By Wendy Kawada
For those who don’t know me, I’ve been the Director of Operations here at Kasa since 2013. But more importantly right now, I am 100% Chinese-American. I’ve thought a lot about the racism and violent acts against Asians recently and thought hard about my own experiences. Initially, I didn’t think there was much incident in my life, but the harder I thought, the more I realized it exists for me, even if there haven’t been any direct incidents towards me or my family. It still exists for me and I feel it.
Today I read and saw a video on Twitter of a 65 year old Asian American woman in New York getting violently stomped on the head by a man twice her size, while at least two hotel security guards stood by and watched only feet away. All they did was watch and closed the door. I had a lot of feelings about that. Fear, sadness and anger. The same feelings that are bubbling over for many Asians and those feelings have always been there, lurking under the surface.
My first Asian experience.
My first Asian experience was when I was in the first or second grade, and I went to a school that in hindsight was very diverse. I recall my friends being of all races, predominantly Hispanic but also White, Black, and a wide variety of Asians (Chinese, Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian). One day my teacher was talking about diversity and all different types of people. We were all huddled crossed-legged on the ground looking up at our teacher. I was sitting at the back center and only half paying attention. But I remember clearly my teacher saying to the class, “And Wendy is Chinese”. It felt like there was an audible gasp from the room as all my classmates instantly turned around to look at me. It was almost an out of body experience. I could see myself at the back of the group just sitting there with everyone’s head turned and centered on me. A white boy that I had a crush on, turned around and said “Wendy, let me look at your eyes!” I had such a mix of emotions. I was a little embarrassed with everyone looking at me and from the boy targeting my eyes as proof. I felt a little special at the same time as my classmates’ revelation was pleasantly surprised. But most of all I was shocked. I hadn’t known up until that point that I was Chinese. I didn’t have any concept of what I was except human and American. I probably thought American was my race. I remember the drive home with my mom after school.
“Mom, am I Chinese?”
She confirmed and I simply went on about my life.
My family is more American than anything else. I consider myself a fourth generation American and not even my parents speak any dialect of Chinese. They actually speak more Spanish than Chinese. Regardless of our distance to our ancestral roots, we have a lot of pride being Chinese and Chinese-American. And I’ll pass that pride down to my children, who will be Chinese-Japanese-American.
My second experience was one I didn’t realize until later in life.
When I must have been in the third grade, my Dad (a police officer) sued the city of his employment for racial discrimination. He was denied his Sergeant promotion by the Chief of Police who did not want to promote an Asian in the force. I understood almost nothing when all this was happening, but as an adult I’ve learned more bits and pieces of what my parents had to go through. I remember long boring days sitting in the courtroom with my mom and sister while witnesses testified for and against my Dad. They tried to pin his promotion denial on his anger issues. I recall one of the few times I actually paid attention, they made a big deal about my Dad kicking a trash can out of anger. The simple fact was the police chief was racist and my Dad was going to fight for his life. I learned later that that fight nearly bankrupt my family. My Dad must have been put on unpaid leave due to the lawsuit. They worried about losing our home. They had dipped into their equity. My dad had to put aside his pride to borrow money from the family. My Dad’s stress level was high and his temper was something me and my sisters feared. I realize now that we were broke back then and how much anger, pain and worry my parents had to deal with. The good news is that my Dad won the lawsuit. While appeals never allowed my family to be compensated the $200k he was awarded, he got his promotion and my Dad had a successful and highly respected career. My dad is a legend among the local police force due to his own merits. I just didn’t realize what he had to go through to get it and I didn’t realize how it impacted my own childhood growing up.
My third experience was as a twenty-something year old.
I remember me and my future husband walking to a Giants game. There was a small tailgate gathering in the parking lot and a guy was sitting at a piano on a truck bed. He was playing tunes and as we were walking by we heard him play the “Asian Jingle”, or the “Oriental Riff”. If you hear it, you know exactly what I mean.
Fuck that song, and fuck that dude.
We kept it moving and just ignored him, but that haunted me for a long time. Why didn’t I go and fight the guy and entire group of white people? I suppose I am just a 5’2 skinny Chinese girl. And my husband is a lover, not a fighter. I guess I’m angry because we only furthered the stereotype that we’re meek by doing nothing. The least I could have done was give this guy the middle finger and tell him to f-off. I know this guy probably wasn’t a racist, and was probably just trying to be funny. But it pissed me off and I wish I spoke up or had given that finger.
My fourth experience is really not an experience but more of a realization.
I’m married to a fourth generation Japanese-American man. While our experiences are very similar as Asian Americans, the Japanese-American experience is way different. My in-laws and their siblings were born in the internment camps. Their present family is scattered across the country depending on what camps they went to and where they managed to settle afterwards. Many Japanese-Americans made a conscious effort to raise their children ultra-American to assimilate and avoid racism. My husband told me that his Grandma only spoke Japanese and his mom only spoke and understood English. How is that possible? I can’t imagine not being able to speak to my own mom. The same was also true for my husband’s dad. They were all raised to only speak and know English. It gives me a bad vibe on the idea of being raised “American”, to which I’m a proud American myself. Despite that, my husband’s family has the same strong pride in their heritage, just as my family does. But racism has reshaped and still influences the Japanese-American experience into today’s generation. It’ll be a part of my kid’s heritage now.
My fifth and more recent experience was a couple of years ago.
While walking through the Financial District to meet my husband for lunch, I was attacked by a group of women. I was walking along, no backpack, no purse, no phone out, just a brown bag of food in my hand while in my work hoodie. I felt someone grab my hair bun and started pulling me backwards. In a split second, I thought someone I know is being funny and it changed instantly to “Oh my god, I’m being attacked by someone”. It all happened so quickly and because I was being pulled backwards I could not physically react. I let out a loud gasp and fell to the ground. The next thing I knew there were three girls (not Asian) surrounding me and started yelling things I did not hear or comprehend at the time. A very tall man in a suit had come out of nowhere and put himself between me and these women. The women were yelling and threatening the man who held his ground. Supposedly they had a weapon but they ended running off quickly as a large crowd had started to gather. I never got to thank that man as he disappeared just as quickly as he appeared. Thank goodness for people who stand up for others. It broke my heart to see nobody defending the lady in New York.
I don’t know why these women attacked me. It was lunch time in the Financial District, the busiest time on the street. I looked like nobody in my jeans and hoodie and had obviously nothing on me to steal. I didn’t recognize any of these women. Was it racially motivated? I’ll never truly know.
But hearing about the incident of the Filipino-American woman attacked in San Jose at the train station reminded me of exactly what happened to me. I felt a little PTSD when I read that story and I find myself looking over my shoulder when out in public…again. Now I park as close to work as possible and try not to run errands in San Francisco. I worry about my husband working in the city as well, as it seems it doesn’t matter if you are young, old, big, small, male, female or even have a child with you!
I wonder…would someone still attack me even while I am six months pregnant? Does that make me more or less of a potential target?
I tell my husband now to be safe and keep an eye around him at all times. The realization of how this is affecting me and all of us is heartbreaking and fills me with anger. It’s all our reality right now that we’re filled with worry when we go outside. I can truly have a glimpse on what the Black-American experience must be like everyday. Heartbreaking and anger.
It really sucks to be a victim and if I can do anything about it, it’s to not be a victim. People like my dad and Xiao Zhen Xie are my heroes. They fought back. I wish and hope that next time I face any form of discrimination, racism, violence and injustice that I can fight back just the same. I will stand up and do all that I can to defend and support others in need, regardless of their race. I feel glad that we as Asians and Asian-Americans are speaking out. Don’t mistake our politeness, our sense of dignity or our silence as indifference or weakness. We’re rising up whether you know it or not and though I feel this anger I still see hope that this world will change for the better. I’ll make my next experience one of action.
If you want to support the AAPI community.
Don’t just be empathetic. Be compassionate and let that guide your actions to help support and defend against racism and violence. In the meantime, our partners at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) shared with us a great educational resource at PBS, that speaks more about the Asian American experience.