The pandemic, and its associated blame game, has reminded many of us just how quickly tides can turn—how quickly, stepping out of the hospital and taking off my white coat propels me from “health care hero” to dirty bat-eating foreigner, or exotic, submissive object.
The other day, I received an email from my medical school in response to increased acts of violence and hate against Asians—like me. The Department of Public Safety was offering “situational awareness” training sessions. While well intended, I suppose, situational awareness training returns the onus and therefore responsibility of safety squarely on the shoulders of victims of violence.
I am dismayed to see what the school presumed I needed was to be “cognizant of emergency exits” and to be taught how to “make good decisions for [my] personal safety.” They say to me, an Asian woman living in New York City, that I do not belong here. That my presence, in a subway car, or on a well-lit street in the day time, necessitates my danger. That when a man on the street yells at me, “I’d fuck a Chink bitch,” being “on guard” and aware of my surroundings will prevent those who hate or fetishize me for the color of my skin or my hair from acting in malice.
The “situational awareness” email is the last straw in the public and personal compendium of experiences with racism that finally inspired me to write. Around the time of the Atlanta murders, I was waist-deep in the experience of being a medical student new to the hospital environment. Three days after the shooting, I struggled to navigate conversations with a patient who barraged me with questions about my ethnicity and family origin, and made inappropriate and flirtatious comments about my appearance. I attempted to redirect comments about my “beauty” in comparison to an Asian woman he had dated before, my head already swimming with the media comments of “not racially motivated” and with the shooter’s sexual motivations. In my patient’s mind, race and sex were tangled into the web of fetishization. Couldn’t the media see that in the Atlanta shooter?
I have been slowly synthesizing and processing the uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes. I feel a grief that is new, yet has always been known to me, as an Asian American, yet I will never fully know, as a daughter of immigrants who came to this country with graduate level degrees, with my own privilege of pursuing a medical degree. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, the category “Asian American” as it is currently encompassed by the U.S. census overshadowed Blacks as the racial category with the widest income inequality gap. I am horrified about the Georgia shootings, while knowing that I cannot grasp the experience of a spa worker in its fullness. The white coat and branding of a (future) “health care hero” insulates me somewhat—even as “my kind” are blamed for eating bats.
And yet, chillingly, this difference is lost on those who profile us. That a Korean person could endure a Sinophobic comment. That, when a man catcalls me, or when a patient in the hospital targets me for my race and gender, I am beholden to the same fetishization of Asian women that I truly believe motivated the Georgia murders.
When I see footage of violence against Asian Americans, I am disheartened to see emphasis on Black and Brown “offenders.” To learn that allegedly, the Asian man in the subway had used the N word, leading to the attack. To see solidarity built in the wake of a year of reckoning with anti-Blackness, police brutality, and systemic racism splintering as communities of color are pitted against each other. Racism and fear-driven hate cannot be dislodged from the fabric of America for one group at the expense of another.
“When a man catcalls me, or when a patient in the hospital targets me for my race and gender, I am beholden to the same fetishization of Asian women that I truly believe motivated the Georgia murders.”
I am disheartened to see the main response to violence being promises for increased policing, when Asian communities have had historically mixed experiences with law enforcement as well. Increased policing will not solve the xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment even perpetuated by our last president. It will not bring business back to Chinatowns where small business owners have experienced losses since early February 2020, when fears of the “China virus” or “Kung Flu” first surfaced.
When I see footage of violence against Asian Americans, I am most disturbed by the background. The subway car full of people sitting idly. The guards in the building, people on the street walking by brutal acts of violence. I have never felt more unsafe than I do now, knowing that in broad daylight in the country’s most densely populated city, I could be completely alone. Only I—armed with my own “situational awareness”—am responsible for what our Department of Public Safety has rendered my “personal safety.”
Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong wrote, “When I hear the phrase, ‘Asians are next in to be white,’ I replace the word ‘white’ with ‘disappear.’ Asians are next in line to disappear,” in her 2020 New York Times best-seller Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Decades of being labeled the “model minority” for stereotypes of being docile, passive and apolitical and being afforded supposed “proximity to whiteness” did not translate to a single helping hand in many of the videos of violence.
The pandemic, and its associated blame game, has reminded many of us just how quickly tides can turn. How quickly, stepping out of the hospital and taking off my white coat propels me from “health care hero” to dirty bat-eating foreigner, or exotic, submissive object. Alone, with the color of my skin and my hair, I suppose I can only rely on my own “situational awareness.”
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