Cindy Lee on being an Asian American during the COVID-19 pandemic
On February 10, 2021, Cindy Lee, an ASU graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program focusing on personal essay and narrative nonfiction writing, published her first essay in Transformations, a joint project of the ASU Narrative Storytelling Initiative and the Los Angeles Review of Books. In “Am I a Conditional American,” Lee writes about her recent experience as an Asian American living in Scottsdale, Arizona during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Congratulations on the publication of your essay, “Am I a Conditional American?” in Transformations. Your essay received a lot of attention after it was published in February. What was the experience like for you? What surprised you the most?
Experiencing the response to my essay has been incredible. Honestly, it has been transforming. First, I was amazed that award-winning journalist and writer Steven Beschloss, executive editor of Transformations magazine, chose to publish my essay. Then, after it came out, I was so moved by the responses. I could never have imagined the impact.
What surprised me most is how extensively the feelings I expressed are shared among people of color.
A Black corporate assistant vice president referred to my statement: “...in practice, ‘we’ is not always we.” She wrote, “That is the narrative for all non-white Americans in this country.”
A Pakistani American dermatology oncologist, who had been treated poorly after September 11th, said, “Thank you for writing this for all of us.”
A Chinese American mother and 14-year-old daughter both read the essay and discussed it together.
A Latino American global marketer commented, “My favorite quote was ‘The American Dream can be bestowed, and it can be withdrawn.’”
A Ph.D. scientist and professor tweeted that my story was close to her own Korean American experience. She quoted from the essay: “I’ve come to realize that ... my acceptance is conditional. My Americanness is conditional. The rules are not up to those of us who are ‘other.’”
You begin your essay by recounting an incident of anti-Asian harassment at a Target store in Scottsdale at the beginning of the pandemic. Were you surprised at how quickly the characterization of the COVID-19 pandemic as “The China Virus” and “Kung Flu” began?
I was horrified but not surprised. The U.S. has historically seen Asians as the “Yellow Peril.” This was true in WWII with the Japanese, the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, Korean communists during the Korean War, the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, the U.S. auto industry vs Japanese carmakers, and the trade wars with China. Viewing Asians as “the enemy” and “other” can recede below the surface, but those feelings are clearly easy to summon with a “foreign” disease.
How else have you seen its impact in your community (Scottsdale, ASU, the Phoenix area, etc?)
A former Scottsdale city councilman, not re-elected, jumped on the bandwagon in March 2020. He shared a Facebook post explaining that “COVID literally stands for ‘Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease’ and the number 19 is due to this being the 19th virus to come out of China.” This was disprovable with a 5-second online search. I timed it.
A year later, in March 2021, a 74-year-old Filipino American father, husband, and grandfather was punched and knocked down while taking his morning walk in Phoenix. His head hit the pavement and fractured his skull. He died two days later from his injuries.
I have to ask, have you encountered overt and/or open harassment you described in the essay as an AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) graduate student at ASU?
Oh gosh, no! That’s never happened at ASU. I actually had age anxiety starting at ASU, not concern about mistreatment as an AAPI student. I felt like I would be the only student eligible for a senior discount. That worry evaporated Week One when a much-younger classmate offered to help me with something and called me “dude.”
You described being reminded of your otherness periodically throughout your life and how that otherness is conditional on how others see you—you write: “My acceptance is conditional. My Americanness is conditional.” How do we think we can begin to change that at an individual level?
The more you know “a people,” the less their acceptance is conditional. Educate. See a movie or documentary, or read a book/essay by a person of color. There are so many examples I could list. Attend a lecture or a webinar. Understand the struggles and resentments. In an hour, I learned a lot about discrimination in housing in government programs. Watch the five-part PBS series “Asian Americans” which “traces the story of Asian Americans, spanning 150 years of immigration, racial politics, and cultural innovation.”
A recent exchange I had with a friend answers the question in a different way. My husband bought me some pepper spray. With continued violence against AAPI people, especially women, he was worried for my safety and wanted me to carry it. I was having dinner with a white friend and showed it to her. She asked me, “Why would you need that?” I pointed to my face. She said, shocked, “I’m so sorry! You’re so individualized to me, I don’t even see you in terms of race.”
As people of color, we need to speak up and speak out. Collective voices can help educate as well. In a survey this month commissioned by the nonprofit, Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, 42% of people could not name a well-known Asian American. Eleven percent said Jackie Chan—who is not American. Nine percent said Bruce Lee. That is ancient history. Last year, for example, I put together a 4-minute video showing Asians and Asians in music and movies from 1961-2020. We’re in the popular culture if one wants to self-educate.
Cindy's video: Asians in American Pop Culture Movies & Music (1961-2020), password: cindy
What about George Takei in “Star Trek,” Sandra Oh in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Daniel Dae Kim in “Lost” and “Hawaii 5-0,” Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, basketball player Jeremy Lin, numerous Japanese baseball players on U.S. teams, actress Awkwafina in the films Oceans 8, The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians, Bowen Yang on Saturday Night Live, presidential and now NYC mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, Senator Maizie Hirono of Hawaii. And yet we’re invisible in 2021.
What do you think the ASU community can do to change the conditions for and experience of AAPI students and faculty at ASU?
You can’t address what you don’t know. I think any communities that want to change the conditions for and experience of AAPI—of people of color in general—need a forum for under-represented groups to have continuing open dialogue with the dominant group, with management, with the administration. Education leads to understanding. Overt and unconscious bias exists. I’ve been asked to participate in a conversation about my essay with the Multicultural Professional Network at a global corporation in what they call “Inclusion Dialogue,” formerly known as “Courageous Conversations.” I’m so impressed that the company reaches out for their employees to hear such diversity of thought even from someone like me.
I think ASU, as a public university, already does this. Can it be improved? I’m not the one who could answer that.
Recently, Stop AAPI Hate revealed that nearly 3,800 incidents of anti-Asian hate were reported between March 19, 2020 and February 28th, 2021, more than 1,200 more than the previous year. It’s also clear that AAPI women report disproportionately more attacks—68 percent compared to 29 percent for men. As a woman, do you think you are more vulnerable to anti-Asian hate?
It’s likely I’m physically more vulnerable than an Asian man. Older Asian women do seem to be the easy targets. It could also be that Asian men are even less likely to report than women. I saw a video of a young Asian father, pushing his one-year-old baby in a stroller, getting tackled and punched. It is mind-blowing and unbelievable.
As a graduate student focused on non-fiction writing and personal essay, it must be gratifying to have your first published essay receive so much attention. How will this help you build your writing career? What else are you writing about?
I could never have imagined how much another world has opened up for me. What I wrote struck a nerve at a particular moment. Timing has so much to do with the publishing of my essay, the response, and the attention. Anti-Asian hate on a national level along with the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter movement have conjured up feelings on a collective level that exist individually among people of color. Emotions have been amplified by coronavirus impacts.
This experience has been quite a boost, but I don’t know that it will build my writing career. I still have a lot to learn and develop. I’m still emerging.
What I’m writing about next is my family. My father came to the U.S. in 1948 as a Korean student. He’s 94 now and lives in California. In his boredom during the COVID-19 lockdown, he finally sat down and hand wrote his life’s history on lined, yellow pads of paper. He shares his childhood in Korea, losing his family during the Korean War, the life he’s had up to the present. It’s an amazing American immigrant story. It’s my family history legacy and my next project.
What has been the most rewarding part of being a graduate student at ASU?
That answer has so many parts. I could gush.
I’ve met, befriended and shared classes with incredible students who are fascinating, generous, and diverse. Some are great writers, so I also learn from reading their work.
The wisdom, knowledge, and humanity of the professors I’ve had is so enriching. I’ve learned so much, and I love being in an academic environment again.
It’s so rejuvenating, doing something new in going back to school for a master’s degree after decades of working. It’s such a brain feed, and makes me feel like an excited kid.
I’ve applied what I’ve learned in classes instantly, not just in my writing. In the prep session for the upcoming conversation with multicultural professionals, I mentioned that I am optimistic about the future, even though race relations in the U.S. have regressed recently. I mentioned growing up in the 1960s as a kid, and was able to reference very specific examples of civil rights advances of that decade, having just completed Angela Giron’s immersion course on ‘60s Decade of Turmoil at ASU. My answer was informed not just by my childhood experiences but also by my recently acquired historical, political, and cultural knowledge of the period.
What advice would you give to ASU graduate students who also happen to be aspiring writers?
I’m no expert, but here’s what I’d say, if it applies to the kind of writing they and I are doing.
We have really great writing professors at ASU. You will improve and grow as a writer. I’ve learned so much from Sarah Viren, who is an award-winning writer and a brilliant, nurturing professor. She creates the ideal environment for workshop dialogue and gives thoughtful, in-depth commentary and guidance with your writing. Her readings and emulation exercises helped us expand our writing style. I wrote the "Conditional American" essay in Sarah's class; she encouraged me to try to have it published. Dr. Viren’s 2020 essay, “The Accusations Were Lies. But Could We Prove It?” has won multiple highest honors. She just had another incredible article published in The New York Times Magazine. Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, author and editor of more than 30 books, kept questioning and countering students to help us find our own way. I told him he “badgered me” into digging deeper to find the better story to tell and write, which made him smile. The professors in my Master of Liberal Studies degree program, including Program Director Angela Giron and Associate Director Megan Todd, encourage our creativity and support us incredibly. Rebecca Byrkit, founding faculty member of the MLSt program, teaches creative nonfiction and judges writing competitions. There are also helpful writing workshops outside of ASU to seek out. I took my first creative nonfiction writing class from a multi-awarded journalist, editor, and author Amy Silverman, who has taught at ASU, teaches writing workshops at Phoenix College and through Changing Hands Bookstore.
Write simply, and write from the heart. That’s all I did in my essay.
Write accessibly. Tell stories. We talk all the time about access: access to education, to health care, to equality, to justice, access for people with disabilities. But then as academics and graduate students, we write in language that is inaccessible. As writers, we can communicate in more conversational ways to reach a broader audience. If we write more the way we speak, we may be easier to understand, and more people may read the work and take it in. We can be intelligent without being incomprehensible.
I learned this during the past semester: Sometimes there’s the story you think you want to write, and then there’s the real story that wants to be written. To borrow wisdom from three writing professors: Dig deeper, reflect, and don’t get in your own way. Easier said than done, of course.
Don’t be self-defeating. You’re becoming a better writer as you learn and continue, even when it doesn’t feel that way. Last week I looked at something I’d written in one of my first nonfiction writing classes. It was awful. I suddenly felt sorry for the other students in the class.
In William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well, his mantra is: clarity brevity simplicity humanity. (I haven’t followed the brevity advice). But I do try for clarity, simplicity, and humanity.