Editor’s Note: Ian Kumamoto is a Brooklyn-based writer who is working on a memoir about mixed-race identity. Follow him on Twitter @IanKumamoto. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
To me, the Lunar New Year before 2020 signified the abundance and joy that came with a sense of community. Growing up in Texas, we would go to a family friend’s house, alongside other immigrant families, where everyone brought their household specialties.
Mom would make her salmon fried rice and would place it among an enormous banquet of wonton soups, pork buns and fish bathed in soy sauce and ginger. Afterward, we would lay on a couch or doze off on our chairs before the adults would try and stuff red envelopes filled with money into our hands. When I moved to New York for college, I continued the tradition, albeit among festive strangers in the family-owned restaurants on Pell Street in Chinatown.
Now, such gatherings feel like a distant memory and the sense of safety we had in each other’s presence far off. Last spring, I was walking out of a Target in downtown Brooklyn when a middle-aged woman followed me and said I was a “disgusting, dog-eating chink,” got into a car and drove off. A few weeks later, my college-aged downstairs neighbors implored me to “go back to California.” In both cases I stood and said nothing – I was flustered.
I can pinpoint the moment I could no longer ignore the urge to articulate my racial experiences to almost one year ago, when I began to feel in physical danger. At that time, the hateful rhetoric around Chinese people became more open. An Asian woman was set on fire in Brooklyn and President Donald Trump called Covid-19 the “China virus.”
Then, on Chinese New Year, the streets of Chinatown were the first to be deserted. Many assumed the outbreak would begin in the immigrant-run markets of Canal Street, Flushing or Sunset Park; natural assumptions, considering that from the beginning the virus was framed as uniquely Chinese.
When friends tried to comfort me, few seemed to have the language for how to deal with the vitriol directed against me, which I figured came from a notion that Asians didn’t have it so bad. I knew this because up until that point, I thought the same thing. As actor Steven Yeun recently said in an interview with the New York Times Magazine, “I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” If not being thought about was the worst thing I would go through, I figured I would survive.
Except now, hate crimes against Asian-Americans have increased, an epidemic that is aided by that silence. In the first three months of the pandemic, reported bias incidents against our communities jumped to 2,120, according to the database Stop AAPI Hate. This year, attacks against Asians have been particularly violent and unsettling: a Filipino man was slashed across the face in the New York City subway. An 84 year-old Thai-American was killed in California in broad daylight. Several elderly Asian people in the Bay Area were pushed to the ground, as if for sport. In Portland, more than a dozen Asian-owned businesses have been vandalized. Few national outlets have covered any of it, further cementing our invisibility.
The cost of not being seen has been high. Even though I was born in Mexico to a Chinese mother and a Mexican father, I have always looked more Asian. Although I am incredibly proud of my Mexican heritage, I often felt like other Latinx people did not regard me as one of their own. Despite the fact that Spanish is my first language, I would still get incredulous looks from others who were mesmerized that a Chinito could speak that language so well, which often led to uncomfortable comments that discouraged me from speaking my native tongue in public altogether.
Once I arrived in the US 17 years ago, I realized that my classmates assumed I was an Asian-American, the label I would eventually adopt out of convenience. Still, it wasn’t long before I understood that the identity came with its own baggage, namely that I was good at math and was quiet – “I don’t want to sit next to Ian, he doesn’t even talk,” I remember a third-grade classmate telling the teacher, even though she had never met me.
Being regarded as a background character seemed harmless enough, but it was only much later that I realized how much it affected every aspect of my personality: it deterred me from joining more creative pursuits, from forming authentic friendships in grade school and it made me believe that I was not allowed to feel things and talk about them.
In high school, I learned through the Internet about the myth Americans had been taught about people who looked like me – that we were the “model minority.” The term was coined in the 1960s by a White sociologist writing for The New York Times Magazine. He was trying to make the case that Asians were what Black people could be, if only they tried harder. Implicit in this generalization was that we were obedient and that we would not stir trouble, unlike what White America viewed as those other pesky minorities – which would grow to include Latinx and other minority groups.
Because I was not expected to speak out, I mostly avoided talking about how much racism hurt me. Whenever a professor confused me with the other Asian kid in class or a classmate mocked me by pulling their eyes back, I laughed it off, albeit awkwardly. I learned from other Asian-Americans that making fun of ourselves was not only the norm, but it was cool – calling it out would have relegated us to “uptight” status. But being the minority that was not allowed to have self-regard took a toll. It was like being in a purgatory where no one would take me seriously, even when I was no longer joking.
“Are you sure you heard her right?” a friend asked me after the incident outside of Target.
Our status as “good” minorities has always been a burden. But it has never felt as heavy as it does now, when we need the support of others and discover that we are unsure of how to speak about our own marginalization. If the task of our immigrant parents was to find a way to survive in the United States, then it is ours to speak into existence the things they left unsaid.
We need to acknowledge that the model minority status has silenced us, pitted us against other oppressed people and convinced us that we are no good when we are, for whatever the reason of the moment may be, no longer palatable. Unless we change the narrative, we will continue to be the biggest victims to the myth of our exceptionalism.
Today, Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group and I see an opportunity to forge a new identity free from the constraints of White supremacy. Although this will likely be a dark time for us, as we confront increasing anti-Asian rhetoric, it might also be what was necessary for a reckoning that was decades in the making.
A year ago, as people began to fear and hate us more openly during Covid, I promised myself that the more silent people were about our issues, the louder I would become. Now, I understand that we are the only ones who can break our own silence.
As targeted attacks against people who look like me continue to grow, I am determined not to let fear prevent me from celebrating our traditions. I will wear red underwear (to ward off bad luck), eat dumplings (in the spirit of togetherness) and send red envelopes to my friends (for prosperity).
This is after all my year, the year of the ox, and I will fight to embrace this zodiac’s better characteristics: its patience, its resilience and its strength.