Earlier this week, I had my first experience with COVID-related anti-Asian racism. In simple language, boiled down to its most basic description, it could be summarized in a single sentence: a man spit at me as I walked past him. All in all, not the worse violence that could have occurred. A small act, compressed in a short span of time.
I could have brushed off such a minor incident, but as luck would have it, the day had already been going terribly for me. Several hours prior to being spit on, I had called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Curled in my bed, breaking down in sobs, unable to say the words that had become too heavy for my mouth to bear, I tried my best to explain my situation over the phone. The lady on the other end, who had sat through five straight minutes of my tears and likely many others’ tears, very kindly directed me to several resources and then innocently suggested that I go for a walk later that day. Innocently, I agreed. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; she couldn’t have known what was about to happen, or what my skin tone was, and I had simply been too naive to remember what was happening in the world outside of myself.
Leaving my apartment building took immense effort. Walking around depressed feels like moving through mud, like some damp grey fog has descended upon all the earth that only you can see. Once outside, I had the brief realization that I can keep walking forever and leave the life that had become too heavy to bear behind. It’s not the first time I’d had this thought. On a previous walk, I had once glimpsed the Griffith Observatory on a hill in the distance and was suddenly gripped by the desire to walk the four miles towards it. Eventually, though, my legs grew tired and I wanted to crawl back into bed, so I started to head home.
In retrospect, I should’ve known something was wrong. When I’m ready to cross the street, the Brown man on the other side of the street is maskless, and he keeps glancing at me before he stops at the corner of the sidewalk. I tell myself that I’m “just overthinking things like usual. My neighborhood is mostly POC and so close to Koreatown that it might as well be Koreatown. This man is going to leave me alone and mind his own business like the countless other POC I’ve walked past before.” So despite my initial misgivings, I walk on towards him, certain that I’ll pass him by without notice.
It’s not the wetness I feel. It’s the pathetic, dry sound of an attempted spit I hear behind my right shoulder. Now I understand: the man hadn’t lingered on that sidewalk corner to check for passing cars. He had waited for me to cross the street to specifically target me with this hateful act. It was a cosmicly hilarious joke that on the day that it was difficult for me to be alive, someone came around to make it even harder. I’m so dead inside at this point that I don’t react outwardly and just keep walking. I can feel the shock reverberate through both of us: me, that this happened in my neighborhood, blocks from my own home, from a POC I had mistakenly trusted to “be on my side,” and him, that because I was wearing headphones and no actual spit had seemed to actually leave his mouth, that I might not have noticed his act at all. He then continued to follow me for almost half a block, upon which point I abruptly turned, crossed to the other side of the street, and hid behind a van to make sure he kept walking away without coming to find me. As I came up on my building, I saw my neighbor exit the front door with his dog for a walk — a sight that filled me with inexplicable relief. Somehow, it made me feel like even if that man had continued to follow me home, that everything would be okay. I don’t know my neighbor well, but I had pet his dog once before just outside of his apartment, right when I was returning to mine. He was neither overly chatty nor dismissive, he was simply neutral towards me. And that was precisely what I liked about him. That he had treated me as another person passing by.
There’s a part of me that has to wonder — should I have reacted more overtly to the spitter? Had I played into that Asian stereotype of obedience and submissiveness? Have I essentially enabled him to go around committing the same pernicious act against others? Was my lack of reaction the better thing to do in the long run? Clearly he was looking for a reaction, maybe even looking for a fight. By withholding what he wanted from me, had I actually taken back my power in this situation? It’s hard to think about what the “right” thing to do was — both and neither feel appropriate at the same time. I am used to taking, taking, taking other people’s anger all the time, interested only in diffusing conflict. But are these turbulent times, calling for more vital action? Is it the survival of my body or my dignity that is more important?
In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement, rise in anti-Asian racism, and the violence against Indigenous protestors by the state all serve to illuminate one truth we have always known deep down: there is a line in this country that demarcates whose bodies are safe and unsafe. Who is allowed to walk around freely and who among us are subject to a feral, careless, undiscerning violence. How am I as a person brave enough to move past that? I don’t want to have to be brave every day of my life; most days I don’t feel brave at all. How do I walk outside again without fear? How do I have the strength to do anything, and I don’t want to believe that softness is a bad thing, but how do I continue to exist sanely in a world that regularly crushes the softness out of us?
I don’t have any answers to the questions I just asked. I am maybe blindly reaching towards anything right now — a doorknob, a safety lever, the side of a ship. I have decided to continue living in a world that regularly refuses my right to exist, and maybe there are no just answers to that. I am reading Michaela Coel’s Vulture profile right now, and something she says sticks out at me:
“I learned that when I am traumatized, I make a line and I say dangerous/safe,” says Coel. “Sometimes when you stay in that mode too long, the line becomes good/bad, nice/evil, angel/devil, not me/me, friends/enemies. But the line is not real. I’m not saying remove the line, but if we understand that it isn’t real, it may enable us to look at the thing that we are calling over there differently. And when you acknowledge it and look at it — that enemy, that evil, that bad thing — the more you learn how to master it and temper it.”
Maybe that is answer enough.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you have experienced anti-Asian racism in relation to COVID-19, please consider filing an incident report with STOP AAPI HATE.