It took twenty-three years and living a continent away before I was finally able to talk to my parents directly about anti-Asian racism in the United States.
It wasn’t that we had never spoken about discrimination or microaggressions before. It was just that it was mostly about non-Asian people of color — and often, the Asian community was the perpetrator. My siblings and I would call these moments out constantly, even though it was many years before we were able to say more than, “You can’t say that! That’s racist.”
When my grandfather told us not to marry Japanese people or Black people, my parents and I had an argument about whether or not it was racist. (It definitely was.) When my parents referred to their Mexican co-workers as “amigos,” we had an argument about whether or not it was racist. (The line was blurry on this one, because it turned out that the co-workers had self-named themselves for group solidarity in a company that was 75% Asian and 25% Latino.) When my parents asserted that we, as immigrants, were not responsible for the colonization of the North American indigenous people, we had an argument about whether or not immigrants are complicit. (We definitely are.)
But somehow, we never found a way to speak openly about discrimination against our own family until this year, when I moved to North Africa. I think it was fear, simply but devastatingly, that stopped the conversation on both sides. My parents did not want to believe that their sacrifices for a “better life” had resulted in the racial oppression of their children. I was scared too, to reveal any of the names I had been called on the street, any of the microaggressions I had to endure daily at school, any of the hundreds of ways I felt sidelined.
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Earlier this year, on video chat, my parents and I started talking about old family photographs. My family has albums and albums full of pictures, and one of our favorite things is to sit together and look through them while laughing about old memories. We do this every few months, to newly discover old times.
In our photo collection, there are about a dozen photographs of our neighbors’ houses. I never really thought anything of them growing up. I’d always flipped past them quickly. Why would I care about plain pictures of other peoples’ houses? They have no memories for me. My siblings and I had always figured that my parents took them because they love amateur real estate. Their interest mostly manifested in guesstimating the square footage of various buildings and browsing real estate websites like Redfin and Zillow. Every time we’d see a For Sale sign on some neighbor’s house, my dad would stop the car and send one of us out to grab a flyer. So, to us, these boring house pictures seemed like just another display of their real estate hobby.
On video chat, without the physical photos in front of me to refer to, I found myself trying to remember things from the albums. I had a sudden recollection of those house photographs. “Remember when you guys would take pictures of the neighborhood houses you liked?” I laughed.
“What?” My parents looked at me blankly.
“You guys don’t remember?” I asked. “You know, we have all those pictures of our neighbors’ houses. Didn’t you take them? ‘Cause you thought they were pretty?”
They looked at each other, then turned back to the screen slowly. “Julie,” my dad said, almost chuckling. “We didn’t take those pictures because we thought the houses were pretty… Our lawyer took them because of the lawsuit.”
“WHAT?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “We were in a lawsuit?! How come I’ve never heard this before? What?! How?! Why?!”
As my parents started to explain, my stomach sunk lower and lower. All of a sudden, puzzle pieces from my childhood started coming together.
When we first moved to Washington state from Florida, we moved into a real house in a suburban neighborhood. It was a low-income area, but it was an actual house when we had only lived in cramped apartments before. Our family was together for the first time in a few years. My grandfather, my grandmother, my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, my mother, my father, my siblings, and I were all excited about this change.
The house was wonderful. It had three entire bedrooms. It had a fireplace. It had a yard. And for the first time, we were living in a mostly white neighborhood.
As we all started to settle into our new lives with work and school, my grandfather — who had neither work nor school — started to renovate the front yard. He worked on it from sunrise to sundown every day. He had nothing else in our new home. Everyone else was gone all day. He had no friends. He could not drive or speak English. So, the yard became his obsession. He planted gorgeous flowers and vegetables and strung bean plants across new fencing. As it went on, the yard began looking stranger and — in my opinion — way cooler.
He made the grass grow in a hexagonal patch. He installed trellises made of brick and wood, all built from “scratch” with his two hands. He built a stone patio for his edible plants. He bought a dragon statue that we children would later use as our secret message place.
Then, one day, our family received a notice from the Neighborhood Association. We were asked to take everything down from the yard because it ruined the “uniformity” of the neighborhood. We were asked to turn our beautiful and bizarre home back into a plain patch of grass.
My grandfather was angry and disappointed, so my parents decided to ignore the Neighborhood Association and keep our yard the way it was. In reality, my mom and dad actually disliked my grandfather’s innovations and wanted a plain yard, but they knew that it was much more important for him to be happy.
As a kid, I’d known that the neighbors were saying rude things about us and our yard. But I’d never realized that it had eventually turned into a lawsuit against my family. In the lawsuit, they specified several rules we had supposedly broken by altering the lawn. For instance, statues were not allowed and brick barriers near the sidewalk were banned. There were many other issues.
The photographs of other houses, my parents explained, were evidence that other people in the neighborhood had broken these exact same “rules,” yet were not being sued by the Neighborhood Association. They were not pictures of pretty houses, but pictures of statues on lawns, brick barriers against sidewalks, and other so-called infractions.
Listening to all of this, I gaped in silence for a few moments. Then I burned in rage.
“I can’t believe I never knew this,” I said. “I can’t believe they were that racist.”
“You think they were racist?” my dad asked.
“Of course they were,” I snapped. “They didn’t want us in that neighborhood because we’re Asian immigrants. They didn’t issue any official notices to the white people, did they? Those pictures prove it, don’t they? Other people — white people — were doing the same thing, but we were the only ones sued.”
Then, my parents said something that nearly broke my heart.
“You think they were racist,” they repeated. “Did you ever face racism? Were people ever racist towards you when you were growing up?”
How could they not know? I thought wildly. But they did know, deep in their hearts. They had just never wanted to bring it out into the light. It was too unbearable.
“Of course,” I said. “Of course.” I wanted to say more, but I didn’t. Those were the experiences that made me who I am. Why I fight for justice in the way that I do. Why I am this strong and this embittered and this resilient and this enraged.
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It was the first time ever they had asked me so directly. The first time they had ever used the word “racism” to refer to racism against us. It was monumental. We were finally speaking out loud about things that had been left unsaid for more than two decades. How had we never had this discussion before? Would things have been different if we had?
I’m still wondering, but I have decided that I won’t repeat the silences of the past. I didn’t add anything after that last “of course”; we shifted the conversation to work issues. But now, I will start to speak the unspoken.
It took time and distance to crack open what was suppressed. It will take more deliberate words to break it completely open. The rest will be a conversation for next time.
[Headline image: The photograph features a light-skinned elder of Asian descent with short grey hair. The person is smiling and looking into the camera. In the background, blurred green vegetation is visible.]