She Is a New Yorker

“I am, in mind and full heart, a New Yorker to myself. But, even in a city that is nicknamed The Melting Pot for its diverse population … I am still not universally recognized as a New Yorker, or even as an American, because I am Chinese.”

A group at the 2011 New York City Pride Parade. (Jason Pier / Flickr)

A 10-year-old girl stops to check both ways before crossing the street between 82nd and 83rd. It is supposed to be a trivial task, a meaningless action forgotten by the next day. She keeps her eyes down, making sure she doesn’t trip as she is swept along by the current of busy New Yorkers.

She notices a man walking towards her, carrying what looks like a trash bag full of heavy objects, and moves to avoid collision with him. She realizes too late what he is doing. She watches as he swings the trash bag and falls to the ground, nursing a now throbbing head. What the hell just happened, she wonders? Through Google, she discovers she was the fourth victim of a man whose twisted sense of vigilantism encouraged him to search for Asian women on the street and hit them with heavy trash bags.

As that 10-year-old girl, I wonder why it had to be this moment, more than any other, that shattered my ignorance of the racism in my city—why this moment reshaped my view of New York to include the injustices I now must fear as a Chinese woman of color. I wonder why my experience was only one hate crime in a sea of many—and how I could have become just another statistic.

I have been told the mark of a true New Yorker is to be enamored by the constant bustle that roars from the City that Never Sleeps. I like to consider myself one such New Yorker—even if I was born in Shangrao, China. In my 15 years of living here, I have managed to immunize myself to the blaring noise of the streets, perfect my NYC walk and foster my NYC pride. I am, in mind and full heart, a New Yorker to myself.

But, even in a city that is nicknamed The Melting Pot for its diverse population, New York is still a city of social hierarchy, ingrained prejudice and discriminatory laws. And because of that, I am still not universally recognized as a New Yorker, or even as an American, because I am Chinese.

My loyal residence and even my assimilation into American culture are all eradicated by my physical appearance. So, even though I earned my right to be a New Yorker, I am still asked, “Where are you really from?” by a supposed friend from my camp.

I still endure conversations along the lines of, “Are you illegal?” “No, I was adopted.” “Oh, well still, welcome to America!” with the grocery bagger.

I am still forced to smile stiffly at the cab driver that sees me and jeers, “Sorry, sweetness, this cab doesn’t go to Chinatown,” before I assure him I am in fact headed to the Upper West Side.

In their eyes, I am not a New Yorker and I am not an American; I am merely a surprise because I don’t exemplify the stereotypes and habitual routines of a “normal” Chinese. Sometimes I wonder if I am ever seen beyond the profile that my physical appearance presents—if I will ever be seen, not by society’s profile, but by my own.

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I am a New Yorker; that is a part of my profile that I am sure of. But, the rest is still muddy, even to me. As a light-skinned, adopted Chinese girl, I don’t exactly have a place. Adopted from China and whitewashed, I am shunned from Chinese culture. Yet, bearing the physical features of my heritage, I am prevented from belonging to American culture as well: too white for the colored, too colored for the whites. Even in New York’s sea of diversity, I still feel alone. I am a middle ground, isolated from the two main groups that can find solace in their similarities. 

As COVID’s origin place was in China, people have since taken to calling it the “Chinese Virus,” and as a result, the animosity against the Chinese has skyrocketed. This intensified resentment has resulted in a much higher hate crime spree against Asian citizens, especially in New York. There have been accounts of street beatings, racial slurs, train stabbings, shootings and other acts of violence against people who look East Asian.

I, fitting this description to a tee, have not been exempt from this newly rejuvenated anti-Chinese sentiment. In a grocery store, a lady tagging chips glared at me with deep hatred in her eyes and, in colorful linguistics, blamed me for bringing the virus to the United States.

On the train, as I boarded, I found an open seat and sat down. Four people relocated themselves to the other side of the train, covering their mouths and averting their eyes from me. Funny, how COVID not only made me fear my own city, but it also made my city fear me. 

A now 16-year-old Chinese girl sits on her bed, writing a paper on what her NYC should be. While her New York is flawed, and maybe not even meant for her, she still calls herself a New Yorker in the hopes that the world could change enough that New York gives itself back to her. Until then, she chants to herself, and to the world, that she is a New Yorker. She is a New Yorker. She is a New Yorker. She is a New Yorker.

As that 16-year-old girl, I wonder if the world will ever listen; I wonder if the world will ever agree. 

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Catherine Hou is a 16-year-old Chinese adoptee completing her junior year at Fieldston High School in The Bronx. As a bisexual woman of color, she is a strong advocate for social activism and believes that equality should not be a privilege, but a universal civil right.