I've heard (and experienced) countless stories about racism in the US and around the world: being Black means you're a criminal, being Middle Eastern means you're a terrorist, being Hispanic/Latino means you're a drug dealer, or being Asian means you say "Ni hao" for hello and eat fortune cookies for dessert. It's so wildly common that no new news is shocking anymore, but as soon as you start getting bored with the usual and thinking "What else can people be racist about?", they make sure you won't be disappointed by coming back even stronger with new ideas to challenge the status quo.
My very first racist experience was in my freshman year of college. At the time, we were the second generation of international students in my school, so I started an international club to bring people of different cultures together and celebrate diversity. I was so passionate about it like it was my life mission – with the support of our club members, we put together Mr. & Miss events, talent shows, international food affairs, karaoke nights, etc. to raise awareness and add more fun to life on campus.
Anyway, one day, I was having lunch with my group of friends in the dining hall when the flyer for our upcoming Moon Festival event was showing on the TV screens where it read "featuring delicious Asian food"; then from the other side of the dining hall, a white American girl shouted "Ewww Asian food! So disgusting! Who's gonna eat that!?!" Well, technically I didn't catch it at all because you know how much I love my food (even if the sky is falling, it will still never stand a chance of coming between me and my food), so I continued eating. Then my friends (from various different countries) sitting at the same table with me started saying "I can't...", "That is SO rude", and I was like "Whaaaa? What? What did I miss?" They were surprised I didn't hear it but told me what just happened, and immediately I thought my eyes turned into two bullets shooting straight and directly at the other girl across the room in slow motion when she made eye contact with me and scrambled to gather what was happening. Okay, I mean there were no bullets or blood scenes involved and I don't encourage violence, but figuratively speaking that's what my eyes were doing. I did come to talk to her and she then apologized that she didn't mean it in a bad way, so I made sure she knew next time if she just wondered"Who's gonna eat Asian food?" again, I'd be more than happy to help with her research. Mind you, her major was Education.
So that was my first time. But you know, like any other first time, you can never be prepared enough. Then, I graduated. Got a job. One day, I was asked by a grownup white American woman if I ate pasta when we were talking about what it was like in Vietnam since I told her she should visit. I was just laughing it off and said "Is it really a question? I love pasta!", but she seemed surprised and replied "Oh really? I didn't know you guys also eat it." So in my head, it immediately went from being stunned to "Errrm okay, I guess in that case then... No, we only eat rice marinated in fish sauce."
If only I was asked these kinds of questions in our mandatory English tests for school admission in the US instead of hair-pulling worthy questions like "Compare these views. Politicians have the greatest influence on the world. Scientists make the greatest contribution to the world. Which do you agree with? Use specific reasons and examples to support your position" – it would be so amazing. Because yeah, that's the level of critical thinking we are already expected to provide before college so that we can be qualified to study in the States, and here I was, years later, trying to explain to an educated woman who's older than me, born and raised in America, that we do eat pasta in Vietnam? I mean"Do you eat Italian food in the US?" How do you even justify it? Do you eat hamburgers? Do you eat pizza? Do you eat tacos? Honestly, not only would I tick off all the boxes, but I would also gladly add "And McDonald's, too :)" for brownie points. I'm sure she didn't mean it in a bad way either, but to be fair, I've only heard people asking me if I like pasta, which to me would be completely normal. Mind you, she had a job and was super privileged so maybe it was my turn to be racist then because I didn't know that rich, white American people could also be so stupid? (guess none of us still finds this surprising now)
To be honest, I wish racist people published a dictionary where they explained the true meaning behind their acts and choice of words, so when we thought they were racist, we could look it up to see what it meant. Then we wouldn't need to spend time and energy trying to decipher their hidden codes if there were any or if they were just empty-headed, but at least we all could avoid unnecessary confusion and miscommunications by studying the dictionary.
Fast forward to the present tense, it seems like our world still entertains the conventional racist stereotypes, but like a baby – when it only has so many toys to play with for a long time, it will still get bored and squall and demand a new one. So even though having an awful parent may not help it become a well-respected person, they can certainly help it become a spoiled brat. This new toy is called "Chinese virus" which also automatically reads "Asian virus" if you've been following the news. Needless to say, we know who the parent is.
When my brother was still here, he told me about his encounter with some random guy in an elevator. That day, my brother covered himself in his "protective gear" suit – he had his mask and gloves on, to the other guy's surprise. "Why don't you cover your toes?" the guy asked, looking down at my brother's slippers. "Because I don't put my toes in my mouth like you do," my brother said, to which I went from being shaken to cracking up because he did bring up a valid point.
It reminds me of my own relationship with the Asian stigma even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. This actually happened when I was in the UK in late February. My other Vietnamese friend and I were boarding the train to leave London, and as we stepped up on the platform, there was a kid (probably around ten or so) staring at us and shouting "Coronavirus!!" and then rushing away. I was frozen for about two seconds trying to collect my trace of memories, looking back and forth, left and right, to see if there was anyone else around us. No one. Just us. My friend and I looked at each other, but no one said anything. We found ourselves a seat, settled, then five minutes later, we both turned into each other and asked, "So... WTF just happened?"
I guess I'll never know what was going on in that kid's mind at the time, but to be honest, I was a lil' disappointed that he failed to give us the spotlight because I didn't feel like we had it, ya know? I mean not everyone knew what coronavirus even meant at that time anyway, apparently not in the UK. So yeah, we could have grasped the full attention of everyone on the train if he had been just a bit more patient waiting for us to walk to the center of the platform first, then at least give us a proper introduction! Obviously, I was joking, but just shouting "coronavirus" and running away though, seriously?
If I put myself in their shoes, I guess I could understand why some people are racist. Because it's fair. It's fair to them that they have something always ready to blame when things go down to sh*t, so they can keep their current toys while spending more time inventing and collecting new toys. It's fair to them that they already worked so hard to choose their privileged parents and their birthplace, so they should be entitled to chill out after being born. It's fair to them that they should be regarded as "superior," because appearance-wise they have the highest chance to be related to the superheroes we see on TV (I mean how many of you would make a bet that Superman and I are related versus another random white dude across the street?)
I rarely talked about racism because I'm a firm believer in showing instead of telling. Yes, I am Asian, but I am Vietnamese, I may suck at driving and I do maths, but Coronavirus is not my first name and I don't run a nail salon or only eat pho.
Look, everyone handles and addresses racism differently (and it's also absolutely understandable if people are not comfortable to bring it up), but I'm too now convinced that these stories need to be told, by many people, many times. For those of you who know me, I hope you know that these are just a few instances that I've encountered, but they are only a hair of what other people in our community have suffered. I hope you know how paranoid our parents are about us living overseas during this time, because who guarantees we will be treated equally if we get sick with the virus that's already written on our faces? Everyone knows that one Asian kid in the class who's the brain behind the operations but never gets the credit – so thank you, Mr. President, for your thoughtfulness this time – though shouldn't you take the credit instead because you said you knew coronavirus was a pandemic 'long before' it was declared but didn't take any proper actions to prevent it?
I'm sure you don't need to hear this from me, but you know Asian people are among the most hard-working people that you've known. When everything's closed on Christmas, don't you remember that you can always order Asian food? Do you want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN by working double the time to cover for the Asian people who might eventually quit because they're exhausted of this BS, and saying no to sushi, KBBQ, pho, dumplings, etc. to stick with cereal instead? In many scenarios, Asian people tend to do more than talk, so it may be hard to notice our presence but surely won't take you long to notice our absence.
I hope you know that if you are considered "privileged," you can be a superhero instead of just looking-like-a-relative-of-a-superhero simply by treating other people how you want to be treated, and looking at them how you want to be looked at. I alone can't change anything, our Asian community alone can't change anything, our minority community alone can't change anything; but if you read this from me, and you educate and inform the people in your community, and the people in your community educate and inform other people in their community, you are already saving lives, the economy, the country, the world, and our humanity. If that's not enough to be superheroes then I don't know what is!?
P.S.: To all my white friends, I love you.