Looking back, I wish I had stood up for myself. But I’m also working to forgive myself, to recognize that I did what I had to do to have a good time in high school (which, by and large, I did). How ironic that in an attempt to ignore comments about stereotypes, I reinforced one: submissiveness.
I continued “blending in” with the people around me throughout college and into graduate school. But in 2018, I visited China for the first time. And that’s when things started to change.
I made the trip with a group of friends, all of whom were white. But this time (and maybe for the first time ever), when I looked around, I wasn’t the one standing out. I was surrounded by people who looked like me, and I felt a surge of pride for my culture and background. I excitedly explained to my friends which foods had originated in Hong Kong, not Mainland China. I recounted the Christmases I used to spend with my grandmother, who made wonton soup with us and showed us how to properly fold a wrapper around the filling. I taught them how to say “steamed pork bun” in Cantonese (“cha siu bao”), a phrase I knew because it had always been my favorite food.
Instead of feeling like my Asian heritage was out of place, or something I needed to suppress, I felt something like belonging. I felt empowered. And I started to realize what I’d been missing out on for 25 years.
When I got home from the trip, I refused to let go of my profound new sense of identity. The veil, as they say, had been lifted, and I could finally see clearly.
Ever since, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about past experiences and critiquing my own reactions. But I’ve also been attempting to make up for lost time. I cheered when Ali Wong became a household name and shattered the myth of the submissive Asian woman with her back-to-back Netflix specials. I raced out to Crazy Rich Asians and watched it dominate the box office. When Sandra Oh became the first Asian actress to win multiple Golden Globes, I beamed. And even though I knew we had a lot of work to do as a nation, I believed Parasite sweeping the Oscars represented a turning point.
Then President Trump decided to label COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus.”
The first time I saw him use the phrase, I felt like I had had the wind knocked out of me. It hurt, physically. This was a virus with a real, scientific name. And the president chose to rebrand it to blame Chinese people. Yes, we know the outbreak started in China, but it is now a global pandemic. It doesn’t have a race or a passport. Viruses know no borders, and this one does not discriminate.
But thanks to this dangerous rhetoric, the novel coronavirus that is affecting people of every race is now associated with one, as if it were written into our DNA. It puts an undeserving target on Chinese people (and, sadly, all Asians), labeling us as a threat, even as some of the best government responses have in fact been in Asia, with South Korea setting an example I wish we were following right now.
And Trump hasn’t just used it once; the phrase “Chinese Virus” is reverberating across social media, not just because Trump has repeated it over and over, but because some conservative media outlets are echoing him.
As fear of COVID-19 spreads, attacks against Asian-Americans are on the rise and Asian-owned businesses and restaurants have been decimated. It hurts to imagine what a young Chinese and Korean girl, like I once was, might have had to endure before school was canceled. This prejudice didn’t start with President Trump, but he’s encouraged it and validated it.
I’ve spent a lifetime being submissive and quiet about racism towards Asians—absorbing both subtle jabs and blatant attacks. But the stakes are too high for me to keep brushing it off. Calling COVID-19 a “Chinese Virus” is despicable, wrong, and racist. And it offends me, personally, as an Asian-American.
It took me my whole life to get here, to develop an appreciation for my Asian roots, to be able to call out prejudice when and where I see it.
People like Trump want me to feel ashamed of my heritage, but for the first time in my life, I can say that’s a part of myself that I love, unreservedly. No remark from a friend or coworker or the President of the United States can take that from me.
Even now, even in this period of heightened discrimination and fear, I think of what Sandra Oh once said and feel instant, heart-swelling recognition: “It’s an honor just to be Asian.”
Dana Lee was born and raised in Marin County, California, and attended the University of Michigan. She lives in Manhattan.