Reframing the common question “Where are you from?”

Language matters. What we ask matters.

For too long, we have been socialized to ask and answer the common question “Where are you from?”

For many Black people and Indigenous communities, this question is triggering because of unknown and/or traumatic, severed pasts due to colonialism. We must remember that personal stories, lineages, cultures, and authentic histories have suffered from systemic erasure globally. 

Asking “Where are you from?” continues to otherize folx who identify as BBIA, adopted, multicultural, and more. 

For the AAPI community, this question reinforces that we do not belong, and is too often followed up with “But where are you really from?” — indicating a displeasure with and refusal of whatever answer originally given, as if to comment that a person could not possibly be from anywhere other than what is close to or matches the mental stereotype within one’s colonized mind.

Decolonize the idea that the question “Where are you from?” must be answered with a geographical location. 

We are from what we say we are from, who we say we are from, where we say we are from, and anything we say we are from that is authentic to who we are.

We each have a multiplicity of identities, and we define for our individual selves if and how we want to respond to this question when we inevitably continue to be asked this throughout our lives.

Our intent matters, and our impact matters.

Reflect on the intent in asking and being asked “Where are you from?”

Regardless of whether the intent in asking meets a surface-level desire to know masked under the false pretense of curiosity that only satisfies the person who asks the question or aims to build one’s understanding, having internalized this question as a truth-bearer of identity, the impact of asking can be harmful, toxic, and traumatic, especially with repetition.

We must reframe the common question “Where are you from?” so that we do not further perpetuate stereotypes, nor do we reduce people to only be representatives of their assumed and/or authentic social groups.

Create and continuously recreate new questions with the intent of building deep understanding across communities and cultures. Involve your communities in this process of reimagination. 

“What do you choose to share about your identity/identities?”

“Where do you call home?”

“Who is your community?”

Freedom dream new ways to define and share who you are — for yourself.

Listen intently and fully to the questions, ideas, stories, emotions, and arts shared with reimagined questions to understand your own self, your community/communities, and fellow communities.

Full Instagram Carousel: https://www.instagram.com/p/CRkoH8lsNsI/

Our Collective Humanity

From o̶n̶e̶ ̶h̶u̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶r̶a̶c̶e̶ to our collective humanity.

Language matters. What we say matters.

For too long, we have relied on the societal equalizer of being part of “one human race” to evade conversations of race, racism, and systemic inequities. 

To say that we are part of “one human race” simply does not suffice. The phrase “one human race” causes erasure of identities, dismissal of injustices, and gross generalizations of cultures and peoples. 

We can no longer seek to only “equalize” ourselves in systems that perpetuate injustice. 

We protect us.

We advocate for us.

We build — for us.

We must take ownership in our relationships with each other — including in understanding our stories and struggles within our communities, and in building solidarities while celebrating joy across societally-set lines of division. 

Our language can be an act of resistance.

We can shift our language to speak directly against the harm in systems that continue to uphold white supremacy. 

Each of us has the incredible power to play and act upon our critical roles in our communities where we live, work, eat, and create joy.

Together, we can freedom dream new possibilities to uplift our own communities and each other’s livelihoods. 

We are all part of our collective humanity, one in which we all learn from, contribute to, and build upon. Within our collective humanity, we rise against our own and each other’s injustices.

We take collective stands against systemic inequities that harm us all, white protecting each other’s individuality and culture.

We have a collective responsibility to build our shared humanity. 

Beyond language is action in the form of individual, internal thought manifested in active, daily practice lived-out-loud and shared within and across communities.

Actively reflect on, respond to, and re-envision yourself, your community, and our collective humanity.

We are free to be free in our collective humanity.

Golden Power

On the complexities of yellow and yellow peril, and offering an alternative: Golden Power.

A non-comprehensive list of what WE ARE NOT:
We are not 
yellow
foreigners
your yellow fever
yellow peril
invisible
dangerous
coronavirus
exotic
model minorities
a monolith
the enemy.

“Yellow Peril” is a racist term that has been used to describe Asian people as a danger to the Western world. The term was coined by Russian Sociologist Jacques Novikow in 1897 and used by Western empires and white people in power, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, to encourage colonization of Asian countries and people. Using “Yellow Peril” perpetuates xenophobia and anti-Asian hate.

“Yellow” as a color for Asian people stems from “Luridus”: “Lurid”, “Sallow”, “Pale Yellow” – a label assigned by Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. “Luridus” was also used to characterize unhealthy and toxic plants, and “yellow” helped reinforce an irrational fear of and danger from the perpetual foreigners: Asian people.

“Yellow” and “Yellow Peril” have been denounced and reclaimed by people of the Asian diaspora. Only Asian people can decide for themselves whether to denounce or reclaim racist terms that have been used against us. If you are not Asian, you cannot decide for us. Each Asian person’s voice is valuable, and yet does not speak monolithically for all members of the Asian diaspora.

Asian Americans: We actively renew racist rhetoric in our language if we do not understand the intersectional history of standing for and with Asians. We can embrace the history of activism that comes with “yellow peril” and denounce its usage when used by non-asian folx to describe our humanity. We can bravely share our narratives because each one of us matters – individually AND as part of the Asian diaspora. 

I want to offer an alternative. Golden Power. GOLDEN. POWER. 

Affirmations for my Asian American community: 
We are Asian.
We are American.
We are Asian American.
We are Golden.


Rise up in solidarity.
Speak up to protect BBIA.
Embrace our Golden Power.

I am Golden Power.

We are Golden Power.

Before Lunar New Year

We are more than Lunar New Year.

We are more than a Christmas meal.

We are more than 2020.

There is a new strain of COVID-19 in the UK. I want y’all to take note of the rhetoric (or the lack thereof) surrounding this. The United States doesn’t have a travel ban. Nobody is treating British people (and their descendants) like they are a disease. I want y’all to take a look at who is and isn’t talking about it. Notice the conversations that aren’t being had. Now compare that to what happened to a Chinese and other Asian-descended peoples at the beginning of the pandemic. I want you to look, listen, and watch whiteness work.

Ally Henny

Whiteness continues to be pervasive in our everyday lives. Chinese (and Asian, because of generalization and stereotyping) communities worldwide are continuing to live in fear not only of COVID-19 but of Anti-Chinese and Anti-Asian sentiment, rhetoric, thought, and so much more. I think about this 7 year old’s statement in April:

What have we done for our Asian American and Chinese American youth? Have we acknowledged them, their families, their lives? Have we affirmed their identities to be important? Have we worked AGAINST the hate that continues to surround and penetrate their livelihoods? Have we done more than eat Chinese food on Christmas because they’re open? What have we discussed in terms of Black Lives Matter and what that means for Asian Americans? And vice versa?

As we near the end of 2020, we have not woken up. Instead, we have an American film nominated in a foreign language category. Instead, we have to explain that saying “I am Chinese” is NOT synonymous with supporting a communist government, over and over again. Instead, we continue to have our names mixed up because we all look alike – and then only to be rectified by a short caption but no apology:

An earlier version of this article included a photo caption that incorrectly identified the actresses in “The Joy Luck Club.” The caption has been updated.

The Washington Post

If we are truly W.O.K.E. (We Obtain Knowledge Everyday) and A.N.T.I.-Racist (Actively Navigating Thinking Internally), Asian Americans would be acknowledged before Lunar New Year. We would have more than one day in class dedicated to music that would only be straight from the Asian countries; we might even have two or more days and explore Asian American music (dare I say American music). We would be more than filling a quota for diversity in our curriculums, offices, and lives.

We would exist during Lunar New Year. Afterwards of course to celebrate.

But most importantly, we would be acknowledged and truly matter – before Lunar New Year.

I “am”

It is a privilege that I only first experienced overt, daily racism from walking down the street because of my Asian skin due to COVID-19.

I (currently) do not walk outside with as much fear as I did in March, April, and early May. I am not completely stressed by the idea of running errands alone, nor do not feel like I need to have my two medium-sized dogs with me when I am out. The fear still exists, but I suppose not quite at the same level. Now I can, with privilege, negotiate what is more terrifying again: COVID-19 or anti-Asianness.

Don’t get me wrong – anti-Asian sentiment is still unfortunately alive and well in the “United” States. I am reminded by it whenever I see the “kung-flu” headline that seems to keep resurfacing in tweets, public statements, “news” reports, and presidential rallies. The videos of the Asian woman who was burned with acid outside her home in Brooklyn, NYC and the elderly Asian man being attacked in San Francisco will forever be stamped in my mind. And so many more. I will never unsee the horrors of this reality.

Then the end of May came with white womxn weaponizing Blackness, Black lives continuing to be killed on American screens with the world’s eyes watching, and very literally, NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. 

As AAPI month came to an end, solidarity with Black folx was of necessary and immediate urgency. I almost laughed at all my own “issues” I’ve had the past few months because really, my personal confrontations with racism felt like uncooked pieces of rice in a larger bowl of atrocity noodle soup.

I am an Asian American music educator teaching Black and Brown children in New York City. I’ve founded the music program at my school. I’ve seen my children grow up. But most importantly, I will never truly understand what it means to be a Black and/or Brown person. Never. I also know that for some readers, racist judgements (#urban #titleone #poor #lowincome #badneighborhood #unsafe #achievementgap are a few) were made upon reading the first sentence because you are already trying to envision who I am, and who my kids are. I’m no savior. I refuse to be, and I will never be.

My elementary school students and I talked about the anti-Asian hate openly. My students didn’t understand why it was happening, but yet, some blamed the bats that people supposedly ate. As the only Asian-identifying educator in their schooling thus far, I constantly feel the responsibility to share who I am and my AAPI identity with my kids. “I do not eat bats”, I shared, “and not everything you see or read may be true”. 

After the killing of George Floyd amongst many others, my first 8:00AM Orchestra class online included the following questions and statements from students:

This was not a time for me to teach them ANYTHING about “Orchestra”. These statements didn’t just last for that hour. They came up again and again in the days and weeks afterwards, all the way through the end of the school year. I was and continue to be the learner because We Obtain Knowledge Everyday.

Immunity

Close your eyes. Take a moment to envision an American person.

Now open your eyes.

It isn’t me.


It was in elementary school when I came home one day and told my mom that I was American. She chastised me, as if I had burnt her as badly as overcooked, inedible rice.

“No, you’re not American. You’re Chinese.”

Elementary school me was confused, but didn’t talk back (#filialpiety). I knew not to bring it up again, because I had learned that saying this was just wrong in my mom’s eyes. To her, saying I was American was equal to saying that I was white and that I had abandoned my Chinese roots – almost in shame. I took that to heart, and have never said “I am American” to her again.


I don’t remember exactly when I learned the term “Asian American”, but I remember feeling some type of identification with it. To a high school me, this term was for people who “weren’t Asian enough”, and simultaneously “weren’t American enough” – but rather just existed in this middle haze. A term that did not diminish me because of something that I wasn’t. A term that unified people who also felt that they “weren’t enough”. In what we lacked, we strangely found unity. I stopped saying that I was Asian, or Chinese, or American, and now always say that I am Asian American, specifically Chinese American. The two words must come stuck together like two tapioca pearls up a bubble tea straw, of an order I made in English.

“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” – Andrew Yang (Washington Post)

Reading this severely angered my Asian American self. My identity that I had so strongly valued in its togetherness was separated, with one prioritized over another. I felt my Asian Americanness separate and unequal, with Americanness prioritized – no – STOMPING OVER AND SPITTING AT at my Asian roots. Is my existence as an “American” insufficient? Do I have to prove how “American” I could be? I already know the answers to both of those questions; I can never be sufficient or prove my “Americanness” no matter how much red, white, and blue clothing I don.

 “We are still, in the public eye, a perpetual foreigner.” – Tzi Ma (Time) 

“One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who “brought” the virus here… our belonging is conditional.” – John Cho (LA Times)

Every day when I walk my dogs, you see my eyes and think FOREIGNER. Then you see my mask and you think COVID-19 – not because everyone else is or isn’t wearing a mask, but because I’m wearing a mask. What’s worse – my un-American eyes or my disease-ridden mask? I only feel somewhat safe when I have two medium sized dogs whose leashes are attached to my physical body, and even then, am I really? I no longer know how to react to being a Brooklyn, New York Asian woman if acid gets poured on someone else who is one also. I’m not safe alone. I don’t know if or when I will be again. If Jeremy Lin is pleading for people to “just accept us as humans”, is my existence beneath humankind?


“To be Asian in America during the time of coronavirus is to feel very alone. You might think that everyone’s alone during the pandemic. But it’s a different form of isolation carved out by that insidious model-minority myth, with its implication that as long as you worked hard and didn’t ask for handouts, racial inequities could be overcome.” – Cathy Park Hong (NY Times)

“Like fame, the “model minority” myth can provide the illusion of ‘raceless-ness.’ Putting select Asians on a pedestal silences those who question systemic injustice. Our supposed success is used as proof that the system works — and if it doesn’t work for you, it must be your fault.

Never mind that 12% of us are living below the poverty line. The model minority myth helps maintain a status quo that works against people of all colors.

But perhaps the most insidious effect of this myth is that it silences us. It seduces Asian Americans and recruits us to act on its behalf. It converts our parents, who in turn, encourage us to accept it. It makes you feel protected, that you’re passing as one of the good ones.” – John Cho (LA Times) 

I’m only American on the few days my dad made me ham sandwiches for lunch in elementary school because I asked for it instead of my Shanghainese or Cantonese rice dish. I’m only American when it’s convenient for the media to celebrate the successes of people whose faces resemble mine. I’m only American when the model minority myth works in my favor and has duped my parents into believing in the possibility of achieving an “American dream” where hard work could overcome racial inequities. Am I, and are others, truly included in #AllAmericans, one that extends beyond activism by and for Asian people, one that stands in solidarity with the disproportionate deaths of LatinX and black people due to societal inequities? While we all support healthcare workers (or at least I certainly hope we all do), when will we truly support each other without perpetuating further discrimination – Asians included? Am I really that radical by saying EVERYONE, STOP HATING EACH OTHER?


In my middle school, the loudspeaker blasted “Proud to Be An American” as sung by Toby Keith daily after we recited the pledge.

“And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” – “I’m Proud to Be An American”, Toby Keith

Will I ever be free?
Will my parents ever be free?
Will my fellow Asian Americans ever be free?
Will Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and all marginalized groups ever be free?
Will America ever be free?

When you closed your eyes and imagined an American, did your own reflection come into the view of your eyes? Did you envision yourself? Are YOU free? Do you want to be free in America?

But questioning all of this, isn’t enough.


“I don’t want your love and light if it doesn’t come with solidarity and action.” – Rachel Cargle

My mother survived the “Cultural Revolution” in China. By the way, “Cultural Revolution” is read as cease all education, subscribe or die from the Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, starve every day of your childhood, shut up or else during the house raids at my grandparents’ house, and the death of my grandfather – based on the little that my mother has told me.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be or feel fully free, but the one freedom I will never cease to use is my freedom of speech. My mom didn’t have it, and is terrified to use it now. I don’t blame her, but I can’t sit silent. Because of my parents immigrating here, I have this right, whether my “fellow Americans” acknowledge me and the fact that I can exercise it or not. I carry a lot of privilege to be able to use it, even if I feel it diminishing these days. But I have to take my chances.

Vaccines are never 100% effective, and I don’t know if any will be created that are in my lifetime. There’s one I’m testing out now, every single day and in all aspects of my personal and professional life.

I’m sharing this vaccine with you.

EU9dSGVXsAE0WFE(Source: Hate is a Virus)

It is okay to be fearful. I am.

But don’t stop in the tracks of hate. Immunize.

Immunize until you can picture yourself when I ask you to close your eyes. Immunize until you can picture EVERY SINGLE GROUP.

And then immunize again. We need all of the immunity we can get.

P.S. Additional immunizations include #washthehate and #RacismIsAVirus. Feel free to triple up.

America’s Unwanted Daughter

Yellow Peril.”
The Wuhan Virus.”
The Chinese Virus.”

Chink.”
“Cough into your elbow.” (Comes closer) “I SAID COUGH INTO YOUR ELBOW!” (Repeats multiple times in a train between stations, so I cannot get out).
“Get away from me.”
– What people have directly said to me

COVID-19 is most definitely changing my experience as an Asian American. When I first wrote about the coronavirus “back in February” (so… just a month ago), I had no expectation that my life would be where it is today. (Did anyone though?) What I shared on video with USAToday had a greater impact than I thought it would – for better, for worse, for everything in between.


Starting in March and as COVID-19 started to escalate in the United States, my commute to work started to feel awkward and uncomfortable. People would move away from me, and glare at me. They didn’t need to say anything racist; I felt the racism with their eyes. “Are you sick? Are you a carrier of the coronavirus?” These were the questions that their eyes tried to pierce at me.

In Asian culture, it is a proactive measure to wear masks, but for so long in American culture, masks had an association of being negative, and perhaps still does, of automatically labeling someone as sick. Maskophobia is real, and I struggled for weeks in my decision to wear a mask or not. Did wearing a mask mark me as a target of racist attacks? Did NOT wearing a mask make me susceptible to violence? To mask or not mask, there was no clear answer. There is still no clear answer. I only started wearing a mask this past week, and I always walk quickly, shifting my gaze downwards to avoid being a victim of a hate crime.


As a result of sharing my thoughts online, I started getting so many messages from people I have met in my life, and from countless strangers as well. I am grateful to have so much support, but the hate continued to spew as well:

“Forget racism. I am so sick of people turning everything happening to racism.”
– A white person.

“Welcome to the freaking club. Here, make yourself right at home.”
– A person of color.

I unfortunately expected it from white people. The rhetoric was nothing new.

But it has been incredibly hurtful from people of color.

Here I had subscribed to the media channel where Asian people have truly “made progress”, having finally been highlighted with “Parasite” winning the Oscars, and movies like “The Farewell” changing the landscape of what it meant to be Asian American – for the non-Asian American. But these accolades and the continuation of the model minority myth (which has its own harmful effects) were quickly shoved aside by the endless headlines of the “Asian virus”, and not the “New York” virus. This isn’t my first encounter with being called “chink”, or “dirty”, or “smelly”, or being told that “Chinese people are disgusting.”

How do I even respond to, “welcome to my world”, when I’ve suffered from racism since I was a child?

What is the proper response for “welcome to the freaking club”, from another person of color?

How dare I think that the racist tropes of Chinese people, of Asian people, could not possibly make such an overwhelming comeback in my lifetime.


One comment I have been severely criticized for was,

“Yes, I am Asian, Yes, I am Chinese, and I’m really proud of that.”

I didn’t realize that by saying that I would be interpreted as supporting the Chinese government and communism (which, to be clear, I do not). After all, I just wanted to express that I was proud of my Chinese culture, and where my parents came from. Lo and behold, tons of Chinese people verbally fought each other online on this one statement alone, either denouncing the Chinese government and the evils of communism or standing by the Chinese response to this outbreak.

People interpreted “I am proud to be Chinese” as a political statement. I hated that what I said polarized and divided people. It kills me that this one statement is as divisive as saying “I am proud to be American” today. What are the “United” States anyway?


I also received so many messages about how sorry people were that I had to experience this with my students. Racism is learned behavior, and NO CHILD IS BORN RACIST. My intention was never to create a pity party, and especially not one that would further marginalize my predominantly African American, Caribbean American, and LatinX students.

How can I talk about racism without igniting further racism or marginalization? Explaining to every person that my students were not at fault, but were reinforcing learned racial stereotypes was exhausting. Yet, I continued trying to extinguish fires of misunderstanding. Did I end up actually putting out the fires, or did I simply fan the flames? Did I inadvertently pour more gasoline on the fire that seemingly divides people of color? I felt my racial fatigue continue to burden me, with no sign of an end in sight.


I can’t stop thinking about the Asian American youth. As a born and bred New Yorker, and product of the public school system, I am so disheartened when I read about the experience of Asian American children and teenagers. Katherine Oung, a Chinese-American teenager in Florida shared this experience,

“Not only do we have to be afraid about our health. But we have to be afraid about being ourselves. Class basically just started. One of the girls said all Chinese people were disgusting. And so I literally like raised my hand up and was like “I’m Chinese.” She didn’t even say sorry. She didn’t.” (Katherine Oung, New York Times).

When NYC schools were still open, Stuyvesant High School teachers penned a letter pleading for the closure of schools, citing that

“Compounding [students’] terror is the racism many of our Asian and South Asian students are experiencing as they commute to school. Not only is this a viral epidemic, it is a threat to our global mental health.” (New York Teachers, New York Times)

I went to Brooklyn Tech, another public specialized high school in NYC with thousands of students. How would 14-year-old me respond to exacerbated comments on my Chineseness and my Asianness – in AND out of school? If I am experiencing extreme discomfort as an adult, what are the almost 200,000 Asian kids in our public school system feeling? It’s horrific to imagine and I want to do something, but I don’t really know what to do. Are they voiceless, and if so, how can I help speak up for them? How do I empower them to #washthehate? What long-term effects in mental health can I possibly help in combatting on their behalf?

The feeling of helplessness as an Asian American educator is paralyzing.


I may be scared for myself, but I am truly terrified for my parents – on so many levels. My parents are senior citizens who enjoy walking outside. One of the reasons my dad immigrated to America was for cleaner air. My dad has severe asthma, and has experienced near-fatal asthma attacks a number of times in his life. I tell my parents constantly to stay home (as if I’m the parent now ha), and I’m scared that the airborne spread will infect them if they are not careful.

I am merely scared for the actual spread of the virus, but I am beyond terrified of my parents potentially being on the receiving end of a violent, racist attack. With over 650 racist acts over the last week (and those are only counting reported incidences), many of them against elderly Asian people, I can’t help but live in terror for my parents. Will they make it back from grocery shopping safe, alive, breathing, and unharmed? Will they come back from their walk commenting on the trees they saw blooming, or having been spat at by others? Will my parents have to die from the air they sought to breathe here or from the hate that we label as “freedom of speech”?

HATE is a virus that is spreading quicker than COVID-19, and I constantly wonder if my parents have already been victims, but just haven’t told me.


My mom saw the video where I shared my experiences, and hasn’t talked to me about it. Through my brother, I found out that she wished I hadn’t said anything. She fears for my safety, and is afraid it marked me as a target.

A few days ago, I received these posts on my personal Facebook wall:

“Just saw your video how you were like I am proud to be a Chinese well then fuck you because you guys have put everyone in danger if you love your country so much ask them to be hygienic stop eating bats snakes rats because it’s easy to say you love your country but stand up for what is right or wrong and I f****** hate china and Chinese people.”

“I am against racism but then you guys are just acting like nothing happened look at the world around you and your country did this.”

… What?!

I literally felt frozen, and unable to physically move. My mind went completely blank. This personal attack cut me, even though I tend to pride myself as someone who doesn’t mind the thoughts of others.

My friends reported both comments as hate speech (fun fact: I am not able to do that even though it is my personal Facebook). The first one was removed. The second one wasn’t, and still lives on my Facebook wall. I guess microaggressions aren’t considered “hate speech enough“.

People apologized to me for having to experience this. “That guy is stupid and doesn’t know what he is talking about!”

Oh, by the way, the person who wrote that is a woman of color.


When people ask me “How are you?” I’m truly uncertain how to respond. Do I say yes to make you feel better? Do I say yes to mask my incoherent mind and thoughts? Do I say yes and wear an actual physical mask?

Or do I say no and make you privy to all that I am thinking and feeling? Does saying no make you feel sorry for me? Does saying no make you feel pessimistic instead of wanting to be optimistic in this time? Does saying no make me selfish?

How am I?

I am incoherent.

I am still uncertain if I should wear a mask or not, even though I have currently decided that I should.

I am apprehensive of writing, recording, and sharing my thoughts because I do not want to further divide people, or add fuel to the racism that exists.

I am wary of everyone around me because of my Chinese face.

I am nervous for our Asian American youth.

I am terrified for my parents’ lives. For all Asians and Asian Americans’ lives.

I am worried for my own students in this time, who are facing an extreme number of inequities – if the inequities can even be counted.

I am skeptical of the media’s portrayal of COVID-19 for likes, subscribes, and follows, and not for spreading TRUTH.

I am uncertain if my friends who are healthcare workers will survive.

I am alarmed by people who continue to commit sinophobic acts of prejudice – verbal, physical, violent, all of the acts.

I am afraid that people will stop caring about violence against Asian Americans, and Asians around the world.

I am America’s unwanted daughter. Raised here, I live and breathe my freedom of speech, but it is undesired, unwanted, and HATED. I am hated.

My mom wishes I would just stay quiet.

But I can’t. And I won’t.

Tired of Being Asian

I am a proud Asian American, a proud Chinese American, first generation raised in America, first to go to college and earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s, currently pursuing my doctorate, and just truly so proud of my culture and who I am. To many, and hopefully my family and in some ways even myself, I am the epitome of the American dream.

This is sadly not about that.

I want to detail what it has felt like to be an Asian person in America since the outbreak of coronavirus.

Imagine the first time hearing about the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan leading up to Lunar New Year, THE biggest holiday in China. As someone with a majority of my extended family in mainland China, the first thoughts are worry, concern, and just a hope that everyone is okay. As Lunar New Year occurred, my extended family in Shanghai didn’t even all meet up on this big holiday – the first Lunar New Year since my grandmother has passed. It was supposed to be a momentous one, one of continued life of the younger generations. Instead, all WeChat conversations that I was a part of focused on this spread of this virus, the travel bans in and outside of China, and warnings amongst family members to stay indoors as much as possible. Better safe than sorry – I get it. In fact, my paranoid self even wanted to stay away from Chinatown at first. How ridiculous a thought and action I upheld, until I realized the suffering of Asian businesses because of sinophobia.

It was only a conversation I heard about amongst my Asian/Asian American community until the first confirmed case occurred in the United States. Immediately, my newsfeeds on Facebook and Instagram were flooded with warnings to get protective health masks to try to prevent its spread. I immediately googled the effectiveness of health masks to mixed results – but I also wanted to be proactive and safe, for myself and my family. By the time I went to a pharmacy, I had found out that all health masks were sold out EVERYWHEREincluding on Amazon. I shrugged it off and figured the paranoia and “proactivity” would blow over – but the masks never restocked.

As days and weeks started to pass by, I started to read about racist attacks against Asian Americans and then the experiences people were having in NYC. People with Asian-sounding last names not being picked up for Ubers, racist slurs being targeted toward any Asian people who would cough on a subway, and people moving away from any Asians with a face mask on (which by the way, is seen as a proactive measure in East Asian countries and preferred, as opposed to a reactive, “I am sick” statement as it is received in the West). It was so disappointing to hear, but became even more disheartening when I started to read personal experiences of people I personally knew post what happened to them on their social media.

But it didn’t hit me fully until this week at my school, I had heard rumors spread about the possibility of me having the coronavirus. I immediately felt truly more heated than I thought I would, even though I knew it was because of the spread of misinformation and the association of the virus with “Asian-ness”. I ended up addressing the coronavirus with my elementary school students (for now) as follows:

  • There are things that you hear that are false and things that you hear that are true.

  • Not all news is factual – there are some things on the news that are false and some that are true.

  • It is hurtful when I hear that some students have been saying I have the coronavirus because it is false. There is no evidence to support this claim. Just because I look like a group of people who are primarily affected by this virus, does not mean I have it. Yes, I recognize that I am Asian/Chinese, but if you are thinking that I have it simply based on the way I look, it is an unfair assumption.

  • It is even more hurtful if you heard someone say it, and you either laughed at it, or affirmed that this may be true. This is perpetuating misinformation.

  • I am similarly reading information about the coronavirus on the news and am fine to have a discussion or debate about what we hear based on what we know.

  • I sincerely hope that any students who may have said something, laughed/affirmed something that was said about me having it, or even THOUGHT about it takes the time to reflect on their thinking. I do hope to hear some apologies without personally requesting them from any students just because they feel that they need to.

  • If there are any questions you have about my Asian-ness or Chinese-ness, please ask instead of assuming.

I was really proud of this response (because it took a lot of my own personal self to talk out), and I was also grateful to hear students come up to me personally to apologize on their own accord for either saying, laughing at, or bystanding in the situation. But I also knew that just because I addressed it with some students, it wasn’t the end of this and I had more to do as a teacher.

As recently as three days ago, the NYC Department of Education issued a letter about Coronavirus to all employees citywide. Imagine my shock when online, in NYC teacher forums, educators were joking about the GREATER likelihood of school shutting down for the coronavirus than for snow days. Imagine my further dismay reading non-Chinese, fellow educators make casual comments about the coronavirus that either furthered the paranoia of its spread, or helped continue the underlying racist attacks that so many news outlets are insinuating. Imagine my insides cringe at stepping into spaces where the coronavirus is joked about, and others laughing about it. Imagine my anger finding out that my friends who are Asian American educators as well have had to hear children utter racist comments that equate the coronavirus to Asianness, and also hearing that so many schools have not been proactive in addressing – some even going to lengths to avoid these difficult, necessary conversations. It has been infuriating.

All at the same time, in this past week, I have received more racist comments than I remember receiving in a long time. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I was either walking or on the subway, coughed (because of asthma, not because of me being sick, and COVERING my cough), and having one or a combination of the following reactions:

  • People giving that cold, harsh, eyes-of-caution stare
  • People literally telling me to cover my cough multiple times (even though I have)
  • People moving immediately away from me
  • People muttering unkind, racist slurs under their breath (but just audible enough for me to hear)

I have turned the volume up so high on my headphones this week while going about my life because I cannot bear to hear, read, or experience anything further. I am so tired of social media because all I read about is the coronavirus, and this is so unfortunate because there are people who are truly affected by this virus in their health, and I cannot focus on the facts, because there is too much racism between the lines.

I want to be invisible and LOUD ABOUT THIS simultaneously. I want to help create a change in perception, for my students, for my community, but I have felt so RACIALLY FATIGUED, a term my friend explained to me this week. According to Critical Race Theorist William Smith, racial battle fatigue (RBF) is a

“public health ad mental health illness [based on the] cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions. These conditions emerged from constantly facing racially dismissive, demeaning, insensitive and/or hostile racial environments and individuals” (Smith, 2008).

According to Smith (2008), racial battle fatigue stems from racism and microaggressions and to find these in society today, “one must not look for the gross and obvious…. but the subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism” (Smith, 2008).

Racial microaggressions are a form of psychological warfare and are defined as:

1) subtle verbal and nonverbal insults directed at people of Color, often automatically or unconsciously

2) layered insults, based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname

3) cumulative insults, which cause unnecessary stress to people of Color while privileging whites.

(Smith, 2008).

I can’t feel like I constantly have to stand up for my race and explain my Asianness – non-Asian, non-Chinese people need to STAND UP also.

“We must go beyond educating students about basic infectious disease prevention, such as hand washing. We must also address the growing stereotyping, racism and discrimination that pose long-term threats to our health, economy, and individual and collective psyches” (Torres and Cao, 2020).

Words matter. Actions matter.

Words hurt. Actions hurt.

I am so proud to be Asian American, but I am so tired of being Asian American.

 

Who am I to SPEAK OUT?

I recently attended a professional development entitled “Empathy, EQUITY, and Excellence; Inviting Diverse Perspectives on Repertoire and Responsiveness”. My immediate reaction to any workshop on equity is one filled with hesitation, caution, and skepticism – especially because of how loaded the term “equity” can be, and how often it unfortunately can be misused (especially when equity is interchangeably used with equality). I quickly felt grateful, however, for a person of color as a keynote speaker – especially having sat through so many workshops where a white person would colorfully use the buzzwords of “equity,” “equality,” “diversity”, “justice”, and “inclusion” (to just name a few) to almost fill their quota of saying the words loud and proud.

Keynote speaker Dr. Danielle A. Brown, founder of My People Tell Stories, helped me feel less apprehensive upon defining equity, diversity, and inclusion as separate entities that must cohesively exist in our teaching. Dr. Brown then continued to discuss a concept of “universality” – specifically universality and the music educator:

“There are two ways that the concept of universality will work against you as a music educator:

  1. you believe in the concept that ‘music is universal’
  2. you believe that you have overcome the ‘music is universal’ concept

(Brown, 2019)

I felt guilty right away. I have definitely uttered those words “music is universal” with nothing but good intent that we could all “speak the language of music” – but good intentions are not good enough, and I know that good intentions do not mean the actions are free from harm or wrongdoing. Then this slide came up on the screen:

Universality of Dominant Culture

Be careful that your use of the word ‘universal’ is not merely a euphemism for ‘superior’ or dominant culture.”

(Brown, 2019)

My mind was blown! Music was and is not universal. Music is not universally understood, and how music functions in each community, culture, and society varies. It made sense, but I could only focus on the number of times I have personally labeled the music I have taught as being “a way for all people to communicate”, even though I do not represent all people, all cultures, all ideas.


When our workshop separated into smaller group work with fellow educators, we were first asked to create playlists that represented our own identities. That seemed fine, harmless even because we were speaking our individual selves ONLY.

It was as if I was almost waiting to be triggered in this work when we were then tasked with creating playlists of repertoire selections. After putting up my selections of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera (for legato, tone, and self-empowerment), “Own It” by Black Eyed Peas (for harmony, articulation changes, and self empowerment), and “Duke’s Place” by Duke Ellington (for unison playing, and jazz to be included in the traditional orchestra setting), the following selections came up for me to write on our chart paper from my fellow orchestra teachers:

  • “African Adventure” by Robert Sheldon with this description:
    • “When it comes time to celebrate the musical colors of Africa, combine forces with your string group and percussion ensemble on this stylish concert work for the developing ensemble. Repetitive rhythms and a catchy melodic hook propel the piece forward as it develops momentum and dramatic flair. Substitute Orff instruments for the melodic percussion for an even more authentic timbre. A guaranteed favorite!” (J.W. Pepper).

  • “Hanukkah Habenera by Tim McCarrick:
    • “‘Carmen’ meets Hanukkah in this remarkably clever combination of The Dreidel Song; Hanukkah, O Hanukkah and Bizet’s famous Habanera from his most famous opera! It all works amazingly well, with shifts from minor to major, a seamless bass line, and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor! What a hoot! Highly recommended! (J.W. Pepper).

  • “Dragon Dance” by Michael Story:

I could feel my hand begrudgingly writing these especially horrid selections up, as if there was some permanence and upholding of the racist status quo that I committed by even charting them up. It seemed as though my fellow orchestra teachers felt proud of their answers, and “inclusion” of repertoire they believed to be representative of their students.

Dr. Brown warned,

“Don’t assume students will always identify with their cultural heritage.” (Brown, 2019).

Is it really “inclusion” if each piece was written by a white man?

It is really “diversity” if the only allusion made to culture was in the title and then peppered into the description as if it were seasoning on a dish?

What killed me the most, though, was when one teacher eagerly stated,

“I teach ‘Dragon Dance’ because I think my Chinese kids like it.”

There’s nothing like something hitting you personally, and that hit me really hard. If I was that Chinese kid in your class, did you even ask me? Did you even find out more about what dragons symbolize in my culture? Did you ask me if I, or my Chinese peers, identified with Chinese culture? Did you even WANT to know all these things, or were you just giving yourself a pat on your back for being “inclusive”?

I grappled with this catastrophe – of teachers who lived under this false pretense of “doing good”, perhaps even with that good intention, but actually perpetuating harm to their students. I wanted so very badly in that moment to speak out, but felt so silenced by the overpowering whiteness that permeated in that room which would have made me out to be “that one girl of color who is a young teacher and just angry.” (And yes, I say girl because unfortunately my word often continues to be degraded due to my age). Yet, I myself have been that person who at first “taught hip hop” because I thought black kids could “relate” to it – without even asking. Who was I to say that someone was wrong? Who am I to SPEAK OUT?

At the end of this small group work, I could only bring myself to cross out that line I charted that “Dragon Dance” was “representative of Chinese kids”. I re-wrote:

“representative” of Chinese kids.


I continue to wonder what would have been the right move in that moment. I can’t help but feel simultaneously guilty to have upheld the status quo, but also continue to feel protective of who I am and what I share, and my own growth in understanding this important, necessary work.

To my fellow music educators, and educators at large – consider the following as a first step:

  1. Ask. Ask your students first about who they are, what they identify with, and what they perceive to be part of their identifiers. It isn’t always race, ethnicity, and gender, and don’t assume their answers because it is DANGEROUS to assume. Perhaps more importantly, listen to what your students say. Don’t just ask for the sake of asking.

After all of this, I could only conclude that music really isn’t universal. Do not blanket what you perceive to be music that is cultural OVER me as if it is some protective shield through which we can connect under.

Pronouncing Names RIGHT, Not “White”

I wrote the following excerpts in Fall 2011 as part of two blog posts for Generasian, an Asian American interest then-blog-and-publication (now multimedia platform) at New York University.

My American name is Alice Ann Tsui, and the only thing about my name that makes it “Asian” is my last name. My Chinese name is 徐晓兰 (Xu Xiao Lan in Pinyin) – which, at one point in time, Google Translate interpreted as “Dawn of the Orchid.” That translation sounds quite epic, but does an exotic meaning exist behind every Asian name?

In an 8asians article contemplating this question, Koji Steven writes:

When [people] ask what [my son’s name] means, they want to hear something more fortune cookie. Something like, “Wind blows down the north face of Mount Fuji.” I have no idea what the heck that means but it sounds pretty darn exotic doesn’t it?

I have come across this experience myself quite a few times. Questions such as “what does your Chinese name mean” often imply that the inquiring person expects a unique meaning dissimilar to any possible story of the Western name. However, Steven continues:

I wonder if people with more traditional Western names are asked what their names mean. I’ve never wondered what John meant or what Lisa means…

According to this site, John means “God is gracious.” And Lisa… means “God’s promise.” Maybe because the names are so common, I’m surprised to find out that they have such deep meanings. I wonder if Johns and Lisas know.

My parents never explained my Chinese name to me as “Dawn of the Orchid.” To this day, the actual meaning of my Chinese name is quite lost in translation and I only know that my mother and I share the same character of “orchid.” As for my American first name, I have never gotten any further explanation than hearing from my parents that they liked the name Alice because they thought it was “nice sounding.” My middle name Ann was given to me as a suggestion from a nurse present at my birth.

Using the same site Steven used, Alice means “noble,” and Ann means “He (God) has favored me.” I am quite sure my parents do not know that the combination of Alice Ann has this prescribed meaning, just as I do not understand my own Chinese name.

While the etymology of names in English may reveal more than what is apparent to the naked eye, the same goes for names in Asian languages and, in fact, names in all languages worldwide. Common names simply get a bypass on the question, although the truth is that each and every name is unique. Every name has a unique story behind it, and while etymology may be fun to research, we define what our names mean through our life stories. It’s not “West versus East,” but rather “Common versus Uncommon,” respectively. (Tsui, The ‘Exotic’ Asian Name)


When I was in elementary school, I had a very diverse class setting but Asians were still the minority. While I consider my elementary school experience as a happy and great one, there were moments of bullying that I will never forget. My first instance I remember was when non-Asian students would ask me how to pronounce my last name: Tsui. I would phonetically say it slowly: “TSOY, like the t and the s are blended together.” But that response was merely followed by remarks including:

Soy? Like soy sauce?!

Tee-soy? Haha!

Suey… suey suey suey!

Tissue!

(Tsui, Asian Kids are the Most Bullied)


The excerpts I have included continue to resonate with me deeply today, 8 years after I have originally written them. I was reminded of these experiences by Hasan Minhaj, the political comedian and host of Patriot Act, in his recent videos discussing his experiences with pronunciations of his name. Most notably to me, Minhaj recounts a time when he was auditioning and his name was mispronounced – and he himself reiterated that it did not matter.

Within the first minute of another video, Desi-American kids and Hasan Minhaj start off by naming how their name is actually pronounced, but then pronounce it the “White” way.

Why are names still being mispronounced and colonized (also read as: appropriated) today?

Why is there a “White” way to pronounce names with roots in non-English languages? 

As an educator, I have seen and heard other educators mispronounce butcher and Whiten names for convenience sake. What is “convenient” for the educator is inflicting harm on a child’s identity. Too often, we have learned that as long as we try our best to say it, that’s all we can do. NO! We MUST do better and get it right – right not in the way of how we may know to pronounce it from a prior experience teaching a student with the same name, but right in the way that we are saying a specific child’s name exactly the way the specific child wants us to say their name.

In fact, let’s forget the educator perspective for a moment. What is “convenient” for another person to say, is HURTFUL to the person whose name it is. Equally if not more  appalling is when I hear people anglicize names – such as from “Juan” to “John”, or when my mom was given an “American” (read: White) name (that by the way sounded NOTHING like her Chinese name) because her Chinese name was “too hard” for her coworkers to pronounce correctly.

My name DOES matter, and who I am, does matter. (Minhaj, 2019).

My parents chose my name “Alice” not because of its meaning in the baby book dictionaries (I doubt they even looked in those), but rather because it was “easy to pronounce”. Somehow, prior to my birth, my parents already internalized the idea that having a non-English first name would make my life more difficult, or perhaps even their lives more difficult as non-native English speakers. This “easier” first name seemed to be defeated, however, by my “impossible-to-pronounce” last name.

Since I had a last name that was “difficult to pronounce” for most English-speakers, I started to believe that the accurate pronunciation (by my account) of my last name was insignificant. It took a long time for me to become somewhat comfortable with correcting people with how to pronounce my name, and to this day I still sometimes give up after 2 or 3 tries and the other person does not say it properly. These messages of my name having exotic (read: interesting for the story, not for the actual transliteration or pronunciation of the name itself) meanings while simultaneously being unpronounceable were communicated to me as a kid, and people with exoticized and/or mispronounced names should not feel the need to shed their cultural skin for a more colonized one. There is NO such thing as a name that is too difficult to pronounce. There is NO such thing as a name that does not matter.

My name matters. As I wrote 8 years ago,

we define what our names mean through our life stories (Tsui, 2011).

Tell your life story with how YOU want your name pronounced.

Take the time to make sure another person’s name matters as well.