Faces of Us

My experiences as an Asian American.

Karlene Salas

“Excuse me, can we have someone help us please?” my tita says to a retail associate at a jewelry store polishing bracelets. The worker puts down her tools, looks up at us up and down, and sighs. 

“I’m busy,” she says and goes to the back of the store. A few minutes later, a mother and a daughter comes into the store. The same worker who claimed to be busy immediately greets them and cheerfully asks them if they needed some assistance. 

“Excuse me” my tita says again after the worker is done helping the other customers. However, she isn’t able to finish her sentence before the worker disappears to the back again. I was confused and did not realize until a while later that she had likely ignored us because we weren’t white. 

That was my first encounter with microaggressions. But not my last.

Having lived in North Dakota from the ages of 12 to 15, I’ve faced my fair share of racism. It shocked me as I’d never been treated differently for being Asian before. I used to think that I was being treated differently by those around me because they weren’t used to Asian people as, according to the World Population Review, almost 87% of the population in the state are white and a measly 1.45% are Asian. 

She had likely ignored us because we weren’t white

So, when I heard that we were going to move to California, I was hopeful that things were going to be different. California, especially the Bay Area, has a large Asian population —6.5 million of us—according to the World Population Review. 

Unfortunately, I did not completely escape the racist treatments by moving.

At a restaurant, a waiter was trying to light up birthday candles for our table. After a few failed attempts, the waiter asks us if any of us had a lighter, which none of us did. He laughs and says that it’s impossible since we’re Asian and all Asian people smoke. He waited for us to laugh and joke with him but when we didn’t, he left to ask someone else for a lighter. When the bill came, the waiter was starting to explain how the restaurant’s tablets work but then stopped to say “You’re Asian—you’re supposed to be smart. You can figure it out.” 

Needless to say, that waiter did not get a very good tip. 

Another experience I had recently at work: I reminded a little boy to wear his mask. He starts to refuse but his sister whispers to him, albeit very loudly, that he should listen to what I say since he might catch the “Asian virus”.

Prejudice against Asians in California dates back more than 150 years

Although the experiences that I tell now may not seem significant, tolerating casual racism and microaggressions can and does lead to bigger events. 

It is without doubt that the reports in Anti-Asian hate crimes have gone up, but these attacks did not start with the pandemic. Though many would say that they are surprised about the recent Asian hate crimes in areas with large Asian populations, anti-Asian sentiment has existed for a very long time. In fact, according to a LA times article, prejudice against Asians in California dates back more than 150 years. Thankfully, the difference between then and now is that people are starting to fight against it.

Scrolling through social media and news outlets, we see many, just like me, who are finally sharing their experiences. In a Guardian article, an international student from Thailand named Natty Jumreornvuong shared her experience of being dragged across the ground and spat on. Since her attack last February, she wrote an op-ed about her experiences and rallied other students at her school to shed light on Asian discrimination. 

“It’s still all new to me, activism,” Jumreornvuong said in the article, “[Asian Americans] are not really taught to speak out.”

Seeing people like Jumreornvuong, who bravely speak up about their experiences despite their upbringing, gives me hope that more people will be encouraged to do the same. Though not everyone has to write an op-ed or start rallies against Asian discrimination, simply starting the conversation and bringing light into our experiences as Asian Americans is a small yet good way to make a difference.