They say bad things happen in threes. That held true for me when I wrapped up a busy and chaotic two days covering Hurricane Zeta.
No, it wasn’t the storm that dealt me a one-two-three punch. It was a series of racist encounters that knocked me off my feet.
Like many people of Asian descent in America, I have been targeted with cruel playground taunts as a child and continue to face racist or ignorant comments from strangers as an adult. Sadly, that’s nothing new. In fact, I can confidently say it is part of the Asian American experience. Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the succession of ignorance and hate I encountered on Thursday.
Here’s what happened. As I was walking through New Orleans’ international airport to catch my flight home, an older man who was walking past me stopped in his tracks, lowered his mask, and said, “Ni Hao. Ching Chong.”
“Ni hao” means hello in Chinese. Never mind that I’m of Korean descent. “Ching Chong,” of course, is a racial slur that has been used to mock Asian Americans for more than a century. Those words tore through me the way they did when boys at school would tease me, turning their eyes up with their fingers, chanting “Ching Chong China.” As a child, I would run home and cry in my room, too embarrassed to tell even my parents what had happened.
As an adult, I have not been shy about confronting those who disrespect and stereotype my Asian heritage. But for some reason, this time, I just kept walking. My blood began to boil as I wondered why people have the audacity to approach complete strangers with the intent to ridicule them for the way they look.
When the man ended up standing behind me in a line inside the terminal, I sternly asked him if he understood that his comments were racist and absolutely inappropriate. With a smug look on his face, he denied everything and walked away.
Minutes later, I was sitting with my producer at the gate, when a young man without a mask approached me, and asked, “Do you speak English?” I couldn’t believe what was happening and I shot back rhetorically, “Why would you assume that I don’t speak English?” To which he ignorantly replied, “What language do you speak?” I know he was expecting me to say Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. But I replied, “Spanish!” Then he started to speak incoherently in what sounded like a fabricated Asian language.
I asked him to leave, repeatedly. My producer, who was in disbelief, also demanded that the stranger leave me alone. He refused and started yelling obscenities. Then, several good Samaritans waiting at the gate interjected and came to my defense. They also told him to stop harassing me as my producer called security.
When the airport officer arrived, I described the encounter. My producer summed it up by saying the harasser was being racist. Unbelievably, the police officer confronted my producer, inches from his face, and vehemently disputed our account. He angrily yelled, “That was not racist! OK? Asking if she speaks English is not racist, OK? Do you understand me?”
Here we were, asking for help. Instead, the officer interjected with his opinion and rather than de-escalating the situation, he intimidated us.
I understand that inquiring whether or not someone speaks English is not inherently racist. It can be an honest question and it depends on the context.
But when the two men at the airport looked at me and automatically assumed I didn’t speak English and followed it up with a racial slur or taunt, what was I supposed to think? Why did they conclude English was not my native language? Because of the way I look? The assumption that I must be a foreigner, and the insinuation I don’t belong in this country, is one that we Asian Americans face all the time.
Just like when I’m asked, “Where are you from?” And when I answer, “I’m from Southern California,” the follow up is typically, “No, where are you really from?” The airport incident was another example of being judged based on my appearance and the stereotypes that go along with it.
The faulty conclusion was I couldn’t be American. But what is an American supposed to look like? And why does it matter? Like my husband so eloquently put it, “People think I’m more American than you because I’m White. They don’t know I have a German accent and that I moved to this country when I was 20 years old.”
The Anti-Defamation League defines racism as, “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.” So the very premise of the encounters were absolutely racist.
I hate that I have to justify that I’m American. I was born and raised in the US by hardworking immigrants from South Korea. My parents, who became naturalized citizens 40 years ago, have always embraced America as the land of opportunity, despite the fact that they, too, were subjected to racism much worse than what I have experienced.
It still saddens me to think about how lonely they must have felt when they arrived in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1970s unable to speak English and unable to defend themselves against the bigotry they faced. The most benign comment they heard was, “Go back to where you came from.”
Sadly, these incidents are not unique to me. Asians in America are mocked, stereotyped, scapegoated and discriminated against more than you’d think. And we live in a time when verbal and physical attacks against Asians have been skyrocketing as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Many of my non-Asian friends are shocked when I tell them that they’d be hard pressed to find an Asian American who hasn’t had a similar experience with racism or other forms of ignorance, intolerance or discrimination.
In fact, since I shared my experience on social media, and the history of racism I’ve faced, I’ve received numerous messages from strangers whose stories echo mine. “Reading about incidents like yours reminds me of all those times I’ve felt like an outsider, just because of how I look. People say, ‘ni hao’ or ‘konichiwa’ to me all the time on the streets and I always ignore them, but I hope to have the courage you have and start telling people why that is so offensive,” one email reads.
Another states, “Eleven hours after you posted, I’m reading it and suddenly tumbling backwards in time, 40 years. The elementary school part in particular made me dizzy. It’s practically exactly what happened to me in first grade. First day at a new school a boy sees me on the bus and starts to taunt me by saying, “Ching Chong! Chinky eyes!” and does the same slanting of eyes you mentioned. He followed me off the bus, chased me and pushed me down on the grass. I’ll never forget the shock when he sat on my chest and I could not breathe, not understanding what was happening and why. It was deeply traumatizing. Up until that point I did not know that I was different. I’m touching my chest now remembering the place he sat, how constricted my chest felt. I still remember what he looked like – blonde with a bowl cut, with cruel laughter. After that all I wanted to be was blonde hair, blue-eyed ‘all-American.’”
I have been overwhelmed by the hundreds of messages of support and solidarity. They remind me that for every hateful person, there are many more decent humans who value dignity, equality and the diversity of our country.
Racism is not exclusive to New Orleans. These incidents could have happened anywhere. To be honest, I was surprised by the widespread interest in my story and the passionate responses it continues to garner. I know, it sounds counterintuitive, given that I am a network TV journalist, but I just didn’t think anyone would care about the challenges we endure as Asian Americans. But when I see messages like these, I’m proven wrong:
“You absolutely belong in US, thank you for standing up.”
“I walked in your shoes almost daily.”
“I can relate, but I never spoke up. Until now.”
“I see you. I’m with you.”
“Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone for all of us who encounter racism every day.”
Bad things may happen in threes. But good has the power to outnumber and overcome.