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The Asian American Diaspora: Exploring Loss and Belonging

Within the clamorous bargaining and eternal movement of Grant Avenue, there lies a quiet heartbeat that resonates throughout its cobblestoned streets, an ancestral feeling of pride that exists as the treasured relic of a past once teeming with possibility. There are still fragments of that past today, floating alongside the aroma of freshly-served chop suey, bouncing off the boisterous commotion of the vegetable peddlers. But mostly it remains hidden, a story of hope and resilience veiled by modernity, waiting to be found.

In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants had built a community for themselves in a healthy plot of San Francisco, filling the streets of what outsiders called “Chinatown” with the golden promise of trade and the sparkling seeds of opportunity. This growing ethnic enclave was an unabashed festival of new hope and prosperity, where its founding revelers helped establish its reputation to young families back in China, the name Tangrenjie slipping off their lips and onto a continuous stream of correspondence between the blossoming community and its mother country. But while this neighborhood seemed to be a monument of growth that ambitious hopefuls laid their eyes upon, the surrounding White communities looked upon it with hostility and fear. To them, the bustling hub of economic activity threatened their stability, principally because the benefactors of such activity were Asian. As such, the city began a campaign to eliminate Chinatown: newspaper headlines claimed rampant pestilence in the “Oriental City.” Public officials aimed to squeeze out the neighborhood and sell it to other buyers, and “anti-coolie” raids were conducted throughout the neighborhood, burning stores and massacring residents (Dowd).

Compounded with the smoke of burnt wood, the earthquake of 1906 ripped through San Francisco, and Chinatown was completely demolished. As quickly as the glittering buildings rose to prominence, they fell under heaps of ash and destruction, enclosing now forgotten immigrants within the detritus, the gleam of the golden light extinguished. After the disaster, newspapers wrote that despite the devastation the “Chinatown Problem” was at last resolved. Perhaps most haunting was the complete exclusion of Chinatown residents in the city’s death toll (Upton). Today’s estimates conclude that the total Chinese lives lost were between 22 to over 3,000.

This repressed theme of loss has manifested itself into an invisible fabric that silently stifles the experience of all Asian Americans—an unnamed phenomenon dismissed as homesickness. But truly, this melancholic feeling is the result of centuries of structural detachment, even for those whose generations do not stretch back to the Gold Rush. The root of the problem is the cyclical statistical exclusion of Asian American folks from the narrative. Today, when we search for numbers of significance—voter turnout, income disparities, poverty levels, medical illnesses—Asian Americans are pushed off of the analyses, a sliver of the pie chart not worth a closer look at. Data representation matters because numbers put true, distinctive experiences on the forefront of conversations that surround equity, justice, safety. Without it, people are excluded from such conversations and denied access to needs that help them better their livelihoods. Exclusion has continuously relegated the Asian American experience to a free-floating footnote in the story of America, and it is this inability to belong, to have recognition in an identity that carries so much pain and beauty, that creates an immovable sense of loss.

The issue lies not only within a historical trend of statistical exclusion, but also in the present variegated pockets of Asian communities, each with different ethnic and linguistic makeups. Researchers and nonprofit groups rarely make an effort to engage with such a diverse demographic because the costs of conducting a comprehensive census outweigh the benefits (Zhang). Most imminently, the lack of comprehensive data representation for Asian Americans has created dire consequences. Around 12.3 percent of all Asian Americans live below the poverty level, but this number varies heavily between different ethnic groups, resulting in many communities whose needs become erased under a generalizing umbrella. In New York City, Asian Americans have the highest poverty rate out of any racial or ethnic group at 29 percent, yet under two percent of the social service funding distributed goes to the Asian American community (Tran). This disparity is further compounded when deviating levels of poverty exist within Asian ethnic groups in New York (Song). Underfunding can be attributed to language inaccessibility, and the lack of outreach from federal and local data collection efforts, and the “model minority” myth, where Asians are stereotypically perceived as high earners who do not need social assistance.

During the height of COVID-19, undercoverage for the Asian community both in the media and in healthcare gave way to the rampant storm of violent hate crimes that targeted vulnerable members of the community. Uncontrolled misinformation and false narratives stoked the flames of fear and racism, and news outlets did little to stop it, oftentimes contributing to the scapegoating. Mirroring the burned buildings of 1906, houses and businesses in Asian neighborhoods were left to clean the aftermath of arson attacks, break-ins, and remained choked by the fear of escalation. Children and elders in underprotected and underfunded communities bore the brunt of the violence, with newly-immigrated parents left to grieve the murder of their infant children, crumbled and disillusioned by the “American Dream.” Asian women became the collateral damage for the fantasies of White men, with the Atlanta spa killings taking the lives of six in March 2021. Once again, Asian people served as an “itch to scratch” for a hostile nation, a “problem” to get rid of, their lives buried under an unforgiving media cycle and perpetual injustice. In the previously bustling Chinatowns throughout the nation, streets were left empty yet again, politicians offering little more than words of condolence to the brutalized neighborhoods.

Stripped of their dignity, Asian Americans still had to carry the burden of the virus itself. Out of 5.8 million cases reported through October 2020, Asian Americans experienced a 53 percent higher risk of death from infection than non-Hispanic Whites. Testing accessibility was among the lowest in Asian American communities, with less than three percent of Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area being tested and 49 percent reporting difficulties finding a testing area. As a result, a disproportionate number of national COVID-19 cases and mortality rates among Asian Americans may not have been reported or detected. Additionally, Asian American data is categorized differently depending on the state or county, usually grouped with Pacific Islanders, Other, or simply omitted, further muddling the accuracy of the already scarce data. These health disparities and the lack of discussion that surrounds them are attributed to language barriers, limited funding, and a failure to recruit enough Asian American participants for research. Meager resource allocation can be attributed to the model minority myth, forcing numerous communities to bear the unequal brunt of a global pandemic. Ultimately, “for Asian Americans, the absence of evidence is often not the evidence of absence, but the evidence of neglect due to racism” (Yan).

The data is simply too scarce and insufficient to meet the needs of an intensely underrepresented community, and the data that is there rarely results in equitable changes. Even within this essay, there were few research papers or articles that could provide a comprehensive analysis of statistical trends and patterns that focused specifically on the Asian American community. Stories of pain and grief were found on informal community forums and GoFundMes, passed on by friends of friends. There are so few avenues through which Asian Americans can even advocate for justice because of inadequate data, making it near impossible to mobilize communities that are constantly ignored by the country’s political actions, despite being disproportionately affected by them. The result is a racial demographic that remains othered and faceless, allowing for one generalizing narrative to be applied to millions of unique individuals. They become ossified into an unchanging monolith, stored away and ignored, until they are needed again, only to be scapegoated and suppressed back into oblivion.

Ultimately, the Asian American diaspora is lost, belonging only to ourselves and characterized by an undefinability in the eyes of others. Yet within the history of lostness, there stands a story of resilience, a defiant sense of self that marches on against the current of subjugation. It appeared in the surviving residents of 1906’s Chinatown, who lifted themselves from the rubble and rebuilt their great streets against the pushback of city officials, constructing those recognizable pagodas to mark their tenacity. And it appears now in the outraged cries of surviving family members in 2021, who organized nationwide for the first time in history and channeled their repressed anger and pride, fueling a historical movement that could no longer be ignored.

The narrative is being rewritten, with Asian voices inserting themselves in political and social conversations. A new generation of organizers are pioneering the push for inclusivity and recognition in politics, in media, in health and well-being, weaving forgotten stories into an unfolding horizon of possibility. Hopefully, our advocacy will result in data that is better reflective of our diaspora, data that can highlight the needs of our communities, and data that is bountiful enough for us to harness as we mobilize around critical social issues. Hopefully, that data will document the golden shimmer of our recovering cities and forever imprint them in our history books.

As we look to a future where we finally have a place to belong, we are reminded of our reality, a system of structural violence that may take years, maybe decades, to overcome. But nonetheless, we push on, fighting for a world in which we are no longer lost to the footnotes of the story, but rather the very essence of it.


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