Editor’s note: This week, we were deeply saddened by the shootings in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent. Google is a proud supporter of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and we stand with them in the fight against hatred. In this post, Eva Tsai, Director, Marketing Analytics and Operations, shares her personal experiences and reflections on racism and discrimination as an Asian American.
When a stranger asks you where you’re from, the question is often not as simple as it seems. As an Asian American, when someone asks me that question, I run through a quick mental calculation to figure out what they really mean.
Some people just use it as an innocuous way to start a conversation. Others, however, have an underlying assumption: To them, someone like me can never truly be an American. They’re really asking, “Which foreign country are you really from?”
Years ago, in the Houston airport, a white man in a suit decided to single me out. I was the only Asian person in sight. “Where are you from?” he shouted across the packed airport train car. I had just finished a grueling week of business travel and meetings, and I just wanted to be left alone. Despite my silence, the man continued asking the question, with increasing exasperation. Soon, he started to cycle through different Asian languages, intertwined with increasingly loud and slow English, assuming I was a foreigner. “Are you Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese … what are you?” he asked.
The tension in the air was palpable, until someone else spoke up. “How about American?” a white woman with purple hair yelled. “She is American, period!” Her answer stunned the man into silence. A stranger’s curiosity to know the origin of my Asianness does not trump my privacy. And everyone should be able to feel like they belong, instead of feeling “othered” by questions like that.
Outrunning and dismissing injustice is no longer an option.
Microaggressions like this contradict the long-held idea of the American dream: If you work hard enough, you will overcome any obstacles. For a while, I tried to outrun those microaggressions. (I once laughed off the “where are you from?” question by joking I was from Bulgaria, even though I don’t speak a word of Bulgarian.) I focused on achieving my version of the American dream and buried those incidents deep, wishfully thinking they would eventually fade away without a trace.
But they didn’t.
Two years ago, in an attempt to push myself outside of my comfort zone, I attended a meditation retreat, alone among hundreds of strangers. During group discussions, the topic of racial justice came up — and I was unsure how to respond. What am I as an Asian American? In the reductive narrative of the haves and the have nots, Asian Americans are not the oppressors. But are we the oppressed? Talking about the microaggressions I have experienced seemed self-indulgent; they don’t compare to the blatant injustices Black people have endured.
I continued to harbor my conflicted feelings until later that year, at a Google Asian Women Leadership Summit, when another attendee articulated the struggles I had been going through. “A cut is a cut. Each trauma is unique,” she said. “For Asian Americans, it’s death by a thousand cuts.” That explanation confirmed the baggage I have carried, despite my attempts to minimize it. Surrounded by people with similar lived experiences and mental baggage, I felt liberated.
Unfortunately, for Asian Americans, “death by a thousand cuts” has recently escalated to “death by assaults,” with the sudden spike in racist and xenophobic violence across the United States. The injustice has always been there, but increasingly, it is shifting from covert actions like “where are you really from?” to overt violence. As I see the rise in horrific attacks, I realize it’s time I confront the feelings I’ve repressed.
I never thanked the woman who called out the aggressor who questioned my right of belonging in the Houston airport. Her act of kindness, however, has inspired me to pay it forward. Outrunning and dismissing injustice is no longer an option.
Photo: Getty Images