Chairs and X-marks drawn in chalk stood six feet apart. Small, battery-operated tea lights flickered in the dwindling light. As I listened to the vigil’s speakers discuss racism, violence and healing, I felt overcome with emotion. Unexpectedly — and more than once — I grew misty-eyed, not from the cold wind that numbed my fingertips, but from the strong sense of community amidst such tragedy — a community that seemed to say “you are not alone.”
By vigil, I’m referring to the event on March 27 hosted on the steps of Angell Hall by the University of Michigan’s United Asian American Organizations, a coalition of more than 23 Asian-American student groups on campus. The vigil provided the U-M community with a way to grieve the lives lost in Georgia and simultaneously stand in solidarity against anti-Asian hate.
Throughout the vigil, thoughts reeled in my head in a dizzying fashion. I thought back to my middle school years, during which jokes and absurd questions accompanied my identity as the only Asian American in my grade. Simultaneously, I struggled with feeling inauthentic as an Asian American during those years. I ate grilled cheese, ice cream and french fries more often than pancit, chicken adobo or steamed stuffed buns. I carried my mother’s East Asian eyes, but I didn’t speak her native tongue, which meant being separated by what felt like a million miles during get-togethers with Filipino friends and family. When I visited my mother’s hometown in the Philippines, I was too white and too American; yet, in my own hometown, I was too foreign and too Asian. At a young age, I learned that being caught in between two worlds usually meant never being fully embraced by either one.
Such self-awareness, if you could call it that, led me to wonder what it meant to be a “hyphenated American,” as University alum Dim Mang said during the vigil. Loosely attempting to assimilate or adapt to situations — whether in the Philippines or the U.S. — at the expense of my mixed Asian-American identity led to a disconnect with who I was, generating conflict between my own needs, feelings and realities. I began to desire a discernment of who I was within the Asian-American community, a community full of rich histories and cultures I didn’t entirely understand but was inexplicably linked to. In high school, I started to read about parts of Asian-American history no teacher had ever taught me — such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — in hopes of better understanding where I belonged in my own country. Then, in college, amidst rhetoric of the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” from government leaders, I witnessed the consequences of letting such history go ignored.
Standing in front of Angell Hall amidst people who shared some of these conflictions, I considered how so much had changed since my middle school days, and yet nothing had changed. What was unchecked violence in the form of “othering” on the playground had manifested into targeted violence rooted in hate and racism. Then again, such violence has always been there. Discriminatory attitudes surrounding around Asian Americans were real then and remain real now.
All my life, I’ve struggled with finding a sense of belonging. It took time to find my place in the Asian-American community, and my heart pangs for the damage we have been dealt. Each day, I read about the torrent of racist violence and feel grief for the Asians and Asian Americans harmed — whether physically, mentally or emotionally — and left to cope with the devastation of years of systemic racism and other issues across the country. The need for a vigil represents lives that should never have been lost, the lack of security and support we feel in our communities and a reality of violence and hatred we shouldn’t have to bear witness to and experience ourselves.
There is another message I received from the vigil, however: one of solidarity and healing. The rise of targeted violence and racism related to perceived associations with COVID-19 drive home the importance of promoting space and healing. In so many ways, we have been living in tumultuous times for over a year. Our normal coping mechanisms — loved ones, hobbies, social activities — have been altered if not completely stripped away, leaving us with limited ways to cope healthily through each day. Throughout these challenges, it’s difficult to find ways to practice radical self-care, let alone feel joy, peace and wholeness. But it is damaging to not take care of oneself, just as it is unfair to individually shoulder the burden of dealing with the consequences of broader circumstances and social structures.
Prior to what happened in Georgia, many of my friends and classmates seemed oblivious to the uptick in anti-Asian sentiments that has been going on for over a year now, let alone the rampant anti-Asian sentiment and violence that was occurring prior. Throughout my life, I’ve often felt alone in the internal conflict connected to my identity, and I continued to feel isolated in my pain while trying to grasp the horrid actions against my community. But as I stood in a crowd of strangers at the UAAO vigil, I felt heard. It became clear that amidst the complex suffering and hatred that permeates our communities and country, we have a responsibility to heal, not just for us, but for those who have been victims of anti-Asian violence and continue to live with the trauma. We can ease this responsibility of individual healing by leaning on one another and actively encouraging an environment of equity and belonging. As LSA senior Sai Pamidighantam so eloquently said, “While we honor our grief, let us also honor the thread of resistance that connects us at our core, let us be purposeful and committed to healing ourselves in our community and embed it with roots of our values and institutions.”
Walking home alone after the vigil, I thought of how strange it is to find solace amidst the pain. I’m still angry. I still grieve. But it feels surreal to be a part of a community so much bigger than myself when I have often felt like a lone party of one, misunderstood and unwelcomed. There’s something special about standing in solidarity amongst thousands of strangers, not just at the vigil, but across the U.S. I left the vigil feeling a deeper level of support for the people and communities around me. I was similarly grateful for the opportunity for Asian Americans to feel validated in our struggles, contributions and emotions. It is my hope that we encourage healing within our communities by actively creating support systems for our neighbors and loved ones while acknowledging our emotions. We must also give ourselves permission to speak, not just from one or two voices, but as a chorus that can fight for positive change. Moving forward, I will continue searching for ways to heal in our communities and as a nation, but I will also strive to be a source of healing, both for myself and for others. In standing together within our communities, there is comfort in knowing there is something to fight for and someone who would fight for me. I’ve found my community, now I commit to helping it heal.
MiC Columnist Elizabeth Schriner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.