Yesterday I went to a local no-frills spa. I booked a massage there for a few, interrelated reasons: supporting a local business, breaking a one-year hiatus from my quarterly massage routine, and releasing some tension that’s accumulated in my body. We’ve endured an entire year of hearing the absolute BS that a country and its people are scapegoated for a pandemic; the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes have been very top of mind in recent months, but what we are born as — my Asian American experience — is a lifetime. I’m writing this blog as another form of self-care because the more I think back, the prouder I am of my roots and the more conviction I have to live in love — not fear, not hate.
This will be a medley of mostly personal and some world history in the context of race — I’ll start with massages and end with ping pong.
Going back to yesterday, my sister called me just before I headed out for a massage. She was planning a meal with some friends in NY and couldn’t remember the delicious ramen spot we once ate at (it was Ramen Danbo in Park Slope), and she also wanted my reaction to the video that she messaged earlier: a man rapping “WAP” in Cantonese. While this Asian guy was no Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion, we laughed at his attempt and the translation of “macaroni in a pot” into Chinese. It was a typical, frivolous phone chat for us yet it also reflected a deeper truth: our shared appreciation for Asian [American] culture.
In the last minutes of our call, I also explained that I couldn’t talk longer — I needed to walk over to my first massage of 2021 (and first since 2019). She must’ve heard the haste in my voice and simply responded with “That’s bold.” Was she referring to my boldness because of COVID riskiness or the recency of shootings across three Asian-owned massage parlors in Atlanta? I didn’t have time to clarify before we got off the phone, but I think she was thinking of both.
The San Francisco location I walked to was unclearly Asian-owned (maybe the man who helped book my appointment over the phone was the owner, maybe he wasn’t), but everyone I encountered from the receptionist to the masseuse looked and spoke Chinese. They spoke English with me, but I could hear a faint conversation in Mandarin from outside my designated room as I undressed; and I understood when my Canto-speaking masseuse said “Mei bei”, indicating to the receptionist that I hadn’t yet tipped (just as I was reaching into my wallet to provide a 38% cash tip). From reading online reviews, I already knew that this place provided quality massages with minimal decor and hoped that I joined a vast majority of clientele who supported their service.
Even though it was posted two years ago, I read a one-star review from “Cheyenne” who detailed how she not only disliked her massage but also lied about leaving a tip at the bed when the masseuse followed her outside asking for gratuity. Reading this made my stomach tighten because asking for money is rarely a proud moment, but it’s often done out of necessity. If that client could afford a massage, she should have also been ready to tip or at least had the decency to not lie about it.
I was trying to relax throughout the hour-long massage, but I also thought about the disrespect that minority workers face daily; about the physical exertion it takes to provide deep-tissue work for 60 minutes (kneading and elbowing into my very tight shoulders — do masseuses crave massages after giving massages?); about how terrifying it must’ve been when an active shooter entered a similar massage room and killed people. Didn’t matter that soft instrumental lulled from the radio/CD player or that I — downward and masked — was nestled in the face cradle, I couldn’t hide from my thoughts on racial hate and discrimination (…. except for the times I had to keep myself from laughing when the masseuse reached my ticklish triceps or when I thought about how unfortunate it would be for either person in a massage room to accidentally fart… laughter truly is the best medicine).
The recent headlines do not reflect racism as new or the only problem in the world, yet the increasing rate of media coverage on racially motivated attacks reflects a very real problem of humans continuing to diminish other humans’ existence. Since an individual person is not omniscient, the media controls how we view the world beyond our immediate observations — I believe hate crimes, police brutality, immigration bans, and other tragedies of society have been happening at high rates for much longer than the past years. But just now more people are reporting them (thanks, smartphones) and more media covering them. I’ve donated to organizations that work towards “liberty and justice for all” — the same phrase I’ve recited, with hand over heart, thousands of times over my K-12 years — but money is just one contribution form. The next snippets/memories are my creating more media that uplifts minority voices, my perspective as a minority.
Hollywood, being a different facet of the same control by media, has just started giving more airtime for positive Asian representation. I remember when Crazy Rich Asians debuted in 2018, I rushed to buy tickets for its opening weekend with some friends (at AMC Times Square if I recall correctly). We had arrived an hour before the show started, and a long line had already formed along the hallway to the theater. Seeing this — a visual mix of Asian- and non-Asian Americans eager to watch the film — and the actual movie with an all-Asian cast made me so smiley that night. Asians could be cool! Powerful, fashionable, beautiful, worthy of Hollywood/air time! I know this level of thinking is super superficial, but the lingering disappointment of seeing stereotypical Mr. Chow in The Hangover and Lilly Onakuramara (aka quiet fish girl) in Pitch Perfect made my younger self feel like Asians likely could not have those italicized traits in multiples. Before, and excluding cartoon Mulan, I saw inspirations of Asian-descent only pop up now and then on the TV screen. They were: Michelle Kwan, Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin, Lucy Liu, and Cho Chang from Harry Potter (hot damn she even dated Cedric Diggory/the young Rob Pattinson).
Speaking of dating, a commonality across all my favorite chick flicks growing up is that the romantic person of interest is white (ironically, with the one exception being my #1, White Chicks). The next three most-watched movies of my tween years were: 1) She’s the Man, 2) Bend it Like Beckham, and 3) Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging. So if I were to list all of my school-year crushes, they’d all be Caucasian classmates. I wasn’t consciously discriminating against my Asian, Black, and otherwise non-white guy peers but it’s also no coincidence that my mind was skewed towards a certain film character: Caucasian, tall, athletic, and a tad rebellious/hard to get.
But unlike the movies, my life plot was: girl meets guy, girl likes guy, guy likes other [white] girl, girl internalizes — up through college — that “majority” guys don’t like “minority” girls. With whom, then, did I go to high school dances? Well, it was first solo/with a group of friends, then a[n Asian] guy friend who did profess his feelings for me (and baked vegan Chinese peanut cookies and gave me red envelopes every Chinese New Year of high school) that I did not reciprocate, then two [white] guy friends whom I admired platonically, then a [white] guy that I admired romantically and who asked me to prom (!)… later he came out as gay in college and we laughed together at how I really didn’t have a chance.
Present day, the dating pool is somewhat more diverse. I’m not “on the apps” as they say, so I don’t get messages that call out or fetishize my Asian-ness (though unfortunately I’ve seen many screenshot examples). Still, an ex did once tell me in-person/post-breakup that he’d “still likely end up marrying someone with a last name like Lee or Wong… but she’d have bigger boobs”…. YUCK AT THIS ABSOLUTE TRASH STATEMENT.
So now I live in the Bay Area where interracial couples (especially Asian female + Caucasian male) are rampant. In some ways it’s nice to see interracial couples because they show that love transcends race; but in other ways I’m triggered (see: previous paragraph) when I see guys like Mark Zuckerberg who allegedly listed “Asian girls” under “What I enjoy doing” on an old profile. I admit that this was pulled from a celeb gossip site but then there’s also the true-story The Social Network movie scene in which the Facebook founders discuss “an algorithm to define the connection between Jewish guys and Asian girls.” Call it what you want.
To end this section, my personal view on dating is to not “filter” for a particular race or ethnicity; instead, to embrace the similarities and differences with an open mind. And thank goodness for the slowly but surely increasing diversity in Hollywood — and beyond — so that it’s not limited to a white protagonist’s world.
At my first full-time job, I packed some kimchi for lunch. This wasn’t the first time I’d done that but because I brought the original jar (containing the remaining bottom inch of fermented vegetables) it was particularly strong-smelling. One director announced to our desk area that something smelled like garbage while an engineer sneered that eating it would cause a lot of flatulence (my second and last fart reference of this blog). I wish I had the quick-wittedness in that moment to say “Sir, beans are also known to cause intestinal gas but I didn’t call you out on your Chipotle lunch.”
Aside from that example, I’ve usually been unashamed of eating Asian food. For school lunches, I ate my mom’s home-cooked noodles (YUM) with chopsticks and snacked on individual packs of seasoned seaweed strips that elementary friends were always so curious about — now over a decade later, you know it’s become trendy when Trader Joe’s branded a similar version in both original and wasabi flavors. As a longtime vegan, I was used to having my food ridiculed and scrutinized. So when experts identified coronavirus as originating from bats, my instinctual feeling was relief that nobody could blame me, a Chinese-American girl that was known for eating “weird” foods, for contributing to the wet markets that sold bats. I now realize how much internalized racism I must have against my own ethnic background to think that I had to defend myself from any ounce of blame for the pandemic. In the translated words of Michelangelo, my mini-conclusion is “I am still learning.”
Why are stereotypes like soft-spoken Asian females (again, think Lilly in Pitch Perfect) dangerous? Because it opens a mental door for louder voices to plow over. It was last January that I wrote my first-ever personal blog… and it was about recovering from an attempted robbery by a group of teenagers. I do not consider it a hate crime but publishing that recap sparked conversations among Bay Area friends. I now know that I am one of at least four people in SF who encountered a group of female teenagers (maybe the same ones?) who acted violently towards them. What do all the victims have in common? We are Asian females and we were walking alone. I fully realize that this is correlation not causation especially since my friend circles include many Asian females; still, it hurts to think that we were considered an “easy target” — not unlike the harrowing reports of other Asians, including the elderly, unprovokedly attacked and sometimes killed.
“Freelance running” as I call it is one of my favorite hobbies, but I’ve barely jogged since the attack; this trend of way less running and way more biking definitely has to do with easier social distancing though I believe subconsciously I also feel safer with a helmet on for head protection.
When I started my second full-time job, I think I was an “easy target” in a different way but again for my assumed quietness. The reality was I felt imposter syndrome in my new role and couldn’t yet muster the confidence to be assertive. But one team member would start off saying “Good morning Berenice” and I’d parrot back a good morning; then they’d respond with a louder “What? I can’t hear you”. This conversation pattern of A:B:A continued for about a month as I tried to speak louder though my confidence facing that team member sank lower. However, one day their microaggression stopped. Why? Because the final time I heard “What? I can’t hear you”, I snapped back with a loud “Well maybe you need to get your ears checked.” I am still learning and also proud to be always growing.
One of my favorite early YouTubers is KevJumba who posted many funny videos often featuring his dad. Some of his videos, though, featured his friends including one called “Stereotypical Names with Ben.”
Watching it in middle school, I felt it was funny and inoffensive because they acknowledged it as racist and made fun of common names of various races, not just a single one. In the segment on Chinese names, Kevin’s white friend Ben speaks in a heavy Chinese accent to suggest that their naming process is “Take jar, take coin. Put in jar and that the name… Ping Pang Pong”! This clip still low-key makes me laugh out loud but it is also problematic because I remember feeling glad that a white middle school teacher had the same last name as mine (spelled the same but pronounced differently) to help normalize it among my peers. I know now to fully embrace my name and identity, but I realize back then I strived for white peer acceptance because that was the majority opinion.
Another problem: I mistakenly thought up until writing/naming this blog that Chinese people invented the game of ping pong. The issue with watching racial caricatures even with non-malicious intentions is that they still plant the concept of prejudice in the head. Not every name ending in “ng” is Chinese and a name is not a mockable word needing to be “normalized.” Duh.
Ping pong is a British- (I repeat, not a Chinese-) invented game. Maybe I would have correctly remembered this if I paid more attention in history class (my least favorite subject). And maybe I would have remembered the significance of Ping-Pong Diplomacy which started in 1971 and marked improved US-China relations after the Cold War. Further researching to conclude this blog, I re-learned that one American and one Chinese player showed public camaraderie at the table tennis world championship, the two national table tennis teams then visited each other’s country — the first time a US President visited mainland China while in office — and all amid an era when Nixon relaxed the travel ban and trade embargo against China. A ping pong ball holds much more significance than for a game played at startups and definitely more than to play beer pong.
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, the AAPI employee resource group at my company shared “A Concise History of Asian American Civil Rights Issues” and a “Stop AAPI Hate Report” with a lunchtime session to talk about recent events.
Reading through these documents, I acknowledge that I was wrong to treat history as “a thing of the past” and a distraction from living in the moment — the past has important learnings, a spillover into our present and future.
Now also more educated on the 1970s significance of table tennis, I’ll end here with an analogy of ping pong as the four elements. Wind: a ping pong ball pierces through air. Water (or beer): it floats. Earth: it is made of a synthetic plastic, celluloid, that derives from cellulose, the most populous organic compound on earth. Fire: celluloid is highly flammable so with enough friction it transforms into a fiery force. Among us all there exists a gracious yet ferocious ping pong power returning swing, after swing, after swing.