Asian Americans Tried To Fit In — And We Still Became Targets

Now it’s time to speak out against hate and stand up for each other

By Daniel Lee

Asian rice soup
Photo by Marisa Harris on Unsplash

Bright yellow mustard spread on two slices of white bread. Or perhaps rice with a little bit of sesame oil mixed with some ramen seasoning packets. Ask any immigrant child, and they will have a number of quick and easy recipes like these that helped them get through the afternoon — that after-school time of being alone and hungry, with parents often working long hours and without having much to eat at home. For me, it was a heaping scoop of rice submerged in water, kind of like a soup, eaten with some dried seaweed and pickled cabbage or “kimchi.”

The morning after one such afternoon, my teacher asked the class to share what they ate for snack when they went home the previous day. I began to explain what I ate and started to notice some raised eyebrows and confused looks around the classroom. I lost the room completely when I said, “dried seaweed.” I told myself at that moment that I was never going to do that again. That is one of the first memories I have of feeling embarrassed of being Korean American and feeling afraid of not fitting in or being accepted.

Many immigrants will tell you that trying to make it in another country is an everyday struggle to survive. You do what you have to do to get by; and for children of immigrants, the all-too-familiar reality is making sacrifices and following the example of your parents. Along the way, experiences like what I felt that day in my elementary school classroom encourage us to try our best to hide and not be seen. Do this enough, and it becomes a part of your psyche and way of being. For a large portion of my life, I did a great job at code switching and hiding the parts of me that were too Korean. That is what I thought I had to do to fit in or be American.

It didn’t help that whenever I turned on the TV or looked at magazines, I never saw anyone that looked like me on the screen or in print. The Asian character was always a punchline to a joke or not taken seriously. Only recently have we started to see and appreciate the stories of Asian Americans on TV, in movies, and in popular culture. Crazy Rich Asians was a global blockbuster film, Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience have been hailed as quality television programs, and the Korean pop group BTS has gained worldwide superstardom.

For two years in a row, films that tell the stories of Koreans and Korean Americans respectively have been deemed Oscar-worthy. Last year, Parasite won the trophy, and this year Minari has been nominated. In addition to the films themselves, the directors and actors have also been nominated and recognized for their achievement and artistic contribution. As a second-generation Korean American, the only word that could capture what I have been feeling is indescribable. Pride and a sense of accomplishment for my people is a huge part of it. But what I felt in my classroom all those years ago — that sense of otherness and erasure — popped up again when the Golden Globes this year decided to categorize Minari as a foreign-language film, despite the story being about family and hard work, supposedly American values. (In fact, Minari has an American director, was filmed in the United States, and was financed by American companies!)

And yet our growing representation in American culture has not inoculated immigrants or Asian Americans from being the targets of violence. In the past year, the New York Times reports that nearly 3,800 hate incidents were directed against Asian Americans. Stop for a second to consider: that is more than 10 acts of hate per day. Elderly grandmothers have been attacked in San Francisco; White Plains, New York; and Times Square.

The murders of eight people in the Atlanta area, six of whom were Asian, and four of whom were Korean, at the hands of a white male have left me numb all over again. Even more concerning is the way that some have tried to explain that this crime had nothing to do with race or the victims being Asian, despite the reported account of witnesses that the assailant said he wanted to kill all Asians. What must be made clear is the connection between the anti-Asian rhetoric heard in our society, even from the highest levels of government, over the last several years and the violence happening today. Winning Oscars is wonderful, but not enough to protect us. Trying to hide our dried seaweed to fit in will not protect us. The time for Asian immigrants to become invisible or silent is over.

Just like the thawing and the end of winter, we are seeing signs of new life. The recent outpouring of support from those outside the Asian American community has meant so much. All the texts, Instagram posts, and messages standing in solidarity and voicing concern for what is happening have been so life-giving. On March 26, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers wore a “Stop Asian Hate” T-shirt on TV, and it provided a powerful witness and healing act.

Damon Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers wears a “Stop Asian Hate” shirt.
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard wears a “Stop Asian Hate” T-shirt as he stands with team video coordinator/player development coach Jonathan Yim on Friday, March 26, 2021, in Orlando, Florida. The Blazers beat the Magic 112–105 as Lillard sat out the game with a bruised knee. Photo by Bruce Ely/Trail Blazers

For the first time in my life, I am feeling seen and heard in a way that I have never been before, not despite my Korean-ness but because of it. And it couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. This week as we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, may we all be filled with the courage and strength of our Lord to speak life and hope to those in need. May we choose incidents of love and actions of healing that will include others in life-giving community.

Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee is a third-year D.Min. candidate at Duke Divinity School and staff member at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, Oregon. He is married to Angie and has a daughter, Harper. Together, they love cooking and traveling.

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