Over a year had passed since my father, a Chinese American in his 70s, had eaten a meal with another person.
Prior to the pandemic, he set out from his apartment every weekday morning to walk through downtown Seattle. He enjoyed disappearing into the crowds that provided him with anonymity and safety. The concrete hills provided a physical challenge and the fresh air rejuvenated his spirits.
When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, my father, a reluctant senior citizen, cloistered himself in his apartment. He left his home only to buy groceries, as he wanted to choose his own bunches of baby bok choy, sacks of rice, and cloves of garlic. Though he and I met every Sunday to walk together, he declined to meet: His fears of getting sick were greater than his desire to walk outside. He learned how to make video calls and paced in his apartment.
With the summer weather and declining Covid-19 case counts, along with coaxing from his daughter about the mental health benefits of walking, my father resumed his routine strolls. The commuter crowds had vanished. A face mask provided him with anonymity and safety, though only boarded windows and people with nowhere else to sleep other than the sidewalk witnessed him walking up and down the concrete hills.
Neither the cooler weather nor autumnal rains discouraged him from walking outside. However, when he learned that a few people had shoved elderly Asian Americans to the ground, he paused. “I am a senior citizen,” he murmured, “and I can’t move fast. That could be me.”
When someone knocked a young Asian American woman unconscious in Chinatown, he gave up his morning walks. With a chuckle, he explained, “It’s okay! Walking in my apartment is just as good as walking outside.” He and I both knew that this is untrue. He then tried an alternative explanation: “It’s because I haven’t gotten the Covid vaccine yet.” Then, after he got his vaccination? “There’s still anti-Asian sentiment. Walking in my apartment is just as good as walking outside.”
My father immigrated to the US before Congress proclaimed the first ten days of May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. He knew that some Americans would view him with condescension: Though fluent in English, he speaks with a Chinese accent. He grew up in a different culture marked by poverty, military rule, and limited opportunities. He recognized that he did not look, think, or act like “real” Americans who were corn-fed with blue eyes and blonde hair. However, he never thought that America would stray so far from its expressed ideals, that white supremacy would declare itself without shame, that everyday people might assault him because of these differences.
This is the paralyzing toxicity of racism. Most people will not push an elderly Chinese American man to the ground. However, when a few individuals scream racial slurs at people who sound like you and slash faces that look like yours, you wonder how much anonymity and safety you actually have. It doesn’t matter that my father worked in computer programming before it was cool at companies like McDonnell Douglas and Boeing. It doesn’t matter that he protested against the government of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It doesn’t matter that he loves America because of the ideals of democracy, freedom, and justice.
When you don’t know when you should be worried, you always worry.
Recently, my father and I were finally able to share a meal in his apartment. In those quiet moments, we enjoyed freedom from worry: We had health, safety, and peace. The US now dedicates the entire month of May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Asian Americans continue to wonder if others will ever accept the “American” part of that label. When we can stop worrying?