In this searing, eloquent essay, Stephanie Zhong both reports on and protects herself from the rise of anti-Asian racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing with fury and grace, she shares how she finds refuge at the 99 Ranch grocery store, a safe haven from what she describes as ‘the other pandemic.’
Scangry. That’s the only word I can think of to describe my mental state sheltering in place since the pandemic began. Scared and angry. It’s a sensation lodged like a hot bullet in the center of my body, halfway between my heart and my belly.
But I’m not scangry at the coronavirus pandemic. I wasn’t one of those people who rushed out to buy hand sanitizer. And even though I can be a bit of a hypochondriac, I haven’t lost sleep or worried about catching the virus. It’s the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that scares me.
As an American of color, living in a Chinese-American skin, my experience of “Apart=Together” has mostly felt Apart. My face, and the faces of Asian Americans being mistaken for Chinese, have become the face of the virus. Foreigners. The enemy.
When reports first came in that Asian-American women and men, kids and even seniors were being regularly coughed at, spat on, punched in the face, burned with acid –and even stabbed while shopping at Sam’s Club–I wasn’t going to take any chances. I sheltered at home two weeks before it became mandatory, because it felt safer to be at home than out and about–even my usual neighborhood spots.
My friend Maite, who’s Filipino-American, had a run-in with a white woman at her neighborhood Trader Joe’s. It provoked her to write an essay about her experience and question how to talk to her-7-year-old son about coronavirus racism. Another friend and her husband, who’d bought a house in Boise, Idaho, and had planned to move there this summer, opted to move instead to Washington D.C., to protect their adopted Chinese son and their biracial son from possible bullying.
As of my writing, an average of 100 assaults are being reported every day, and women are three times more likely than men to be attacked. And even though the FBI had warned of a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans, very little is being done by agencies to stop it. So I hide out.
During quarantine, my husband, Jim, makes the Sunday grocery runs instead of me. He’s 6’2” and bears a resemblance to Christopher Reeve (if you catch him at just the right angle), so his privilege provides natural “protection” for trips to Vons and Trader Joe’s. I miss Trader Joe’s. We never had a conversation about it, but I never volunteered to go out and he never asked me. It was as if, we just knew this is the way it has to be right now.
I miss taking walks and have taken only three in six weeks: twice with Jim, and once with my neighbor Lindy, who also happens to be white.
I’ve left the house only two other times to shop at 99 Ranch, the Asian grocery equivalent of Ralph’s. It’s the best place to go for 20 styles of tofu, fresh pea sprouts and my husband’s favorite bamboo shoots in chili oil. For the first time I’m not in a rush to just grab things and go. It’s become a safe haven from both pandemics, and also the only place I go where I can feel the pulse of humanity. So I linger, nod to people through my mask, and listen to the beeps of price scanners, and the heartbeats of fellow humans.
The lengths I’m going to hide out probably sound extreme. I live in Los Angeles and we’re used to Asians here. Tolerance is a fickle bar for measuring human decency. Tolerance works in times of stability. But history has shown us that when our economy starts to topple, or we engage in war with a non-white nation, we start to target our own people who resemble on the surface, the perceived enemy of the day. So I don’t take chances.
It’s become a safe haven from both pandemics, and also the only place I go where I can feel the pulse of humanity.
I’ve gone MIA on group texts with sister-friends, and have occasionally skipped Sunday zoom services with my church. My church believes in social justice and during prayer request time, my husband and I have asked for prayers of protection for Asian Americans and other people of color experiencing heightened racism. Yet in this church family that I love so dearly, no one has reached out to ask me how I’m doing. I post things on Facebook, and am grateful for those who make a point to show solidarity and love in the comments. But the friends closest to me, haven’t checked in either. I make up stories in my head that probably aren’t true. Nonetheless, the silence hurts. Theirs, and mine. I’m choosing to pull away first to avoid giving someone I love the chance to render me invisible.
Even within the walls of my own home, the pandemic of xenophobia found its way in. A friend shared a video of an elderly Asian woman getting robbed, dragged along a sidewalk, and kicked under a parked car by two men. It happened in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I thought of my mother and just lost it. I held myself, rocked back and forth in my home office chair, as spasmodic waves of tears started to fall. I couldn’t make them stop. It was a tsunami coming from a place very old and familiar. But where. I needed to know.
As an Asian American growing up in the ’80s, my life ping-ponged between being invisible and being the enemy. The only homeland I’ve ever known is America. But by 6 years old, growing up in a predominantly white community in a historic suburb of Philadelphia, it became clear that some kids didn’t see me as one of them. They’d give me the slanty eyes or yell ching chong when I walked by. My only revenge came when I got to hurl a dodge ball at their legs, hard and take them out of the game. As I moved from one elementary school to the next, from middle school to high school, I never knew for sure if other kids would see me as a foreigner or not. It didn’t matter what I wore, what music I listened to, what I said or how I said it, someone would end up asking me the question, “Hey, where are you really from?”
When I was 15, I saw an Asian American featured in the news for the first time. Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man, was beaten to death with a baseball bat while out celebrating his bachelor party with friends. Japanese auto companies were outcompeting American companies back then, and anti-Japanese sentiments had spread, especially in Detroit, where autoworkers were losing jobs and where the murder happened.
The white father and son who killed Vincent had confused him for being Japanese, and was heard saying, “It’s because of you little motherf*ckers that we’re out of work.” They were sentenced with manslaughter, a $3000 fine and three months probation. The Chinese-American community was outraged, and for the first time in modern history, organized, demanding justice for Vincent. And we didn’t get it.
I remember Vincent’s mother, Lily, as I watch the videos of attacks happening now. I see her sitting on her sofa, clutching Vincent’s picture in her arms, looking straight into the camera so that everyone would see and feel her pain. She wailed and wailed. I can still hear her wails like they’re a part of me.
But 35 years later, most people, including Asian Americans, have never heard of Vincent Chin. Lily’s cries don’t ring in their ears, like they do in mine right now. It makes me scangry how little we know about Vincent, or of the 250-plus years worth of Asian-American history intentionally kept out of history books and classrooms. We don’t know about the Chinese-American girl who challenged Jim Crow and lost, 30 years before Brown v. Board of Education. Or how we fought in WW2 to put an end to the Holocaust while incarcerating Japanese-Americans in concentration camps here at home. All of us– myself included–have been kept so ignorant of our deep, interconnected history with each other. We don’t understand how Asian Americans, in particular, are strategically used as a wedge between whites and Black and brown people to keep racism alive. If we don’t know all the symptoms and causes, how will we ever find a cure?
It’s the first week of May. Cold, rainy mornings have made way for hot, dry afternoons. Our backyard bursts with artichokes and lemons, thanks to weeks of dark clouds and sheets of rain. And even though California is still closed, we are restless and some are rebelling. Businesses are opening up again, people are sneaking onto the beaches, like it or not.
I crave physical community too, but in no rush to emerge from my hiding place. I’ve got some healing to do. I’m ready though, to welcome people in rather than venture out.
We don’t understand how Asian Americans, in particular, are strategically used as a wedge between whites and Black and brown people to keep racism alive. If we don’t know all the symptoms and causes, how will we ever find a cure?
In the middle of this pandemic I found an unexpected sanctuary in a class called Jesus and Justice. We’re six people–white, Black, Latinx and Asian American who meet on Zoom, like our version of The Breakfast Club, every Saturday afternoon. It’s the first place of community where I feel perfectly free to be myself. In here, each person is heard, valued and treasured.
Each one of us has discovered that whether white or of color, we each experience shame and trauma in a racist system. One of my Black classmates had never had an Asian-American friend before. She’s got a sister in me.
It’s not easy. I’m still processing a cloudy mess of feelings and don’t see myself very clearly these days. I’ve got more questions than answers. But thanks to Gigi, Shauna, Jim, Caia and Lauryn, I see a glimpse of what America could be like if we seek boldly to know our history, hear each other’s stories without judgment of defensive posture, sit in discomfort, and make time and space to let ourselves heal. Maybe then we could free ourselves of the other pandemic. Learn how to be different and truly together.
Please Read Stephanie Zhong’s essay On the Outskirts of Our Country, about visiting Manzanar, a former Japanese internment camp in the California desert.
Stephanie Zhong is a brand storyteller, marketing coach and social justice advocate. She’s the owner of Dear Anne Media, a creative agency dedicated to helping good causes tell their stories. She’s created digital content for organizations like Planned Parenthood, and led content strategy and digital marketing teams at Teach For America. Her blog Fabulously Green was one of the first blogs to cover modern, green design. Along the way she’s worked as a public radio producer, newspaper editor, writing teacher, blogger and designer. She’s on a mission to empower as many people as possible to tell their stories to spark positive change in the world. Her course Own Your Message provides a simple, powerful framework that entrepreneurs, creatives and rising leaders can use to unlock their stories to captivate audiences to grow their influence. You can follow her on Instagram at @iamstephaniezhong.
Feature image by Benjamin Wang, a 14-year-old self-taught artist who attends Head-Royce School in the Bay Area. It all started when his Montessori teacher asked him to draw a leaf and to look at the details of the leaf more closely. He has loved the ocean, water and turtles since before he was able to walk. In addition to drawing and playing the piano, a lifetime hobby of his, he has been collecting beautiful shells and rocks (if allowed to take them from the beaches).