The illusion of harmony

Two years after the Atlanta shootings, I’m still reflecting on my trauma.

A photo of a protester holding their hands into a heart

Waking up in a tiny NYC studio, dressing up for a morning Zoom call with their boss, pouring out freshly brewed coffee into a handmade mug and pursuing my career in social media are all a part of the “Instagrammable” moment that many girls are hyped about online nowadays.

They call this lifestyle the “it girl,” like it’s kind of a big deal, right? I try to be.

I enjoyed this aesthetic throughout the last semester in my undergraduate year. I chose to spend it in the Syracuse University New York City campus, “the Big Apple,” the melting pot, the place that hosts millions of American dreams. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

It was March 11, 2021, five days before the Atlanta spa shootings when a man brutally took the lives of eight people, including six Asian women. Two years later, I’m still reflecting on that day.

Photo of a man praying in front of a cardboard sign by a large white arch

Syracuse, a small college town in upstate New York, where my undergraduate school was located, was still covered by inches of snow during March.

Multiple flyers with anti-Chinese statements were found in three buildings on campus. The message implied that Chinese students are government agents and “warned” the campus to be alert – to be alert about me, I thought, I’m Chinese.

I was upset and frustrated. It happened again. Why Chinese? Why me? Did I do something wrong?

Working in student media, I witnessed several racially-motivated hate crimes on campus over the years, and I remained silent for not “being so sensitive.” I questioned the source of my anger and got the answer from a psychology counselor in a Stop Asian Hate open forum, which I initiated.

She said the social anxiety comes from my intersectional identities and the long-term suppression of family culture, one that taught me that Asian girls should remain silent and invisible. My upbringing constantly challenged my worldview and the value of life. My multiple identities should be my strength; instead, they marginalize my existence.

To some extent, I try to blend in at any given social context. In the classroom–a classroom full of white students – I don’t want to be the person who always raises a question, even if it is my duty as a student. I’m too obvious as an Asian-looking girl and too sensitive as a Chinese student.

I’m afraid to dive into many topics: politics, religion, and humanitarian issues. Whenever I stand in my opinion as someone of a Chinese background, there will be counterarguments that I was brainwashed and, even worse, that I’m a “government agent,” as the flyers on campus claimed. My voice wasn’t being valued, I realized.

Ten days later, on March 21, I attended a rally supporting Stop Asian Hate in New York City, home to more than one million Asian Americans. Little did my friends and family know, I cried out of anxiety for two days before I finally went to the protest.

The pandemic was still a thing in the metropolitan area. I can’t hide the fact that I have monolid, the “Asian eyes.” Shoot, I’m too obvious as an Asian-looking girl. What if somebody hit me around the block? What if somebody pushed me onto the R-train? What if somebody shot me? Did I do anything wrong?

From March 2020 to March 2021, more than 6,500 hate crimes against Asian Americans were reported. Asian American women report 2-3 times more incidents of discrimination than men.

But I went there, alone. “I had to,” I told myself. “I want to be seen.”

Photo of a crowd of protesters with a sign being held up with Chinese characters

A girl walking next to me shouted for hours during the protest: “Asian lives matter! Stop Asian hate!” While I remained silent the whole time, again, because my culture told me not to bother other people’s “business” I wanted to blend into this illusion of harmony. If I don’t speak up, then there’s no problem. If we ignore the voices, then everything looks perfect.

I was too afraid to express my emotions.

The girl later complained that the crowd around her was frustrating because they were too quiet. I don’t know if I will ever be like her.

I validated myself as a journalist. Even though I was not a journalism student and didn’t have a press pass, I still brought my camera as a prop to look professional. I disguised myself as an observer, not a participant.

I don’t want to get engaged in the racial issue, I thought. But I am the issue, right?

Am I being too sensitive? How hilarious that I couldn’t even be honest with myself. I even archived every social media post of the protest to hide from my parents and friends.

In the two hours of walking, an increasing number of people joined in, and cars honked in appreciation for the crowds. Beyond my imagination, I saw some children holding signs even more so than some adults; drivers and pedestrians cheered alongside the rally; I saw love and support instead of anger and frustration. It wasn’t just the people, but also the city showing support. I wouldn’t have felt that power if I’d never witnessed it with my own eyes. It’s a parade. What was happening?

A photo of a young girl holding a sign during a protest

Confronting myself to racism was a powerful lesson I learned in the United States. Since I was protected well with a single narrative and lived under one cultural umbrella that rarely had racial conflicts.

The danger of this is that it has downplayed our voices, concealed our rich history, and disregarded our diverse backgrounds. For so long, I’ve tried to blend in this harmony and mask all my differences until someone told me, “you will never be American enough, no matter how good your English is.”

I’ve been so ashamed of my identity that I had ignored the problem of the illusory American dream until now. I had this pressure to live up to being a “good Asian” — If I didn’t reach the standard, there must be something wrong with me.

Attending this protest confirmed my dream of becoming a journalist. Bringing more diverse representation on screen is not a politically correct strategy. It’s how journalism should be: a factual story of real people.

I spent a long time deciding to write down my own story, and here I am, daring to speak up about it despite wondering if the newsworthiness of it has “expired.” I want to support my peers or whoever has the same struggle.