Asian, American, journalist, daughter: My view on the Atlanta shootings

Michelle Shen
The Courier-Tribune
Michelle Shen on a very important phone call in this childhood photo.

When I first heard about the Atlanta shootings, I was not surprised. Anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments have existed for a long time, and, in my experience, it's just something that's often swept quietly and neatly under the rug.

What did surprise (and encourage) me is the number of Asians who spoke up and how their stories actually received attention for the first time in recent memory.

For years, Asian Americans have been labeled as "model minorities." I think part of the reason behind this is due to the notion that we don't complain when we're the subject of racists remarks or attacks.

I remember going on a hike with my dad years ago in a pleasant, liberal suburb of the Bay Area in California. We were conversing in Chinese when this older, white man and his daughter approached us. He began ranting about how we "lived in America," and for a while, my dad and I just stood there confused.

We thought he needed directions, and we were trying to help him. Then, suddenly he said, "Here in America, we speak English," and finally, it dawned on us. He approached us because he couldn't stand the fact that we were speaking Chinese in a private conversation. We just stood there silent for a few seconds, then my dad took my arm.

"It's not worth it," he whispered, as we walked away. The incident stuck to me like a tiny pin that would prick my conscience every few years. I totally understand my dad's approach and agree that it was the right move — he wanted to deescalate the situation, and he wanted to protect me.

At the same time, it frustrated me because I grew up in the United States my whole life. I spent elementary school singing about living in "the land of the free" and middle school memorizing my unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Why is it, when our cultures are attacked, we are expected to just accept it? 

Michelle Shen by the Capitol Building in Washington DC

Part of it comes from the fact that Asian Americans are the poster children for assimilation. We take on American first names, we can eat all-American foods, we participate in American customs. We’ve managed to blend in and be accepted into American higher education institutions and American companies.

Much of the older generations of the Asian American population comes from the large wave of Asian immigrants that arrived in the United States after the Korean and Vietnam wars. As first-generation Asian Americans, they were struggling to survive and understandably did their best to fit in. However, the newest generation of Asian Americans are actively fighting this tendency to assimilate to mainstream culture, and I’ve already seen the effects of it in my lifetime. 

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I remember the sideways glances and looks of disgust from my classmates when I brought Chinese food to school and begging my mom to pack me pasta and pizza instead. Over time, a massive culture shift happened. By the time I went to college, Asian affinity groups would host events on different holidays and sell their food on Locust Walk, a heavily-trafficked pathway students often took to get to class. Suddenly, bubble tea and dim sum, staples of my upbringing, were broadly accepted in mainstream culture. Eating Asian food was a source of pride, not embarrassment.

While a lot of progress was made in accepting certain aspects of Asian culture, like food, I still found that there was rarely any dialogue about Asians as a victim of racial discrimination.

I remember walking around Washington Square Park in New York City when a man spit at me and said, “I’ve never met an Asian who wasn’t cheap. Must be something in your blood” when I passed by him without giving him money. When I told my Asian friend about the incident, he laughed and told me to just take it and leave. For a long time, I had this “sit still, look pretty” mentality of staying silent and accepting things.

That’s why the outcry that happened after the Atlanta shootings surprised me so much. I had coworkers reach out to me asking if I wanted to talk and editors giving me a platform for my thoughts. Employee resource groups and organizations like AAJA hosted events and provided resources.

For the first time in my memory, a symphony of Asian American voices played on news screens and social feeds about these issues. For the first time, I felt like I had a voice.

— Michelle Shen is the economic and data reporter at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, North Carolina.