28 years of paper cuts
My maternal great-great-grandfather moved to Washington DC in the early 1900’s to administer the Boxer Indemnity scholarship. My maternal great-grandfather grew up in Rhode Island, then went to Dartmouth undergrad and Harvard for his MBA. My grandmother grew up in Pomona and New York, attended Wellesley for undergrad, and settled in Davis, where my grandfather was dean of the medical school and where she established a private lab.
My paternal great-grandfather moved to San Francisco in the mid 1900’s. He owned and operated a restaurant in Chinatown, which was often used by white politicians to build favor with the Asian-American community. My grandmother was born in San Francisco and settled in Piedmont, where my grandfather owned a medical practice.
I do not know what “generation” of immigrant this makes me (third? fourth? fifth?) but I do know that my family has lived in America for over a century with an immense amount of privilege. And yet, I have never escaped the feeling of being foreign.
I grew up in Granite Bay, California, a predominantly white suburb very similar to the white suburbs where my parents grew up. I remember wishing — at the tender age of 10 — that my hair was blonde and my skin was white. Imagine how many more friends I would have!
Before I started middle school, I remember my older brother showing me how to write like the “popular girls do, with a curl at the end of your y’s.” He told me that I needed to buy jeans from Abercrombie, not Old Navy, to fit in. He knew that we couldn’t change our hair to blonde and our skin to white. But he wanted to find other ways for me to avoid the feeling of “otherness” that he had intensely experienced.
I distanced myself from my Asian heritage well throughout childhood, high school, and most of college — a well established practice that my grandparents and parents also used to survive. We were “cool Asians” and “not like those other Asians” and San Francisco had “too many Asians” compared to our white suburb. Whenever we went on family vacations it was an “Asian invasion! Watch out for us, hahaha!” And when I went to college, I spent the first few months avoiding friendships with other Asians. Stanford was more diverse than where I grew up, but I understood as well as I did in fifth grade — to identify as Asian was to identify as less than.
I internalized so much anti-Asian racism, and so much self-hate. I distanced myself from my already stripped-down heritage. I contorted myself to fit into white spaces with white friends. But I could never escape what I looked like to others: an outsider, a foreigner.
I remember being a counselor at church camp. On day 1, the little kids pulled the sides of their eyes into a slant, pointing at me and screaming that I looked like Jackie Chan. I remember visiting the Statue of Liberty in 8th grade, and a classmate telling me that the words engraved on its plaque didn’t apply to my family. I remember watching my brother play in a tennis tournament and being screamed at to “go back where he came from” by his angry white opponent. I remember folding my clothes in an SF laundromat, and a passerby yelling at me to “speak English, goddammit!” (Like a good American, English is the only language I know how to speak.) I remember the countless “Ching, Chongs” shouted my way while traveling in Europe. Saddest of all, I remember that nobody ever intervened.
And most recently, I remember a conversation with coworkers at the start of the Covid outbreak. They had dim sum reservations in Chinatown that weekend but were going to eat in the Mission instead. Gotta play it safe, they said, stealing nervous glances in my direction. Everyone nodded in agreement.
I perceived these paper cuts as hurtful inconveniences, but nothing more serious than that. I mean, weren’t we lucky that we go jogging without being shot by racist neighbors? Funny, isn’t it, how America pits its minority groups into games of comparison. Funny, isn’t it, how America rarely mentions its history of violence against Asian Americans.
Six Asian women were brutally murdered this week, along with two other victims. And this week, I’ve realized that these paper cuts, while small, are dangerous. These paper cuts dehumanize Asian Americans like me. They make it acceptable to punch our elders in broad daylight; they make it acceptable to kill 6 Asian women because you “had a bad day.”
White supremacy is alive and well. It will erode your humanity in insidious ways, until there is nothing left. It will take your heritage, your pride, the value of your life. Someday, I’ll get angry enough to do something about it. But today, 28 years of paper cuts rain down on me. They cut my heart into pieces.