Novelist R.O. Kwon on anti-Asian Racism and the Atlanta Shootings : Rough Translation In the wake of the shootings in Atlanta, a Korean-American writer reconnects with her own family.
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"We Already Belong": A Conversation With R.O. Kwon

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"We Already Belong": A Conversation With R.O. Kwon

"We Already Belong": A Conversation With R.O. Kwon

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R O KWON: (Reading) Dear Asian women living in America, until this week, though I had often tried, I wasn't able to bring myself to tell my parents to watch out for the upsurge in anti-Asian attacks, in part because I can't bear it that they moved to this country mostly for my brothers and my sake.

GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. What you just heard was from an essay in Vanity Fair read by the writer R.O. Kwon entitled "A Letter to My Fellow Asian Women Whose Hearts Are Still Breaking." It's about the shooting in Atlanta last week where a 21-year-old white man killed eight people, six of them women of Korean and Chinese descent. And it's an essay that explains how that shooting compelled her to break a silence with her own parents.

Our producer Justine Yan shared this essay with our team and how much she related to being a translator in her own family and her parents' first line of defense against the outside world and how confusing that role had become at a time of increased anti-Asian attacks when the stakes of not speaking feel so high. Justine had lots of questions about the silences of people around her that she hoped the writer could unpack, and so Justine called her up. And we present you this interview.

I can say that even though the interview is about violence - and, a warning, they discuss racist attacks; this content will not be suitable for all listeners - it is also an interview that's filled with warmth and joy and even tips, I would say - you know, like, hard and fast tips to break the silences. So Justine will take the show when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JUSTINE YAN, BYLINE: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. This is Justine Yan. R.O. Kwon's essay was the first thing I'd read in the days after the shootings in Atlanta that put words to what I was feeling. My usual coping mechanisms weren't working. I was extremely anxious and unable to control the feelings of grief, shame and anger that came up for me as I absorbed the news. But when I read R.O. Kwon's essay, something in me was able to rest. She declared at the beginning that she would not advocate for Asian women in America. She would speak directly to us. And so it felt like receiving a letter from a friend.

The first thing R.O. and I talked about was her connection with her mother. A year into the pandemic and far from home, she says she and her mom usually talk every week.

KWON: For me, at least - I don't know if this was for you. And I know this doesn't apply to all Asian people by any means. For me, as an immigrant, as a child of an immigrant, something I realized fairly recently is I've been used to sort of being a line of defense between my parents and the world because my English is better than theirs, because I'm more - much more at home in this country than they are with their - the way I think about it is their tongues have been quite physically - like, physically shaped in other lands.

And so I've been the translator, you know? I've been the interpreter. I've been the one who first notices and flares up with rage when there's racism and rudeness directed at my parents because I see it first. I can hear it first. And so in this case, during a pandemic when - whew (ph). During a pandemic when I have felt so terrible about not being able to physically take care of my parents because I live far away from them, I couldn't protect them from a pandemic and I can't quite protect them from the anti-Asian violence and - all of this was like a weight on my tongue and keeping me from saying anything to my parents until last week.

YAN: Do you remember the first moment or maybe an early moment when you wanted to talk to your mom, your parents, but then decided, you know, I can't?

KWON: Yeah, I think it really might have been the first day that the previous president started calling the virus the Chinese virus. And that day, I remember I talked to my parents. I talked to my mother. And my father was right there. And I was thinking, I need to tell them. I need to tell them this is going to be a bigger and bigger problem, most likely. And instead, you know, they asked how my day was. They asked what I'd eaten, which is like a standard Korean elder greeting is, have you eaten? What have you eaten? And I asked them how they were doing. I told them I missed them. I told them to be careful about the pandemic. But I couldn't bring myself to say the words, the country just got even more dangerous for Asian people. Can you please take care of yourselves? I could not bring myself to say that.

YAN: When you made that decision to not warn them explicitly, was it because you imagined that - that you imagined how the conversation would go, that they would say something specific back to you?

KWON: I just didn't want to add to their fear, you know. And with the pandemic, there's been so much fear already. There still is so much fear, of course, with the pandemic. And in a time of such, you know, just daily terror and confusion, I couldn't bring myself to add to their terror. To be honest, too, it helped that during this pandemic, they were less out in the world. I think that helped me delay saying something.

YAN: Yeah. Do you think about her perspective sometimes when you're having these conversations, like how she grew up and how that informs the way she talks about or doesn't talk about anti-Asian racism?

KWON: I mean, she does, of course, have the experience of having grown up in Korea so that for - you know, until we moved here, she didn't really have the experience of - I think she pretty much never had the experience of being in a racial minority, of being marginalized for her race. And it is also true that, you know, I grew up in LA - in a town outside of LA where there were so many Asian people that Asian people were in the great majority at my public junior high, at my public high school.

YAN: Yeah, me too - in the Bay Area. I grew up in the Bay, so same. My high school was, like, I think 75% Asian.

KWON: Yeah. Exactly. Like, there were so many Kims and Lees (laughter).

YAN: Kevin Chens. Lots of Kevin Chens in my high school (laughter).

KWON: Oh, yes. Lots of Chens, lots of Chos. So I didn't really know until junior high, which is when I started reading a lot more news and being more conscious of the larger world outside of the world of, you know, my school, my friends and all the books I read, it wasn't until then that I even knew Asian people were in any kind of minority in this country. And then there was such a surprise to me to learn that that wasn't the case.

YAN: Yeah. So what were some of the things you talked about in the meantime to your mom, your parents, instead of avoiding calling?

KWON: I started having Zoom - I started having sort of long Zoom video interviews. I started holding long interviews with my parents separately, asking them to just start at the beginning with, like, their first memories of childhood. Because I realized, you know, before this, they had told me very little about their lives. If I asked them questions about their childhood, if I asked them questions about the difficulties of migrating, they often said, you know, especially my mother, she would often say, oh, you know, I don't even remember. Why worry about those things? And I think in a lot of ways - and I see this in a lot of my Asian American friends' relationships with their parents - that sort of forgetting, I think, has been instrumental to their survival and to their thriving, sort of shoving away the trauma, shoving away what's been hard, at least in front of their children.

YAN: I want to go back to the feelings that, you know, I have to check on my mom, make sure she's safe. How often would you say you felt that this year?

KWON: To be honest, every single time I've read about or heard about or encountered, like, just a fresh incident of anti-Asian hatred, I've wanted to reach out. And maybe - I don't think this is as clear to everyone. It feels nearly daily the incidence of hatred, the reports I see from people I follow online. You know, there was that - there was the Atlanta shooting last Tuesday. That next day on Wednesday, two elders were attacked in San Francisco. Two Asian elders were attacked in San Francisco on Market Street, a street I know very well.

And on Friday, a 70-year-old man was kicked on his - in his head. His hand was stepped on. On Saturday, a disabled Asian man's car was set on fire. On Sunday, a 54-year-old woman was hit in the face with a metal pipe by a stranger on a Chinatown street, a very crowded Chinatown street before nightfall who yelled, I came here to F up Asians. He said the full version. It was on Grand Street. You know, again, I know Grand Street. It's a really crowded street. And so it has felt nearly daily. There are so many ways in which Asian people are being failed, people of color are being failed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YAN: When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns, R.O. Kwon breaks the silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YAN: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. This is Justine Yan. Authorities have not yet named the shooting in Atlanta as a hate crime. Most states have different laws defining what a hate crime is and isn't; the federal government, as well. Activists have argued that the Georgia law defining hate crimes is too narrow because for someone to be convicted, they have to state their intention.

KWON: It was so heartbreaking that, starting Wednesday, before we learned any of the victims' names, before we really learned anything else, media outlets just started merrily repeating the killer's words, saying that it wasn't racism. Meanwhile, this is a 21-year-old white man who drove to one Asian massage business, shot people, then drove half an hour to shoot people at two more Asians spas. Six of the eight victims were Asian women living in America. What about this is not racism? Like, how could this not be racism and sexism? Of course, this is so intersectional.

And going back to the hate crime part, I mean, yes, like as a hate crimes are defined by the dictionary, this is a hate crime. Here is where I do have a little bit of hesitation - because I know that the term - I know that the categorization of hate crime is used in these carceral ways. Local governments, one of their first reactions has been to increase policing, to up policing in Asian American areas, while Asian American activists and community leaders are saying, the last thing we need is more policing.

YAN: I've been most lifted up by the way, you talk about friendship and the intimate conversations you've had that have given you clarity and strength. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

KWON: Yeah, of course. I've been so grateful to the fact that I have so many Asian woman friends in my life. I have so many Asian friends. I have so many friends of color in general. And these are the people I have really felt held by and supported by in this past impossible week. Almost every Asian person I know was feeling this so deeply. And, of course, you know, we're in an outside circle of pain. I do want to say that. There are eight people who died. And their friends and family members, the amount of pain that they must be in is great. And my pain is not as great as theirs.

And/but this hits very close to home. I think it hits every Asian woman I know, like deeply personally. And I have felt so grateful to the spaces in which I can talk with my Asian American friends, which is every day. I felt so grateful to my friends of color. I have also felt grateful to the close white friends who have reached out. And I have also felt extremely disheartened by all the stories I hear from people about how their white friend - their best white friends haven't said one word, haven't posted one thing. Their white family members - can you imagine white siblings, white parents, white grandparents, white in-laws who haven't said one word, haven't reached out?

And I guess what I'll say about that is when part of the problem is silence - when silence actually helps feed these violent anti-Asian attacks, because there is a widespread denial that it's even happening and it's everywhere, this denial that is even happening, we see it in the initial reaction to these shootings. Is it - it's not even racism, you know. Like, it wasn't racism. It's definitely not racism. That's part of the denial. Then the silence helps feed that denial.

YAN: Mm hmm. Yeah, for sure. I think there's a fear of being perceived as the angry woman, like the angry Asian woman. I had a very - I had - I came out with it yesterday with a group of mostly white women that I'm in an artist residency with. And it was just so silent. And there was then so much, like, apology - like, oh, I didn't know. I didn't want to assume, you know. But that wasn't even so bad. Like, I could get that off my chest. And you know - and it wasn't hard for me to just say, hey, like, your silence is not just a part of the problem; it is is what underlies the problem, you know. But the harder thing, which I have not yet done, which I'm thinking about right now, is talking to my own family, talking to my mom. I have not called her in almost two weeks.

KWON: I'm so sorry.

YAN: And I don't really know why. But I really admire your courage that you shared in this letter. And I wondered if I could ask you a little bit more about how you approached that conversation with your mom so that I could learn something from you.

KWON: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, I'm so sorry. That's just so hard. I know I had been crying all day because that's pretty much what (laughter) I've been doing for the past week. I had been crying all day. And then finally I was just like, OK, I need to tell my mother because the logic I had in my head - and this is such grim logic, but that this is what pushed me. The grim logic was, if my mother - if my mother is attacked when she goes to the grocery store and I haven't said anything to tell her to be extra careful, I know I will then, even while I know it will logically not be the case, I know I will believe with my full body for the rest of my life that I caused it by not telling her to be careful, by prioritizing the wrong thing, by prioritizing her feelings over her safety.

And I think that was the extremely grim logic train and the ways in which I personally tend to - like, the way my anxiety works, I tend to sort of assume fault. I think the more I think about it - I think it's a way for me to feel a little bit more in control in an environments in which I'm not in control. And so, OK, if I just tell her to be careful, that'll be a charm. You know? That will be almost a charm to keep on her. And that was the moment when I just picked up the phone and called her. I hadn't been crying for at least, you know, 10 minutes. I was like, OK, I'm going to hold on. I'm going to keep a grip on myself. I know if I start crying, I'll worry her further. And instead, of course, the minute she picked up, I started sobbing. And she just was like, what's going on? Why are you crying? (Laughter). And then I got out what I needed to say. And then so, of course, that was also part of why my mother immediately turned to try to reassure me and try to protect me is that I came to her as like a daughter in pain.

When I did finally say to her, can you please be careful when you leave the house, because there's a lot of anti-Asian violence, especially against elders, she had a list ready of all the reasons why it was OK for her to go to the store. Of course she'd thought this through. Like, of course, that's not a surprise. She thought this through. She had a series of reasons why it was OK for her. And then immediately - and this is, again, an of course - she started reassuring - not just reassuring me, she started telling me to stop leaving the house (laughter).

And she was like, well, you live in San Francisco. I live in LA. There are a lot more Koreans here. There are a lot more Asian people. And I was like, no, no, no, no. These are, like, elder-focused. These attacks are very much focused on elders. Let's return to you. (Laughter). And she was like, no, no, no. You're the one who needs to not leave the house. And then again, it broke my heart a little further when she said, if you do have to leave, speak English loudly so that people know you belong as though perfect English is a prerequisite to belong in this country.

YAN: That line in your letter really hit me - the advice to speak loudly in English so that they can hear your accent and know that you belong.

KWON: Right? Because in that statement, there is an admission.

YAN: Yeah.

KWON: I keep getting tearful, but I guess there's no way not to get tearful. In that statement, there's an admission that my mother knows she's less safe because her English is accented.

YAN: Some of it is also, for me, language. I talk to my mom in Cantonese, which is not the language where I feel the most, you know, level. I never fully feel prepared when I'm talking to my mom. And in Cantonese especially, I think I'm brought to this low, you know, closer-to-the-ground kind of place where I'm totally unadorned, childlike, simple. And it's really difficult then - right? - to speak to something that has so many layers to it. I wonder if it - you feel similarly - or if you are speaking to your mother in Korean, if you felt similarly.

KWON: Yeah. Even though Korean was my first language, maybe like you, I'm less good at sort of more formal registers of Korean. And I still use the most informal diction with my parents. And yeah, my Korean often has English words sprinkled through. So OK, let me try to figure out and try to think back to exactly the first sentence I said to my mother, which might have been in Korean and English. I think, you know, through tears - this wasn't very eloquent, and this wasn't, like - and this wasn't what I'd initially really planned to first say.

I think I said something like, in Korean, (speaking Korean) Asian (speaking Korean). And so I said - she said, why are you crying? And I said, because of white people, a lot of Korean people are dying (laughter). Or not Korean people - I mean I said, Asian people are dying. And my mother was just like, oh, that. (Laughter).

YAN: Oh, that.

KWON: (Laughter) Yeah. And I think that was - my phrasing was as clumsy and as simple as that. Just - and I said (speaking Korean). And the translation would be, because of that, you have to be more careful when you go to the store. And that was when she sort of launched into her - again, like, this just really broke my heart. Her prepared list, you know, of, like, six different reasons she felt good going to the store, why it was OK. Yeah.

YAN: Yeah, yeah. Can you say what was on that list?

KWON: My mother said reasons include, she mostly goes to the Korean store. And yes, she knows that a lot of people are being attacked in Asian areas and in Chinatowns. Yes, she knows that, but she mostly shops the Korean store. And she lives in a town that does have just, like, so many Asian people, including so many Korean people. And she still does not feel unsafe. She's looking around. She feels just fine. She's also in a mask. She's also in a mask. And she often wore sunglasses. And she's like, how Asian do I look anyway?

(LAUGHTER)

KWON: I man a disguise, basically, when I leave the house.

YAN: Classic Asian auntie disguise.

KWON: Exactly (laughter).

YAN: Visor.

(LAUGHTER)

KWON: And I've sent her visors. You know, they help protect against her enemy, the sun. She said she usually goes with my father. And she said that they can protect each other. My 60-something-year-old mother and father. And then, yeah, that was when she started turning to, wait. But you're in San Francisco - fewer Asians. You're in more danger. And I just was like, that's not true. There are so many Asians here (laughter). Also, like, I'm not - our elders are being the most targeted. Like, we need to focus on you.

(LAUGHTER)

YAN: That's so funny that she - yeah, you both were trying to redirect the conversation.

KWON: Yeah. And she mentioned - and again, like further heartbreak and yet another, like, wave of love. My mother hadn't been bringing this up, either. Like she has been worried, too, from the start. And what was clear was she'd been worried this whole time. And she, too, didn't want to say anything because she didn't want to worry me more than I already am. And so we had just both been staying quiet with each other and not bringing this up while wanting to bring this up because we didn't want to further trouble each other and add to each other's pain, which is, like, a very - you know, that's a very consistent dynamic in my relationship with my parents and my mother. And I feel also, it can never speak for all Asian Americans - it's not possible - but it feels like that's a very common dynamic, this profound unwillingness to worry each other, I think, especially when things are hard. My family definitely tries very hard not to worry one another. And it is one of the ways in which we show love to one another.

YAN: And also, yeah, it's not weak to be able to talk about these things.

KWON: And the fear of being weak in front of one another, thereby adding to everyone else's worry.

(LAUGHTER)

YAN: Oh, no. This keeps going.

(LAUGHTER)

KWON: The cycle - the sort of, like, interlocking cycle really never ends.

YAN: Right, exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

YAN: Thank you, Reese.

KWON: No, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Thanks to Justine Yan for that interview. Today's show was produced by Rhaina Cohen. Our editor is Luis Trelles. Our team includes Jess Jiang, Matt Ozug and Carolyn McCusker. We have links for you in the show notes to R.O. Kwon's writing and more articles on the subject she touched on. And before you go, we are working on an episode about how people use English around the globe, especially how those who did not grow up speaking English converse with those who did. We would love to hear your stories from either side of this conversation, whether you're a non-native English speaker who has felt maybe self-conscious or intimidated by the grammar policing of others. Or are you, like, the translator in your family? Have you taught English abroad? We want to know your takeaways and your stories. You can send us a voice memo or an email to roughtranslation@npr.org. The ROUGH TRANSLATION High Council includes Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. Our supervising senior producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Our theme music was composed by John Ellis (ph). Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions, mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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