As a Vietnamese American who grew up in a predominantly white community, I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t feel different from my peers. From my name to my physical appearance to the food that I ate, I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t “normal.”
Teachers always had a difficult time pronouncing my name during roll call on the first days of school – one teacher even skipped me until the end because she was too scared to pronounce it. I remember bringing a tray of goi cuon (spring rolls) to a class party and coming home with exactly two less than I had walked into school with (my teacher was nice enough to eat one with me). I remember having to awkwardly remind all of my birthday party guests to take off their shoes when coming into my house and introducing many of them to my mom’s pho.
I learned to shrug off and grow beyond these microaggressions, but they have also learned to grow with me. Most recently, I helped my father (whose first language is Vietnamese) interact with a store associate over the phone who praised me for my English, and to this day, I use a “normal” name at Starbucks that I won’t have to spell out.
Although the microaggressions I’ve experienced have been generally harmless, I got out pretty lucky.
Numerous studies have shown that microaggressions and racism are linked to poorer health outcomes for people of color. More specific studies have even looked at how racism experienced by Asian Americans is unique because of what has been coined by Frank Wu as the “perpetual foreigner” syndrome, where Asians and Asian Americans are always viewed as “other” because of our physical appearance and ancestry. For decades, Asians were dangerously viewed as a monolithic group even though there are over 20 sub-groups of Asian communities. As the fastest growing population in the U.S., somehow we always fell under the radar, quietly oppressed.
In February of 2020, as many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) were beginning to feel a turning point in our history as representation was increasing in the media and many AAPI voices were gaining prominence, the coronavirus was rapidly making its way across the seas. Not long after the first case of what we now call COVID-19 arrived, the term “China virus” was being used on social media platforms and during press conferences. Shortly after that, researchers found a large spike in anti-Asian sentiment across Twitter as the violence began occurring in real life.
Since then, the AAPI community has seen an astounding number of hate crimes, attacks and anti-Asian rhetoric spewed at us. Many of us have to remind our parents, grandparents and elders to be careful when in public and to try not to walk outside alone.
On March 16, when a man shot and killed eight people in a string of Atlanta spas, six of which were women of Asian descent, I felt anger, pain, horror and the deepest fear of my life.
My parents have been working in the nail salon industry for over 30 years since they immigrated to the U.S., and I spent a majority of my life growing up in our nail salon, so it was too easy for me to imagine what the victims’ families were going through –– not only coping with the loss of their mother or sister or aunt, but also dealing with the implications about the places where they worked.
But out of all the pain that the AAPI has endured, there has also been hope and support. After the shooting, many friends and acquaintances reached out to me and expressed solidarity and sympathies because they knew how close to home it was for me. In some ways, my presence in their lives helped them better connect to the victims as members of a community instead of names in an article.
And for the first time, it feels like people across the country are not only paying attention to the AAPI community, but they’re listening and wanting to make change.
After a historic presidential election, the first Black and South Asian woman was sworn in as the vice president of the United States. In March, an anti-Asian discrimination bill was introduced to the floor of Congress and saw overwhelming bipartisan support. On social media, many communities have shown solidarity with the AAPI community and support for the victims of the attacks.
While I’m honored to be able to share some of my story during the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month, this is a moment in history that will go beyond the month and beyond my experience. I hope the solidarity and support the AAPI community has received in the last two months doesn’t fade as the end of the pandemic draws near and many are anxious to return to a sense of normal –– because for many first-generation Asian Americans like myself, we’re still trying to figure out what “normal” means.