The Fight Against Invisibility

A portrait of Dr. Michelle Au ’99 in her scrubs and with a stethoscope around her neck.
Image credit: Ben Rollins
Author  Amy Yee ’96
Published on 

Amemory from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic remains indelible. It was early March 2020, and schools and businesses were yet to close down. But already a gnawing sense of foreboding loomed, apart from the virus itself.

My fears were confirmed by a LinkedIn post from an Asian American friend. He was in Central Square in Cambridge, Mass., when a man menaced him on the street, blamed him for the virus, and continued threatening him even when police arrived on the scene.

I was already worried about the potential impact on Asians in the U.S. who might be irrationally targeted because the virus had originated in China. Thousands of innocent people in China itself would be sickened by COVID-19 or die, but those tragic facts could be overshadowed by ignorance, anger, fear, and knee-jerk racism.

I was especially concerned because my mother, an immigrant in her 70s born in Hong Kong, takes the T to work in Boston’s Chinatown every day. She has continued to do so throughout the pandemic.

After I read the LinkedIn post from my friend, I asked my mother if anything had happened to her. As she snapped green beans for dinner, she quietly said yes. Twice already, people had harassed or threatened her on the street near Chinatown and in a store near home. “I hope I’m not being too sensitive,” she said without pausing her bean snapping.

My mother’s response was typical of many older Asian American immigrants accustomed to hardship and indignities—too accustomed, from my American-born perspective. But I was alarmed and upset. I immediately emailed authorities in Boston in hopes of preventing future incidents.

Older Asian Americans often don’t discuss negative events, even with family members, partly because they don’t want to worry anyone. A year later, in spring 2021, after racism and violence against Asian Americans surged across the country, my brother gave my parents perverse “gifts” of hand-held panic alarms. When I mentioned that our mother had been harassed, it was the first my brother had heard of the incidents. We quizzed my mother on whether anything else had happened since. She unconvincingly said no and busied herself at the kitchen sink to avoid our inquiries.

As if a deadly virus weren’t enough to deal with, Asians in the U.S. and in other countries where they are racial minorities also face the risk of harassment and violence. Last year, when I warned friends and classmates to be aware, many of them seemed surprised. It was another confirmation of the harmful misconception that Asian Americans do not experience discrimination, social inequities, or injustice.

This is an excerpt from an article by Amy Yee ’96 that appears in the fall 2021 issue of “Wellesley” magazine. Read the full story on the “Wellesley” magazine website.