I had never thought that this would happen to people around me, but I guess you never know. When things like this happen, the feeling becomes so surreal that it’s impossible to know how to react.
Not long after COVID hit the U.S, the Trump administration, especially President Donald Trump, turned the blame of the virus spread in the U.S on China. CNN, alongside many other news media outlets, reported Trump saying, “It’s China’s fault, it should never have happened,” before referring to the virus as the “China plague.” This rhetoric has incited anti-Asian racism throughout the country. An NPR podcast released in February 2021 cited a report from an organization launched in response to anti-Asian racism named Stop Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate. The numbers show that the organization has received “over 2,800 first-hand reports of attacks and abuse against Asian-Americans in 47 states and the District of Columbia during the 2020 pandemic.” NBC News published news on an astonishing increase in Anti-Asian hate crimes by nearly 150% in 2020, mostly in New York and Los Angeles according to local police department statistics. Of course, my friends and relatives in China grew concerned and started to ask me on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, if everything was O.K on the other side of the Pacific.
“Oh, it’s totally fine. People are still very kind to us here.”
This was my typical response to them. I often got annoyed, too, when messages asking the same question all flooded in at once. I almost wished for an automatic reply instead of having to respond.
The year 2020 passed by quickly. Fast forward to 2021, fewer messages carrying a concerning tone were exchanged on WeChat and I had almost forgotten that xenophobia and anti-Asian racism even existed in our city in California. Things quickly took a turn. A few weeks before I left for Middlebury, my sister went to the DMV in California for her driver’s license test with my mom. Although it was a cold day and the line around the sidewalk seemed endless, waiting two hours for the DMV is not usually a problem. Plus, waiting isn’t so bad if you can strike a decent conversation with the other folks in line.
The crowd was slightly disappointing this time around. Standing in front of my mom and sister was a person without a mask, and behind them, a tall, bulky, slightly tanned male who seemed, according to my sister, incredibly intimidating.
When the line turned corners, the tall guy behind them raised his head and glanced over my mom and sister. Almost effortlessly, he had recognized that the two people standing in front of him were Asian. Without any gesture or premonition, he spat out the words “China virus, China virus…” through his mask and repeated them again and again until it was my sister’s turn to take the exam.
My sister later recalled that she was certain that others had heard the derogatory and dehumanizing language, but no one said anything.
“I was furious, but I didn’t know how to respond. I just prayed that the guy wouldn’t come up to us and harm us,” my sister said.
My sister added that she wanted to use all the energy she had to punch the guy right in the face, but at the moment, she didn’t do anything, or rather, she couldn’t. Nor could my mom. They pretended to not even know how to speak English because they were afraid that any action or questioning might bring harm to themselves.
“And it was also the first time I have encountered this kind of incident. It was definitely a wake-up call for changes that need to happen to undo the damage,” said my sister.
I certainly agree with my sister. I am angry and anxious when I picture my mom and sister enduring these piercing words from this tall man, and having to bear the feeling of nakedness and helplessness on a cold and dry winter afternoon. I have stayed silent on anti-Asian racism in the past, choosing instead to think that things might get better, but now I am choosing to step forward, to share this experience of two people who are dear to me.