Asian Anger: A Model Minority No More
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the worm always turns, and when it turns your way, it might make sense to be prepared.
By Emelyn Ocampo
Exactly a month before the quarantine, I was lucky enough to take a quick girls’ trip. As I sat on a beach in the Caribbean, relaxed, sipping a cocktail on a cloudless day, my friend checked her phone and chuckled.
She then shared a joke about “staying away from Asians” because of the coronavirus. No one reacted.
Being the only Asian woman on the trip, it definitely hit me differently and I side-eyed her under my shades. Did she forget I was Asian? My close friend of 15 years? What the fuck? I didn’t want to kill the vibe, though, so I regretfully didn’t say anything. It was our first day of vacation.
I’ve been hearing about other hate crimes and attacks against Asian Americans — making me angry and fearful in a way that I’m not familiar with.
I didn’t engage with her as much as I normally would, though, since we were already on shaky terms, and then after four lovely days of vacation, it was time to come home. At the airport, I quickly noticed that my crew and I were pretty much the only under-50, non-white travelers there. Something I, and most people of color I know, take note of in a new setting, and this scene was a very quick read.
As we waited in the long security line, I wondered if I was imagining the dirty looks. I wasn’t. We were a group of chatty, happy women of mixed races, so there is that, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as the only Asian in the room, was I the bull’s-eye?
In the waiting area, there were TVs scattered around, all streaming CNN — the wide red bar and bold white text reading something like CORONAVIRUS SPREADING IN U.S.
Having been away from TV, we were not fully aware of what was happening and how quickly. I held in a cough.
A week or so later, on one of my last commutes to work, sitting on the train, an older Asian woman was getting ready to exit, probably at the next stop. A middle-aged, burly man was standing behind her.
As we approached the station, she sneezed, covering her mouth. The doors opened, and as she walked off, the man behind her started yelling as he followed her out.
“Go back to your country with that shit, get out of here! You Asian BITCH!”
The train started leaving and I watched from the window as the woman yelled back at the burly man, boiling rage brewing inside of me. I wanted to protect her. She could have been my mom, tita (aunt) or lola (grandmother), and she was simply trying to get to work like everyone else.
And now? Now she’s having to defend herself for being Asian. I was proud that she fought back but scared of what could happen to her. I recently read that retaliating typically has an adverse effect and only spurs on the attacker. The real way to get them to back down is if a bystander steps up, but how often does that happen? These days a bystander is quicker to record the incident and not do much else.
And I’ve been hearing about other hate crimes and attacks against Asian Americans — making me angry and fearful in a way that I’m not familiar with. From my friend’s comment and the incident I witnessed, to more serious attacks that I’ve heard about from friends and friends of friends, I’m scared it’s not going to stop anytime soon.
I’m also especially disappointed that it’s happening in New York.
As a first-generation Filipina American, born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, the streets of New York City raised me, and I’m not frightened easily. I was a typical Queens public-school kid. I grew up seeing rappers like Onyx, LL Cool J and 50 Cent — who was always promoting his mixtapes — on Jamaica Avenue, and often cut class to stroll around the village.
This city made me fearless, and I wear it like a badge of honor. To feel afraid? It’s surreal, and I’m not alone as this is happening everywhere, with the volume of racially incited incidents and the swelling of fear lighting up my social feeds.
Yes, we’ve seen mounting coverage of attack stories. Sure, Cardi B did an Instagram Live telling her fans not to be racist against the Chinese, and 45 tweeted to not be racist against Asian Americans (after using the term “Chinese virus” multiple times), but what will this do on the local level where these incidents are actually happening?
As Asians, we have our own interracial relations. Filipinos have been the underdog, not as known or “celebrated” as Chinese, Koreans or Japanese, at least until very recently thanks to some notable personalities, but we’ve been here. We’ve all collectively been here and are now bonding together because bigotry will lump us into the same checkbox.
I keep thinking about the woman on the train who I’m sure was Filipino and the image of her yelling loudly on the platform, her anger palpable while everyone watched in silence. I know that incident has left an impression on her too, and I hope she’s OK.
But how do we convey that we are not the enemy?
The enemy is a germ, a bad grouping of them that have spread across the globe. Asian Americans were often seen as the “model minority”: always on the sidelines, following the rules. Now we’re the target. That thin dotted line between fear and hate, so easily crossed in times of panic, is being crossed.
I finally confronted my friend, and it was not an easy conversation as we had other issues to discuss. She apologized for the comment. She said she didn’t know that I was “so sensitive.”
It brought other concerns of mine about our friendship into play. Maybe because of how I’ve been feeling about the state of the world, her one comment is carrying more weight with me (and our friendship) than it should. Maybe.
All I know is that every time I have to go outside, I put on an invisible coat of armor and am on the defense, hyper-aware, but then aren’t we all to some degree? Mine just has an added layer.
I wish I knew what to do with this new combination of emotions, this fear for my family and the Asian American community. As someone who meditates daily, I can usually “ohm” things out. This time though? I’m at a bit of a loss.
- Emelyn Ocampo