“Where are you from?”

By Poyani Bavishi

I spun around in the grocery store last Sunday, holding 2 boxes of granola bars I was deliberating between. The voice belonged to an older Caucasian male I had never seen before. I double checked that no one else was in the aisle, confirming that he was indeed talking to me.

“I’m from Jersey,” I replied cautiously. 

He laughed in response before pausing and leaning in. “No. I mean where are you really from?” 

I internally rolled my eyes and gave him a weak smile from under my mask. “Born and raised here luckily,” I responded. “Take care now.” I left before he had a chance to say anything else. 

As I walked away, I caught myself feeling a little grateful. At least he didn’t tell me to go back to my country, I thought as I checked out. That was what was said to me the last time something of this nature had happened, yelled out of a car window on my run around the park. 

After all, this type of thing had been happening my whole life. I have been on the receiving end of countless tales from friend’s family members about their one Indian coworker or brother-in-law, unsolicited recipe reviews about chicken tikka masala (despite the fact I am vegetarian), and commentary on the intelligence of the one Indian kid in whatever math class they had taken in college. Teachers and employers have often shrugged off the pronunciation of my name, saying things like “You’re killing me here!” or “I’m not even going to try to remember that one.” As if those three syllables were inherently burdensome, inherently insignificant.

Truthfully, I had always viewed these encounters as harmless. I would laugh with my other friends of diverse backgrounds about it, and we would share the last time a similar event had happened to us. There, with others, it felt silly to think any further about it. After all, it happened to basically all of us- it must have been normal, right? 

The issue with these incidents, of course, is that they open the door to much more. Using monolithic identities to frame the way in which individuals view others has been the origin of many of our deepest humanitarian traumas. Subtleties build brick by brick to form mentalities of “otherization,” until we have formed in our minds an unidentifiable being completely unlike ourselves. Seemingly harmless preformed notions give way to concrete biases at a flick of a switch, and institutional rules and policies are never far behind. This is how marginalization seeds its ugly roots, and how we have arrived to where we are at today. 

Over the past several months, I have watched in horror along with the nation as the uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans surged substantially. On March 16, 2021 eight people were killed at a massage parlor in Atlanta, six of whom were Asian women. In an era where national hate crimes decreased by 6 percent, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased 150%, fueled by phrases like “the Chinese virus,” and “Kung flu.” 

Recently, I rewatched Hasan Minhaj’s piece on “The American Dream Tax,” a term he coined to describe the immigrant experience in America. He tells the story of his family receiving death threats in the aftermath of 9/11, one of which was followed by individuals smashing in the windows of their family Camry. While Minhaj immediately attempted to find his perpetrators, overwhelmed with anger, his father calmly swept up the glass shards off the road. When Minhaj asked why he was not furious, his father simply replied, “These things happen, and these things will continue to happen. That’s the price we pay for being here.” 

Through this anecdote, Minhaj perfectly embodies a generational shift of perspectives. So often, immigrants are taught to believe that it is “worth it” to endure degrees of otherization, rudeness, and hate in pursuit of a better life for their families to come. They are convinced that looking the other way is inherent to existing, that identity is a luxury that cannot always be afforded. Children of this generation, however, have been born with what Minhaj terms the “audacity of equality;” we read the words of our constitution, of the decades of reform, and we believe that it applies to us, bestowed upon us just by our citizenship. 

When I see hate crimes against Asian Americans nationwide, I feel the weight of our combined story on my shoulders. I picture all of us as children, watching our parents get up and hustle in pursuit of the lifetime they were told would be full of opportunities for their loved ones. I picture the collective sacrifice of stories woven from just those I have had the privilege to hear- careers sacrificed, families estranged, lifestyles and joys repeatedly turned down in pursuit of the dream. To think of these stories amplified to millions of individuals across this country is a weight that I cannot even bear to hold, to wrap my head and my heart around. 

With a heavy heart, I can only resolve to fight for my Asian brothers and sisters and generations to come. I implore all of us to take up space- to treat whatever institution, town, city, and country you are in as if it is your absolute birth right to be there- because it is. Dare others to treat your identity for what it is- unique and beautiful, stitched intricately for each individual through their bundles of life experiences. Dare to be different, but most importantly- dare to be yourself. 

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