The Face of the Enemy

by Sophie St. Jacques ’23

Note: In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander(AAPI) Month last month, senior Emily Kim and I both wrote pieces about our experiences as Asian Americans. Emily wrote a piece about the compulsion to be passive as a minority, and I wrote this piece about my own experience growing up as a Chinese adoptee in a White family. Violence against the Asian American community as well as Japanese concentration camps is also included. As we see a rise of hatred in our communities, we often struggle to find experiences we can relate to. We also struggle with asking those around us about their experiences. I hope that with this article, people can locate relatable aspects or simply gain a broader understanding of what it’s like being an Aisian-American in today’s modern world. 

“Shouldn’t you be smart?” “Why aren’t you good at math?” “Well, you have to earn your position.” Those are all things I have been told. When people see me, they see someone Asian. Often they don’t know my ethnicity, guessing whether I’m Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean. And the reality is that I am many different things, both strengths and flaws. People are often surprised when I show them a photo of my parents and my family. I grew up in an ethnically and culturally Irish-Catholic, French-Canadian family. I think like them, speak like them, but I will never fully be one of them. And this has nothing to do with them as people or due to the fact that I was adopted. Rather, it’s because of the society that we live in. 

Growing up, I thought I was exactly like my family. My mom once made big yarn braids for my cousin and me, so we could store our hair clips. I always envied my cousin’s hair – it was golden blonde, straight, and always seemed “perfect.” In my mind, her hair was a stark contrast to my coarse, dark, dull, and unruly brown hair.  Her braid was made from yellow yarn, but when I saw my mom starting to make mine with brown yarn I was disappointed. I always thought of myself as “ugly.” I saw my gorgeous family – all very tall, almost all with blue or green eyes, blonde hair, and pointed angular noses. But then I saw myself – short, brown eyes, dull boring black hair, and a “flat” nose. I was ashamed of a face that I couldn’t change. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten to see myself in a more positive light, but every now and then, I still catch myself wishing that my nose was a little more arched or that my eyes were a little less hooded. 

Despite my conflicting and complicated feelings and experiences, I also grew up with friends and other families like me, as my parents attempted to weave my Chinese heritage into our lives. I innocently navigated my childhood, believing the world was understanding and accepting. I felt safe, and believed I would be safe all the time. As an 8th grader, my friend celebrated her birthday by inviting everyone in our class to watch “The Hate U Give,” a movie based on a book of the same name about the fallout after a Black high school student witnesses a police shooting. There was a scene where the parents sat down with their young children to give them the talk – the talk in which they were instructed on what to do if and when they were stopped by the police. After the movie, my friends and I were talking about the powerful impact it had on us. And while we were talking, my Black friends, whom I’ve known practically all my life, shared their own experiences. I never realized how scared some of my friends felt around the “community helpers” I grew up trusting. I was taught that the police were my friends, and that I didn’t have to worry when I went out and about. I realized that I had never had “that talk.” I had never experienced that fear. 

Fast forward to March 2020: The Coronavirus that once seemed so distant had been declared a global pandemic, and in many parts of the world Asians were being blamed.Because COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China many people of Asian descent were being blamed. Research released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, reported on hate crimes against people of Asian heritage. Their statistics show that these crimes surged by 169% last year. Many people often ask what hate crimes are. Are they just when people are being rude, and the behavior is attributed to one’s race? Is it when someone is attacked in the street? What is the line? Where do we draw it? But the fact is, hate crimes vary – I think almost any person of color has experienced some sort of racist encounter. I know I have. According to a report from Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, reports of hate incidents nearly doubled between March 19, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Of the 6,603 reports, 65.2% involved verbal harassment and 18.1% involved avoiding Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The third largest category of hate incidents, totaling 12.6% of the reports, involved physical assaults. Civil rights violations and online harassment were also reported. These incidents take place in parks, in the workplace, and on the streets. Stop AAPI Hate shares that Chinese individuals report more hate incidents than any other Asian ethnic group. These are grim numbers compared to what has been previously reported. 

Often Asian Americans have been called the “model minority” that overcame adversity. They worked hard, didn’t complain, and prospered. This narrative is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous. It pits minorities against each other and gives Asian Americans a false sense of security – the sense of security that I grew up with. I’ve experienced the odd glances, and the “where are you really from” questions. I was aware of the prejudices displayed throughout our society. However, I had never fully considered the possibility of physical violence.That all changed in the past year as I read the news and heard daily reports about another Asian being assaulted in the street.That all changed when eight Asian women were murdered in cold blood in Georgia. That all changed when I was scared to go for a walk, run, or take out the trash because an Asian man was shot in the city where I live. That all changed when I saw the look of sorrow and fear in my family’s eyes. That all changed when my mom would hug me just a little bit tighter. Overnight, our world changed when our illusion of security was ripped out from beneath our feet. 

The saddest thing is recognizing that we’ve made these mistakes before. According to the BBC, “Just over two months after Pearl Harbor – President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It allowed the military to designate ‘exclusion zones’ and cleared the way for the removal into internment camps of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans.” Fear of a misplaced allegiance to Japan led to this horrific action. In many cases, the only connection these American citizens had with Japan was ethnicity. People whose parents and grandparents were born in the United States, citizens in their own right, were carted away simply because they had the face of the enemy. 

Unfortunately, hate is not new for far too many people. Hate has always been present in our world – it is not only the things we read about. Hate is so many things that people brush off, the experiences that get suppressed. And while hate may never be gone completely, we can stand together against the fear that feeds the hate we see today. Instead of placating those who use hate and prejudice against others, we can unite, support, listen, and act so that maybe – just maybe – we can have a brighter tomorrow.