Opinion | The Generational Split in How Asian-Americans See the Atlanta Shootings

My mother, who immigrated to America in the 1940s, assumed my siblings and I would never really be accepted as American. Partly this was because there were so few Chinese immigrants when she came. But also, it was a rough time for minorities. My parents’ response to my brother’s being beaten up, as he was just about every day in Yonkers, N.Y., was to sign him up for karate lessons. The world was like a forest full of bears. There was no forest ranger. You had to defend yourself.

Of all the figures who have emerged from the recent surge in anti-Asian violence, my parents would have most admired Xiao Zhen Xie of San Francisco. This 75-year-old, having been punched for no reason, picked up a wooden plank and hit her 39-year-old assailant so hard that he ended up on a stretcher.

That woman was “hen lihai” — fierce. And yet in his account of the incident, her grandson John Chen emphasized how terrified she was. Over and over, people speaking on behalf of Asian-Americans in recent weeks have described how fearful people are, how afraid to leave their houses. Hearing this, all I could think was, there has been a sea change. Young people seem to believe that there are forest rangers around who, if they don’t exactly care, can be made to care. To sympathize. To come and help. I can hear my parents’ voices and see their heads shaking: You know what they are, these young people? They are Americanized, that’s what. … You know what happens if you show you are afraid? You have even more attacks.

Cynics equate “American individualism” with an “every man for himself” social Darwinism my parents would recognize. Idealists see it as an “every person counts” promise of respect and dignity: No one should be told to go back to where she came from or be accosted with “kung flu” comments. And certainly no one should have to fear being assaulted, much less killed, because of her race.

These two outlooks have long vied in the court of public opinion. With the killing of George Floyd, however, the idealists gained a decisive victory. His death made it clear, for those to whom it was not clear already, that the brutality and racism faced by Black Americans are an urgent concern for all Americans.

Now many Asian-Americans wonder: Will these horrific Atlanta murders prove to be a similar turning point? Will this country own the racism and misogyny behind the gunman’s targeting of Asian women? Will Americans finally see these problems as everyone’s problem? And, most important, will they ask what needs to change? As Randy Park, the 23-year-old son of one of the victims, Hyun Jung Grant, said, his question to the shooter’s family is, “What did you-all teach him?”

Right now, we Asian-Americans are proving to be a great test case of the question, “Is America America?” It’s a question at which my parents would have scoffed. Of course not, they would have said. And let me pay heartfelt tribute here to their self-respect and their resilience, which we would do well to retain. But the time has come not just to cope but to move the world forward. Can we? Americanized as I am — American that I am — I can only hope there are forest rangers around.

Gish Jen (@GishJen), a novelist and short-story writer, has written extensively about Asian-Americans. Her most recent novel is “The Resisters.”

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