Her experiences in the U.S. taught her never to expect protection from the authorities.
By Christina Lem
Christina Lem, a development consultant, is working on a book about intergenerational violence within her family. She lives in New York City.
April 2, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
In 1991, a group of boys followed my grandmother on her way home to our apartment in Queens. As she walked underneath the subway tracks’ long dark shadow, weighed down by red plastic grocery bags, they taunted her with pretend Chinese sounds. She yelled at them to shut up and leave her alone; her thick accent only made them laugh harder. Then one of them lunged at her with a stick and struck her left eye, blinding it permanently. A shopkeeper saw her fall and called for an ambulance. My aunt, determined to get justice, made the initial statement to police, found out one of the boys’ addresses and got the shopkeeper to agree to testify as a witness. But when my grandmother heard about the potential investigation, she said, “No, I don’t want trouble.”
I’ve thought of that incident often as, over the past year, hate incidents against Asians increased 150 percent nationwide. They increased 833 percent in New York City, where I live, and where just this week, a man kicked down and stomped on a 65-year-old Filipina American on her way to church. Community organizers, politicians and police think these figures grossly undercount the real number of incidents, an error often attributed to a cultural reluctance to go to the police. “Not wanting trouble” is a sentiment commonly associated with Asians in America — the one that makes outsiders associate them with words like “weak,” “passive,” “easy to overpower.”
That attitude was widespread in my grandmother’s social circle: Friends of hers in the neighborhood also had been harassed on the street by people making ching-chong noises and pulling at their eyes, spitting at them, following them, sometimes pelleting them with stones. They hadn’t reported these incidents, either. Still, hearing those words from my grandmother after her attack shocked me; I knew the woman who raised me to be outspoken, even aggressive. Back then, at age 15, I didn’t understand the generational gap that shaped our vastly different expectations of the country we lived in. Her harsh experiences of immigrant life had conditioned her never to seek protection from those in power — or anyone else, for that matter.
My grandparents had never been called “model minority,” a concept popularized decades after their arrival in the United States. They were, however, frequently tagged as vermin, pestilence and counterfeit human beings. My grandfather, who arrived in 1932, had lived with his father under the Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied them the right to become citizens, vote and receive the legal protections that came with citizenship. He had to carry a special identity card; if he was found without it, he faced deportation. Even after the act was repealed in 1943, an annual quota allowed just 105 Chinese “aliens” into the country. The message was clear: Chinese immigration would be tolerated only in extremely small quantities. The limit was even stricter for Chinese women, who had been specifically excluded from entering the country by laws characterizing them as immoral and prone to prostitution.
My grandmother, entering the United States as a 19-year-old bride in 1948, expected to be treated badly. At the time, so few Chinese women were in the country that she was often the first one people had ever met. She was aware that her presence was tolerated but not welcomed. She had no faith that she could call on the authorities, in any context, for protection. When she worked as a seamstress in the Long Island factories, co-workers often blamed her for their mistakes, knowing that she couldn’t speak English well enough to defend herself. On these occasions, she might lose half or all of her pay. When I asked why she didn’t get Grandpa or one of her kids to speak up for her, she said that she knew that no one took her seriously.
Learning more about the history of racial laws against the Chinese — there had been more than 20 — I came to understand how they had influenced my grandparents’ generation. If you live in a place that identifies you as undesirable, too foreign to be American, a threat to its civilization, then distrusting the authorities can be a survival tactic. You can follow the law, yes, but you can’t rely on it, because of the way it denigrates your person and your entire culture. You keep your distance from the authorities out of fear of deportation, jailing or violence — but also out of disdain for the injustice they are willing to uphold.
Though my grandparents raised me, my reference point for the Asian American experience was like that of Asians who had entered the country after 1965, after the national quota system had been abolished. This population constitutes the majority of Asian Americans living in the United States today. For us, this is where the Asian American experience begins: after civil rights laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, voting and housing became part of the social fabric. I trusted that the government and society at large were inclined toward fairness. I learned in school that I was part of this country’s celebrated multiculturalism; I belonged here and deserved the same rights others had. I believed this even after Grandma lost her eye. I told myself that assaults like hers were anomalies, or a local phenomenon. After this past year, however, with nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incidents recorded across the country, I have much less faith.
Thirty years ago, my grandmother had scoffed at the very idea of “hate crime.” She and my grandfather had lived through a period when hating the Chinese hadn’t been a crime; it had been an expectation. They would have been flabbergasted at today’s public rallies decrying anti-Asian violence, attended by politicians who condemn (rather than endorse) the violence, as well as by different racial and religious groups showing support and solidarity.
Those moments of unity have felt hopeful. But they cannot fully counteract the pain of these physical and verbal attacks. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), responding to this week’s highly publicized assault, put it this way: “We have gone from being invisible to being seen as subhuman.” The assailant in that incident reportedly cursed at the 65-year-old New Yorker, yelling, “You don’t belong here.” Hearing such words from other Americans — especially other racial minorities — makes the idea of solidarity feel hollow and illusory; they’re also a sharp reminder that no matter how “assimilated” we become, a fundamental rejection has endured. Perhaps less has changed since my grandmother’s attack than I believed.
Today, the country seems to be experiencing a watershed moment, in which disparate Asian groups are banding together — demanding justice when attacks occur and accountability when justice is withheld. My grandparents would never have called themselves Asian American: They were Asians who lived in this country under conditions that made it impossible for them to truly regard themselves as American. My generation believes we belong, and we want more than simply to “avoid trouble.” We want what our elders barely hoped for — for others to recognize our belonging.