Processing grief as a first-generation Korean American woman
“To be an Asian woman in America means you can’t just be what you are: a fully enfranchised human being. It means you are a blank screen on which others project their stories, especially, too often, their sexualized fantasies — because US culture has long presented Asian women as sexualized objects for White male enjoyment.” — Jennifer Ho
It’s been more than a week since the awful hate crime mass shooting took place in Atlanta on March 16, 2021 that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
Rest In Peace Soon Chung Park 박순정, Hyun Jung Grant [김]현정, Sun Cha Kim 김순자, Yong Ae Yue 유용애, Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁, Daoyou Feng 冯道友, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels.
The painful feelings of sadness and anger loom like dark clouds. Every now and then, bits of light seep through the darkness when I connect with and feel love from those in my heart and in my orbit, when I give love back to them, when I’m in prayer and meditation.
There’s so much I want to say. There’s so much I don’t want to say. I want to share. I don’t want to share. I want to be online. I don’t want to be online. I’m not ready. I’m ready.
These thoughts have been rinsing and repeating themselves this past week as I’ve been doing my best to take care of myself. I hold space for the grief I can process privately that I don’t want to or need to share here. I also hold space for the things that I do want to express in this vulnerable post.
I grieve for and with the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities as anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents increase in this country. I grieve for and with my fellow AAPI community of women after last week’s shooting. I grieve with my loved ones who are also feeling the density of many feelings like me.
I grieve for my past selves that felt unsafe and were in pain, wounded by hateful words and actions. I hold and protect closely all of these parts of young Jane.
I’m allowed to move through all these emotions as I need.
I also recognize that sometimes the hesitation, overthinking and silence I harbor is a conditioned response. It’s a response stoked in fear — the fear that I’ll be too much, or I’ll be too little, that I’ll say too much, or nothing at all.
They’re old programmed warnings that tell me I shouldn’t shake the tree too much, that it’s better to keep quiet than make a ruckus, old piles steeped in shame and guilt.
“All you need to do to survive and succeed is to work hard and stay quiet,” I’d be told, not only by what my parents grew up learning and practicing when assimilating in the US, but also what the external world reinforced to keep the “model minority” myth burning.
So here I am, reflecting, processing, writing and sharing some truths. This is for young Jane who wants to hide but who deserves to know that she can stand in her truth. This is also for those who may find some connection and support in reading my words.
The alarming rate of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidences rising since the pandemic has been heartbreaking and scary. I fear for the safety of especially the vulnerable and the elderly in our communities.
Almost 70% of nearly 3800 reported incidences and crimes of anti-Asian hate since March 2020 have been against Asian women. Six of the eight victims murdered on March 16 were Asian women: Soon Chung Park 박순정, Hyun Jung Grant [김]현정, Sun Cha Kim 김순자, Yong Ae Yue 유용애, Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁, Daoyou Feng 冯道友
Rest in Peace, beautiful souls. I’ve been thinking deeply about them. Reading about their lives and their personalities from their surviving families is heartbreaking. They worked so tirelessly, were courageous and strong. They were brights spots in the lives of their families, loving and loved as mothers, grandmothers, daughters.
I feel anger and sadness that this system built on white supremacy failed to protect these women who were among the most vulnerable. Their lives were wrongfully taken because of hate, racism, sexism and misogyny. I feel sick thinking about how violence against Asian women is largely driven by the historic and ongoing hyper-sexualization and fetishization of Asian women.
My heart feels so heavy. My mind whirrs back to all the hateful, racist, misogynist or sexist trauma I’ve wanted to dislodge from my brain. Repressed memories revisit me, searing their pain. Sometimes they’ll fade as I try to focus on something else. Other times, like during the stillness of the night, they make a noise and come crawling back.
I’m learning to accept that grief and trauma don’t go away completely, that there is no time limit on processing them. Sometimes it gets easier to accept, acknowledge and move through the pain as time passes. But grief and trauma can stir up again unknowingly, like having to accept that Asian women who I can picture as my own family members are brutally killed because a white man was having a “bad day” and wanted to “eliminate” his “temptation.”
Reading other Asian-American women’s writings and seeing their artwork in reflection has brought up so much for me. Here’s a thread of some of their works to read. Every one of them strikes a chord of shared anger and sadness. To know that our stories may be different, but our identities as Asian-American women in this country have been erased or filtered through whiteness and hypersexualization and fetishization is a painful common thread. Yet I feel held and seen by the vulnerability they express through their voices because I’m reminded I’m not alone.
There’s so much collective and personal grief, pain, sorrow and trauma I’m holding onto and processing. I’m tired, but I want to open space for myself to express some of it, to stand in my truth and speak my truth.
To stand in and speak my truth today means to write this post, to let out some pain I’ve held onto that’s been boiling within me, especially after last week’s shooting and the last year of rising anti-Asian hate crimes. I also think of experiences that never have a chance to get reported, that are forgotten or tucked away.
A recent personal experience that stands out for me is last Labor Day weekend on September 7, 2020.
My parents and I experienced racist verbal harassment at Leo Carrillo Beach in Malibu by an older white woman after she was trying to take photos of our beach tent up close. We were sitting in it, eating our 김밥(kimbap) lunch. She was not wearing her mask and not practicing social distancing, so I politely asked her to put on her mask and keep within six feet distance from us. She mumbled to herself and moved away closer to the shore to take photos of the water. We proceeded to continue eating. A few minutes later, a couple walking with their dog within six feet from us complimented our tent. I thanked them, and they went on their way. Moments later, the same white woman returned and startled us.
She proceeded to throw a tantrum that we had treated her differently from the couple that had walked by. She called us Chinese assuming we were and said that Asian people were a “problem,” that we’re “mean, ugly people,” and that I was “attacking” her when I had asked her to keep distance and wear a mask.
In rageful defense, I yelled and cursed back, calling out her racist, ignorant comments and her white entitlement and privilege. My parents sat stunned in confusion and fear. The other beachgoers close by us were observant but quiet.
After the woman walked away, I tried to let go of what happened, but it was too painful. I choked back tears of anger. We decided to leave a few minutes later. As we packed up our things, I could see in the distance that she had gone to threaten us further by calling the beach patrol security on us.
That moment underscored the awful reality and the many cases exposed online where white people call the police on Black people and other people of color when they’re minding their own business, to instill further racial mistreatment and violence from the police. This is not okay. I can’t compare or group my experience with the severity of others’, but this woman’s actions to seek security denote how she was attempting to exert authority and control over us.
She then returned with two officers as we were about to leave. They asked me what happened. I explained that she wasn’t wearing a mask, and that when I asked her to keep distance, she proceeded to verbally harass my parents and me with ugly racist words.
They ultimately asked if we wanted to file a report, but by that point, I was too numb, distraught and rattled and wanted to leave immediately. Sometimes I regret that decision, that I didn’t report her officially. Other times, I feel like even if I did go through the process to report her, what would have happened? Would she have to face any consequences? I also sometimes regret not being quick enough to clearly record her on my phone when she started spewing toxicity at us; I do have a photo of her when she happened to be in the background of a selfie I took of my dog and me.
With all this said, my parents and I were fortunate enough to leave safely without being physically hurt or having any further altercations, but that experience stuck with me for a while. I processed this awful incident privately with loved ones when it first happened, and I’m grateful for their support and the space they held for me. This week, I ended up submitting it to the Stop AAPI Hate website to support their advocacy efforts. Please use it to report incidents of anti-Asian racism which helps them build more resources to raise awareness for local, regional and national governments and to support community organizations.
In reflecting on this incident six months later, I wish my parents didn’t have to experience that awfulness. I wish for no one to experience any form of bigotry, discrimination, prejudice or racism.
The fact that it happened on what was to be a relaxing day at the beach with my parents saddened me. I could feel them dissipate into the background as I yelled back at this woman in defense. They seemed resigned, primarily because their words to fight back could not amount to what I was able to vocalize.
As Korean immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles in 1979, they’ve had to muscle through and work so hard to try to assimilate in this country. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know the full extent and maybe never fully will. I’ve gotten to hear some of their stories, but I also feel so much has been repressed in the name of “be good, do well, and stay quiet.”
I’ve been looking at old photos of them more closely lately, especially photos of when they first arrived to the US. My dad loved film photography, so he documented a lot of their experiences before my brother and I were born. Through the photos, I could track and follow some of their moves, bouncing around apartments in Koreatown and Glendale. At the bottom of a box of old photos, I came across an old receipt from a Vons grocery store on Western Ave. The ink on the receipt is faded, but I can read that the day was May 26, 1982. I can make out some of the things they tried to purchase: cans of corn, orange juice, milk, pretzels. Pretzels? I can picture my parents seeing those at the store and wondering what those were. I remember my mom telling me the first time she tried pizza was so special and unforgettable. Their stories are a part of me, and I’ll carry them with me forever.
I’m humbled and honored to share these stories. I hope to expand and grow with more courage and vulnerability as I keep writing. I’m reminded of this bit I wrote as a takeaway in a past post: “I’m grateful for the challenges and learning experiences that remind me to always speak and stand in my truth. Perseverance and resilience continue to build my character and strength, and having integrity gives me the courage to move forward.”
May we all step in and protect each other, especially those marginalized in our communities. May we make room for all our voices to be heard. May we make every effort to dismantle white supremacy.
Here are some ways to support and learn more:
- Donate to the AAPI Community fund on GoFundMe
- Read this Amplify Asian Voices doc for more readings and resources created by by Jezz Chung
- Visit Anti-Asian Violence Resources for more ways to take action, created by the HAAPI ERG at Flexport
I send love, peace and strength to anyone hurting or in fear, who are processing different feelings in different forms and layers. I hold space for you. You are heard and seen. You are loved.
Originally published on March 26, 2021 at janeshin.co/blog/processing.