Lucky to be here

Cal in Color

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Content warning: hate crimes

As a little girl, I had strong attachment issues, particularly with my maternal grandparents. When I moved away from them to reunite with my parents in the United States for the first time, my meltdowns occupied such a large portion of our lives that, to this day, my mother often jokes those meltdowns come to mind when she thinks of me.

But my tantrums weren’t completely unreasonable. All I’d known my whole life up until that point was my grandmother’s delicate knitting, my grandfather’s woodsy cigarettes, our calligraphy wall hangings. My parents were practically strangers to me, and being tossed into this new world, with no one I thought I could fully depend on, was terrifying, especially as a 5-year-old.

Every time a particularly strong bout of nostalgia or longing for my grandparents’ embrace consumed me, I would break down in tears. My mother would sweep me up in her arms, push back the hair in my eyes and rock me back and forth.

And while she did, she would often whisper to me, “Don’t be sad. We are so lucky to have gotten to move to America. You are going to learn so many cool things, make so many new friends. And those friends, they’re all going to be so different from you, but that’s what will make them special. You’ll grow up to have a better understanding of the world than your daddy and me combined.”

I’d always resist initially whenever she said these things to me (“No! America sucks!”), but, eventually, my hyperventilating would subside. And by the time I stood up on wobbly legs once again, I internally accepted what my mother said about how fortunate I am — how fortunate we are.

Like other immigrant parents, my parents moved our family to the U.S. believing that this was where my brother and I would receive the highest quality education; where we would be free to explore and express our ideas as we wish. Where we would meet people with a wide variety of different backgrounds and treat them with relative equality.

This year, however, my parents have been proven wrong.

On Jan. 5, a 52-year-old Asian woman was shot in the head with a flare gun in Oakland. On Jan. 28, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant was violently shoved to the ground and died of injuries in San Francisco. On Jan. 31, a 91-year-old Chinese man was forcefully pushed over while on a walk in Oakland’s Chinatown.

We cannot say with absolute certainty the motivations behind these attacks, but we can make the observation that each of the victims is an Asian elder who received violence unprovoked.

Since the spread of COVID-19, with help from former president Donald Trump’s fierce scapegoating, anti-Asian sentiment has dramatically increased across the country. My community is fielding blame for the government’s incompetence in properly responding to a pandemic.

As a teenager, I, too, have personally experienced an increase in racist remarks and microaggressions since the beginning of the pandemic. While walking on the streets with a group of predominantly Asian friends (in the ever-so-liberal Berkeley, no less), I’ve heard white men mutter (obscenity) under their breath, seen middle-aged women make a point of walking in a wide arc around us.

These crimes and encounters have made me fearful simply for being Asian American — for having an Asian American mother and father, grandmothers and grandfathers.

Ironically, in a complete role flip from one year ago, it’s now me following my mother to the door when she’s about to go out, urging her to not stay out too late, to look out for shady people. Perhaps you could say I’m being overly cautious, that I have no reason to be as on edge as I am.

The truth of the matter, however, is that my mother is a nearly 52-year-old Asian woman. My grandfather is a nearly 84-year-old Asian man. The recent spates of violence could’ve been directed at any member of my family.

My grandparents are the most selfless, giving people I have ever known, much like many other traditional Asian elders. As is the norm in many Asian societies, people spend the majority of their lives as adults raising their children and many spend the majority of their lives as seniors raising their grandchildren. They devote their lives to bettering and supporting younger generations. Out of anyone in the world, this group least deserves the poor treatment and targeting they’ve recently received in the U.S.

Recent events have contradicted my parents’ expectations of equal treatment upon moving here. But I have hope that, in the near future, this country can once again become the place my mother told me it was, all those years ago. A place where I can seek the highest quality education. A place where I can express and explore ideas as I wish. A place where Asian Americans like me can be treated with respect.

And then, perhaps only then, will I truly feel lucky to be living here.

Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]