Once upon a time, there was a girl who cried all the time. She cried at home, upset that she was forced to eat more bok choy. She cried at night because her parents didn’t close the door all the way. She cried on the black asphalt of the school playground when she realized that she was the only one without anybody to play with. She cried and hollered when she woke up in the car in the garage in the dark because her parents didn’t want to wake her when she fell asleep on the way home. She cried at the Chinese banquet restaurants, in aisles of grocery stores, riding up the escalator of the suburban multi-floor Macy’s, at the library checking out her weekly ten books, during piano class, at church during children’s bible study, and at ballet before she realized that she lacked physical coordination and quit. She remembers these moments now like they were burned into memory—a traumatic experience when she felt uncomfortable, belittled, or at worst, abandoned.
It always started like this—first, her face would tickle. She became so used to it that she didn’t even bother finding a tissue. Then her eyes would tighten and gush like a waterfall, blurring her vision. The tears would stream down to her chin, pooling into large drops, sometimes wiped, especially when it was itchy, with her sleeve. When she got older, she became aware of the effect that crying had on her body. After the tears dried, her head would fill up with a hollow static echo—sometimes a precursor to getting a cold. Crying is a sign of weakness, but that’s what girls do, her parents would explain. “She’s okay, she’s okay, she’s just calling for attention.” Her aunts and uncles would tell the story about that girl over and over again: “She would cry cry cry all the time.”
But she knew that crying was shameful, and nobody wanted to be around when she was sobbing. All people saw was a tearful girl creating discomfort for others. When she bawled on a playground at the age of six, a teacher came to her aid. “What’s wrong? Did you get hurt?”
“Nobody wants to play with me,” she said between sobs.
But then a boy fell, skinning his knee. Distracted, the teacher rushed to attend to the boy. Alone again, the girl made a decision—more than anything, all she wanted was to have friends. She wanted to be normal and that didn’t include crying. Being normal meant that you weren’t seen.
Instead, she became quiet. Teachers sent report cards home with comments like needs to participate more. Classmates wrote “speak up” in her yearbook. But that only happened a few times a year and the girl kept her anguish bottled inside. Crying was bad, but silence provided a shield.
I tell this story not to highlight sensitive children but because for the longest time, I believed that silence protected me and that what I wanted didn’t matter. I was succumbing to a representation of the Asian model minority—inoffensive, innocent, quiet. I thought nobody would hurt me if they never heard me. I learned that if I continued to bottle my thoughts and feelings then I would succeed in life. I hid in plain sight. Today, I have curated a version of myself, developed in response to social anxiety and the harsh judgment of others.
There’s another side of me that I have imagined in my mind, with a touch of ego: I am on a stage, confidently telling the world hilarious but emotionally moving stories. They walk away with a new perspective, thinking I have changed their lives. They applaud when I finish and say, “I have never thought of that before.” In my mind, I am the one pacing on a red dot, revealing a personal story, and boom, the audience is tearing up from hope and optimism and guffawing from good jokes with a deep grain of truth. In reality, these moments are rare. When they happen, I desperately want to be in the audience, watching a separate version of myself. Yet I feel relief when I hear the praise, affirming that my feelings and thoughts are real. I want both the praise and the pain of being heard. Instead, I don’t speak up, fearful of the pain.
So maybe that’s why I chose Chris.
When I first met him at a college job where we provided tech support, I thought he was loud and obnoxious; like his naturally curly hair, this struck me as unusual for someone of Asian descent. He thought of me as the mysterious Asian college girl who said little but expressed creativity in surprising ways, like writing a skit about a personal anecdote at the staff holiday party. Beyond that, we barely noticed each other. He later described his early impression of me, saying that I was a “non-presence.” I laughed when I heard that, glad that he didn’t see my social awkwardness at dinners and parties. After college, we ran into each other through mutual friends. When we moved beyond the requisite “why are you here?” we finally bonded over horchata and tacos. I loved that he wasn’t offended when I picked up the bill early on and that he wasn’t afraid of my sensitivity. He was drawn to my hyper self-awareness and earnestness to try anything just once, like tennis, even if it was bound for failure.
Chris is the opposite of me in so many ways. He has a booming but articulate voice and won’t hesitate to shout at you when your headlights are off when driving at night. Unlike my report cards where I failed in Participation, he received written comments from teachers like talks excessively/disruptive. He didn’t shy away from challenging authority, like questioning an English teacher’s teaching style, which resulted in multiple visits to the principal’s office. But what we have in common is we’re both Asian.
My childhood could not have been more different than his. I grew up in a stable two-parent household with a younger sister in traditional suburbia, ferried by cars to and from school. Nearly all my relatives emigrated to the United States. Trips back to where my parents grew up in Hong Kong were rare; my parents had the whole world to see, and since every relative was already in the U.S., they had no reason to visit a “homeland” that was no longer recognizable. Chris, however, was an only child in a single-parent household shaped by a tumultuous divorce, bouncing between New York and California, with regular trips to South Korea and Taiwan where his extended family lived. I had a home-cooked, Chinese-style family meal with my parents and sister at five p.m. every day—multiple dishes of charred pork slices, steamed white rice, and saucy gai lan. Chris ate an Americanized diet—fast food at McDonald’s, microwavable dinners, instant noodles—sometimes eaten alone in front of the TV while his mom worked late. From an early age, he was exposed to the world’s realities while I was relatively sheltered and shied away from anything intimidating and uncomfortable. But maybe that’s why I was attracted to him—he countered challenges with what I perceived as bravery while I proudly watched from the sidelines. He advocated for himself in ways I could not imagine doing for myself.
More than a decade after we started dating, having survived many turbulent waves in our relationship, we were in a rhythm. Then, the pandemic started. It’s been said that the pandemic highlighted what was and wasn’t working in a relationship. For us, our comfort with each other was the saving grace, even with our differing approaches to life. All I wanted was to feel safe in a bubble. All he wanted was to feel needed.
One day we went grocery shopping together. It was February 2021 and San Francisco’s pandemic restrictions had reduced occupancy limits due to the winter surge of COVID cases. I wanted to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. We made the mistake of using baskets and overfilled them, so Chris went out to get a shopping cart from the parking lot. When Chris returned with a shopping cart a few minutes later, he said that something had happened outside the grocery store.
“What happened?” I asked.
“A racist,” he spat.
Since March 2020, anti-Asian sentiment had been rising. Chris said that a line had started to form outside because the grocery store was enforcing the city’s building capacity limits. He asked the grocery clerk where the carts were, and she pointed him to the far side of the parking lot. After returning, the grocery clerk recognized him and waved him back inside. A white man with a black bandana over his mouth became upset about the perceived line cutting and yelled racist slurs of “yellow-skinned slanty-eyed snake who served Chairman Mao, Kung Flu, communist dog, sieg heil, ching chong wing wong.” In reaction to Chris’ hesitation at the door, another person in line shouted, “If he’s not going in, I’m going in!”
Inside the grocery store, anger vibrated through his body as Chris shifted his weight from foot to foot and craned his neck looking for the perpetrator. Conflicting feelings erupted inside me—the shame of knowing that I should say something and the overwhelming desire to stay quiet so that I wouldn’t be seen. Interrupting my thoughts, Chris said that I needed to start recording on my phone because the white guy with a black bandana was about to enter. But my phone’s battery was messed up and trying to record would crash my phone. I hesitated. I wanted to be anonymous, just a grocery store customer minding my own business, not an unwilling participant in a stressful confrontation.
The grocery store doors opened and the white guy made a beeline toward Chris. Chris stepped forward, blocking the white guy’s view of me. When the guy threw his arm in the air in a Nazi salute and yelled racist slurs, I was terrified that somebody would notice us. The white guy’s words flowed into me but they didn’t make sense. I worried that Chris and I would be kicked out of the store, as though we were the ones provoking this stranger. I thought if I pretended that I didn’t hear anything, it would go away. If I didn’t say anything, then it couldn’t be happening.
Chris threw his arms up and yelled, “Is everybody hearing this? This is a goddamned Nazi right here in San Francisco! Look at him!”
My eyes widened. In years of therapy, I learned to separate myself from Chris. He isn’t an extension of myself, but a complete other person. Chris quickly turned around, directing me to stay behind him and check out. I knew that he wanted to protect me and didn’t want me to get involved. I focused on unloading our items onto the conveyor belt—Greek yogurt, lactose-free milk, cereal, shishito peppers, kale salad mix—certainly grocery items of reasonable people. Then I wondered why the cashier wasn’t scanning the items. She stared at the scene and said to nobody, “I am sorry.” Was she apologizing to me or Chris? Was she apologizing to the store? Was she apologizing to other customers?
When the white guy with the bandana casually strolled to the freezer aisle at the opposite end of the store, the cashier apologized again. I paid for our items, still shell-shocked and confused, wanting to curl up in bed. Outside in our car, Chris was still agitated. He was looking for the white guy.
“It’s ok,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
Chris messaged our friend group—all Asian Americans—and told them what had happened. Our friends sympathized, saying I hate him too omg and I hope you’re ok. Chris thanked them for letting him vent, but I stayed quiet, allowing him to say it all.
At an Asian film club event later on Zoom that I attended on my own, I described what had transpired at the grocery store. An Asian guy then asked, “Did you ask for help? I was in a class where the teacher said that the best thing you should do is to ask for help.”
No, I hadn’t and my face reddened. Then I remembered—“Chris did. He asked people to look, and nobody did anything.”
The discussion paused and the faces on Zoom stared back at me. I felt put on the spot, but I also recognized that Chris and I had experienced trauma in that moment. Turning my shame into displeasure, I said to the Asian film club, “It’s hard when you’re the victim. We can’t expect the victim to take responsibility for speaking up.”
The following Tuesday, eight people were killed in Atlanta by a shooter who claimed that Asian spas “tempted” him. Six of the victims were Asian women.
My non-Asian friends expressed sympathy. I wrote several words on social media. They hit the Like button. They hit the Care emoji button. They hit the Sad face emoji button. They typed thinking of you in chat and email.
Some, filled with a desire for action, asked, What would you want me to do?
Maybe I tell them, Say something. Anything.
Maybe I tell them, Just check in with me.
Maybe they long ago watched Full Metal Jacket and joked with friends, me love you long time.
Maybe they told themselves that they would never eat chicken feet.
Maybe they said they understood Asian culture because they dated an Asian girl once.
Maybe they enjoyed talking to Mr. Wong at Great China Empress when they picked up their monthly mu shu pork.
Maybe when Trump said “China Virus” they didn’t blink, because that was a fact—the virus originated from China.
After Atlanta, messages on social media instructed, Give space to your AAPI friends and colleagues. Check in with them. They need to know that you’re there.
A colleague messaged me, Wanted to let you know that I am here for you. No need to respond.
I expressed gratitude for her generous message, but I didn’t say what was really on my mind: These messages shouldn’t be for me. Verbal harassment isn’t the same as physical violence and should not be conflated as such. Chris and I never felt physically unsafe, but the verbal barbs articulate a context that I, for the longest time, thought I needed to accept as the cost of being Asian in America.
Months have since passed, but other attacks on Asian women have continued. Due to the pandemic, I have rarely ventured out alone. When I do, I grapple with feelings that I should feel unsafe, but I walk around my urban neighborhood sometimes obliviously looking at my phone. I am ashamed of not being a fully woke Asian American woman, someone who can speak up when there’s racism. I don’t want to tell friends that despite growing up in a white-dominant suburb, I always thought my inability to belong was because of my quiet, awkward personality instead of how I look. I don’t want to tell them that I didn’t experience racism like this first-hand until Chris pointed it out when we first started dating—“Did you hear what that guy said to us on the street? He said ‘chink!’” At the time, I heard indecipherable words and said, “Oh, did he say something? I didn’t hear anything at all.”
I am a child of the 1965 Immigration Hart-Celler Act, an offspring of a highly educated family with generations of scholars. Shortly after 1965, my dad arrived in the United States for college and was a pharmaceutical scientist for decades in a field dominated by white men. My mom arrived in her late twenties and worked as a nurse—the first non-white nurse in her hospital. They have lived in an upper-middle-class suburb for most of their lives, blending in with their neighbors with fluent English. Once a week, they take a thirty-minute drive to Oakland Chinatown. There, they run into other Chinese people who barely speak English and never finished high school. My mom says hello to them as she picks up roasted pork, fresh gai lan, bok choy, and a Chinese newspaper. They greet her back in a village dialect that my dad slowly lost when he fled to Hong Kong as the Chinese Civil War raged. Then my parents bag up their groceries into their Lexus, heading back to their three-story suburban house with a sizable backyard and a three-car garage. They stay out of politics, except for voting regularly and making noise complaints about the neighboring swimming club.
During lunch with my parents, Chris recounted the events that transpired at the grocery store. My mom said in response to the white guy’s slurs, “He can say whatever he wants in this country.”
My dad added, “You have to be safe.”
“Why did you talk back?” my mom said. “You’ll get in trouble.”
Chris frowned and stayed silent. At the grocery store, I had the same thought as my mom. But I didn’t want my parents to think that so I spoke for him, “But nobody else spoke for us.”
I knew that Chris was simmering, but he nodded. This was about us.
I have reflected on that moment at lunch many times and how my instinct was to reach for assimilation like my immigrant parents. Yet I am uncomfortable because nobody hears me and they use Chris as my conduit. Therapy helped me not to blame him for the things I could not be, but I never stopped to solve the things I’m still not. Cathy Park Hong describes these feelings as minor feelings in her book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, defining them as “emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” My therapist once observed that my immediate reaction is sadness, rather than pain. That is, my lament of “why did it happen to me” is grounded in self-pity. I want Chris’ version instead so I can freely shout “why did it happen to me,” aiming my anger at the circumstance. I want to be seen and heard, but silence still feels safer.
The gender roles feel too present—he, of course, would talk back while I would stay hidden. As a woman, I know that safety comes from not being seen. If confronted, I lack the strength to fight or the agility to run. I am conditioned to say I am sorry and it was my fault. Someone “with power” like the grocery store manager owned the authority. Yet, I still felt troubled. I still feel upset about the fact that I didn’t say anything—the incoherent words stuck inside me because I didn’t think anyone would understand. The silence felt comfortable and suffocating at the same time. What if I had said something? What if I owned the words and became the person I wanted to be? Would it feel better to have spoken even if it would make me a target?
Then I thought about the grocery store clerk—a Latina woman who was assigned the thankless job of managing unpredictable customers so that her employer could adhere to the city’s building capacity limits. Her job wasn’t to intervene in conflicts between customers. But even if it was, she may not have wanted to do so. Maybe she thought the same as I did—silence has the power to protect us. Yet we will feel powerless at the same time.
At his company’s diversity workshop, Chris was invited to speak about his experience at the grocery store to highlight the increase of attacks against people of Asian descent. He gladly obliged and shared his story with passion. His colleagues sent him messages of sympathy. He read them aloud to me—they validated my powerlessness and I felt proud of him. But I was also envious since I couldn’t share the story in the same way.
Later in private, the workshop leader asked Chris whether he checked in with me. I brushed him off when he did and avoided eye contact, saying that what happened was about him and not me. All my life, I disliked being seen as the stereotypical Asian girl—meek, obedient, nice. Yes I rejected these labels in safe spaces with close friends, where I joked about trying to be bitchy or hostile, but I have rarely behaved those ways in public. At the grocery store, I said nothing while Chris struggled to be heard. Instead, I let silence engulf me like a womb, dismissing my wants and desires.
I imagine another fairy tale: In this one, inadvertent rudeness is still part of everyday life, but race and gender aren’t reasons to escalate. In fact, by tomorrow, the story is forgotten, because the activities are so mundane.
We are the same otherwise. At the grocery store, we fill our baskets too quickly with impulsive purchases. Chris asks the grocery clerk where the carts are. She gestures to the other side of the parking lot. He returns and the grocery clerk waves him in. The third guy in line, a guy with a black bandana, is irritated. He says, “Hey man, we have been waiting here forever. You’re cutting in line.”
Chris is annoyed, of course. “I just had come out of the store and the grocery clerk said that I didn’t have to wait in line.”
“Well, it’s my turn,” the guy with a black bandana says.
The grocery store clerk turns to the guy with a black bandana. “Sir, please wait your turn. It won’t take more than five minutes.”
“Okay, fine.” He retreats back to the line.
Inside, Chris tells me about what happens outside. As we check out, the guy with the black bandana enters and I call out in a booming articulate voice, “Hey, thanks for waiting.”
He pauses and stutters. “Yeah, no problem.”
I nod back at him and the guy continues to the back of the grocery store. Chris and I drive home, the grocery store trip just lost in the many grocery store trips we have taken in the past and the many grocery store trips we will take in the future. I don’t worry about whether I was able to say something. And the story ends there—my desires were heard, just enough.