My New Reality: Hyper Vigilance While Being Asian in America

I was so exhausted after my first outing, I fell asleep at 9 pm.

Like owls, I have learned to be hyper-vigilant and keep my head on a swivel. Photo by Dirk van Wolferen on Unsplash

I have had the great privilege of hunkering down during this pandemic. I was able to keep my job and shift to working full-time at home. My kids each have their own device and stable internet to pursue long-distance learning fairly successfully (although they desperately miss their friends).

I worry about my husband seeing patients but I know he is taking all precautions and tracking new clinical studies outlining how to stay safe.

In the meantime, my daughters and I limited our interactions to minimize any exposure to anyone else, especially before I was vaccinated. We had groceries delivered and Amazon shipped us anything else we needed.

Our only outing was a daily drive to the post office to check our PO Box or an occasional drive to a mom-and-pop-owned ethnic restaurant to pick up takeaway (with my kids remaining in the car every time). They even keep the windows closed as they are nervous about being exposed to anyone even walking by my car.

But yesterday, we had our first family outing since the pandemic. While my kids are under 16 and unable to get vaccinated (until this week!), both my husband and I are fully vaccinated and more than two weeks past the second vaccine.

My eldest daughter’s birthday prompted us to find a restaurant with outdoor seating in the nearby big city. With over 70% of adults at least partially vaccinated there, we finally felt comfortable venturing beyond our home and having a meal at a restaurant with ample outdoor dining space.

Yet I forgot about being Asian. I forgot about how my Asian features might make me a target of violence by some angry young men (and they’ve all been men, as far as I’ve read in the news).

I was born and raised in America, with the overwhelming majority of my life spent here in California. For a long time, I felt just like any other white American. I could walk down the street and wave to the police officer driving by. I could enter a high-end department store and not be followed by staff. I could be praised by my teacher for doing well on an exam, not ignored or overlooked because of my racial identity.

But then I made the decision to move to Washington, DC for a summer internship and I realized what it means to live in this country as a BIPOC woman. Anti-Asian racism usually comes in the form of microaggressions, not violent physical attacks like the kind you see in the news now.

As I said in my essay, Anti-Asian Racism Can Feel Like Death By a Thousand Cut:

The summer I moved to Washington, DC, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of aggressive and degrading verbal assaults, as men leaned out of car windows, approached us on the street, or came up to us in crowded restaurants. . .We had multiple incidents throughout that summer. As the numbers grew, I stopped wondering what I was doing to provoke the others. I stopped being embarrassed. Instead, I was angry. Inhabiting an Asian body seemed to be the only constant. It didn’t matter whether I was grocery shopping or walking to the Metro station. It didn’t matter whether I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts or office attire. I explicitly note this because the unwanted racist and sexualized comments did not stop even if I tried to blend in with others. My Asian features always gave me away.

Last night was a reminder to put on my armor and be hyper-vigilant yet again. It wasn’t just the fear of my daughters getting COVID — we and the restaurant staff were all properly masked and the nearest diners were 6 feet away. We wore masks when we weren’t actually eating and the wait staff told me the entire staff was fully vaccinated. They also took our temperatures and gave us hand sanitizer when we first arrived. This restaurant did an excellent job of keeping us safe from COVID.

No, I felt vulnerable because I was sitting on the sidewalk facing one direction, leaving my back exposed for anyone who might approach from behind. My husband and I each strategically took a seat on opposite sides of the table. This meant he could watch anyone approaching from behind me and I could watch his back.

I looked at every person who walked by, making eye contact so they knew I was watching them. I felt myself scanning the street and watching the cars driving by, too. I’ve had items thrown at me from cars before.

It truly made me sad that this was my focus and not the incredible sushi in front of me. We rarely order sushi to go as it just doesn’t taste the same 30+ minutes later. The meal last night was the best sushi we have had in the U.S. and compares well to what we ate in Tokyo.

Yet after every spectacular nigiri, I would look up to scan around because I knew I had been distracted. Thankfully, no one attacked us last night. Yet I found myself so exhausted that I went to bed early. I usually stay up until closer to 10:30 pm but my girls tucked me in, kissed me goodnight, and then walked out. I was asleep by 9 pm.

I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable regularly going out in public again after more than a year of hunkering down at home. Many of us are struggling with that experience generally. But I don’t know how many are worried about being physically attacked.

My husband bought our daughters and me pepper spray canisters and Hyper whistles (which apparently can be heard from 2 miles away). Both girls have been taking martial arts classes since they were kindergarteners, so at least they’re more physically prepared to defend themselves than I ever have been. Yet I know this isn’t enough.

The videos I’ve seen show elderly Asian men and women being body-slammed to the ground by aggressive young men. Even if I see the man coming, I don’t know that I can get my pepper spray out fast enough or blow a whistle for help. It’s still going to come down to figuring out how to minimize injury to me while not letting the attacker get away.

I sincerely hope Asian and non-Asian bystanders will intervene and help us. We need more people watching our backs. Unlike owls, we can’t turn our heads 270 degrees.

8X Top Writer. Proud grad of CA public schools. Committed to justice & leadership development. Wife & mom of 2 girls & 2 big dogs. Love to eat almost everything

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