It's time to stop shrugging off the throughline of my life in service and call attention—not least my own—to an ugly truth. Racism against Asians is nothing new.
Female bartender
Credit: Getty Images / Cavan Images

Like many others, I watched in horror on Tuesday as the events in Atlanta unfolded. Eight people, six of them Asian American women, killed by a white gunman. Like many others, I immediately attributed it to the dangerous rhetoric the former guy spewed throughout this pandemic. Like many others, I thought immediately of myself and my safety. And, like many others, I am an Asian woman who made a living out of the service industry for years and years.

Restaurants gave me everything. I got my first job in publishing (where I now work) by writing my email address on the back of a coaster and slipping it to an HR person at the then-Time, Inc. I am ethnically Korean but I was adopted by white, Southern parents, so I never really fit in anywhere—except with my restaurant brethren. As anyone who has worked in the service industry can attest, your restaurant coworkers become your family. To this day, almost all of my friends were once restaurant colleagues. Every time I've fallen in love, it's been with a coworker or patron. When I was broke in college, I never had to worry about food because I knew I would be fed at work—and tips paid my tuition. When I say restaurants gave me everything, I mean it.

But it's time to stop shrugging off the throughline of my life in service (something I once fliply wrote about) and call attention—not least my own—to an ugly truth. Racism against Asians, while exacerbated by our former president, is nothing new.

Growing up in a white suburb of Atlanta, there was a lot of name-calling and "ching-chonging" and that was rough. My white parents didn't have any tools to help me process the childish taunts—a story for a different day. But until the last couple of years, I didn't realize that what I found in the restaurant life that I view so rosily, was just as bad, and even more insidious because I didn't process it in the way that I did those childhood taunts. Those were racist. Surely, what happened in those restaurants I came to think of as home, surely that wasn't racism?


Fetishization was an oversize feature of my service industry experience. From my first job at the Waffle House, where old men would tip 15-year-old me with Korean money and make lascivious remarks about the "time" they had in Korea during the war, to the construction worker who asked me to eat cocktail cherries so he could "watch," to the drunken frat boy who reached all the way up my skirt when I went to his table to deliver a cocktail, to the very nice older couple I waited on at a posh place in Ohio who mailed to the restaurant a photo of their son (who lived in Hawaii) and his contact information because he "loves Asian women"a refrain that was an inexorable feature of god knows how many thousands of shifts I worked. 

When it wasn't that, it was inappropriate comments about my body, my skin, my sex life, the fact that I was raised culturally white and so might not have "ancient Chinese secret" abilities in the bedroom. I've been called "China doll" so often that it stopped registering. Customers have asked me for laundry advice, wondered how I learned to use a fork, and I have been casually offered money for sex like it just wasn't a big deal. (I declined.) I was once followed home by a customer who got into my house and unscrewed the lightbulbs while I was sleeping. The police, when I called them the next day, told me there wasn't really anything they could do. 

When Cherokee County Sheriff's Office Captain Jay Bakerheld his press conference on the day following the shootings and referred to the shooter "having a bad day," something in me snapped.

I have no idea what the lives of these women were like, how they were treated by their employers and clients, and until today, we didn't even know all of their names. When people started to take the shooter at his word that the killings weren't racially motivated, the little faith I had that this would be handled appropriately sank right down to join my heart. I sat still for a very long time, thinking about my years in the service industry.

We're all aware of the unfair power dynamics that drive the service industry, specifically tipped work. These women, by dint of their profession, were at a disadvantage. Because they were Asian, they were subject—not just at their jobs but in their daily lives—to the rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment related to the pandemic. But it's more than that. It's the ages-old fetishization of Asian women. It's the fact that acts of male supremacy terror are on the rise. I see it more clearly, now. The comments, the microaggressions from men that I know many if not all Asian women experience—they're fetishization, yes. But fetishization is racism, just as it's also misogyny. And it's irresponsible not to recognize that. There are a lot of irresponsible people contributing to the discourse right now. It's infuriating.

And yet.

I'm lucky that my livelihood no longer depends on "shutting up and taking it" as one manager so helpfully put it during my bartending days. I'm lucky that I work at a job with an HR department. I'm lucky to have a job because, as we know, pandemic unemployment has unequally affected Black, Latinx, and Asian workers. I'm lucky to be alive when Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue are not. 

I keep telling myself I'm lucky.