Black parents have long had “The Talk” with their children on how they should behave when pulled over by the police: Hands out of your pockets, do what they say, no sudden moves. Now many Asian Americans, for the first time, are having similar conversations with their children on how to gird themselves against a wave of anti-Asian sentiment, violence, and bullying.
For Mai Du and her 17-year-old son, Thomas Tran, talking about Asian hate may not be new, but playing out the what-if scenarios is.
Over dinner recently, Du asked her son what would he do if someone was being harassed on the T. Would he confront the perpetrator? Would he look the other way? After some reflection, the Dorchester mother and son, who are Chinese-Vietnamese, came up with what they believe is the best course of action: Pull out your phone and take video.
“That,” Du said, “is the first line of self-defense.”
Some parents have been putting off these uncomfortable discussions, but they’re now unavoidable after the targeted murders of six Asian-American women in the Atlanta area. One Korean-American mom’s TikTok video — complete with flash cards “stop,” “Asian,” “hate” — has gone viral.
Before Atlanta, “it wasn’t in my sphere of thinking,” said Jenny Lee, a Korean-American whose daughter is 5 and son is 7. “It’s hard to talk about murder, especially with a 5-year-old. They can’t even imagine. Why would anyone hurt someone else because of the color of their skin or their heritage?”
To open the door for conversation, Lee drove her kids by a recent rally for Asian Americans in Wellesley, where they live. Then at bedtime, Lee explained a little more about what’s happening in the world.
“We talk about why equality is so important and how the color of your skin shouldn’t matter, but not everyone thinks that way,” said Lee, a medical devices executive.
It’s a conversation her parents did not have with her. Growing up in Florida, she was 10 years old when she realized she was different after a boy on her school bus yelled: “Ching-chong, you don’t have any eyelashes!”
Lee was shell-shocked. She felt less than. And, she doesn’t want her children to go through the same rude awakening. “I want to be able to have that conversation first and see what is on their mind,” she said.
Generations of Asian Americans have been raised to work hard, get an education, and quietly assimilate. That is how my parents, immigrants originally from China, brought me up: Keep your head down because no matter what you’ll always be treated like an outsider. Our silence, for the most part, has been golden — until now.
The Atlanta-area mass shooting at three spas by a white gunman has become our day of reckoning. The deaths of Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, and Yong Ae Yue could have been any one of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, or aunties.
Let there be no doubt that Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” has made this country unsafe for Asian Americans.
In just one period in March 2020, researchers found about half of the nearly 800,000 tweets featuring #chinesevirus also included anti-Asian hashtags, many with violent implications. In the one year since, there have been nearly 3,800 incidents of Asian hate nationwide documented by the coalition Stop AAPI Hate, which believes the true scope is significantly under-reported.
Trump may be out of the White House, but his legacy of hate remains. It now threatens the most vulnerable members of the Asian-American community, not only women but seniors who have been targeted in a spate of attacks coast to coast, including one that left an 84-year-old Thai man in the San Francisco Bay Area dead in January.
That means for some Asian Americans, “The Talk” has gone intergenerational. As Du counsels her teenager on how to deal with hate, she also has to warn her 82-year-old mother, who lives in Malden, not to go grocery shopping alone.
“She has to be escorted at all times,” said Du, who owns and runs two martial arts academies.
Along with worry, the pervading feeling among Asian-American parents is anger that another generation born in the United States is being treated like perpetual foreigners. (Note to the rest of America: Chinese immigrants began arriving nearly two centuries ago as laborers to mine gold and build railroads. Today, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing community of color in Greater Boston and in the country.)
Consider Hanh Tran, born in Boston, her mother one of the boat people who fled Vietnam after the war. Tran, who grew up in Dorchester and is not related to Thomas Tran, has tolerated racist taunts throughout her life, hurled at the most mundane moments, such as one at a gas station where a white man told her: “Gook, go back to where you come from.”
But as any parent can attest, it’s different when your child experiences that pain of living in an ugly world. After the Atlanta murders, her 12-year-old son, Kenneth, who dealt with bullying at a previous school, felt unsafe. “I didn’t want to go outside without a grown-up,” he said.
After Atlanta, Hanh Tran gives voices to what so many Asian Americans are thinking: “Are you serious? I thought it would change. It did not change at all.”
“I tell my family in Vietnam: You come to America. You think it’s peaceful. You’re living the life. It’s really not,” said Tran, who lost her airline job during the pandemic and now is going back to school. “It’s too good to be true.”
For Christine Koh, a Korean American and coauthor of Minimalist Parenting, the topic of inclusivity — whether race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — has always been part of her conversations with her daughters, 10 and 16.
But the tone and focus began to change after Trump’s election in 2016 and in the early days of the pandemic, when Koh herself could feel growing anti-Asian hostility in society. A year ago, before masks were mandatory, she felt self-conscious wearing a face covering fearing it would highlight her Asian-ness. In Asia, mask wearing has been widely accepted as a way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
Koh, who lives in the Boston area, began to speak more directly about Asian racism with her daughters, especially her teenager, who has a cellphone and is plugged into the news. Koh’s message is simple: If someone says something mean, don’t suffer in silence, and always know Mom and Dad are here to support you.
“There is a shame piece that is deeply rooted that keeps people quiet,” said Koh. “You think it’s your fault.”
Koh and her family experienced countless acts of racism in Belmont, where she grew up from the 1970s to 1990s, and in Jamaica Plain where her parents owned a convenience store. Koh recalls one incident around age 7 in Belmont, when she was out walking with her mother and felt the pelt of a hard object and a spray of cold liquid, followed by an epithet (”Take that chinks!”) coming from a group of teenagers in a moving car. She had been hit by a can of soda.
Her second message to her daughters is to be aware of their surroundings. That means don’t be glued to your cellphone when you leave the house. “Eyes up always,” Koh has been telling them. “You never want to get hit in the back of the head.”
Henry Wright, a sophomore at North Andover High School whose mother is Korean American and father is Caucasian, is one of those kids who has kept his reactions to the bullying bottled up. On Snapchat, the 15-year-old’s so-called friends would tease him about how Asians eat dogs and cats. In the hallways at school, students get in his face and hold up a yellow highlighter or a lemon, teasing: “What’s the difference?”
Wright is not sure what to do. It’s a common struggle: Do you respond and risk escalating the situation? His mother, Anna Choi, has been telling her son to ignore those kids. “You have to feel sorry for them,” said Choi, a professor at Endicott College.
In his college-entrance essay, Thomas Tran wrote about an experience last August: He witnessed a group of white boys biking past two elderly Asian-American neighbors, screaming: “Go back to your [expletive] country!”
Tran, who lives in Dorchester and is a senior at Boston Latin, reacted like so many of us would have: He froze. Not because Tran had never experienced racism himself, or that the incident was so shocking. In his essay, he concluded this: “I normalized racism in order to survive, and so have many others.”
He replays that day often in his mind. And now he understands that he can’t let little acts of racism go because they add up, especially after the Atlanta killings.
“What if it was my aunt, mom, or grandma, and that happened to them?” Tran pondered.
The burden of “The Talk” has been placed on generations of Black families — and now Asian Americans.
For me, it’s has been easier to talk about this with my 71-year-old widowed mother who lives in California. I tell her not to go out alone, and she already decided not to go into Chinatown in Oakland. I know my mom is serious when she says, in Mandarin, that she’s “xia si le,” a colloquial expression that translates as “scared to death.”
It’s harder to talk about this with my two sons, ages 8 and 10. Over the past week, I’ve toggled between anger at having to do this at all, and a longing to insulate them just a little bit longer from the real world.
It’s particularly heart-rending when my younger son stops me at: “What is Asian?”
We parents of color will continue to deliver “The Talk” as long as hate remains a threat. But to prevent history from repeating itself, we can’t be the only ones doing the talking.
To truly stop the vicious cycle of hate, white parents need to do their part and have the kind of uncomfortable conversations that can root out racism before it grows into violent acts of hate.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.