Even when I was ashamed of my Chinese heritage, Lunar New Year was always a joyous, raucous occasion in my household — growing up, it was one of the few moments every year that I felt not just comfortable in my Chinese skin but happy to be celebrating such a vibrant and rich culture. This past year, though, even as I was eating our new year’s meal with my grandparents for the first time in a long time, I could not get my mind off of something else.
In the weeks leading up to and following Lunar New Year, the largest and most important celebration for many East Asian and Southeast Asian communities, a wave of hate crimes against East and Southeast Asian elders rose in major cities across the U.S.
Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai elder, was out on his morning walk in San Francisco on Jan. 28 when he was suddenly attacked by a 19-year-old. He died from his wounds after days in the hospital.
On Feb. 3, 61-year-old Noel Quintana was on his way to work when he noticed that another man on the subway was kicking his bag. When Quintana confronted the man, the latter took out a box cutter and slashed the Filipino through the face — none of the other passengers came to Quintana’s aid.
These are only two stories out of many more. When I imagine my grandparents in their position, my stomach twists and turns, my throat chokes up with grief. As immigrant communities, our elders are incredibly precious to us, even if we do not all always realize it.
For parents who carefully contort themselves to fit the mold that whiteness and Americanness force on them and for children who desperately struggle to find their place in two different cultures, our grandparents are the ones who soothe our frustrations with their cultural knowledge and love.
For many immigrant families — and certainly for my own — our grandparents are the ones who maintain our native languages, prepare traditional foods and share stories of another world we never quite knew.
To see them victimized by hatred, racism and xenophobia in a country they likely would not even be in — if not for us — is especially heartbreaking. On top of that, I am devastated by the reluctance of my peers, leaders and popular media as a whole to recognize these attacks as hate crimes or to even acknowledge that these attacks happened.
The legal federal definition of “hate crime” includes crimes committed on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability.”
When all of these victims have been Asian Americans, and likely were attacked because they were Asian American, why are people so reluctant to call these attacks hate crimes? Why does it feel like Asian Americans must constantly barter for recognition as people in America — not just as part of a diversity quota, or your model minority myth, or your weird Asian fetish but as a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect?
No matter what we do, no matter what we sacrifice to assimilate in English-speaking, Western-culture communities, immigrant communities are often still reminded by others that we just do not belong here.
Whether it is through racist slurs, assumptions of our “true” origins or immigration statuses or exclusion from decision-making spaces and media representation, Asian Americans are always made to be the “other” in American society, despite all our painful efforts to integrate, sometimes losing our own identities in the process.
These recent attacks push that message one step further — it is not simply that we do not belong here but that others are willing to push us out with violence.
From the early days of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic’s arrival in the U.S., an already xenophobic and racist society has marked every person with perceived East Asian features as a carrier of the “China virus.”
Now, as we struggle to survive job losses, declining mental health and the virus itself, we also bear witness to violence against our mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers.
The Year of the Ox promises strength and resilience, and as we continue to battle hate against our communities and build solidarity with others, I will hold that close to my heart. Remember that we are all human beings deserving dignity and respect. No amount of violence will change that fact.
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