I grew up in a middle-income, almost all-white suburb of New York City. Kids picked fights with me because I had funny eyes and they wanted to see if I knew Kung Fu. (I didn’t.)
I knew better than to ask my father for help. He — the strong and silent type — expected me to bear adversity without complaint. So I would come home and ask my mom why no one liked me. She told me that because we were different I needed to work harder, become rich and successful and then I’d have lots of friends. I nodded, taking her words to heart. If I was successful, no one would see me as Asian.
As the years went by, I met many other Asian-Americans who had also agreed to this same deal.
After college I moved to New York City and climbed the ladder. When I faced micro-aggressions or racism, I laughed it off. Being mistaken for a delivery boy or being “ching-chonged” in the subway wasn’t a big deal because I was sticking to the deal: I was silent and I was successful. Rich people who mattered saw me as one of them.
But one day a junior Asian colleague in broken English dared to challenge the big boss in a public meeting. Afterwards my bosses imitated him mercilessly with me in the room. I didn’t say a word. They didn’t realize that they were mocking me, too; I literally passed for white only by staying silent.
When I finally spoke up, I told my story both as an Asian male and as a father of premature triplets who went through unspeakable grief. Fathers who go through suffering join a fight club — we never talk about it, just like Asian-Americans don’t talk about being Asian. My children let me shatter my silence.
I wrote my story so other dads will know they are not alone. But I also wrote it for my children who, with their special needs, will face a lifetime of labels. In this time of normalized and casual violence against Asian-Americans, they need to know that the deal I made didn’t work. Being quiet won’t protect them and won’t make them white. My silence only hid the underlying racism.
Maybe one day my daughter will give an acceptance speech at the Oscars like Chloe Zhao or my son will run for president like our “cousin” Andrew. They highlighted their differences rather than hid them. If all Asian-Americans speak up, the country will benefit and we can finally face the roots of anti-Asian hate.
Ted Yang is a serial entrepreneur, the son of Chinese immigrants, and the author of Table for Five: A Father’s Story of Life, Love and Loss.