Growing up, I would often be asked, “Where are you from?” I knew the inquirer was asking about my ethnicity, but I delighted in responding, “Cleveland.”
My dad is from Nanking, China. He met my mom, who is from Taiwan, while he was in Chicago studying to become an engineer. The two of them married and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where I was born. I was two years old when we moved to California. I have never been to China. These past few weeks have raised a variety of emotions as campaigns to bring awareness to an increasing number of acts of hate toward Asian American and Pacific Islanders are underway.
I grew up comfortably floating between Mandarin and English. Despite being born in this country and preferring McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Taco Bell chicken soft tacos over my mom’s cooking, others saw me as 100% Chinese. In elementary school, kids would pull up the corners of their eyes and say, “ching chong.” I stood next to my dad as a cashier at a fruit stand cussed him out and called him a “Chink” because he pointed out she had given him the incorrect amount of change. When I asked my parents how they felt about these incidents, they would dismiss me by saying, “Chinese people don’t complain or make excuses. They work hard.” Hmm. Now I know where the “silent minority” stereotype comes from. My parents.
As I got older, I experienced fewer acts of overt racism and much more subtle ones. Friends would make comments about my math ability, which ironically, was abysmal at the time, or make assumptions about how “smart” I was because I am Asian. I grew up thinking I had to earn higher SAT or ACT scores than my peers because of the “Asian penalty” admissions officers instilled upon Chinese American applicants. This is still a perception I face when working with Asian American students and parents.
As an adult, I would occasionally be on the receiving end of culturally insensitive or ignorant comments such as, “all you Asians look alike” or “My friend really likes Asian girls” (awkward). I also got better at deflecting. I made my own jokes or comments and for the most part, chalked up many of these experiences to what those of other cultures also endure on a daily basis.
Then, Covid hit and anti-Asian sentiment skyrocketed. I would cringe every time Trump referred to Covid as the “Chinese virus.” As time went on, this sentiment seemed to diminish until acts of hate toward Asian Americans began to be reported by the media, who for so long has ignored such coverage. On March 15, NACAC issued a statement condemning the growing incidence of racism and violence against Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students and colleagues occurring in US schools and postsecondary institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. WACAC followed with a similar statement four days later.
In response, I began checking in on my Asian American colleagues and students. Thankfully, they have not experienced any acts of hate in recent months. However, many of them did say they felt extremely uncomfortable in the early days of the pandemic. “When I went to the grocery store, my dad told me to put on my school sweatshirt so people would know I wasn’t just some random Chinese guy, but that I was part of the local community,” said one of my students.
One of my seniors was born in Wuhan, but was adopted by a Chinese American family when she was a toddler. “When Covid hit, I was very aware of other people staring at me when I would go out,” she said. Another student, who is Korean American, said he felt very conscious of his “Asianness” in the early days of the pandemic.
While I have seen many colleges and universities come out in support of Asian American students, faculty and staff during these times, I do believe we need to step back and look at our role. What messages do we convey to students by the data we share about our applicants or our admitted students? Do they perpetuate stereotypes? What are the unintended consequences?
One of my seniors shared that while he was researching colleges, he “would see statistics on average GPAs and test scores by race. Asians had the highest scores while Black and Hispanic applicants tended to have lower scores. This seemed to reinforce stereotypes that Asians are ‘smarter’ than others.” He also noted some schools share their admitted class profile data with a breakdown of students by ethnicity. He wasn’t sure what conclusions to draw from such information. As a result, he was very conflicted about indicating his ethnicity on his college application.
What I told him was what I tell all students who ask whether they should answer the question about ethnicity on their college application. I explained college admissions isn’t about quotas or checkboxes, it’s about viewing each applicant as an individual in their specific context and life circumstance in order to admit the most diverse and qualified group of students. I assured him he had an amazing story to share. If a college does not value his accomplishments and potential contributions to their community, then it is the college’s loss. He eventually selected his ethnicity, applied broadly, and has some great options to choose from this spring.
As I drove home from school, this week, I spotted a lawn sign on the side of the road that said, “Stop Asian Hate.” Asians have traditionally been an easy target as many, like my parents, prefer to remain the “silent minority.” I’m glad the media is covering these incidents with the gravity they deserve and that society is holding those in power accountable. It is my hope television shows that portray Asians aren’t limited to “Kung Fu” and “Fresh off the Boat” and that Jay Leno will find other topics to joke about from here on out. We are silent no more.