Why we don’t always fight

Making sense of Atlanta and this Asian American moment

I recall a night from my pre-teen years, before the crisis of self-awareness sets in and rattles your very identity. My family is out to dinner. My parents, who emigrated from South Korea before I was born, had embraced all things American with a certain jingoistic fervor, and that evening we went out to a Pizza Hut in the suburbs of Long Island. This is the late ’70s.

Waiting to be seated, it became clear we were being ignored. Several patrons who entered after us were immediately given tables. My father asked to speak to the manager, and with a raised voice he asked why we hadn’t been offered a seat. The manager, who looked to be a teenager, sized up my father’s evident rage and sighed. He pointed to a booth and we sat down. As the waitress handed us menus, she looked befuddled, almost as if to say, “I guess we’re doing this?”

Our order took forever, far longer than those who came after us. When the food finally arrived, it was burnt to a crisp. My parents were livid. My younger sister and I sensed a pending calamity and we slumped lower in the booth.

The tin fury in both my parents’ voices rang through the restaurant. My father pointed to the charred circle of dough and cheese and said, “This is how you serve us!?” He screamed about being mistreated, that — and here it came, the word — this was “racist.” Everyone stared. A man at the table next to us told my father to simmer down. The manager protested. Then he took a jab. We were “difficult customers from the start,” he said. My father’s face, normally a deep shade of brown, a peasant brown, turned red. He stood up, looked at my mother, my sister and me and said we were leaving.

I couldn’t look at anyone, including my parents. But when we got into the car, I yelled at my father about why he had caused such a fuss. Until that moment, we had been blissful citizens of the suburban middle, the pleasant, hidden center. Now, somehow, my father’s outburst had cracked open our very place in this universe. We were, all of a sudden, outsiders. Non participants. Other. (The truth, I soon learned, is we always were.)

He turned around and looked at my sister and me. “What they did was wrong,” he said firmly. "That’s not how we should be treated. I want you to remember this and whenever something like this happens, you have to say something. Don’t ever keep quiet. You have to fight.”

I looked away. I was starving and upset. But more than that I was unsettled about who I was, of my place in the collective, such as it were, which at the time meant the mostly white enclaves of an outlying district of New York City in the twilight of the 1970s.

In the tale of race relations, it’s a minor incident, perhaps a handful of words in a saga dominated by two massive ruptures in the founding of this country: the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement and continued killings of Black Americans.

But when I got to college and found my Asian American cipher, I discovered just how rare that moment was. My friends' parents didn’t always make a fuss. That’s not to say they didn't know when they were being mistreated. But immigrants often don’t report such incidents, or rage at racism. Many are undocumented. Many don’t speak English. My father had the advantage of speech, of citizenship and a rare ethnic disposition all Koreans will recognize as an anger incarnate (that’s another essay).

For decades, Asian Americans have only come together in moments of crisis. The killing of Vincent Chin, for example. And now, the killings in Atlanta. We’ve always been a fractured state. We speak different languages, worship various religions, are politically diverse (or divided) and have the largest wealth gap in the nation. We are a phantom identity.

Even the rise in violence against Asian Americans over the past year — tied to the pandemic and Donald Trump’s use of a frequent refrain: “the China virus” — has been cast into doubt as a unifying moment. Before the Atlanta killings, the writer Jay Caspian Kang made the case that it wasn't entirely clear that there has been an actual surge in anti-Asian crimes, or that Trump somehow was the trigger, especially since some of the suspected perpetrators were Black. He fails to consider the possibility that even non-Trump supporters might buy into his rhetoric and blame Asian Americans for the pandemic. If we only exist in times of friction and we can’t even agree on a signal moment of brutality, do we exist at all? I mean, what are we fighting?

In a February essay, the writer Hua Hsu said, "It’s difficult to describe anti-Asian racism when society lacks a coherent, historical account of what that racism actually looks like.” Our “victimhood,” as he describes it, lacks a vernacular.

The killings in Atlanta — six of the eight murdered were Asian women — would seem to offer a trenchant record, even carve the words "anti-Asian violence” onto a granite stele as a kind of universal marker from which the rest of the world could learn. But no, the motive is officially undetermined. The Atlanta Police Department, citing the perpetrator’s words, attributed his violence as an attempt to rid his temptations. The alleged killer, an evangelical white male who had a “sex addiction,” put a bullet in the faces of several of the women.

Even the outpouring of protests, the words of President Biden, and the latest headlines describing the rise in anti-Asian attacks seem to have been cast in parallel to Atlanta. The yawning gap between the official record and the distress Asian Americans feel in their bones is mind-numbingly frustrating. It’s exhausting. It also mirrors the stunted, disconnected aspect of the Asian American identity itself. We seem to phase in and out of existence, often at the mercy of other people’s doubt.

Atlanta quashed any wavering among Asian Americans. In the last few days, I’ve received emails and texts from my Asian American friends, some whom I hadn’t heard from in years, asking, telling in some variation, “Hey, I’m here. You ok?” like a Bat signal. But the clarity of the moment was best summed up by a 75-year-old woman named Xiao Zhen Xie, who was attacked on the streets of San Francisco, just a day after the shootings in Atlanta, by a 39-year-old man. She was sucker-punched, but then she picked up a wooden plank and beat him to the point where he had to be carried away on a stretcher. A GoFundMe page started by her grandson to help with medical expenses has raised over $900,000, but she insisted it all go to the "Asian American community to combat racism.” There’s no other way to say it: She’s a badass.

I wonder how long we can hold onto this moment. There are competing threads of Asian Americanness. They tend to manifest along two lines. At one end, there’s a conservative tug, one that leans into a kind of ethnic nationalism, the “I want what’s mine” brigade, who care less about a broader collective. This is the same group that aligned itself with white conservatives in a recent legal suit against Ivy League universities in an effort to unwind affirmative action. Within this strain, arguably, are those who have also called for greater policing presence in the wake of anti-Asian violence.

It’s a troubling congregation. Their actions have created a wedge with Black Americans, a community who is met with the threat of violence every day, especially from law enforcement. The shock Asian Americans felt from Atlanta is a daily one for them.

But at the other end, there’s a more progressive strain, one that is more tightly aligned with Black Americans and other minority groups and sees white supremacy as the root of the problem. This group tends to be younger. My daughter, a third-generation Asian American, who has led protests for more racial inclusivity at her high school, is one such card-carrying comrade.

But in either case, the Asian American persona only seems to come into focus at moments of friction, and if a hate crime can’t be called a hate crime, the friction itself loses substance.

Some, such as the columnist Bret Stephens, have outright dismissed the racial animus behind Atlanta, despite it coming at the end of a gun barrel.

There's another wrinkle. As elderly Asian Americans were beaten and spit on and Asian American schoolchildren were bullied and belittled, the Academy Awards committee announced several Oscar nominations, including best picture, for the indie film Minari, a quiet and moving story about a Korean American family trying to make it in America. Let me be clear, I’m not making a case for representational politics, which is its own thorny media game. 

You may find it ironic, or perhaps self-hating to know that I was disappointed by the attention placed on this film. It’s a wonderful piece of art, but I couldn't help but feel skeptical of the official accolades, which often come from a misplaced sense of authenticity, that Asian Americans can only come alive when portrayed as striving newcomers. My daughter, who found little connection to the story, calls such preoccupations (not the film) “white gaze trauma porn.”

How can a nation at one moment pour hate on a group while in the next acknowledge their lives through the country’s highest cultural honor? (You know we all still live for the movies.) Not too long ago, the white-hot success of Crazy Rich Asians, the rise (and fall) of NBA player Jeremy Lin, and the scores of Asian American comics landing Netflix specials seemed to signal a pop culture moment, a critical flashpoint for a group that’s usually invisible.

In truth, none of these examples — throw in K-pop and last year’s Oscar winner Parasite, even though they're not Asian American so much as instances of Asian Americana by proxy — are wholly authentic. They’re bits and pieces, take-it-off-the-shelf whatnots you can patch into an identity. I remember the wave of Hong Kong films that started entering American cinemas in the ’90s, specifically the John Woo epics that redefined the gangster genre with flamboyant displays of violence. I latched onto them as somehow representational, even though I was not from Hong Kong or Chinese. Or a gangster. But it didn’t matter. It spoke to me.

In other words, Asian America can be a post-modern identity when it’s not forced into being by the threat of violence. There's something potentially powerful, and unifying, in these quieter flashes of media recognition. Perhaps that is the vernacular we ought to be seeking.

There is still a deep history of silence among Asian Americans, of keeping out of the way. It’s partly cultural, but it’s driven more by a white narrative that submission, that following the rules, or not making a fuss, will get you ahead. It was given a name by President George Bush: “model minority.”

Despite the potent events behind Atlanta, I worry we will once again check out after some time has passed. Already the conversation has shifted after the killings in Colorado, which occurred less than a week after Atlanta.

And so, I will always return to how my father perceived that night. He decided to turn an uncivil moment, an incident of racism, into a real thing simply by giving it a name. He spoke it into existence. Only as an adult did I recognize that his outburst was in fact a brave act of creation. It forced me to acknowledge my difference, my distance from the false center I thought I inhabited, and gave me an identity.

But as we drove away, I heard something else, a moment of doubt. Mumbling under his breath, my father said, “I don’t know, maybe I made a mistake.”

Dad, you didn’t.