Come to think of it, I would have liked to defend myself. But I also work to forgive myself, to recognize that I did what I had to do to have a good time in high school (which, on the whole, I did). How ironic that by trying to ignore comments on stereotypes, I reinforced one: submission.
I continued to “blend in” with the people around me throughout college and graduate studies. But in 2018, I visited China for the first time. And this is where things started to change.
Instead of feeling that my Asian heritage was out of place, or something that I had to remove, I felt something like belonging.
I made the trip with a group of friends, all white. But this time (and maybe for the first time), when I looked around, it wasn’t me who stood out. I was surrounded by people who looked like me and I felt a wave of pride for my culture and my background. I enthusiastically explained to my friends which foods came from Hong Kong, not from mainland China. I told about the Christmases I spent with my grandmother, who made wonton soup with us and showed us how to properly fold a package around the filling. I taught them to say “steamed pork bun” in Cantonese (“cha siu bao”), a phrase I knew because it had always been my favorite dish.
Instead of feeling that my Asian heritage was out of place, or something that I had to remove, I felt something like belonging. I felt empowered. And I started to realize what I have been missing for 25 years.
When I returned home after the trip, I refused to let go of my new deep sense of identity. The veil, as they say, had been lifted, and I could finally see clearly.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about past experiences and criticizing my own reactions. But I also tried to make up for lost time. I applauded when Ali Wong has become a household name and shattered the myth of the submissive Asian woman with her consecutive Netflix promotions. I ran Crazy Rich Asians and watched him dominate the box office. When Sandra Oh became the first Asian actress to win multiple Golden Globes, I beamed. And even though I knew we had a lot of work to do as a nation, I believed Parasite sweeping the Oscars was a turning point.
President Trump then decided to label COVID-19 a “Chinese virus”.
The first time I saw him use that expression, I felt like I had lost my wind. It hurt physically. It was a virus with a real scientific name. And the president chose to rename it to blame the Chinese people. Yes, we know that the epidemic started in China, but it is now a global pandemic. He has no race or passport. Viruses know no borders and this one does not discriminate.
But thanks to this dangerous rhetoric, the new coronavirus that affects people in each the breed is now associated with one, as if it were written in our DNA. He puts an undeserved target on the Chinese people (and, unfortunately, all Asians), calling us a threat, even if some of the best government responses have actually been in Asia, South Korea leading by example, I would have liked us to follow right now.
And Trump hasn’t used it once; The term “Chinese virus” is spilling over into social media, not only because Trump has said it over and over again, but because some conservative media has echoed it.
As the fear of COVID-19 spreads, attacks against Asian Americans are increasing and Asian businesses and restaurants have been decimated. It hurts to imagine what a young Chinese and Korean girl, like me in the past, should have endured before school was canceled. This prejudice did not start with President Trump, but he encouraged and validated it.
I have spent my whole life being submissive and silent to racism against Asians, absorbing both subtle blows and blatant attacks. But the stakes are too high for me to keep pushing it away. Calling COVID-19 a “Chinese virus” is despicable, false and racist. And that offends me, personally, as an American Asian.
It has taken my whole life to get here, to develop an appreciation of my Asian roots, to be able to shout out prejudices when and where I see them.
People like Trump want me to be ashamed of my heritage, but for the first time in my life, I can say that it is a part of me that I love, without reservation. No remark from a friend or colleague or the President of the United States can take that away from me.
Even now, even in this time of increased discrimination and fear, I think of what Sandra Oh once said and feel instant and uplifting recognition: “It is an honor to be Asian”.
Dana Lee was born and raised in Marin County, California, and attended the University of Michigan. She lives in Manhattan.