A young man walked by me and once he was far enough away he called out, “Hey, Yao Ming!” — a reference to the 7’6” Hall of Fame Chinese basketball player. I’m nowhere near as big as Yao, but apparently being 6’3” and Korean was close enough for him.
Maybe this guy felt brave because he was with three of his friends. I turned around and said, “Say it to my face, (expletive) –– it will be the last thing you see.” He hid his face and walked on. If that’s not evidence that he knew he was in the wrong, I’m not sure what is.
I returned to my friends but kept the incident to myself. I just buried it because I didn’t want it to ruin our day at the park.
This is how Asians tend to be.
We go quietly about our own affairs and we try to mind our own business. We aren’t very vocal, at least with those outside of our own immediate circles.
(I did keep an eye out the next thirty minutes while walking around in case I ran into the guy again because I honestly would have picked a fight. I was stewing on the inside.)
Mad, Sad, and the Atlanta Spa Shootings
A few years ago a friend and coach told me that people get mad because they’re sad. Unfortunately, some people never get past the “mad” stage to uncover the sadness and hurt underneath.
Like you, I’ve been through my share of painful experiences in life. I’ve come to realize that it takes courage to admit that something hurts. If you are hurting right now (for whatever reason) admit it –– at least to yourself.
It’s a courageous thing to admit you’re hurt.
(The Yao Ming comment made me mad. The Yao Ming comment hurt.)
Just yesterday, I posted on Instagram (@MikeKimTV) about the shootings in the Atlanta massage parlors that left 8 people dead, 6 of them Asian. A friend and colleague who I’ve always known to be a good man responded, “Damn… that ain’t no happy ending!”
The implication is that Asian massage parlors are nothing but places of illicit sexual activities –– “happy ending” is a colloquial term for manual sex. Nevermind that there was a husband and wife at one of the locations getting a massage together. I suppose married couples like to go to illicit parlors together, right? (The husband survived the shooting but his wife, Delaina Yaun, did not.)
My friend apologized quickly, and I forgave him before he even asked because I know him. But it hurt.
These are real people and the news hit me hard. It hit even harder when I found out some of them were around my mother’s age. I mustered up enough courage to listen the 911 recording. It was as if I was listening to my mom. I cried.
Then I found out the Cherokee County Sheriff Captain, Jay Baker, had pictures and promotions for “Covid 19, Imported Virus From Chy-Na” t-shirts on his Facebook page. If you think Trump propagating phrases like “Kung Flu” or “Chinavirus” have no bearing, you’re delusional.
(Also, this is law enforcement? You have got to be kidding me.)
I gave this guy the benefit of the doubt when I first heard him say of the shooter, “Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” Public speaking is hard, even if you’re (ahem) the communications guy.
Once the images leaked? Anger, part deux.
Stupid Little Racist Things:
I’ve heard countless times in my life, “You’re the biggest Asian guy I’ve ever met!” The insinuation, of course, is that Asian people are supposed to be short.
I always want to ask, “How do you expect me to respond to that? Is it supposed to be compliment, as if I intentionally hung from a pull-up bar since I was 5 years old so I’d grow taller than everyone?”
(I’m genuinely curious as to what possible response people expect from a comment like that. Someone please enlighten me.)
As a kid, I actually didn’t like the fact that I was tall. It made me feel as if something was wrong with me and I used to slouch a lot in an effort to hide. I felt abnormal.
When I was in my early 30s, I worked at a predominately Caucasian church in Connecticut as their music director. One day our staff (who were always good to me) attended a networking breakfast with other local pastors from the region.
A guy walked up to me and said hello to me in Japanese, konichiwa. I responded with a half-hearted smile, “Nope.” Undeterred, he proceeded to say hello in Chinese, ni hao ma.
I quickly realized I was dealing with a moron for Christ.
My response was, “0 for 2, buddy” –– and I stared a hole right through his face for what I hoped would be the most uncomfortable 15 seconds of his life. In this instance, I was very glad I was 6’3″.
(I guess I wasn’t cut out to work at a church.)
In case I’m not making the point clearly enough, please just say hello like a normal person. It reminds me of the times people have called me “Kim” instead of my actual first name, thinking it must be what Asian people prefer, or worse, as if “Mike” wasn’t my real name.
These are seemingly small things that contribute to bigger problems.
My Family, the United Nations
When I asked my mother what she thought about the shootings she nonchalantly replied, “There’s a lot of racism in this country.” I can’t even imagine what she went through in the 70s and 80s as an immigrant. Maybe it’s not that different and she’s just numb to it, I don’t know.
I do know that my parents chose to raise my sister and I in a predominately Caucasian town so we would have even more of an “American” upbringing. (Nearby towns had heavier Korean populations and they apparently didn’t think that would be good for our studies.)
My family is diverse. My sister married a Caucasian guy from Connecticut (no connection to the moron for Christ). My mother re-married an Irish-American from Philadelphia. All of my paternal cousins married non-Asians.
When my sister, brother-in-law, and I go out with my cousin Frank and his wife, an African American, we look like the United Nations walking into the restaurant. I guess it’s cool, but I’ve never really thought about it much. Being ethnically diverse doesn’t make us better or worse than the next family. We are just people. We are just family.
One thing to understand about Asian culture is that it is very familial, very communal. My best friend Henry calls my mother, “Mother.” My brother-in-law calls my mother, umma which is Korean for “Mom”. This is one reason why the Asian community is grieving so hard in this right now. We see our moms. We see our sisters.
I’ve actually never given much thought to my ethnicity except when I experience, well, racism. I still hesitate to use that word at times. I feel it should be reserved for other groups, and that I should go quietly about my own affairs, mind my own business, and not be very vocal.
I realize that needs to change.
What To Say if You Don’t Know What to Say
I was angry and heartbroken at the news of the Atlanta shootings. I was upset about the reports about anti-Asian crimes over the past several months, but Atlanta was a boiling point.
Several of my friends reached out to me, which I found very meaningful. It made me think of how my African American friends may have felt after the George Floyd killing last year.
I wondered back then if reaching out to any of my friends during that time would even make a bit of difference. I reached out anyway. Now being on this end, I can tell you firsthand: it is better to reach out than not reach out at all.
(Side note: Last June, I was in a predominantly African American bar in Atlanta of all places, watching the George Floyd funeral on TV. This all just feels so surreal and weird and effed up.)
Here are a few things my friends shared with me. These words may help you reach out to others (these three are all writers and they’re good with words):
- “Just want you to know how sad I am about the shootings. Just know I love you and am with you.”
- “Hey man. Love you. Here for you.”
- “I am so deeply saddened to hear of these things, Mike. My heart is with you, and with those targeted by these cowards.”
I have wonderful friends and colleagues from all walks of life. I don’t ever recall encountering anything racist within my line of work, nor have I ever felt there was some sort of “ceiling” on me because of my ethnicity.
Neither have I ever felt I was granted an opportunity simply for the sake of diversity. Maybe I have, but if so I never realized it. I just go into whatever opportunity I’m granted and kick ass –– and I’d like to think my work has been allowed to speak for itself, Asian or not.
I’m also keenly aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. Many are not privy to such blessings. I am determined to do what I can to change that.
There’s so much to unpack in this situation. Racism. Attacks on women. Attacks on the elderly. (What kind of gutless prick attacks old people?)
For now, the following sums it up for me because it has to do with hiding when you shouldn’t have to.
Earlier today, I read a post from one of my former students. I used to tutor her when she was in in high school. She wrote,
“For the past couple of weeks, my mom has been consistently reminding me if I were to ever go out to run errands or take walks with her, to cover up as much as possible and “not look Asian” … I always go with her carrying pepper spray and constantly looking around, fearing something could happen.”
What the hell. It’s 2021!
I asked a few friends last night, “I wonder if the world will ever get any better.”
I don’t know the answer but I hope this post will help someone, anyone, take one step forward.
If you’d like to hear me talk about Asian American identity and my upbringing a bit more, check out my interview on the Asian Hustle Network podcast.
Asian Hustle Network is a community of over 100,000 Asian entrepreneurs and business owners. AHN’s founders, Bryan Pham and Maggie Chui, have created a wonderful network of changemakers doing good in the world –– who just happen to be Asian.
All change starts with awareness, and this is a good place to start.