mind-blowing, but wouldn’t blow a hole in our already empty wallets.

Then it hit me. I thought of the perfect meal, and a spark twinkled in my eye as I turned to them.

“Have you guys tried Korean BBQ?”

Both of them shook their heads.

“Nope, what’s that about?”

That was all I needed to hear.

Within minutes, we were walking through the entrance of a nearby Korean BBQ restaurant, being greeted by a friendly server. My friends looked around like kids in a candy store, taking in the smells of cooked meat everywhere. As the server led us to our table, my friends noticed that a grill was built into the table itself, and asked me why that was the case.

I explained to them that this was an all-you-can-eat place, and that once we order the meat we want, we cook it ourselves. That way we have total freedom over how we want the meat cooked, and we can go at whatever pace we desired.

At that point, the combination of the words “all-you-can-eat” and “meat” detonated in their brains, and their appetites roared. But first, we were introduced to our waitress, who brought out a large tray of side dishes (called “banchan”) and spread them across the table. A colorful assortment of kimchi, spinach, noodles, lettuce wraps, and spicy cucumbers unfolded before us, and my friends silently looked on with barely containable excitement.

After thanking our waitress, I explained to her in Korean that my friends were Portuguese and Mexican, and that this was the first time they were trying this kind of cuisine. She smiled brightly, and assured us that she’d take good care of us. She asked which meats we wanted to start with, and that’s how the feast began.

As the brisket, galbi, and pork belly came pouring in, I happily took on the role of cooking everything for my friends. I taught them how to wrap the cooked meat in lettuce, and how to add a smidgeon of the iconic red bean paste that tied the whole thing together. I observed as they tried out different side dishes, adding the ones they liked to their personal lettuce wrap configurations.

That meal may have been a blur for my friends, but for me, I was taking it all in. I was sharing my culture with two of my closest friends, introducing them to a world that they didn’t know existed. More importantly, I did so with the help of the Korean servers and waitresses, who also wanted to ensure that my friends had a positive experience as well. It’s as if a little community were working together to open the window to our culture, and to let the brightest parts of it shine through.

As the lunch came to an end, one of my friends let out an exhale and said that it was one of his favorite meals ever. When I asked him what his favorite non-meat dish was, he paused for a moment and pointed to the empty plate where the kimchi once rested.

Kimchi.

Seven years ago, it was the reason why three kids pointed at me and laughed.

But on this day, it was the reason why three friends were enjoying the best meal they’d ever had.

And at that moment, I learned that being Asian was something to be proud of.

Earlier this year, I learned that being Asian was to wonder what people are thinking.

I greeted the morning with a deep inhale, taking in the sounds of the chirping birds around me. As I closed the front door, the automaticity of the morning ritual worked its magic. My hands mechanically tied the shoes that my feet required, and my mind was at ease. The habit of my daily run required no concentrated thought – as long as there was a morning to be greeted, the body would move to ensure that the route would be completed.

While each run seemed like a repeat of the prior one, there was one thing that varied from time to time: the people I would encounter each day. Usually the faces would be the same, and the exchanges of “Good morning!” would be conducted over an acceptable distance. Most people were cordial and friendly, and I could feel the warmth in their voices despite the masks that muffled them.

But on this morning, something unusual happened.

As I turned a corner on my route, I encountered a woman I’ve seen a few times before. I’m guessing she’s in her mid-sixties, and she occasionally walked her tiny dog around this time of day. We didn’t see each other at first, but the moment I saw her in front of me, I made sure to step back and let her comfortably walk ahead. She was initially startled, but as she walked forward, I noticed something about the way she was looking at me.

The thing about masks is that they accentuate the eyes, which are the windows into one’s true emotions. People might be able to deceive you with their words, but they cannot hide what their eyes convey.

And in her brief gaze, what I saw was a mixture of fear and scorn.

It was a look that lasted for less than a second, but it unraveled a complex web of thoughts that culminated in a single question:

Is it because I’m Asian?

The reality is that she may have simply been startled to see me, and that surprise kicked in a fear response that produced that look. I could’ve been anyone, and her eyes would have shaped themselves in that exact manner.

But what was hard to ignore were the countless stories of people blaming Asians for the pandemic. Or the many videos that captured Asian men and women being beaten for no reason. Or the fact that the former president of the United States kept using the term “kung flu” to cheers and laughter. As much as I want to remind myself of the inherent goodness in people, it’s hard when these forces actively fight that perception of humanity.

A recurring challenge I face these days is in knowing whether or not my intuition is calibrated properly. On one hand, there’s the rational part of myself that understands selection biases and that these anti-Asian hate stories are not indicative of the population at large. That when you see a video of an elderly Asian woman getting attacked, there are thousands of other interactions happening at the exact moment that are friendly or loving.

But on the other hand, there’s another part of myself that understands something fundamental about human nature: The conclusions of rationality cannot override the pain of experience. A promising chart about a decline in hate crimes over the past decade cannot heal the scars you have from encountering racism’s ugly face firsthand. Stories – not statistics – are what move people. And when it comes to stories, there are none more powerful than the ones you’ve experienced yourself.

My struggle between these two perspectives (rationality vs. experience) has been surfacing a lot lately. When I go for my morning run, I often find myself wondering what people are thinking when they see me and quickly shuffle away to the other side. How much of that is due to (1) the conditioned response of social distancing, and (2) with me being Asian? My intuition always screams out that #1 is the rational answer, but it also reminds me that #2 is a defense response to some of the unpleasant things I’ve experienced since the third grade.

I’ve learned a lot since those kids first laughed at my lunch. I’ve learned that people often mock what they do not understand, and that mockery is just a disguised fear of the unknown. That if they had the courage to venture out a little further, to take a single step out of their safe bubbles, they’d see an endlessly fascinating world full of little differences that make it even more beautiful.

But perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that hate thrives when you do not know what people are thinking, so you assume their thoughts for them. For example, the questioning of people’s motives during my morning run reinforces the belief that I am a threat to them. Regardless of whether me being Asian has anything to do with it, the very fact that I have to ponder it puts the possibility of racism in the foreground. And if this goes unchecked, I may very well live in a world that’s hostile to me, largely because the world I occupy is the one I build in my mind.

That’s why I aim to live by this simple mantra: As long as you don’t give me reason to conclude that you’re a racist, then you’re not one. That way I don’t see hate where there is none, and I make no assumptions of hostility when a more suitable reason exists. So each time I go for a morning run, I’m not burdened with a world that’s out to get me; but rather, a world where I co-exist with people that are figuring out these weird social distancing dynamics together.

But if you do give me reason to conclude that you’re a racist, then you will be ignored or confronted, depending on the situation. Because another key lesson I’ve learned is that I’m proud of my Asian heritage, and no one can ever take that away from me. People once tried to shame me into discarding it, but no past attempt has been successful, and no future attempt ever will. I’m not certain about many things, but this is one certainty that I’ll carry to the very end.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned being Asian, and some of the things I’m still learning now. At first I thought I needed to write this all down to remind myself of what I’ve experienced, and to use those lessons to make sense of what I’m feeling today.

But no, that’s not what this is for.

At this moment, I’m writing this because I don’t want you to wonder what I’m thinking. I don’t want you to assume how I feel about being Asian in today’s climate, just as I don’t want to make any assumptions on your behalf either.

I want you to know my thoughts on this subject with crystal clarity so there’s no room for interpretation. No room for doubt. No room for guesswork.

And now that I’ve said everything I wanted to say, I hope I don’t have to wonder what you’re thinking either.

_______________


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