I finally hit a breaking point last week after watching another graphic video of a vicious attack on an AAPI person. The video of a young adult Asian male getting pummeled to the point of near death by an overwhelmingly bigger and stronger black male particularly hit home. I saw myself and identified with the helpless victim; it very well could have been me. It instantly jarred and destabilized my sense of identity as an Asian American, now fully recognizing the unwelcome target painted on my back in my home country. It forced me to painfully reevaluate my perception of myself and how others may perceive me based solely on the yellow color of my skin.
Born to Chinese immigrant parents and raised in the city of San Francisco, racial discrimination and violence are anything but new to me; I’ve experienced more than enough adverse firsthand experiences growing up in Visitacion Valley, one of the few corners in the beloved city where tourists don’t visit. The working-class neighborhood abuts the Sunnydale housing projects, arguably the most dangerous and decrepit area in our city. During my adolescence, it wasn’t uncommon for me to get racially harassed, jumped for my wallet, or punched in the face.
My parents still live in the house they own in “Viz Valley.” A few years ago, prior to the recent wave of post-pandemic Anti-Asian hate, an elderly Asian woman was dragged from her home and brutally beaten by an 18 year old burglar in the park directly adjacent to my family’s home. She died later from the injuries. I call my parents nearly everyday now to check in with them. I fear they will be next.
Attending San Francisco’s elite magnet public high school, Lowell, which comprises predominantly Asian students, insulated me from the realities of the obstacles facing Asian Americans in the real world (coincidentally, Lowell High School is at the center of its own controversial reckoning as its distinguishing merit-based admission system was recently expunged in the interest of racial equality). In college, however, I received my fated rude awakening. As an undeclared freshman intending to major in Business Administration at UC Berkeley, I was quickly disillusioned to learn of the bamboo ceiling that awaited me if I desired to climb the corporate ladder. Up to that point in life, I had possessed quite an enormous degree of Asian Pride. It was devastating to learn that solely being Asian was a detriment and impediment to achieving success in America.
Woefully acquiescing to my newfound reality, I decided to pivot to premed since the path to becoming a successful doctor seemed tremendously more favorable to Asians; getting into medical school was going to be a much easier task than overcoming racial barriers. Meanwhile, I learned to quickly adapt and assimilate to become the exemplary model minority by whitewashing myself as effectively as possible. I modified my vernacular to sound more white, overhauled my wardrobe with Gap and Banana Republic, listened to the likes of Matchbox 20 and Train, and developed an unhealthy attraction to non-Asian girls. In becoming a proud self-identified Twinkie, yellow outside and white inside, I happily assumed the role of the token Asian friend in social circles, gradually disassociating myself from qualities that reminded me of being Asian. I stopped wearing the gold necklace with the jade amulet my grandmother gave to me for a birthday. When I decided to get a tattoo, I chose a tribal armband, forsaking a Chinese writing symbol. I soon became ashamed of seeing my middle name, Lap-Hung, on documents including my hard-earned diploma from Cal, because it was “too Asian”.
I transformed myself to become the best version of what I envisioned was the successful Asian American. In my blissful ignorance, I believed I had achieved personal and professional success in America. I married a lovely wife who is half-white and half-Asian, who looks exclusively the former, and co-founded a thriving business in Silicon Valley, a specialized psychiatry practice, where I serve as the medical director, providing care to a patient demographic composed largely of the white, educated, and affluent.
Yet, identifying with the defenseless victim of the recent anti-Asian attack has instantly jettisoned me from the precarious denial of reality of my success as an Asian American. I’m beginning to see with increasing clarity the unforeseen insidious implications of whitewashing myself. I realize in my pursuit of success, I’ve unwittingly enabled myself to become ashamed and hateful toward myself for being Asian. In rejecting the Asian part of my identity, I’ve allowed both myself and others to perceive me and my Asian culture as inferior. The life narrative I inadvertently created suggested my accomplishments were attained in spite of being Asian, rather than as an Asian.
What’s transpiring with the increasing anti-AAPI attacks has angered and awoken a sleeping giant in me. A part of me wishes I could charge at the assailants in real time to protect and defend the victims who in my mind’s eye were my parents, grandparents, and relatives. Yet, I’m also exceptionally keen on understanding how senseless and counterproductive it is to react and engage with the destructive nature of anger and hate. It would only worsen and further perpetuate the problem at hand, feeding the vicious cycle of racial inequality in our imperfect society.
Anger is a powerful emotion. It compels and entitles us to resist, fight, and destroy. When angry, we zero in on a perceived enemy, a scapegoat to blame for all the world’s misdeeds, so we can feel a sense of justice in inflicting harm on the perpetrator whom we rightfully deem deserve punishment. Yet, every single time I’ve directed my anger at somebody and become engrossed in blame, unwanted feelings of guilt, remorse, and shame inevitably follow.
Over my lifetime, I’ve developed an innate stress response whereby when faced with a challenging problem, I will somehow transform it into an opportunity for growth. As an Asian American, my voice has been historically left out of the American conversation and narrative. Fueled by the inciting distress and agitation from anger, I can harness and navigate the willful emotion to push ahead and deconstruct the pernicious model minority myth. Furthermore, in developing the capacity to let go of anger, I can cultivate forgiveness and compassion to influence positive and sustainable change in a racially diverse and seemingly divided country where I have always called home.
I no longer see my Asian heritage as a limitation or detriment to my capabilities. I can now see with eyes wide open how being born Asian American has, on the contrary, endowed me with a unique and invaluable life experience which can be drawn upon to reshape the narrative for Asian Americans. I have finally found a sense of clarity in my Asian American identity in the midst of racism, violence, and hate.
I recently asked my parents for the meaning of my Chinese name. Lap-Hung 納恒 literally means to exhale the old and inhale the new continuously and infinitely into the future.