Starting Hard Conversations About Asian-American Lives

In the wake of last week’s murder of Asian-Americans in Atlanta, many of Sarin Cheung’s friends wanted to reach out to her.

But most had no idea what to say. Or how even to begin.

Some wrote texts, then waited a day or two before hitting “send.” Others called, and talked about a whole range of topics until they eventually said, “I don’t know how to ask this. But how are you?”

Sarin was grateful for the outreach. It was as difficult for her to talk about violence against Asian-Americans as it was for her friends to ask. But the conversations were necessary and important. Finally, the women talked.

Cheung is Thai and Chinese. She attended an American school in Taiwan, then headed to Boston University. After graduation, and some time back in Thailand, she spent a decade traveling the world with GE’s corporate audit group.

After working for GE in Stamford, then American Express in New York, in 2009 she and her husband — he’s with a hedge fund – moved to Westport. The child of Chinese immigrants, he grew up in the US.

Sarin Cheung and her family. The flags behind them on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge are flown on jUNe Day.

About 15 years ago, Sarin became an American citizen. It seemed a natural next step. She’d gone to an American school, come here for college, and had permanent resident status.

For many years, she did not think much about being an Asian-American. In Taiwan, she did not have much exposure to issues of race. Coming to the US at 18, she says, “I was probably super-naive. I probably couldn’t recognize any racism that was happening around me.”

Sarin and her husband moved to Westport for the schools. She did not think much about Asian in a predominantly white community.

But after the Atlanta murders, she reflected in her life in America. She recalled an incident at a restaurant: The hostess looked right past her and her husband, while seating other people.

“We just left,” she says. “That’s the way Asian-Americans dealt with that type of treatment.”

Yet as she talked with others recently, she realized the pain of situations like that. Racism in Westport can be subtle, she says. “It’s not violent shoving or vandalism. It’s the looks you get.”

As the pandemic began, she seldom left home. When she ventured into a grocery store, she was aware of stares. Was it because she wore a mask — when not everyone else did — or because she is Asian? She’s not sure.

Most prejudice against Asians in Westport is not overt.

The texts and calls from friends — when they eventually came — made an impact on Sarin. The conversations were meaningful. The questions — “What do you need? How can I help? Is there going to be a march?” — made her feel valued. Hearing “I’ll be there for you” was gratifying.

In return, Sarin called other friends who had not yet reached out. They were glad to hear from her.

It was a surprisingly public activity for Sarin, who says, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” A 2-year PTA president at Saugatuck Elementary, she is well-known in her school community. But she’d never spoken out about an issue like racism.

Sarin has asked her children — a 5th grader and 3rd grader — if they have experienced any prejudice. They said no. “But they’re young,” Sarin notes. “Would they be able to recognize it? I’m not sure.”

Sarin says, “Asian-American culture doesn’t verbalize feelings a lot. I don’t want to change that. But we have to be honest, and educate others.”

She and other Asian-Americans are waiting to hear a statement from town officials. 

She knows there are initiatives at Staples High School. At the elementary level, she says, “We need teachers to be empowered to talk about this.” [NOTE: Superintendent of Schools and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe released statements fabout the violence yesterday.]

The Asian population in Westport — estimated at 5 to 7%, Sarin says — is mostly affluent. But, she notes, many new immigrants live nearby. Not all are “model citizens.”

“I don’t feel, personally, that my life is in danger. I know who to call for safety,” Sarin says. “But we need to highlight and protect those new immigrants, and our friends’ elderly parents.

“It’s easy to be nice in Westport to Asian-American neighbors. But people of all sorts of demographics are here too. I think about them a lot.”

3 responses to “Starting Hard Conversations About Asian-American Lives

  1. Constance Chien

    Even looking back at my high school experience at Staples, there was plenty of anti-Asian discrimination. English teachers, in particular, constantly made negative, stereotyped assumptions about my parents, and thought the worst about me. When I worked on the school newspaper, articles written about the Chinese teacher at school (not Fray, but someone sent over from China) was filled with racist assumptions and language. I constantly had the feeling that people thought I was only good for boosting the school rankings, and didn’t see me as a person – once in my journalism class, all the students had to write articles about each other, and the article the other student wrote about me just listed the AP classes I was taking and where my parents immigrated from (yes, I had given her plenty of other information, and what she did write about me were details that I had given very reluctantly).

    And yes, I’ve faced the same issue at restaurants of being ignored – lots of Westporters just go ahead and cut me in line, too. It happens laughably often.

  2. Thanks to both of you for sharing your experiences. I genuinely hope everyone reading these makes a commitment to call out such abhorrent behavior.

  3. Having grown up in Weston in the 1950s and attending/graduating from Staples in 1953, I am not sure any of us impressionables knew what “racism” was. Maybe we were just ignorant. Our class had two students of color, one female, the other male. Our class had one student who was Chinese. The term “Asian-American” had not come in to widespread use, in the 1950s (at least in Westport). I served in the Navy and Navy Reserve a total of 30 years on ships and shore stations. If there was “racism” it was well concealed. My MA is from Brooklyn College, among the most “mulligatawny” schools in New York. In 2012 my wife and I moved to Portland, Oregon “to be closer to the kids.” PDX-land was reputed to be among the more liberal-leaning cities in Oregon. . . until I began to look in to Oregon’s own multi-colored beginnings. In the 1850s Native Americans were forcibly “run out of town” to “The Rez.” In 1925, — the now-forgotten “Timber” incident — more than 500 American employees of Japanese origin were fired from their jobs at a lumber mill . . . because they were Japanese. In 1942 thousands of Japanese residents were rounded up at Portland’s Exposition Center, held in modified cages, then put on a train, under guard, to Manzanar, a camp southeast of Los Angeles. Portland itself this past summer displayed its true “colors”– with the violent and destructive race-based rioting. And they call this the land of the free, home of the brave? Depends on your color, I guess.