The American Dream?

"For most of my life, Asian-Americans haven’t been the protagonists of the story."


Hope this finds you well. I’ve been thinking a lot about the events that transpired in Atlanta back in March, when a man opened fire at several massage parlours — killing eight people. Six of those were of Asian or Asian-American descent. It was a brutal attack in a long list anti-Asian violence. And as The Atlantic reported last week:

The Atlanta police have yet to say that the incidents were motivated by racism, seemingly in part because the shooting suspect told them that he suffers from a “sex addiction.”

If easy to get annoyed at the police, but their attitude in the case reflected an attitude seen all over social media. Social media is like small talk — it’s that stuff you overhear at bars and restaurants. Just people saying what’s really on their mind. Assuming what they say is accurate and fair — else they’d keep their traps shut, right?

Yet almost immediately after the news broke late Tuesday night, a certain kind of response started popping up on Twitter: “No happy ending then?” “‘Youngs Asian’ massage parlour … they love you long time.” Social-media comments are notorious for their unthoughtfulness, but these brutal jokes speak to a prejudice that is deeply ingrained, if largely unacknowledged, in American society.

And not just American society — there’s plenty of it in New Zealand, too. When I talked about the attacks on Twitter — this shit flooded in:

Then I woke up last week, and nothing had changed. Of course it hadn’t. A 65-year-old Asian-American woman is pushed to the ground and kicked, while bystanders and security guards at a nearby building do absolutely nothing. Sorry — scrap that — they shrug and lock the door (trigger warning — this is awful):

As the Washington Post reported:

New York police arrested a suspect early Wednesday in the brutal assault of a 65-year-old Asian American woman in Manhattan that was caught on camera on Monday. The suspect is already on lifetime parole for murdering his mother, police said. Brandon Elliot, 38, was arrested at 1:10 a.m. Wednesday in Manhattan, the NYPD said in a statement shared with The Washington Post, and charged with felony assault as a hate crime.

I saw the original CCTV video because my friend Dave Chen had commented on it. Dave is a producer and podcaster who lives in Seattle, and I listen to his voice for literally hours each week. I’ve been listening to his podcast The /Filmcast for almost a decade now.

And so I DM’d Dave, asking if he’d be open to writing about his experience living in America right now. Just existing there. I knew his life had been drastically different since Covid — he’s stuck to his bubble like I wish more in America had. But as the vaccine rolls out, like many Americans, he will be out in the world more and more. And as an Asian-American, the world ain’t so great.

I’m going to throw it over to Dave.

What’s On My Mind

an essay by Dave Chen

I was honored when David Farrier asked me to write about my own experiences as an Asian-American. I don’t want to speak specifically about the murders of eight people in Georgia (six of whom were women of Asian descent) because so much of it is tied up with the experience of being an Asian-American woman. Instead, I’d like to recommend this piece featuring the perspectives of Tina Tchen, Min-Jin Lee, and Sung Yeon Choimorrow, and this piece by R.O. Kwon to start with. What follows are my own reflections of this general time period in my own life as a Taiwanese-American immigrant.


There’s a scene in Lee Isaac-Chung’s new film Minari where the Korean-American family at the center of the story — the father Jacob, his wife Monica, and his two kids, David and Anne — go to church. During the church service, a white boy named Johnnie gawks at David who is the only Asian-American boy there. Later, he goes up to David and asks, “Why is your face so flat?” to which David responds, “It’s not!

It’s a small, odd moment in a lovely film but it says a lot about whose experience is centred in our society. To David, his face isn’t flat; it’s everyone else’s that’s different. But to Johnnie, it’s David that’s the outsider. Whose perspective is correct? Whose perspective matters? Whose story is the one that everyone hears the most?

For most of my life, Asian-Americans haven’t been the protagonists of the story. We’ve been the side characters, the sidekicks, and the background set dressing. For much of my childhood, we were political props: the “model minority.” Asian-Americans worked hard, got high test scores and gained admission into good colleges. Asian-Americans didn’t make too much of a fuss about anything. If there were obstacles, we’d quietly surmounted them. In fact, we often seemed content to just fade into the background. “Why can’t [INSERT OTHER RACIAL GROUPS] be like them?” politicians asked.

When I was young, I took pride in this “model” designation. My father worked in a shoe factory in Taiwan before he decided to leave for America with his wife, my brother, and me. He worked his way up from being a waiter to owning his own Chinese restaurant and putting both of his sons through college. My mother and father never complained. They worked 355 days a year, running the restaurant and raising us. My parents came here to seek a better life for themselves and for their children. Together we lived out some version of the American dream. 

It wasn’t until I got much older that I understood the concept of the model minority to be a myth. It treats Asian-Americans as a monolithic group when it’s actually made up of dozens of groups that have vastly different experiences and outcomes. Its propagation pits minority groups against each other, instead of recognising the systems and structures of white supremacy that we are all subject to. The story that was being told about us wasn’t our own, nor was it told to benefit us.

Today the same people who called Asians “the model minority” have no problem referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or the “Kung Flu.” The moment it was no longer useful for us to be held up as role models, we became boogeymen. A major political party in the United States has no issue fomenting racial violence against people who look like me. I know that people from other groups have felt the same way at various points in the past, but this still staggers me. Will I ever feel safe living in this country I call my home? Will my children? 

The other day I called my mom and had to tell her that Asians are randomly being assaulted on the streets and that she needs to be careful. “Don’t go walking anywhere alone,” I told her. Virtually every one of my Asian-American friends has had some version of this talk with their parents in the past few weeks. In 16 of America’s largest cities, anti-Asian hate incidents grew ~150%. Strangers are attacking people who look Asian, whether they are Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Korean. If you look like any of us, you’re a target. The reality of our own identities and lived experience doesn’t matter.

My mother was shocked to hear about these attacks. After a year spent mostly indoors, she now had a new, terrifying reason to be careful about going outside. 

Attacks like those we’ve seen over the last few weeks strike at the heart of what we value. At this point, many of us have seen viral videos of these assaults. They are random, brutal, and heartbreaking. They are acts of cowardice. They are especially mortifying to many Asian-Americans because many of the victims are elderly people. In most Asian societies, the elderly are revered. Multi-generational households are common and parents attain more respect as they age, not less. Many of our elderly parents and grandparents came to America to flee from violence and oppressive regimes. The idea of having survived all of that, of making it through COVID-19, only to now need to worry about being attacked while taking a walk — it’s incomprehensible and it fills me with sadness and despair.

To be Asian-American is to exist in a strange liminal space. We are not quite Asian, as many of us can’t even fully speak the language of our countries of origin, but we are not quite American because many people here will always see us as “other.” When attacks like this happen, it reinforces the perspective that we will never be fully welcome here. 

But who actually gets to decide whether or not our perspectives matter? Well, you do.

On social media recently, I’ve seen a lot of people ask you to check in with your Asian-American friends and to “stand with us.” It’s a deep cry for help from our community and I hope everyone reading this will hear it. Asian-Americans are trying to seize our own narrative and ask people to recognize our pain instead of dismissing it. We are asking you to understand us, to center our story, and to see things from our perspective. We are asking you to call out anti-Asian racism whenever and wherever you see it, either on Facebook, next-door, or at the supermarket. We are asking you to help us protect those that cannot protect themselves. Mostly, we’re asking you to believe us when we tell you we’re in danger and we’re afraid. 

For many people, this will be a difficult ask. It’s a strange and unfamiliar experience to try to see the world from the perspective of other people, especially people who are used to not asking for any attention. It’s difficult to let people into your mind in all their fullness. I would urge you to stick with it, despite any discomfort you might feel, and follow through. 

I hope that you will. I hope you’ll check in on those of us who might not have anyone else in their lives to do so. I hope you’ll vote out those who would use hate as a political weapon. I hope you’ll listen to our stories. I hope you’ll hear our perspectives. I hope you’ll use whatever platforms and power you have to amplify important voices in our community. And I hope you’ll be curious, empathetic, and understanding

Our lives literally depend on it. 

David Chen is a producer and podcaster who lives in Seattle. You can listen to his podcast Culturally Relevant and watch his commentary on pop culture on his YouTube channel.