During my childhood, my parents almost never talked about race. When they did, they fed me the immigrant clichés: We left China in the ’80s with only a few dollars and determination; we worked long, difficult hours for the careers and lives we dreamed of. See how we’ve succeeded; see how you can succeed too. Racism was something that happened to other people but never my parents. When they saw news of police brutality, they condemned it as if it were a spectacle from a distant land playing out on the screen.
The few times they would break their silence have stuck with me. In the car ride home after seeing a movie as a child, I once declared that I’d be an actor when I grew up. “It’s going to be really hard,” my mother said, staring straight ahead at the road. I countered that she and Dad had said I could do anything as long as I put in the work. “But be prepared for no one to hire you. You’re Asian,” she said. I don’t remember the movie we saw that day, or what my mom said after that. I do remember my own silence for the rest of the drive.
Late last year, I moved in with my parents in suburban New Jersey, hoping to spend more time with them (and save on rent) during the pandemic. I thought living with them would allow for us to have more conversations about race. But the news reports that kept appearing about racism toward Asians seemed to describe a different world from the one our household pretended to exist in. My parents have discussed recipes, my dad’s painting hobby, and my teenage brother’s college applications with me. I know they know about the stories of anti-Asian racism that are swirling around us, and they know I know, but they haven’t acknowledged them. Unsettled but unsure about disturbing the illusion, I’ve followed their lead, a thousand unsaid things on my tongue.
Only when I pressed my mom for details did I learn that after the incident at the grocery store, when my dad would go back, he would drive into a parking spot, turn off the engine, and just sit there, in the quiet of his car, mustering up the nerve to go inside. When I asked my dad why he hadn’t told me about the incident, he said he must have forgotten about it. “It wasn’t a big enough deal,” he said. He didn’t say more about it after that.
I told Jennifer Louise Young, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University who has studied Asian American families, about my dad’s silence. She wasn’t surprised. Young has found that Asian parents don’t really talk with their children about racism, whether toward Asians or other communities. She suggested that when racism targets them, parents may especially struggle to talk about their experiences because of denial or shame.
Jennifer Lee, a sociologist at Columbia University who studies Asian Americans, pointed out that Asian parents might not tell their children about racism because of the vulnerability it requires. “Your father [wished] to protect you from racism and xenophobia because you’re his daughter, and obligations to protect typically run vertically from parents to children,” Lee told me. “For immigrant parents to admit that they are now the ones who need protection is a blow to their sense of well-being.”