It is early in the morning, right after the store opened. There is barely anyone shopping, which feels both eerie and peaceful, especially during this time of social distancing with our families and all the anxiety that comes with it. While walking up the aisles, I look up and see this grocery store clerk staring at me. I notice her staring three more times during my trip. Who can even guess the reason behind a person’s lingering stare (especially with a mask on), so I chalk it up as weird and carry on.
I’m almost finished shopping and still can’t find the acai powder. That same clerk happens to be standing at the opening of her register and once again, we lock eyes. She’s a couple aisles over and across the main aisle, so I walk toward her and ask,
“Excuse me, where is your Acai powder?”
“What?” she says, and steps backwards.
Immediately, I sense something is off. The tone of her response hints of annoyance and sarcasm. At the very least, it is a clear why-are-you-bothering-me “what”.
Oh geez did I get too close? Am I going the wrong direction? I’m following the arrows, right?
I look down at the floor to check.
Going the right way, whew. And you’re definitely not too close. Actually, you’re quite far from her. Ah that must be it, you sound rude because you’re talking too loud. You’re too far away.
In effort to be at normal talking distance, I walk a little closer. But now she’s putting her hands up, backing up even more.
What is going on with this lady?! I am well over 10 feet away.
She’s acting like I’m a threat or danger or something.
OK, just stop whatever you’re doing. But stop what? Moving? Talking? Buying acai? That damn acai, I knew I should’ve ordered it online.
She retreats back into her checkout lane, and now we are strangely farther apart from each other.
“Where is your acai powder? It’s usually near the flax seed?”
That’s where it was at the other store, right?
“But I can’t find it. Do you carry it here?”
Hands still up she says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. But…” pointing to the far aisle, “The tofu’s over there.”
Then she leaves. Literally walks away. Does not help me find the acai. Does not do the usual look over to Betty at register 5, “Betty, where do we keep the acai?” None of that. Instead, she flees the scene like I’m an alien from another planet.
The tofu’s over there? What, why? That’s not what I asked for. I never even spoke the word tofu.
There I stood. Dumbfounded. Speechless. Stunned over what my instincts and feelings begin to figure out. And it hits me. All those glaring looks, all the backing away. The Coronavirus. And Asian me.
Being Asian during COVID-19 meant that this woman perceived me as a threat.
And I just let it happen. There I stood, feeling like my 8 year old self all over again, pretending not to feel utterly degraded. Ignoring the mean words. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. Making up reasons for why I shouldn’t feel the sting, why I shouldn’t react, all the while feeling like someone just threw dirt in my face.
8 years old then and acting like I didn’t hear it.
Now 45 years old. And still acting like I didn’t hear it.
Turn the other cheek.
Let them go first.
Don’t make a big deal.
Just accept it because it won’t stop.
My mom was right about one thing: it did not stop.
When I was a child, I heard “ewww that looks like maggots” about the rice in my thermos. Closer to middle school, it was put-downs about how I only made straight A’s because I’m Chinese (I’m not Chinese). Then in high school, it was my teacher asking the entire class, “Raise your hand if you think marrying outside your race is wrong.” The entire class raised their hand. Except for me and another boy, who was also Korean and who also had a mixed-race family like mine.
As I share these stories, my heart hurts. Putting these 3 experiences into words helped me come to terms with this awful and sad fact: everyone was silent in the face of these microaggressions. Including me. Everyone was silent, therefore everyone was tolerant of them.
But that happened over 30 years ago. No one says that stuff anymore, right? Not here in our Seacoast community.
Wrong. My own child wanted to stop taking her favorite lunch of rice and seaweed to school, because a few children repeatedly made jokes about her lunch that “smells really bad”. This happened two years in a row.
Another time, two boys were walking behind my daughter and said, “Hey… Turn around!” She looks back, and sees them laughing. She hears, “Those Asians hahaha…” but their words were muffled after that.
More recently, a small group within the high-school class was working on a project. Their discussion turns to COVID-19 and the speculation of school closing. They start talking in whispers and my daughter can see and feel that they’re talking about her. In the next moment, one of her classmates says, “Wait. Do you have Coronavirus?” No, she says, why would you ask me that? No one answers, they exchange smirks and she hears one of them say, “She’s Asian so…”
And it’s just not my family that’s dealt with these one-on-one acts of, often subtle, discrimination. A young friend of ours wrote a heartfelt and stirring piece on her experience of racism against Asian Americans on the Seacoast. This story has made such an impact on our family and reminds us that we aren’t alone in these experiences. Particularly since the Coronavirus arrived.
I never did find the acai. What I did find, though, was courage and a new truth in my life.
After much soul-searching, prayer and many, many deep discussions, my family and I came upon a true understanding that racism will not stop unless we each do our part to stop it.
IN THE MOMENT.
In the moment is key. We have to expose it the very second it happens, in it’s most needle-like moment of pain. We have to have this quick courage to stand up, stand forward, and not stand by.
I’m learning to use my voice and say . . .
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’m uncomfortable with that.”
“Hmm, what would make you say that?”
Then let them speak. These simple yet powerful phrases can immediately break the loop of smirks, words and racist undertones that we have tolerated for years. These phrases demonstrate civility and humanity. And it reminds the other person, there are feelings inside this colorful skin.
My family and I vow to do this, for ourselves and for others, when we see someone else enduring racism. We will not be bystanders any longer.
In writing this for Seacoast Moms it was extremely painful to face and then expose the suppressed fears and beliefs instilled from my childhood. The most upsetting was facing the reality that for years, I perpetuated racism by tolerating it. I am one person, whose actions, like a ripple, affect my family and my friends — at a minimum. All I know is that I must do my part in my one life. My hope is that each one of us will face and acknowledge the pain, grief and suffering that racial injustice has caused.
Never before have I said to my Black friends until now, “Tell me what it’s like to be you. What do you say? Do? How do you feel? What should I do?” I’m sorry I waited so long.
Now is the time to talk about all that has never been talked about. To hear the truth and sit in that pain for as long as it takes. Only then can we begin to weed out the insidious behaviors of racism.
Much love and thanks to my friends of different colors and ethnicity who have talked with me, shared their stories, listened to mine and given me words of wisdom.
My love to all, Cindy