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Samantha Lee/Insider
  • Anti-Asian racism has spiked in recent weeks, but anti-Asian violence has happened for years.
  • I’ve spent my life witnessing and experiencing racism, but I’ve grown to embrace my Chinese heritage.
  • This Lunar New Year, it’s more important than ever to celebrate where I’m from.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

This article contains racial slurs and detailed accounts of racial violence.

On January 28, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man, was killed in San Francisco when 19-year-old Antoine Watson shoved him to the ground. On February 3, Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino man, was slashed across the face on a New York subway train and was offered no help from straphangers. The same day, a 64-year-old Vietnamese woman in San Jose was followed and robbed of $1,000 in cash she had withdrawn in preparation for Lunar New Year.

Reports of anti-Asian violence have spiked in recent weeks, part of a pattern that began in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Chinese rhetoric promoted by then President Donald Trump. But none of this is new; the pandemic has only exacerbated racist violence that has happened for years.

I am not surprised by the recent attacks. But after a lifetime spent being mocked for who I am, I’ve grown to embrace and celebrate my Chinese heritage in every way possible, even more when the Lunar New Year – which began this week – comes around.

I will no longer remain silent as my community is targeted, attacked, and killed for the way we look. Now more than ever it’s important to be loud and fearless.

My view of the world in my early years prized unity, friendship, and sympathy

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A mural outside of the author's childhood home in Woodside, Queens.
Samantha Lee

I am a first-generation Chinese American, born and raised in Woodside, Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse borough in the city.

My parents are from Toisan, Guangdong, China, and immigrated to Queens in the mid-1980s. Both had a limited education and did not speak a lick of English, but they fantasized about the American dream.

My mom was a sweatshop seamstress in Manhattan's Chinatown and purchased her own industrial sewing machine to work from home while raising my older sister and me. My father worked long hours climbing the ranks as a kitchen chef, using the connections and skills gained as a chef in Hong Kong to his advantage.

My upbringing was unconventional. Most immigrant families settled into ethnically homogeneous enclaves with a shared language, culture, and way of living. There were no language barriers, and a plethora of resources available when it came to jobs, healthcare, and housing.

My family chose a different path. It was both a blessing and a curse. I grew up on a predominantly Latinx block, buying tamales at the park, listening to bachata in the bodega as I got my barrel juice and four-for-a-dollar chips. I came home to my mom hanging salted fish and cured pork belly to dry on the fire escape of our second-floor apartment. The building next door bore a memorial portrait of a man with a large Dominican flag.

My parents' apartments were robbed twice, and my father was jumped on the subway on his way home one night. My mother had her hair pulled and her face slapped because she let an older Chinese woman cut the bus line to ensure she got a seat. 

But this was just New York in the '80s, I reasoned. My view of the world in these years prized unity, friendship, and sympathy. I believed that everybody could live together harmoniously, despite our physical and cultural differences. 

'Don't start any trouble'

Samantha Lee
A childhood photo of me with my first love, fried chicken.
Courtesy of Samantha Lee

As I entered the city's public-school system, my mom made sure to instill a mantra that I followed for many years: Focus on work, get good grades, and don't start any trouble.

But trouble still found me. In my elementary- and middle-school years, I was met with "ching-chong" and "you eat dogs." My non-Asian schoolmates would pull their eyes to their temples, flashing buck teeth as they laughed. My last name meant Bruce Lee was my father, Jackie Chan was my uncle, and Jet Li was a distant cousin. (In retrospect, that would have been pretty cool.) Anyone who shared my last name meant we were related by default, something that apparently applied only to Asians.

The few Korean and Filipino schoolmates I had were often called Chinese. When they tried to push back, they were met with "It doesn't matter. You all look alike anyway." I wondered if being Asian was bad. Did no one care about us?

One day during recess, when I was 7 or 8, a boy shoved me to the ground. He scraped my chin and knuckles open on the hot summer asphalt as he yelled "ching-chong" over my head.

My blood boiled, and I questioned why this was happening to me. Was this a part of attaining the American dream? What trouble did I start besides existing?

One day in class, I decided to pull the chair away as the same boy who bullied me went to sit down at his desk. I got sent to see a child psychologist as a result. Perhaps my ethnicity was the problem. I started to feel ashamed.

But I kept my head down, focused on work, got decent grades, and didn't start any trouble. Some ice from the school nurse would solve the problem.

Tension arose between my mother's guidance and my growing individualism as an American

Later, I went to a predominantly male and largely Caribbean and Latinx vocational high school in Long Island City. I was a minority within the majority again, but this time my Black and Brown friends taught me to not fall back, but to fight back.

In 2007, after the Virginia Tech shooting, I remember seeing a white guy threatening to shoot any "chink" and "f------ gook" he saw as revenge for the lives lost. He started pulling at his eyes while his friends laughed. Our eyes met, and the feeling of pure anger arose in me again.

But then my mother's words - Don't start any trouble - echoed in my mind. The lessons I learned from my friends left me, and I froze.

Still, my growing individualism as an American started to outweigh the passiveness my mother implanted into my mind. I realized that Don't start any trouble was not meant to protect me; it was meant to avoid making a situation worse. I was meant to roll with the punches.

Perhaps that was all she knew to do in her experiences before I was born, but I was different. "I could change things," I told myself.

Embrace your culture, because the US will not do it for you

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Lion dancers in Chinatown, Manhattan.
Samantha Lee

In college, I was surrounded by both Asian international students and American-born Asians. Ironically, I was out of my element and felt like a foreigner. I learned about Asian American history in the US for the first time, and how complicated the Asian diaspora was. I found people I could relate to and learn from, especially those who shared the same hometown as my parents.

Being surrounded by other Asians allowed me to finally feel heard and confident in expressing my culture without fear of penalization or mockery. Is this what community and solidarity feel like? I wondered.

In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, the actor Steven Yuen said that being Asian American "meant that you were constantly thinking about everyone else, but nobody was ever thinking about you." Culturally, we have been conditioned through many generations to be considerate of the whole and act accordingly, rather than focus on the self.

A large portion of my life was spent adapting an old-school mantra my immigrant parents instilled in me. But it failed on American soil. Not starting any trouble meant the bullies were winning. I knew I had to speak up and fight.

Over the years, I've stood up for myself and my people in different ways. It started as physical fights and confrontations - the years of rage couldn't stay down forever - evolved to educating others through whatever platforms were available to me. Eventually, I took part in movements and activities in Asian communities that amplifed the voice I once silenced. I learned to be proud of who I was, and not shrink down when someone came after me for it.

I finally felt strong. I'd finally started to make up for the times I held myself back. My mother grew to be proud of who I was becoming.

She passed away in January 2018. She had an unfulfilled American dream, with scars from her experiences rolling with the punches. Though I didn't agree with her passiveness, I understood why she chose to do so. 

Now, I will keep fighting in remembrance of her.

Celebrate your culture, embrace your features, and make your voice heard, because the US won't do it for you.

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