The Atlanta-area shootings that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian women, left me reeling. Had I lived in Atlanta, could I have been one of the victims?
Like members of my Asian family, I frequently go to Asian massage places for their no-frills spaces and great massages. I also like supporting the masseuses, many of whom are older and women, because they are working not only to support their families in America but also family members in other countries. The gunman’s claim that his action was not racially motivated, but an act of vengeance for his “sexual addiction,” turned my tears to rage. Many of my Asian female friends and I have faced racism, sexism and fetishization all of our lives, but I never worried it could get me killed.
Not until now.
The incident brought me back to when I was 16.
“Five dolla, five dolla, for a good time,” the boys cried out to me in their fake Asian accent as I made my way toward my high school. The movie “Platoon” had just come out, and it seemed that the whole world had seen it except me. I tried to ignore the boys, but they kept calling after me.
Loung Ung in high school (Photo: Carol Lee)
Harassment made me invisible
To this day, 35 years later, I am filled with anger when I think of this incident. I wish I had told the boys how hurtful and harmful their words were to me. However, the only word I could think of back then was, “Losers.” They laughed loudly while I fought to hold my head high. Later, when I told my American friend what the boys said, her reply was, “Boys are stupid and mean to everyone.” Are they? I thought to myself. Did she also get propositioned every time a movie was released in which Asian women were portrayed as prostitutes?
I want to say that this incident was the only time I was compared to a prostitute, but sadly, it was not. I want to say that the incident moved me to lead a student protest, to tell someone besides my friend, or to create a panel at my school to speak out about sexism, racism and xenophobia. I did not.
What I did was to make myself even more invisible, silent, polite, hardworking, well behaved and so modestly dressed that a friend described my fashion style as “matronly.” And yet, the harassment persisted.
The recent news of the surge of anti-Asian attacks is upsetting. Since March 2020, attacks against Asians in America have increased by 150%, culminating in 3,800 reported cases, over half of which were against Asian women. And these are just the numbers we know.
But how many of us have experienced incidences in which we were accosted verbally in the past year? How many Asian Americans have had someone yell, “Go Back Home,” or hollered “kung flu” at them? It has happened to me. It happened to an Asian American friend who became so fearful by an incident that she considered buying a gun. The volume of texts, emails and conversations I have had with other Asian American female friends suggest this fear is widespread.
Atlanta-area attacks feel different
As Asian Americans, we all have our own experiences with racism, sexism, fetishism and xenophobia. But the Atlanta-area attacks feel different. We are all collectively under attack, and the attacks are happening all at the same time to us merely because of our Asian heritage. The attacks have been fueled by the lies of Donald Trump, who for a year scapegoated Asians for causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, largely to deflect blame from himself and his administration for their wholesale ineptitude. How long do the lies have to perpetuate before people start believing them?
“Our people are getting attacked, our people are getting harassed, spat on, beat up, you know, slashed,” Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., told ABC News last week. “Please, somebody pay attention, please notice us.” Then, with her voice breaking and her eyes brimming with tears, the congresswoman implored. “Give me confirmation that – I am American, too.”
Loung Ung (Photo: Mark Priemer)
These past months, as heartbroken as I have been over these attacks against Asian Americans, I am also hopeful. I am grateful and hopeful because I do not feel alone. I stand with a community of Asian Americans, allies, friends and supporters to Stop AAPI Hate. I stand with other Asian American and Pacific Island sisters, aunties, uncles, fathers, mothers and grandparents to condemn all hate-filled racial rhetoric against Asians and others.
We stand together with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Rep. Meng and Rep. Judy Chu, and others working to change policies and laws to keep everyone in our country safe. I stand with the families of the victims in Georgia and the victims of anti-Asian violence across our country and across time. I stand with them because we are all Americans.
Loung Ung is a Cambodian American businesswoman, bestselling author and executive producer of the Netflix original movie “First They Killed My Father,” based on her memoir.
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