The Disaster Mindset Helped Asian-Americans Survive. But It’s A Losing Strategy
We joke that we’ve been preparing for a pandemic for our entire lives. But living like disaster is around every corner won’t serve us in the long-term.
When I told my mother I was considering moving into a townhouse in Los Angeles, she told me to watch out for pests. “Snakes and rats, actually,” she clarified. Apparently, someone she knew once lived in a duplex that might have had a snake and rat problem — an unlikely dual infestation, but it didn’t matter. Real or imagined, it was A Thing To Worry About, a worst-case scenario to hold in your mind, and never forget.
“Rats ... and snakes?!” my husband exclaimed later, after we finally drove away and began the two-week road trip to start our new life out West. “We shouldn’t look for a townhouse because of rats ... and snakes?” No, I told him, of course we should. But we should be prepared for the rats and snakes, just like we should be prepared for a multitude of other disasters I had already started tallying: our car breaking down, our tires wearing out, robbers at rest stops, bugs in prairie country, not having enough windshield fluid to clean up after aforementioned bugs, getting sunburned, getting dehydrated, getting pulled over, racist traffic cops… racists, generally.
Like many immigrants and children of immigrants, especially those whose parents left behind volatile, violent, and unstable environments via war, colonization, and poverty for one that seemed to have more opportunities, I grew up used to being in the disaster mindset: preparing for the worst while aiming for the best. Anecdotal sample sizes of one from which I could now extrapolate real estate tips or medical advice. No wonder many Asian-Americans have joked that we’re thriving during this pandemic. Our diets are already composed of sanitized pantry staples, we’re used to entertaining ourselves in solitude, our bodies are already accustomed to single-ply toilet paper and going months without a hug. It’s funny, because it’s our truth.
The lucky among us have been able to compartmentalize this disaster mindset, and enjoy occasional carefree risk-taking. But for many of us, constantly preparing for disaster means a calcification of our imagination, a shell made hard through fear and anxiety. History has taught us that disaster happens when we let our guard down. We grew up hearing ghost stories about yellow peril, Vincent Chin, Japanese internment, and the L.A. riots. We saw how cruelly Americans treated their own — people who spoke the language and understood the culture — just because they didn’t have white skin. Asian-Americans understand that disaster is the natural center of gravity; we would all get pulled in if we stopped struggling against it. But if we pushed hard enough, we could find a place to rest.
For a long while, it seemed like we were getting there, at least for the upwardly mobile among us, oftentimes the children of a specific subset of highly-educated Asian immigrants. This year was ours. There were movies made about this group’s experiences and restaurants that eagerly catered to our tastes. Attacks on our race seemed largely confined to elementary school cafeterias. A sizable number of us had somehow achieved fame in music and acting, two professions that disaster mentalities don’t allow for. We even had three Presidential candidates—Yang, Harris, and Gabbard—who made it onto debate stages. If those weren’t signs that we could finally breathe easier, then what was?
But the dissolution of this fantasy was quick; the pandemic made clear how tenuous our progress was to begin with. For the first time, many of us were called slurs or were threatened by people who didn’t seem to be suffering from mental illnesses, just fear and anger. Massive communities of Asian-Americans living in poverty died at rates shockingly higher than in Asian countries. Our small businesses have disproportionately suffered. We watch as all Asian-Americans are tied to one country in Asia that’s our president’s favorite international bogeyman, no matter that the criticisms he leverages against it — political authoritarianism, a culture of secrecy, a refusal to accept personal responsibility — are the same things he’s been trying to accomplish for his own administration.
Days after news circulated that Asian-Americans were being harassed on the subways in NYC for wearing masks, my mother excitedly called me with a newly crafted disaster plan. She had set up a disinfecting station in her mudroom, and wanted to brag about the year’s worth of dehydrated eggs she had presciently bought months ago. But her most elaborate preparation involved a memorized speech, a cell phone to record video, and the courage to finally yell back. A few Chinese friends of hers had been called terrible things while out grocery shopping, and were now scared to leave their homes. I told her I was worried that her audacity would get her hurt; she responded, “But what else can I do?”
Walking the cautious, insular, and meek route has been the biggest guarantor of our livelihoods. The model minority stereotype that’s been used to describe us — that we work hard within the rule, the law, and the systems — is a survival tactic. We pursue education at all costs to ensure we have high-paying, stable careers; we are terrified of getting fired, but our reticence has helped build a bamboo ceiling. Our communities congregate in isolation, finding it safer to build walls rather than bridges. We focus on our own, at the expense of seeing all the ways we are connected to this country. In this zero-sum reality, we figure out how to best fight for a piece of the pie and exploit it at all costs. We may win in the short term — but financial security can’t be the only goal. Because ultimately, the disaster mindset is a losing strategy for Asian-Americans.
Shedding the disaster mindset means really believing that we’re here for the long haul. It means resisting the idea that we have to prove we belong here, like former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang suggested in an op-ed for the Washington Post. We have to recognize that safety and security is never given out of benevolence from those in power, but rather fought for in anger by those without it.
It means Asian-Americans’ success is ensured only when Black and brown Americans’ successes are also. We are not fighting each other for the same position of protected pet minority: We are all fighting against the assumption that minorities need to fight to survive in the first place. It’s understanding that just because the mechanisms of our country are driven by white supremacy, that white people’s blessing is any sort of safeguard, or that it’s even real. “The coronavirus at least burned away any illusions that East Asians are almost white,” writer Cathy Park Hong wrote in the New York Times Magazine when explaining that the man who shouted “Chinese bitch!” at her was Latino. One of white supremacy’s most insidious scams, she says, is how it diverts our rage and anger over our own persecution onto other minority groups.
My father told me about a disturbing conversation he saw happening on WeChat among wealthy Chinese immigrants in Southern California. Because they now live in nice homes, the group decided it would be prudent to arm themselves against a retaliation. From whom? I asked in horror, imagining the white militias I saw protesting shelter-at-home measures marching into Orange County cul-de-sacs flanked by stone-lion sculptures. He sounded pained. “Not white people. They think poor people will want to steal their money.”
He muted those WeChat conversations and returned his attention to his job as a tutor, where most of his clients are children of immigrants. His center is in a southwest suburb of Minneapolis, just miles away from where a Hmong-American immigrant and police officer Tou Thao stood by, quiet and complicit, as his fellow officer murdered George Floyd. Back when I was a kid, most of the students at the tutoring center were East Asian like us. These days, they’re mostly from East Africa. Despite the fact that coronavirus cases are spiking again in Minnesota, parents are eager that my dad reopen his teaching center, despondent that school closures are impinging on their kids’ education. He tells me that many of them have told him that they believe falling behind in school would be a bigger disaster than getting ill.
“I don’t blame them,” he says. “But it’s just not true.”