I was grading my students’ final stories when a friend alerted me to the recent news that a man in Atlanta had shot and killed eight people, including six Asian women.
Fury and grief raged my heart. The crime—following thousands of other reports of harassment and attacks against Asian Americans—struck at one of my greatest fears growing up. For a second, I was a child, afraid to get out of my dad’s car at a truck stop in Georgia during a family trip.
I was raised in suburban Detroit, the adopted Chinese child of two white parents. Taylor, Michigan, was a blue-collar, union town. The population was mostly white. I used to joke that my Korean brothers and I made up a hearty portion of the less than 1 percent that was Asian. My dad was a teachers’ union leader, and my mom was an elementary school principal. We stood out, in good ways, for our grades and involvement in the community. Our family and our story were well-known. My birth parents in Taiwan had given me up, because they were poor, had too many daughters and wanted a son.
People always used to ask me, “How does it feel to be adopted?”
To me, this seemed impertinent; my family was close, and our dynamics seemed like any other.
The underlying—and more painful—question they were asking was: “How does it feel to be Asian?”
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, many of my friends’ families worked in the auto industry, which was in crisis. Companies were laying off workers, and pundits blamed Japanese auto makers for the loss of assembly-line jobs and the struggling economy. Newspapers printed pictures of menacing, slanty-eyed caricatures. Politicians warned that the foreigners were taking our jobs.
In 1982, two auto workers killed Chinese American Vincent Chin, crushing his skull with a baseball bat, after accusing him of being a Jap who stole union jobs. The murderers were given three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine. The injustice mobilized and united Asian American communities and activists and a coalition of diverse civil rights organizations.
The case and its outcome scared my parents. They tried to talk to us about racism, and looked for ways for us to be around Asian Americans. But I did not let on to them the types of things people said to us—or how often. I wanted to protect my parents from something that I knew they could not stop.
I heard racial slurs regularly. In my memory, a blurry amalgamation of perpetrators carried out the offenses: a car full of young white men yelling, go back to “your country”; the teen who taunted “Ching, chang, chong!”; the woman whose eyes followed me and my family. I refused to get out of the car during bathroom breaks at remote gas stations as we drove south to Florida on vacation. I hated the prickling feeling of the stares.
No one ever physically hurt me, but even as a child, I sensed a fine line between insult and injury.
And, anyway, I thrived; I did well in school and had lots of friends. I went out of my way to prove how American I was: pompom squad, student council, perfect English. I wanted to be anything but Asian.
Relieved to move on
I was relieved to get out of town and that period of my life, leaving at 17 years old to attend university and start traveling the world. I chose to study Spanish, instead of Mandarin. I remember staring at the racks of multicolored fliers advertising programs in different countries. I avoided red (China), and chose green (Mexico). During my first year of college, I’d walk around campus, acutely aware of every other Asian person I saw—and that I saw them as foreigners. That’s how people must see me, I thought. I began to face my self-loathing and ignorance.
I found my own voice with support of communities of color. As a radicalized college student, I became strident in response to the wounds of the past. When I visited home, I argued with people from high school about their anti-Asian or anti-Black views. Once, I heard a group of kids say “Ah-so!” behind me, while my family and I were buying popcorn at a movie theater.
“You think you are more American because you are white?!” I screamed and swore at the kids, who cowered. The crowd lobby seemed to stop moving. I stood before them, smoldering.
Questioning where I fit in
Journalism has been a good place to channel my activism. Over 20 years, I wrote stories, with the intention of highlighting diverse perspectives, and advocated for inclusion and sensitivity in media newsrooms and coverage. I also traveled the world, exploring issues of identity, culture, and race.
My Asian and American identities tangoed as I visited, lived, and worked in countries where people did not feign to be politically correct. Cab drivers in Mexico City and Buenos Aires would call me “china” or “japonesa.” I rolled my eyes as I watched Argentine actors on variety shows make fun of Asian people, with painted slanted eyes, Manchu beards, and silk robes. On a tour of Beijing, my Chinese guide called me a xiangjiao, or banana—yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
But I shrugged it all off—even laughed. Abroad, I was an outsider of my own design. I could be whomever I chose, and it didn’t feel personal.
I came to believe that culture and identity are choices that evolve, and not just something you are born with or that society imposes on you. I lived in South America for almost eight years, before returning to the United States in 2012, to become a professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I am in awe of the diversity on campus. Almost half of the Class of 2024 are students of color, including 25 percent Asian American. Their experience seems so different from when I went to school. Discrimination remains a pervasive problem in the U.S.—the justice system, in higher ed, in newsrooms, in Hollywood—you name it. But I can see progress in the world our students represent and envision.
The COVID backlash expected
Still, I’m sad to say I expected what was to come, given our history, my experience, and the racial tension in this country, a horrific déjà vu. People were scared of getting sick from COVID-19 and losing their jobs, and angry about being shut down. President Donald Trump and his supporters had ramped up the attacks and blame on China with his references to the “Kung flu” and “China virus.”
My childhood worst nightmares seemed to come alive en masse, in viral videos of Asian people being attacked, and in enraged accounts of being screamed at in restaurants and spit on in parks. Activists, journalists, and actors tried to call attention to the attacks.
For my part, I alerted my university and community last spring. I posted entreaties: See it! Stop it! We must fight, and not be victims! Friends and colleagues liked my posts and nodded as I ranted. Students told me they were afraid for grandparents, parents, and families. They were not only isolating because of health, but because they were afraid of being attacked. International students went back to Asia, because their families felt they’d be safer from the pandemic and racism.
But there are so many other important national discussions going on and everyone was trying to survive the pandemic; this particular cause seemed almost invisible.
This winter, I taught a journalism class called Covering Asian American Stories. Most of the students enrolled identify as Asian and Asian American or people of color. Together, we could look at the events today in historical context: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, Vincent Chin’s murder. We confronted exclusion, harassment, and violence committed against Asians—and perpetrated by Asians. We talked about the model minority myth, the sexualization of Asian women, and de-sexualization of Asian men. Accomplished journalists such as civil rights leader Helen Zia, a key activist in the Chin case, shared their experiences.
I emphasized the importance, too, of stories of joy, success, and survival. The course felt deeply personal and consequential, especially at this time, for me as much as anyone. My students know I’m a crier—and I didn’t disappoint on the last day of class.
A few days later, reports out of Atlanta stunned me, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I go back to the advice that I’ve given in classes as we discussed what feels like an endless march of traumatic events. If we can listen to the origins of our deepest pain, anger, and grief, we can understand the values that are worth fighting for. The reflection, growth, and hard work has to continue. I do see more Asian American journalists, activists, and their allies speaking out.
My hope is that my students will be among them one day. This nation must see that the stories of Asian Americans are an important part of the collective narrative of racial experience in the U.S. And the reckoning must include their voices.
Mei-Ling Hopgood is a freelance journalist and writer who has written for various publications, ranging from the National Geographic Traveler and Marie Claire to the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe. She has worked as a reporter with the Detroit Free Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau.