I worry a lot about my parents these days.
It used to be the other way around; they’d be the ones nitpicking at me, always finding something to fuss about whenever I visited home. It used to drive me up the goddamn wall: Why have you decided to waste your life on acting? Why don’t you get a real job, or go to law school or something? Are you still drinking that nasty diet soda? Did you eat dinner today? Seriously Simu, not too late for law school!
Now, much to their chagrin, the tables have turned and I am the one who worries: Did you hear what happened to the Thai American man who was out on his morning walk? Do you know what’s happening out there? You have to stay away from people!!!
I fear for my parents’ safety because of a virus, although perhaps not the one you’re thinking of. I’m talking about the hate crimes being committed against Asian people at an alarming rate over the past year. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a website that tracks the violence, against Asian Americans, there were over 2,800 reported cases of racism and discrimination between March 19 and Dec. 31 of last year.
Don’t get me wrong; like everyone else on earth, my life has been impacted greatly by the pandemic. But as sudden and rampantly unpredictable as it may seem, COVID is at the end of the day a disease that obeys the laws of nature. A virus finds a host, and replicates; you can always trace the infection back to its source. It makes sense.
But tell me how I can possibly make sense of someone barreling over Vicha Ratanapakdee, an elderly 113-pound Thai American man, and then standing over him like a defensive linebacker (Ratanapakdee died of a brain hemorrhage two days later)? How can I reconcile the acts of unprovoked violence against Asians that have been sprouting up all over America, Canada and beyond? The answer, of course, is that I can’t … and that’s exactly why I worry.
Most of you reading this would not give my parents a second thought if you saw them in line at the supermarket or passed by them on the street. Like so many immigrants, they are a part of an invisible minority that came to a new country and promptly proceeded to make themselves as small as possible: they smiled and nodded at everyone (sometimes through tightly clenched teeth), paid their taxes, never caused a ruckus and never wanted to be an inconvenience to anybody.
And you? You looked straight through them as if they were not even there.
For decades, I’ve watched as you’ve regarded them with impatience, cold indifference and a total lack of compassion. I’ve seen cashiers, servers, transit operators, bank tellers and customs officers speak much too quickly on purpose as if it pained them to have to spend another second of their lives conversing with my parents. I’ve heard people mock everything from their accent and their cooking to the shape of their eyes. Of course, I’ve also heard the classic “go back to China” more times than I can count.
Most disappointing of all, I’ve watched as you, the bystanders and witnesses, have stood idly by and simply not cared enough to speak up. Most of you don’t even believe that racism against Asian people exists.
Tell me then, what would prompt a person to randomly shove Lee-Lee Chin-Yeung, a Chinese American woman to the ground with so much force that she loses consciousness, or to slash Noel Quintana, a Filipino American man across the face so badly that he needs nearly 100 stitches to put it back together. The truth is that Asian people have been targeted and discriminated against for far, far longer than COVID has been around. These recent attacks, fueled by racist rhetoric in the wake of the coronavirus, are yet another reminder that we are only seen as the foreigners, the unwelcome presence … the other.
Racism doesn’t always come in the form of a white hood and a pitchfork; it’s just not that simple. To fully understand the roots of anti-Asian prejudice in America, you need to know about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned all immigration from China, even though it was Chinese immigrants that had essentially built America’s railroad system. You need to know about the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans at the height of the Second World War, all of whom were driven from their homes and forced into literal concentration camps. You need to know about Vincent Chin, a Detroit native whose head was cracked open by two white men who blamed him for the decline of the auto industry in 1982 simply because he looked Japanese. You need to know about the model minority myth, and how it was manufactured at the height of the civil rights movement to actually silence people of color and pit them against one another. You need to know why rhetoric like “the China virus” encourages hate toward all Asian people — not just Chinese. Anti-Asian racism is very real, and it will not be solved with an opulent rom-com or Marvel superhero, but with you — the bystanders — acknowledging the validity of our pain.
When I see photos of these Asian elders who have been attacked, I see the embodiment of my own parents’ journey; their dreams and their struggles, their sorrow and their unwavering optimism. How many Vicha Ratanapakdees need to happen before you see anything at all?
Actor, writer and activist Simu Liu will make his debut as the title character this summer in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring alongside Awkwafina, Tony Leung, and Michelle Yeoh, Liu makes history as the star of the first Asian-fronted movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.