A Chinese-American’s Response to Anti-Asian Sentiments

Hui Li ‘21

Co-Chief Graphic Designer

September: the beginning of a new semester, a fresh start to another year at College of the Holy Cross. Even though this is not the start to my senior year that I imagined, I am doing my best to push through the awkwardness of the situation and make the most out of my college experience.

Having to take all of my classes from home is not the only way that this semester is making me feel uneasy. On Sept. 1, the first day of classes, I, along with the rest of the community, received an email from the Office of Diversity. The message, titled “Bias, Despair, Hope and an Invitation,” contained information about a disturbing incident that happened in March.

I was horrified that someone (or very likely a group of people) would be so hostile and destructive to the international Chinese students on campus. I felt sad that the Chinese students were targets of this unacceptable hatred. My family and I are Chinese immigrants who care deeply about and understand the struggles of Chinese students studying in the United States – our family friends had their children go to college in the United States, and we invited them to our house to celebrate Chinese holidays and to join our family for American holiday traditions like Thanksgiving dinner. My past roommates at Holy Cross were international students as well, and my family has invited them to spend time with us like we did with our family friends’ children.   

I felt angry when I read that someone had torn down a traditional Chinese scroll. My parents keep a lot of Chinese decorations in our family home, and I would be livid if anyone destroyed any of the Chinese paintings or vases we display proudly in our living room. For my family, these are not just for show. These are symbols of our heritage and are things that remind my parents of their hometowns in China. Furthermore, the fact that someone would damage something that a student brought from their homeland thousands of miles away is infuriating.

Graphic by Hui Li ’21

I see my roommates and neighbors decorate their spaces with things that they bring from home. I brought a lot of things from home to decorate my side of the room as well – it brings me comfort and makes me feel less homesick. To destroy a treasured object that someone brought with them on their journey here is an act of pure hatred – whoever tore down the scroll has damaged something of great importance and of sentimental value.

Furthermore, I feel terrible that this happened in March, when a majority of us went home for the rest of the year while many of the international students had to stay because they could not return to their home countries. I cannot begin to imagine how it must feel to have been targeted by this disrespectful and intimidating behavior and have to stay on the same campus where it happened for months. The students targeted in this incident have gone through an exhausting process and travelled a long way to come here, and this is no way to treat people who have gone this great of  a distance and have chosen to dedicate years of their lives for an education here.

They do not have the option to return home – I can imagine that their parents must be worried about them having to stay while everyone else has left. I hope that the Chinese students are staying safe and maintaining communication with their families during this difficult time – it is clear from the incident in March that their safety and well-being was compromised, and they deserve much better than the horrible treatment they got on that fateful night.

My family and I moved to the United States over twenty years ago. We have been American citizens for nearly a decade. Before we got our American passports, we were considered “resident aliens” because we lived in the country under permanent residence cards but still held Chinese passports. As much as I still dislike thinking of myself as an “alien,” the word unfortunately describes how I felt for most of my childhood and early adolescence: like I did not belong.

Unlike our family friends, whose children were born in the United States, my parents never gave me an “American” name. I have been Hui Li since I was born, and I intend to use that name for the rest of my life. I am proud of my name – I like how the Chinese character for “Hui” means “bright.” Looking back, I wish others around me had the same respect and appreciation for my name that I did. What I found in elementary and middle school was the opposite: people laughed at my name, especially when teachers mispronounced it, and I was told to “get an American name” by several of my classmates.

My Chinese name, along with my chiefly Chinese upbringing and manners, made me a target for bullies. I heard other students call me the c-h word from a young age. I understood what people really meant when they asked me “Where are you from?” or “When are you going back?” I knew why they asked me, “Do you eat cats and dogs?” Sometimes, the bullies would even tell me directly, “Go back to China!” and shout, “You’re not a real American!” even though I had helped my parents prepare for an extensive US history and government test that none of them had even heard of in order to get my American citizenship.

These are among the many things that made me feel like not many people knew me beyond what they noticed on the surface: a foreigner who spoke with an American accent but did not use slang, the quiet girl who brought weird food for lunch before she got used to the food in the school cafeteria, the kid who behaved differently from the other students and stuck out like a sore thumb both in and outside the classroom. I really felt like an alien: others saw me solely for my differences and treated me like I came from another planet.

There was even a time when I gave myself an American-sounding nickname and spoke more English where I would have used Chinese. I learned that many of the spaces I was in were not kind to Chinese people, and I would have to be a “real American” and hide my Chinese-ness to be safe. It has taken me a very long time to feel comfortable returning to my Chinese name and re-embracing my family’s heritage.

I know too well what it feels like to be targeted on the basis of my race and ethnicity. I am terrified by the news reports of Asians being harassed and assaulted on the streets. I cried at the stories of Chinese children and senior citizens, two already-vulnerable age groups, getting hurt. As much as I do not want to think about it, I cannot ignore the anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in our country today. I cannot ignore the phrase “China virus” and the finger-pointing and dehumanization that it encourages. I cannot ignore the fact that Chinese students were threatened by this incident at Holy Cross.   

I sent an anonymous form to the international Chinese students in our community. I did this because I want the community to know just how much hateful actions like these affect them. One of the most haunting responses I got came from a first-year student who was not even enrolled at the College at the time of the March incident. This person admits that even though they were not personally affected by the hateful actions, they were reminded of the violence against Chinese people that they saw in the news.

The hate crime that they mentioned resulted in the Chinese person suffering grievous bodily harm. It pained me to read that this was what comes to a new student’s mind when they read the incident that happened at Holy Cross, and it makes me wonder, Could incidents like this escalate to this level of violence with the rising tensions in the country? I think this has crossed the student’s mind; they wrote that they would feel safer if the school increased their protective measures to prevent future incidents like this.

This Chinese student also wrote that they would like the Holy Cross community to know that even though international relations between the United States and China are tense right now, this is no reason for Americans to take out their anger at the situation on individual Chinese people. The disagreements and conflicts between the two nations is not the fault of any one person, much less on Chinese students who have come here to study.

International Chinese students are our classmates, neighbors, roommates, and friends. They are as much of a part of the community as anyone else at Holy Cross is. They are not an outlet for people upset at the current situation to direct their rage and hatred.

I thank this student for sharing their thoughts with me and for indicating that they would allow me to use their response in my article. It must have taken a lot of courage to respond so openly with a complete stranger. I would like the international Chinese students in our community to know that whoever carried out this horrific act does not represent Holy Cross as a whole. Holy Cross is a school that strives to create “men and women for and with others.” I identify with this ideal, and I stand with you.

To everyone else: know that you can do your part to make Holy Cross a welcoming place for us all. Please think before you speak or act; ask yourself, “Will what I am about to say or do hurt someone?” You never know who might get hurt. Hold each other accountable to these standards. Stand up for people who are being treated unfairly. Do what you can to make this a safer place.

Most importantly, please see Asian/Chinese people like me and the others in our community and beyond for who we are: individual people who belong here. Remember that despite the hateful rhetoric that claims otherwise, we are not a virus.

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