This Is Us

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Lucky to Be Here’?

Reckoning with anti-Asian hate in a country my grandparents loved

Illustration: Draden Ferguson

“Lucky to be here.”

It’s a phrase I hear all the time about being an American — more specifically, being an American whose family came from someplace else. We live in a powerful, prosperous country full of opportunity and abundance, and there is no better place to be, which is why so many people risk their lives and leave behind their belongings to live here. At least, that’s the way the story goes.

But in the aftermath of the Atlanta shooting spree, I tell my therapist I have misgivings with this phrase. That I’m not sure how to balance feeling grateful and lucky with feeling hurt and angry. That it’s unsettling to think about what my family sacrificed to live in a country that I am now criticizing. But before I can think of the right words to explain all of this, she cuts me off. “I have news for you,” she says. “Discrimination is everywhere. It’s all around the world. Not just here.” She is also from a family who came here from somewhere else and tells me how lucky she feels to be here. Then, she asks me: “Do you feel lucky to be here?”

When my mother came to the States in the 1970s, she spent a lot of time flipping over that question in her own mind. Like any immigrant story, my family’s history of coming to the United States was complicated. It was nothing like the romanticized tale of the American dream, of immigrants being welcomed into the melting pot with open arms, a lifted lamp, and a golden door. At school, her classmates didn’t want to stand in line next to her. They giggled and stepped away like she was a bad smell. They called her names and told her to go back to China. One evening, my mother and her family were watching the news, seeing all the political turmoil of the 1970s unfold. “What’s so great about America?” my mother scoffed. My grandmother snapped back — after everything she had been through, she wanted her children to be grateful.

Still, my grandmother hung tightly onto her culture. Years later, when my mom married a white man, my grandmother yelled at her for weeks, remembering the racism she encountered in British Hong Kong. She was hesitant to assimilate and skeptical of white Americans, who often harassed her. She refused to learn English, and when I was born, she only spoke to me in Toisanese. She loved America, but she wanted her family to be Chinese. As grateful as she was to be here, there was so much of this country she rejected.

At the turn of the century, my great-great-uncle traveled here to build the railroads. He experienced so much racism and xenophobia that he eventually returned to China, telling the family, “Even if you have a sidewalk to sleep on in China, never go to the United States.” But not long after, Mao Zedong’s regime sent my great-grandmother to Laogai, where she was tortured for inheriting farmland that she rented to other farmers. She fled to Hong Kong with her children, including my grandmother, and they did what they could to survive, which eventually meant connecting with friends living in the United States. Three generations later, I live in California, and it’s possible that, on a road trip through the Sierra Foothills, I’ve driven over remnants of tracks my great-great-uncle built. I wonder how he would feel about his descendants driving over those tracks.

When you’re reminded that you’re merely a casualty in someone else’s story, it’s hard to feel lucky.

When I drive through the California mountains, I do feel lucky. It’s hard not to feel that way when you see the sun setting in the ocean, through massive West Coast redwoods. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe or gratitude in those moments. There is so much to appreciate. But the phrase, “you’re lucky to be here” doesn’t quite seem to come from a place of gratitude. It feels more like a reminder that you don’t belong here, that those mountains are not for you. In elementary school, waiting for my bus at the end of the day, I once heard a voice shout, “Go back to China!” I turned around to see a kid I hadn’t met before giggling and retreating into the window. Everybody looked at me, even the teachers. I turned over the phrase in my head, “go back.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the place I was born was a place I didn’t belong. The phrase “lucky to be here” feels like that moment: a reminder that you aren’t welcome. It’s a grown-up way of saying, “Go back to China.”

The man who killed eight people, including six Asian women, in Atlanta last Wednesday said he was having a bad day. He said his murders weren’t racially motivated or motivated by anything other than a foul mood, a desire to “eliminate temptation,” and an impulsive decision. It’s chilling when people who look like you are killed and the cultural narrative is told from the perspective of the killer. The narrative so often becomes, “he had a bad day,” or “he was frustrated,” or “he was just doing his job.” When you’re reminded that you’re merely a casualty in someone else’s story, it’s hard to feel lucky. It’s hard to feel anything other than insignificant. Your story doesn’t matter until it’s told in a way that fits the dominant narrative.

I’m not sure how to answer my therapist’s question. I do feel lucky to be here the same way I feel lucky to be alive, healthy, and privileged. I’m grateful for the sacrifices my family, and all the people who fought for immigrant rights endured. I’m aware of how much more of a struggle life can be in so many other parts of the world. But as a premise, the question is strange. It suggests that addressing hate means I’m ungrateful, or that I’m erasing the work of my ancestors.

I don’t see it that way. It takes effort to make things better, and part of that effort is acknowledging generations of wounds that need to be healed — not just for Asian Americans, but for so many other groups, too. We are a country full of people with painful stories. Discrimination and pain are everywhere. But I live here. I want to feel proud, not just lucky, to be here.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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