Somewhere on the Red Line between Harvard Square and South Station, heading home after one and a half semesters of college, I decide to indulge a morbid curiosity.
I pull up Google Maps to the city of Wuhan and zoom in to trace the route that connects a children’s hospital to a seafood market. The distance is even shorter than I’d expected — severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 and I, Sophia Sizhe Liang, were born less than three miles apart.
It’s silly, feeling linked to a pandemic through a shared hometown both of us have already left. But the intimacy of our affiliation, precisely quantified and mapped, weighs on me. From here on out, my answer to the question Where are you from? will conjure images of screeching bats and sterile suits and global plague.
The other passengers on the subway sit farther apart from each other than usual, gingerly avoiding the handrails and slipping mini bottles of Purell out of their pockets.
I get the inexplicable urge to offer them an apology.
Earlier that morning, I’d gazed around my stripped-bare dorm room and paused on the N95 mask sitting on top of the dresser. The mask, which a friend’s mom had been kind enough to provide me, would protect against airborne droplets on the train and plane rides home.
I wondered, though, if it might render me more vulnerable to another type of danger. I’d been reading a growing number of stories in the news about Covid-induced racism. Asian Americans were getting spat on, screamed at, and beaten in the street, and face masks, still relatively uncommon at the time, seemed to carry a greater risk of drawing unwanted attention. A few weeks prior, an Asian woman wearing a mask on the New York City subway had been physically assaulted. Her attacker called her a “diseased bitch.”
Eventually, I chose to wear the mask to shield myself from the virus — along with a Harvard t-shirt to shield myself from the mask. It was a pathetic kind of defense mechanism, I admit, but it was the loudest one I knew.
I realize now, as I wait for the Silver Line bus to take me to the airport, that either I made the wrong call or the decision never made a difference in the first place. There’s a man walking up to me, too closely, too intensely, and I wince because I know what he’s about to say before he says it: “Coronavirus chink.”
Early this March, I pitched the first version of this article to my fellow magazine editors. “Interview Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy groups on campus about the recent wave of hate crimes,” I wrote. “How are they responding?”
It was supposed to be an article about activism: petitions, protests, and the organizing that goes into them. I interviewed Ryan D. Nguyen ’25, who led a Stop Asian Hate rally in Boston on March 13, one year to the day since I stood paralyzed at the bus stop. He beamed as he told me about the 800 people who gathered on the Boston Common, including musicians, teachers, politicians, business owners, and a Chinatown elder who passed out cha siu bao to the children.
“It was a rainbow,” Ryan said. “It was a multicultural, multicolored mass of love and support, and it was really beautiful to see.”
Prior to our call, I’d browsed the coverage of the rally in other news outlets. I saw photos of Ryan, red and gold áo dài flowing as he marched down the street with his fist clenched and megaphone raised, and I felt the pressure in my chest soften for the first time in a long time. It was supposed to be an article about the different ways that people were working toward a common goal.
On March 16, six Asian women were murdered in Atlanta. This did not surprise me; I saw the man approaching. I studied for my midterms. I put the article on hold. I wrote numb in my journal and closed the page before the ink dried.
When I resumed my interviews the following week, my original angle felt hollow and callous. What is the organizing of a Zoom vigil supposed to look like? What kind of advocacy work are we expected to perform while we grieve? How do we protect bodies so tempting they seduce bullets?
So instead, this is an article about my conversations with a handful of other Asian students at Harvard. It’s about how they have been feeling recently and also not-so-recently, and how their experiences contradict and reframe and enrich my own. It’s raised more questions than it’s answered, including questions of whether this should all be in a single article to begin with and whether I should be the one who writes it. Nonetheless, it’s my attempt to dig through a fractured racial identity and locate some of the corner pieces — to assign words to the type of Asianness that tenses up before a national tragedy, and the one that settles in its dust.
If there’s anything that Asian people seem to have in common, it’s a tendency to separate themselves from one another.
Each time my ninth grade English teacher mixed up the names of all the Asian girls in the class (including the one with bright green hair), part of me was disappointed that so many of us Asian girls were assigned to the same class, that we exist in too large numbers in too small of a space.
Even within Harvard, there are about 25 Asian affinity groups split across a litany of acronyms that share a vowel — AAA, AAWA, CSA, SAA, HKA, HVA, AAB, OAASIS, SAMC, SAWC, TAPAS, and more. A Pan-Asian Council was founded in 2017 to bridge the gaps between these various organizations, but it’s no longer active.
Angie Shin ’23, director of outreach for the Asian American Womxn's Association, was recently contacted by a member of another Asian organization to collaborate on a Visitas event for incoming freshmen. “We just want to show everybody that we have a united Asian community on campus,” they said to her.
“Uh, we kind of don’t have that,” she replied.
“There is so much self-segregation on campus,” Angie tells me — segregation between those Asians who are “whitewashed” (she puts this in air quotes) and those who resist it, between the politically engaged and the too-busy or neutral, between those whose “socioeconomically very privileged” families exchange inside information in the Harvard Chinese parents’ WeChat group and those, like Angie, who are first-generation low-income students.
“I do wish that we had a more unified Asian campus,” she says. “I do wish we had a more explicit voice.”
In Hollywood and the business world and college admissions lawsuits, Asian people are adamant that they are not a monolith. This is completely true, of course. There are huge cultural and socioeconomic differences between Asian nationalities and generations and diasporas — and individual people — that ought to be recognized.
But the flip side to this mantra is that it’s hard to come together in times of crisis, to choose causes to unite around and pithy messaging to agree on. Our disparate responses to the shootings in Atlanta bring this double edge into focus.
Some Asian Americans are pushing for the acts of violence to be labeled as hate crimes by prosecutors. Others want to abolish prisons and the police. Some read the news and saw themselves and their loved ones in it. Others sense little, if any, personal connection to the victims and do not want to be spoken for in the name of solidarity.
Alexandria T.Q. Ho ’24 is furious that the Atlanta shooter’s “sex addiction” justification went unquestioned by law enforcement. But she also notices her family members, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 2016, participating in the victim blaming.
“Some people in my family would be like, ‘As long as you don’t engage with them, you’ll be fine. Just stay out of the way.’ Somehow it’s like you deserve the bad things that happen to you,” says Alexandria, a Crimson Blog editor. The “them” she’s referring to is unnamed yet unmistakable — sex workers, massage businesses in strip malls, anything that falls outside the peripheries of the model minority standard.
Efforts to find shared histories and common ground after a tragedy often swing too far in the other direction, coming off as clunky and, ironically, monolithic. In the wake of Atlanta, I read article after article using the incident as a springboard to discuss the Chinese Exclusion Act, Trump’s “kung flu” rhetoric, and the embarrassment that comes with being an Asian kid in a mostly white school.
I guess these are all related insofar as nothing happens in a vacuum, and what has historically affected one Asian person affects us all — hell, our faces might be indistinguishable to our assailants. They’re some of the same threads I’m trying to weave in writing this article, compiling dozens of moving parts from multiple people. And when I saw the headlines about the shootings, my mind immediately went to that day at the bus stop last March. I felt enveloped in a collective vulnerability.
But I’m still wrestling with whether this broad outlook is useful, or even appropriate. After all, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng almost certainly did not share my anxiety about hyper-assimilation in a middle-class suburb. They didn’t have a Veritas crest to hide behind, however briefly.
At what point does coalition-building become oversimplifying? When does empathy turn into projection? Who is the “AAPI community” to whom all the sympathy emails have been addressed, and what are we supposed to do next?
Even through Zoom, Nick Y. Gu ’24 exudes an enviable degree of confidence. He tells me about the time last spring that a high school classmate yelled at him as he was walking to his car after tennis practice: “Bat eater, China virus, that kind of shit.”
“Being me, I didn’t really care,” he continues. “That person has no relevance in my life, you know? This guy has no impact on me in the future.”
He’s worried for his sister, parents, and friends — he’s been outspoken about anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic — but when it comes to himself, Nick sounds more exasperated than anything.
I’m impressed by his ability to not let it get to him. When I tell him this, he laughs.
“I think it’s a problem that it doesn’t,” he says. “It’s become so normal for me, I just don't really care anymore … It’s tough skin from years of hearing ‘Jeremy Lin’ whenever I play basketball.”
If Nick’s skin has scarred over from a lifetime of pinpricks, mine must have been punctured, a porous sponge.
In third grade, a classmate told me to open my eyes as big as I could. “Just do it,” she insisted when I asked why. Trustingly, blindly, I opened my eyes wide, and when she asked if that was really as big as they could get, I stretched them even wider, until they burned and welled with tears.
“They’re so small,” she gawked. “You have squinty eyes.” Then I blinked and she ran off, giggling, to report her findings to the other girls. I still think about it every so often, when I make eye contact with myself in the mirror.
I’d assumed that this sort of complex had been battered into all Asian American kids: paranoia from being at once a foreign threat and an easy target, overlooked and singled out, wanting in on the joke that everyone else is laughing at. Memories of other people scrunching up their noses at your lunch playing on loop. Almost like a rite of passage.
However, as Nick demonstrates, another result of racism is a self-preserving myopia. Certain uncomfortable truths are best kept unacknowledged or unexamined. (What’s the opposite of a double consciousness? A double eyelid? Ha.)
Sometimes, other people keep them hidden from us. Before I found out I had “squinty eyes,” I was happily chanting a playground rhyme that contained a racial slur.
I went to a Chinese restaurant to buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread
The waiter asked me what my name was, and this is what I said, said, said:
My name’s Charlie, I know karate, punch you in the body, oops I’m not sorry
Chinese, Japanese, American, freeze!
Only much later did I learn that in Vietnamese War slang, “Viet Cong” was shortened to “VC,” which, in the NATO phonetic alphabet, became “Victor Charlie” or just “Charlie.” All this was accompanied by hand-clapping, karate chops, and pulling up the corners of our eyes at the corresponding lines. I’d recited the lyrics unthinkingly, unknowingly. Not a single adult ever bothered to disillusion me.
Other times, we do the burying ourselves. Despite the culture shocks she experienced moving to the U.S. and attending a Christian private school, Alexandria says, “I have always been proud of the fact that I’m Vietnamese and that I’m an immigrant.”
But later in our conversation, she reconsiders. “Okay, in a way I kind of lied when I said I’ve always been proud,” she confesses. “I really, really hated it when people pointed out I have an accent when I speak English. I tried to appear like I didn’t have an accent, like there was virtually nothing that would distinguish me from the rest of my peers.”
Angie is from Koreatown in Los Angeles and attended a predominantly Black and Latinx high school. When she came to Harvard, she recognized that unfairly high academic expectations had been placed on her because of her race, but she still felt pressured to live up to them and blamed herself when she didn’t.
“I didn’t think I was a rightful victim of racism,” she says. “I just dismissed it as something that was lacking on my own part.”
This might be the most insidious feature of internalized racism — you can never fully shake off the self-destructive instinct, no matter how aware of it you are. My own mother, born and raised in Wuhan, switched her grocery shopping from Chinatown to Whole Foods the day after the first Covid-19 cases were reported in the United States. By the time we learn that the virus likely did not actually originate from that seafood market, the idea has already infected me.
I’ve written research papers about the history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., read think pieces about the harmful effects of the model minority stereotype, and thoroughly marked up my copy of “Minor Feelings.” I’ve snapped at anyone who dared to say anything about my parents’ accents or my friends’ appearances. But I can’t seem to do the same for myself. In the gap between reason and emotion, my foot keeps getting stuck, until I find myself wanting to apologize to a subway full of strangers for something I know is not my fucking fault.
“It’s weird because it doesn’t mean anything, supposedly,” Angie says. “Right? Like the color of your skin or what languages you speak or what food aromas don’t upset you. You wouldn’t think they’re important, and they shouldn’t be weighed in the way that [they are]. But the truth is that happens all the time, and the exacerbation of every little action,” she continues, “it hurts every single time.”
I nod. It hurts every single time and then some.
“I’m curious [about] how far it will go, how long these conversations are going to last,” Alexandria said to me a few days ago. “Because if there’s something I know of America, it’s that we have a very short-term memory.”
I write too slowly to combat the forgetting. Already, the outpouring of social media activism is slowing to a trickle. And here I am, still wording and rewording last week’s news. Too little, too late, too quiet.
“There’s always this lull where you just hope to God that nothing more happens,” Angie says. “And then it does, and then you go through your processing all over again. There is hope that it won’t happen again and knowledge that it will happen again and anticipation of when and fear of not being able to prevent it.”
It’s March again. One year ago, when the plane touched down in Philadelphia, I rushed toward my parents parked outside the terminal. My mom had covered the seats of the station wagon in plastic, and she sprayed me down with isopropyl alcohol before letting me get in.
I counted the mile markers on the drive home and wondered if I was still outpacing SARS-CoV-2. I imagined the blue line that bound us together stretching across the interstate like a piece of gum. It no longer felt so close.
Here, in my backseat cocoon, I let myself rest. I took off my mask, inhaled the mid-morning breeze, and hoped that nothing more would happen.
— Magazine writer Sophia S. Liang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @totalPHIAsco.