I'm Asian American, and I Don't Know When I'll Feel Safe in Public Again

For many, a return to “normal” will be anything but.

I’m Asian American, and I Don’t Know When I’ll Feel Safe in Public Again
Photo: Jenna Brillhart

In the last few weeks, my social media feeds have been swamped with post after post about the reopening of societyfirst indoor restaurant outing since March 2020; first hugs with parents in over a year; first rideshare trip after 15 months. The joy and the relief in these snapshots is palpable. But I just feel dread.

By the time the WHO declared the novel coronavirus to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020, anti-Asian sentiment — fueled by reports of the virus' origins in Wuhan, China — had already been rising. I started to notice small differences in my daily commute. On BART, the Bay Area's version of the subway, I suddenly had legroom to spare. People traced a wide path when they passed me on the sidewalk, curious eyes meeting mine and then darting away. Plagued by allergies that spring, I went through canister after canister of albuterol. Coughing while Asian had become problematic, even dangerous. Every sniffle, every tickle in the throat, felt like a spotlight announcing — I'm part of the diseased masses, fear me.

But then the world shut down, and I found space and time to breathe. It was a relief not to have to negotiate public spaces, uncertain what people might be thinking when they see my almond-shaped eyes and flat features. From the safety of home, I watched the news with mounting dismay as accounts of verbal and physical assaults on Asian Americans increased in big cities and small towns alike.

Several incidents hit particularly close to home. One, in which a 59-year-old man was brutally attacked from behind while on a lunch break, happened blocks from my San Francisco office. Another involving a mother and her 7-year-old daughter at a protest against anti-Asian hate occurred in New York City's Union Square — a neighborhood that had always felt safe to me. Years ago, when we lived nearby, I'd often take my daughter there to frolic in the playground and shop at the Greenmarket.

With much of the country looking forward to summer, my anxieties — temporarily suspended during a year of forced isolation — are resurfacing. And while my company has yet to finalize a date of re-entry into our downtown offices, I'm already mentally reconfiguring my pre-pandemic routines to fit a post-pandemic world. For example, before March 2020, I'd often get off BART a station or two from my stop to squeeze in a little exercise before my workday began. But the thought of walking those streets, often deserted and quiet in the early morning, now gives me pause.

I've also toyed with the idea of hiding my hair — black, straight, and unmistakably Asian —beneath a hat. And I suspect I'll continue to wear a mask because it obscures my face; although that, too, could draw unwelcome attention in a world where masks have been discarded.

Michelle Yang

"It's not that I'm not proud of my heritage, but you don't want to attract attention to yourself because you don't know what kind of state of mind people are in out there."

— Michelle Yang

Wondering if I was alone in these musings, I touched base with Asian American friends to see how they were coping. Their reactions ran the gamut from minor modifications in their habits to sweeping changes.

Michelle Yang, a writer and mental health advocate in Michigan, has been more guarded in public, especially with her 7-year-old in tow. "Since the pandemic started, I haven't been able to wear my shirt that says, 'It's an honor just to be Asian' with Sandra Oh on it," she tells me. "It's not that I'm not proud of my heritage, but you don't want to attract attention to yourself because you don't know what kind of state of mind people are in out there."

When I told her about my hat-wearing plan, the recognition immediately crept into her voice. "I've seen Asian women — they've bleached their hair; they're wearing baseball hats; they're wearing sunglasses with their mask on so that they can hide their Asian-ness."

Before venturing outside, Yang goes through a checklist in her head: What time of day is it? Do I need to go outside right now by myself? Do I feel safe? "I might go out anyway," she says, "but I definitely think about it; whereas before, I might not have." Yang also makes sure to bring her phone with her no matter how short the errand. "It's my sense of security, to have the phone; people don't want to get caught on camera so they'll stop being aggressive," she says.

Jeanne Chang, a designer in Millbrae, Calif., also limits her time outside after two incidents in which she was verbally assaulted while taking a walk, leaving her shaken and feeling unsafe in her hometown for the first time. She's especially troubled that one attack occurred while her children, ages 7 and 4, were with her. Afterwards, her 7-year-old asked her, "Why is that lady mad at you?" to which Chang had no good response.

"Now, wherever I go, I'm always looking to see if there are people around, and to make sure no one's coming up behind me," Chang says. Her experience and others like it govern my behavior, too. These days, I rarely go out with my children (ages 10, 8, and 5) without my husband — who's Italian — accompanying us.

Chang has lived in the Midwest, in towns where Asian Americans numbered in the single digits, so she's no stranger to discrimination and racism. But she has felt a shift in the past year. "We've all dealt with some random person walking by and mumbling something racist, but now they're bold enough to scream it at you."

Leah Lau, a writer in Los Angeles who I've known since we were 5, agrees. "I'm on guard about protecting myself as an Asian American in a way that I've never had to before in LA," she says — the California city has an Asian population of almost double the national average. According to Lau, anti-Asian violence has slowed her re-entry into society at a time when she would have felt more comfortable about the city's COVID-19 risk. And when she has to leave her apartment, she's armed with pepper spray.

Part of the problem is silence, say Charles and Jea-Hyoun Feng, both physicians in Fremont, Calif. The Asian American community has traditionally been uncomfortable talking about issues of race. And the broader population often doesn't recognize anti-Asian racism as a real phenomenon.

But that may be changing.

As we return to the workforce, many companies have hosted roundtables and seminars to highlight the Asian American experience in the United States. Feng's organization, for example, included discussions of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War as part of its implicit bias training this year. And even though the attempt was awkward and flawed, Feng "felt seen and heard" in a way she hadn't before. "That's probably the silver lining in all of this, that people are starting to talk about [anti-Asian racism] more," she says.

Lau is ultimately optimistic. "We have to forgive and move forward — as a nation, as a world. And the only way we do that is through education and people actually having meaningful interactions with each other."

Over and over, in these conversations with friends, we've described this moment as a reckoning — not just for Asian Americans, but for Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups. "We're all human and there's so much we have in common," Feng says. She's recently read about the civil war in Nigeria and found common themes with her family's escape from North Korea decades ago. Her husband's family, like mine, fled China in the wake of war to build an uncertain future in a new land.

As I head back to work this fall, I'm trying to balance caution with fear — particularly in how I approach Asian hate with my kids. We've talked about how differences can sometimes breed misunderstanding, but I've shielded them (for now) from the more violent turns the stories can take. Maybe I'm still holding out hope that when they grow up, they won't need to internally deliberate about whether to wear a hat or color their hair to hide their heritage. That they can just be.

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