Young, Asian, and American too

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Mara Youngren-Brown, ’21, is an international relations and global cultural studies double major. After graduation, she plans on working internationally in the nonprofit field.

Mara Youngren-Brown, Contributor

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I still remember the first time someone called me “chink.” Seventh grade, walking down the hallway of Kenai Middle School, the word burned in my ears. Did I hear that right? Frozen in place, I faced the decision of fighting or fleeing. Without giving it too much thought, I turned on the kid and with a swift hand, slapped him. But then I fled. And all the times after that, all the times I heard “go back to your country”, “Ling Ling”, and “where are you really from?”, I fled because that’s what I was taught to do. 

I grew up, an immigrant to the United States via international adoption, a member of a transracial family, living in the small isolated town of Kenai, Alaska, population: 7,742. With little to no diversity in my area, I became aware of my racial identity through acts of racial violence, microaggressions, and discrimination. Racism taught me a lot of things, but most importantly, it taught me that I was a “model minority”. Being a model minority, I was told things like “all Asian Americans are successful”, “Asian Americans don’t have to deal with racism”, and most damaging, “Asian Americans are silent”. So from a very young age, I internalized that being Asian in America meant being silent. It meant fleeing instead of fighting. 

Everything changed after March of 2020. Covid-19 had seriously started to hit the United States, and everyone was in a frenzy about who to blame, what to do. Former President Donald Trump, at that time head of our country, responded with two words: “Chinese virus.” Suddenly, the country had someone to blame, something to do. The enemy had been named and now it had a face. The virus was China. It was Chinese Americans. It was me. 

According to CBS, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action, around 2,100 anti-Asian American hate incidents were reported across the country in the three month time span between March and June 2020. A rise in hate crimes and anti-Asian sentiment since Covid-19 has left the Asian American community feeling scared and threatened. We find ourselves faced with the heavy decision that I, a small, scared, 12 year old girl had faced many years ago. In the face of racism, do we fight or do we flee?

New York-born, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, believes we should not combat racism directly. In a piece he penned for the Washington Post titled “We Asian Americans are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure”, Yang says “In general, negative responses don’t work, “saying ‘Don’t be racist toward Asians’ won’t work.” Instead, he urges the community to “hunker down, assert your Americanness, don’t make a fuss.” 

Citing the way Japanese Americans volunteered for military duty to demonstrate their dedication to the United States in World War II, Yang goes on to argue that Asian Americans must “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.” He directs Asian Americans to volunteer, wear red, white, and blue, in order to show “without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”

Yang’s advice is something many of us have heard before. As Asian Americans, we have been advised our whole lives to stay silent in the face of racism, to attend to the fears and anxieties of those in power rather than addressing the needs of our own community. I did not want to take Yang’s advice. I wanted to fight, not flee, and for once in my life, I found others who felt the same way.

Turning to social media, I heard something I never had before growing up in Alaska or going to school in Oregon. It was a call to action by other Asian Americans that said “We are not the virus. We are not a model minority. Our communities are under attack and we are standing up against racism.” Caught between fighting or fleeing, silence or standing up, I finally found my strength through the community of Asian Americans online.

The need to fight and raise our voices for the Asian American community has been perceived as going against the traditional response to racism from our community, but it is a shift that needs to happen. The shift represents a generational divide in our communities, and one tied to our identities as Asian Americans.

Read Mara’s poem for more thoughts on her Asian-American experience

 

In an anecdote from his comedy film Homecoming King, Hasan Minhaj describes the different responses to racism between his father, an Indian immigrant,  and himself, an American born Indian American. The story goes as follows: Hasan, angry and upset, yells at his father for being quiet and calm after their property is destroyed during a hate crime. His father only responds:

“These things happen, and these things will continue to happen. That’s the price we pay for being here.” Hasan realizes they really do come from two different generations. “My dad’s from that generation where he feels like if you come to this country, you pay the American dream tax. You endure racism, and if it doesn’t cost you your life, pay it.”

But Hasan does not want to endure racism or even survive it. He wants to live, and he wants to fight it. “I was born here. So I actually have the audacity of equality… life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. All men created equal.” It says it right here, I’m equal. I’m equal. I don’t deserve this.”

Minhaj’s American identity is incredibly salient for him, as it is for many young Asian Americans. And it is this connection to our American identity that motivates many us to fight. This is where the shift between attitudes and perceptions of identity exists. Yang calls for us to assert our “American-ness” and American identity, as if it is something that we already lack. He fails to recognize that for many of us, our American identity is integrated into who we are and how we see ourselves. “American” is the second part of our multicultural identity. It is the part of us that tells us we are equal in this country and that we must fight. 

We are in the middle of a shift, of the old versus the new. There are still people who believe Asians should be quiet, undisruptive, a model minority, but for myself and many others, we say “no longer.” We are talking about unlearning behaviors that those who came before us subscribed to. We are talking about a newfound respect for ourselves. We are talking about the next generation of Asian American advocates, activists, and leaders. It all starts with rejecting the narrative that Asian Americans must assert the “American” part of their identity in order to not be targeted. We reject the label of model minority. We reject the label of perpetual foreigner because we have been here, grown up here, pledged our allegiance to this country.

What Yang, Minhaj, and I all want, are the same things. We want to stop being afraid and ashamed of being Asian. We want our communities to be safe. For myself and many young Asian Americans, safety will come from raising our voices, not wrapping ourselves in American flags. We must not be silent. We must not allow racism to intimidate us, threaten us, kill us because we are Asian and American. We are equal.

Stay connected with Asian-American Voices:

Amanda Nguyen: Amanda Nguyen 

Bianca Mabute-Louie: Beyonkz

Jenny Wang: Asiansformentalhealth

Dear Asian Americans podcast: Dear Asian Americans