On Saturday there was a march in New York from Times Square through Chinatown to City Hall. An Asian American organiser stood on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, under the portico, recalling what it feels like to ‘have someone look at you and all of a sudden you’re not a person any more’. There has been a year-long surge in hate crimes against Asians in the United States. Last Tuesday, eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed by a mass shooter at three massage parlours in the Atlanta area.
Last Sunday, two days before the shooting in Georgia, I was walking through my neighbourhood in Harlem. A six-foot man, rather striking in a leather bomber jacket, came up to me and said: ‘Get the fuck outta here, you fucking bitch.’ By ‘here’ he meant ‘this country’. The abuse was nothing new. I have been told to go back to China by a small boy; shouted at in Brooklyn on a summer’s night; received unwanted greetings in Asian languages I do not speak from shopkeepers and lewd men around the world; identified by a boyfriend on his blog not by my name but as his ‘Asian girlfriend’. But in the midst of the most terrorising violence against East Asians that has occurred in the US in my lifetime, the words uttered by the man who disparaged me on the street were more than insulting. I have become the intruder.
Can one feel like an intruder in society and an intruder in oneself? In his essay ‘L’Intrus’, Jean-Luc Nancy speaks of his failing heart as an intruder in his own body, an organ marked by disease. ‘In me there is the intrus,’ he writes of his new, transplanted heart (‘the heart of another’), ‘and I become foreign to myself.’
Last Wednesday, the day after the Atlanta shootings, I was at the mechanic because my car’s catalytic converter had been sawn off in the middle of the night. A pipe dragged along the ground as I drove there in shame, my damaged car as loud as a hundred motorcycles. The mechanic advised me to report it to the police. I called them, and waited on the grease-spotted driveway for them to arrive. Two patrol cars turned up. A male officer, getting out of the second car, looked at me and asked the others: ‘Does she speak English?’
I have never felt as if I fully belonged in the US, but perhaps many immigrants feel this way. I am not Chinese. I am not American. I am supposed to be both, but I feel like neither. There are places where I feel a sense of belonging, but it doesn’t take much to dislodge me. A curator at the Whitney Museum once asked me, at dinner, to speak Chinese to entertain the table. When I refused, she said ‘Come on!’ and began ching-chonging. No one else called it out or even acknowledged it. We were at a table full of young artists, and the power she wielded as a curator was clear. My reason for remaining silent was different: she had nothing to offer me, but I was so shocked and humiliated that I was left speechless.
A friend texted me in mid-February: ‘I’m on the subway platform wondering if I look too Asian.’ I read about a woman being chased out of a grocery store by a shopper who accused her of being infected with the coronavirus. Her husband thought that by dyeing his hair blond he might avoid similar harassment.
On another friend’s daily commute from Park Slope to the Upper West Side, she was sprayed with Lysol by a man on the train. He got out at her stop and told her to ‘go fuck yourself’. Another man jogging up the stairs fist-bumped him. ‘Better me than my mom,’ my friend told me. My own mother lives in Los Angeles. When I talk to her I don’t mention the Chinese American man who had his finger cut off at a bus stop near her house.
Wondering if I too should go blonde, I spent a night reading about the burned scalps of Asians who bleach their hair: it can take up to three sessions and fifteen hours of bleaching. The horror stories – botched orange hair, clumps of hair falling out, melted hair welding to scalps – led me to search for blonde wigs instead. I eventually gave up and bought a baseball cap.
The murders in Atlanta last Tuesday have not been charged as hate crimes, despite President Biden’s tying them directly to the rise in hate crimes against Asians across the US. Of all the masseuses the suspected shooter could have gone to, he chose Asian women. He liked being massaged by them. He liked it too much, claiming to be ‘addicted’. We should all know by now that abusive men often blame their victims for making them commit acts of violence. The Atlanta suspect needed to ‘eliminate’ his ‘temptation’, he said. Blaming women for temptation is as old as sin.
My father told me when I was young that he missed Taiwan because the people there share a common heart.
I have been going to rallies, protests, marches and vigils in New York City for the past five weeks. At a rally in Foley Square, Noel Quintana, who had been attacked with a box cutter on the subway, pulled down his mask to reveal the scar on his face extending from ear to ear. In late February, we stomped through the snow from Washington Square Park to Columbus Circle, carrying signs that said: ‘Justice for Christian Hall, Vicha Ratanapakdee and Ee Lee.’ At a vigil last Friday night in Union Square, three Korean monks from a Zen monastery stood in solidarity with the crowd as a Korean shamanic singer performed the anthem ‘Arirang’. An eight-year-old girl, invisible behind the lectern, said the anti-Asian hate was ‘rude’, and asked us to be brave and stand up against racism.
In the company of the people at these rallies and marches, some of whom look like me, and some of whom carry new signs bearing the names of last week’s mass shooting victims, I do not feel like an intruder. But as the crowds disperse, I find myself alone again on the subway platform.