What is the shortest distance between two words? Technically, the answer would be a hyphen. Check-in. Long-term. Seventy-two. Yet, a hyphen can sometimes induce the greatest distance imaginable. I certainly would know: Asian-American.
In a world of majorities and minorities, I grew up in a neighborhood where minorities lived amongst minorities; we were a faction of hyphenated identities. In Miami, Florida, White Hispanics, African Americans, and White Non-Hispanics are the predominant races and ethnicities. As a collective of separate minorities, we understood the pain of exclusion, relating to the desolation felt waving through the window. Despite our differences, we found an interface in our adversity.
Hence, I was never bullied for my ethnicity.
“If I invited you to my house, would you eat my dog?”
Or so I was told. My 5th grade counselor would later describe the incident with my classmate as an unsettling moment. Yet, I did not feel unsettled; I felt anger.
Unfortunately, my parents did not share the same anger. “Talk less, do more. At the end of the road, we’ll see who comes out on top,” reprimanded my mother. Surreptitiously, I found myself lodged in the rubble of the model minority stereotype. In a sense, I felt like I was a double agent, learning to play the role of the “unproblematic minority.”
I was in high school when I first discovered the word “microaggression.” According to Merriam-Webster, a microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” Microaggression, microaggression, microaggression. I repeated the word for every unsettling moment I could recall. By the end, my lips were numb.
My other first-generation peers would mercilessly strive to find their designated place along the spectrum-like-hyphen. As for me, the hyphen was invisible; I did not care if I crossed the fine line. My identity was a challenging enigma that I was reluctant to digest. Thus, I avoided the topic all together. Asian, American, or Asian-American. To me, there was no difference.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Prior to its invasion into America, COVID-19 was already making waves of high anxiety, utter chaos, and intractable animosity. Unknowingly, I gradually become self-conscious, illogically insecure. The deflection that protected my identity suffered a damaging hit; there was a chink in my armor. Of course, no one dared to accuse me of causing COVID-19. But the implication remained. The media, with their boisterous, (accidental) racially insinuating headlines, plastered the word “Asian-American” whenever and wherever, unconventionally drawing the country’s attention to the invisible model minority. When a mother glanced worrying at me and shuffled her two masked kids behind her back, I felt like I was in 5th grade all over again, with my classmates pestering me if I ate dog.
Even before the pandemic, I had never experienced blatant racism. Rather, the racism I experienced was delicate and fragile; it took the form of a seemingly harmless whisper that faintly irked me, just enough to unsettle me. The whispers that I carelessly, nonchalantly brushed off when I was younger resurrected during the pandemic, and they attached themselves to end of my hyphenated identity.
“You are the first Chinese person I’ve met who has not had COVID.”
In a place that prides itself for its diversity and cultural sensitivity, Duke University certainly has its fair share of unsettling surprises. Indeed, a classmate casually made this remark to me in the passing. I was bewildered for a moment, contemplating on an appropriate response. Then, I laughed, routinely suppressing the offense that rose in my chest. Echoing my parents’ consolations, you’re above them, I would tell myself. Talk less, do more.
There is a playground near my house, barely a five-minute walk. I used to play hide-and-go-seek with two girls, Ms. Lopez’s kids, who lived next door. Back then, we were just kids having fun, without any hyphens hanging over our heads.
That day, there was a young girl, of East Asian descent and no more than seven years old, who sat mindlessly on a swing set. She was inching the toe of her pink leather slippers into the dirt, trying to give herself some momentum on the swing. Her jeans were ruined with tiny splinters of mulch, but she still looked so happy.
“Do you eat dog?”
Unsettled. I recognized the emotion that flashed across the girl’s eyes when the boy asked the question. I stared at the girl for a while, noticing how her tiny knuckles tightened on the chains holding the swing up. She pressed her lips into a thin line, willing herself not to cry. Despite being a stranger, I felt angry for this little girl and for the numerous unsettling moments that she was bound to experience.
I realized that, at the cost of my silence, other younger Asian-Americans would have to suffer the same quiet anger I endured growing up. I wish I could have told the little girl, “Do more, but never talk less.” I wish I could have told her that she should not have to diminish her own pride to make room for other’s ignorance. Understandably, the issue with microaggression is that it is done unknowingly; people are encultured to recognize certain stereotypes and imprint them onto others who fit the mark. I do not think the little boy, my classmates, or anyone who has ever unsettled me is a horrible person. Just painfully ignorant. I suppose ignorance is another pandemic of its own.
As much as it’s my duty to correct others for their discriminatory, stereotyping comments, it is their responsibility to address their ignorance and lack of self-awareness. It is only after we collectively work towards disarming such microaggression-directed remarks that we can truly rebuild our communities. Genuinely, I would like to let go of the acrid bitterness, allowing myself to truly heal. Eventually, I hope that I can sever the burdensome hyphens attached to my identity, living as nothing more and nothing less but an Asian-American.
Linda Cao is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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