Boy: “Can you see through your slanted eyes? Open them! This is America!”
Me: “Stop making those racist comments.”
Boy: “Go back to China!”
This right here. This is the additional tax we pay, ever since my immigrant parents arrived in the United States to build a family in the land of dreams and opportunities. They fled Vietnam in a tiny boat and sought refuge in a foreign country with little to no money. As a result, my four siblings and I were born into subsidized housing (or the projects, as we fondly dubbed them) and learned the hard-knock life in New Orleans.
Enduring racial slurs as a Vietnamese-American kid in the projects was a norm. I didn’t know any different. I naively equated poverty with racism. I thought that maybe if I became a doctor or a lawyer like my parents encouraged me to, I would no longer be an outsider. I would have enough prestige and money in my profession that I wouldn’t have to tolerate the name-calling and belittlement. I would be the come-up story for my parents and make my Vietnamese community proud.
I was wrong. Completely wrong. Although I became that lawyer my parents desired, the anti-Asian attacks never stopped. The yearning to belong still lingers. I am now 36 years old, living in the suburbs of Dallas far removed from the projects, but I can’t seem to shake the racism. From the outright derogatory epithets to the workplace microaggressions throughout my life, I’ve come to accept that this may be the hefty price we pay for being a minority in America. But how far are we willing to pay that price?
Does that price include the senseless murders in Atlanta? What about killing an 84-year-old man walking down a street in San Francisco? And knocking another elderly man in Oakland to the ground just because he’s Asian? Absolutely not. I can no longer reconcile the steep tax we pay in order to be decent human beings in America. This American dream has become a nightmare we all need to wake up from.
One of the first steps is to speak up. The more we share our stories, the more others can see that we’re just like everyone in this country — trying to make it in America. This letter is only a start for me. There is still plenty to do to bring awareness of the Asian American plight.
So, no, I can’t go back to China. This Vietnamese kid from the projects has work to do.
SUSAN DO ZUNIGA
lawyer and children's book author