The Talk My Chinese Parents Never Had With Me

An illustration of two elderly Asian people with dialogue boxes.
Getty / The Atlantic

When the group of teenagers surrounded my father, he might have been standing by a crate of watermelons, one hand palming a fruit, the other knocking at it for hollowness. Or maybe he was looking at the fish nestled in ice, assessing whether the cod or the halibut appeared fresher. I don’t know; I wasn’t there. What I do know is that the teenagers, white and maskless, coughed all over him. “You’re a piece of shit,” one of them said, sneering. It was right at the start of the pandemic, last February or March.

I don’t know all of the details, because my father never told me anything about the encounter. I heard about what happened only months later, in June, when my mom mentioned it over the phone in a quick aside, before moving on as if she had never said it. “But don’t worry about us. Just focus on staying healthy,” she said. At that point, my parents lived in a different state, and I hadn’t seen them all year. “Do you want us to mail you more masks?”

I still haven’t really discussed the incident in depth with my dad. After so long, the silence has hardened, even as anti-Asian violence has surged in the United States, including last week, when a gunman in Atlanta killed six women of Asian descent. The first time I asked my dad about his experience was when I told him I was writing this story. Many immigrants such as my dad (and my mom, who has faced her fair share of racism) have built up a code of silence with their children to not discuss the daily indignities of being Asian American. Even a moment as painful as this one is merely starting to chip away at it.

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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.”

Silence is also insulation. Immigrants like my parents might stay quiet about experiences of alienation in hopes that it will help with assimilation, for themselves but especially their children. But this moment, in which we’ve seen Asians harassed, threatened, punched, stabbed, and killed, has exposed the fallacy of that bargain. Immigrants from my parents’ generation may dream of a post-racial America, but it’s a tenuous dream, one with cracks that are papered over. This dream, lovely and false, can’t possibly hold for much longer.

Writing this story forced me to finally ask my parents why they never talk about anti-Asian racism with me or my brother. When I brought it up over dinner one night, they seemed surprised. They were quiet for a bit. “We didn’t want you two to grow up with this shadow over you,” my mom finally said. “We didn’t want you to feel bad about being different.” I was surprised by her candor. “We didn’t want to place that psychological burden on you,” my dad added. They didn’t speak of denial or shame. They didn’t speak of their own injuries at all. They centered everything around my brother and me, still insulating us as they opened up about their silence.

The tragedy of anti-Asian racism is that we partly can’t see it. If stories of racism aren’t shared within families, they’re likely even scarcer in official tallies of anti-Asian violence. The true scale and horror of violence against Asians in America may never be known. Although reported hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen over the past year, “I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Connie Chung Joe, the CEO of the Los Angeles chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an advocacy group. “We’ve seen a lot of people just not knowing, when this happens, where to go for help or to get support. And so they go nowhere at all.”

At first, after the Atlanta shootings, my parents and I chatted about everything except what had happened. We talked about the best ways to stir-fry salmon (dice it into cubes) and my dad’s progress on a watercolor landscape (he had the clouds down, but the trees were rough). The weight of the news slowly descended upon us. Finally, a few days later, unable to endure the silence anymore, I brought up the shootings as we idled in the kitchen one afternoon. Yes, they’d heard the news. Such terrible news. “When you move back to the city, don’t go out after dark,” my mom said. “Don’t go out alone.” When I pointed out that most of the Atlanta victims were her age, and that she should take care as well, she shrugged. Then she finished washing the bowl of strawberries my dad had bought at the grocery store and placed it before me.