The following is an excerpt from a piece originally published in the Red Canary Collective’s digital magazine. Spurred by the rise in anti-Asian crime between 2020 and 2021, Phuong-Cac Nguyen gathers her family for a cross-generational conversation about culture and identity.
I hadn’t fully grasped it until most recently, but my identity has always been amorphous. When I came of age in Southern California, I didn’t feel so different than my fellow Gen X peers. I was lost, perpetually grumpy, restless — which wasn’t different from what I was seeing in my friends and in pop culture, too — particularly on MTV and in the movies. But then, when I hit my 20s in the early 2000s, my identity gained a new edge: I was Asian, and I was cool because I was Asian. Cool because the latest, futuristic gadgets came from Asia. Cool because people loved sushi, ramen, pho, fried rice, Korean BBQ, pad thai, sake, Asahi beer, karaoke, Hondas, artist Takashi Murakami, the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Olympic ice-skating medalist Michelle Kwan.
When I started expanding my physical world to other places, though, suddenly being Asian wasn’t cool. Like when I was visiting New York City and got catcalled with “konnichiwa” even though I was not Japanese; or in Rome, when men pulled on the corners of their eyes when I passed. Things changed then: I understood I was, and always would be, an outsider.
When I moved to Brazil, that identity weirdly turned into a distinctly American one. I felt self-righteous whenever people would say they would have never guessed that I was from the U.S. because of my eyes — that I would always be a “chinesa” to them. Ironically, I became such a big proponent of Brazilian culture and its people that my friends there would joke that I was more Brazilian than they were. Perhaps I thought my way out of my identity crisis was to choose an entirely new one rather than be forced to choose among the ones people back home projected on me.
Maybe that’s the superpower of Asian Americans: Of all people of color in the United States, we have a particular ability to put our feet in other people’s shoes. Our history in the U.S. compels us to have compassion for the historical injustices Blacks must bear. We empathize with Latinos, because people love our food but want us to go back to our country, even if we were born here. We understand how Muslims might feel, because it doesn’t matter if we are Korean, Cambodian or Vietnamese, many Americans see us as an enemy from China. And we feel white, because we aspired to McDonald’s, skate culture or Reeboks after our parents immigrated or fled to the U.S. as refugees and raised us here.
Given the current rise in anti-Asian hate crime, reports of which rose almost 150 percent in 2020 (while the overall rate of hate crime dropped by 7%) according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, we now are, however, feeling distinctly Asian. We felt it when former President Trump called Covid-19 the “kung flu.” We felt it when, while grocery shopping, we were told to go back to our countries or called communists. We felt it when we saw people randomly beating our elders on the street. We felt it and then bought pepper spray, mace, guns, and tasers. And those feelings have continued to build. The mass shooting in Atlanta may have been the most vivid and tragic example of this rising hate, but it was also the proverbial last straw. Now, Asian Americans are coming together on a scale that I haven’t seen in my 43 years; not only to speak up, but to fight back against the racism we each have quietly endured for decades.
In this context, it felt like a good time to gather my family for a conversation about our experiences across generations and cultures. Here is what my mother had to say about her initial impressions of the U.S. and encounters with racism.
Phuong-Cac: Ma, when you landed in Central Pennsylvania in 1975 as a Vietnam War refugee, what were your first impressions?
Ta-Cuc: I was 22. I was housed in a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I arrived right when the autumn was just beginning to show on the foliage and the tall trees. How peaceful this place was compared to the one I just left, I thought. Sitting in the airplane en route here, I told myself, I am being reborn into a womb that will offer me a new life.
When I was younger, I aspired to be an army doctor, so I would visit my South Vietnamese military friends on the front lines to see whether I could live with my decision. Because of that, I had witnessed war with its horrifying destruction, so the contrast in America was very pronounced.
Americans were kind and attentive. I remember a man who worked at the dining hall at the camp who noticed that every time they served fish for dinner, I would not take a piece. One day, he offered it to me. My second brother, who was already fluent in English, explained to him that I suffered from a fish allergy. After that, when fish returned weekly to our menu, he would take out a piece of fried chicken for me.
From there, I moved to San Diego, Calif., where my family was sponsored by a Christian church.
Phuong-Cac: Was what you experienced in those first days as a refugee consistent with what you thought the U.S. was like when you lived in South Vietnam?
Ta-Cuc: That story about the man at the camp was exactly what I imagined about the U.S when I was in Vietnam: a civil country with generous people and a heritage of vanguard literature. We South Vietnamese had translated so many novels from American authors. Later, after I married your father and returned to Pennsylvania in 1976, this time to live there, I found the same kindness at Penn State University.
Of course, like any other nation, the U.S. has problems. One of which is racism. I encountered my first racist incident later, and then again. But up to that point, because I mostly stayed in the neighborhood around PSU and the campus, I did not experience much hate. It was later that I was exposed to a more complicated picture of this country.
Phuong-Cac: What happened that disrupted that image?
Ta-Cuc: When we lived in Texas, I flew into a rage when you came home from kindergarten one day with half your face covered in scratch marks, with blood and sand embedded in them. You said you were bullied and I asked why you didn’t tell the teacher. You told me you did. I immediately took you back to the school and started yelling at the principal and everybody else. The first sentence that jumped out from all that rage was, “You don’t think I can speak English, do you?!”
Language usually is the first barrier for a foreigner to any country. In turn, language is the weapon of choice for bigots. People do not have a voice if they cannot speak the language, since they cannot complain to a local agency or media. How else could we explain the reason for ignoring a 5-year-old Asian’s injury that was so obvious to the naked eye? They did not even bother to clean your face, as if they were sending me a blatant signal that I would have no recourse by not being able to raise my voice.
Phuong-Cac: Were there other incidents?
Ta-Cuc: Around 2002, a well-dressed man followed me when I got out of my car in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Costa Mesa, California. He had parked next to me. When he caught up with me, he said, “A monkey must have taught you how to walk and now how to drive. You look like a monkey, a monkey, a monkey…”
I waited until I was inside the mall where I felt safe and then unleashed a torrent of curse words at him. Again, the first thing I said was, “You didn’t expect I can speak English, did you? Not only can I speak it, but I can curse, too.”
In 2008, I returned to central Pennsylvania to finish college. While walking down the street to a supermarket, two young men followed and taunted me with racial slurs. Again, I waited until I reached the front of the store to respond to them. Again: “You guys do not think I can speak English, do you?”
Looking back, I was really shocked and angry the first time it happened, because the compassionate image of this country was shattered for me in a very jarring way. Later, I deliberately let these people know that they cannot humiliate anybody — Asians included — and not get a response. I was also very mindful that I might not be the first nor the last victim, therefore, I wanted to stand up not only for myself, but for others who might not be able to fight back, because of the language barrier, as you might have noted in my unconsciously repeated response each time.
Phuong-Cac: What do you make of the anti-Asian racism in this country now, 46 years later? How are things different in that regard than when you first came to the country?
Ta-Cuc: My impression about this country has not changed that much, because I have witnessed our continuing effort to address inequality and racism, albeit slowly sometimes. Look at the history of Asian and Asian-American activism, which goes back to fighting exclusion laws, alien land acts, the internment, etc. Those movements built towards the seminal Asian and Asian American activism of the 1960s. There also was a lot of organizing after the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. And the KKK in 1981 terrorized Vietnamese fishermen in Galveston Bay, Texas. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which was established a decade earlier to fight for civil rights, filed a lawsuit against the Klan to defend the fishermen, and won.
I think this moment feels different because our tools for organizing and movement-building are different, but a lot of what we’re seeing now is building upon the groundwork laid before. It is sad, but I do not think these violent acts will disappear overnight in this political climate. We just have to keep up our resistance.