Kathleen: My Past Year as an Asian American Woman

I grew up in the bay area, where race was never an issue; there were 3 asian supermarkets within a 5 minute drive from my place. All of my neighbors were Asian. I felt safe, protected. I felt like I belonged. My work led me to moving to the East Coast. I expected a change, but nothing too drastic; we were in the 21st century after all. With the rise of social media and social accountability, race issues seemed to be something of the past.

After the coronavirus news started flooding in, I started noticing a shift. As I embarked onto my usual excessively crowded subway routine in the morning, everyone around me immediately started to scurry away. A row of seats directly in front of me suddenly emptied at the next stop. I wasn’t an innocent, harmless fly anymore. I was an outsider. A freak.

I embodied a form similar to that of an alien species, deposited into the midst of a crowded New York subway. I brushed off these instances to look at the bright side. Imagine finally having my own space in a subway! I spoke about this to my two close friends at work, one who was black and one who was Asian. My Asian friend also stated this similarly occurring, along with glares. My black friend remarked, “Now you know how we feel.”

It is interesting how a blend of perception on your race can change your everyday interactions with strangers. I always thought I was seen as myself, a friendly, nice person. Instead, I was instead labeled as an outcast because of my race. These events definitely took a toll on my self esteem, as I imagine it has for many other Asian Americans. I am scared to walk around by myself in public, or take public transportation.

I remember at my company where I am the only Asian woman on my team, and everytime there is a comment about how badly the coronavirus is going, I feel as though I am supposed to apologize. As if I am obligated to feel responsible on behalf of my mother country for this global pandemic. My company has no Asians in leadership. During our last town hall leadership meeting, after complementing the head of engineering for his good work, the CEO remarked, “Also thanks to the Chinese people you have working for you in the basement.” Smiles, blank stares. Not a single uncomfortable glance. The meeting then carried on after that, as if he was casually mentioning the sky was blue that day. This coming from our CEO, no less. As a fellow Asian-American working in tech, it hurt.

But even so my story is just one of thousands that have been plaguing the community, resulting in outrage and violence and death. I hear stories of many Asian Americans contemplating moving to Asia because they no longer feel safe in America. I wistfully imagine that as well, the peacefulness of living in a country where you all share a common heritage. But for me, running away has never been an answer. The important lesson isn’t to retreat at home in the safety of my comfort zone, but to retreat and build back up. The only way to truly feel belonging anywhere has always been with myself.