March 8, 2022

GUEST ROOM | The Vicious Cycle of Desensitization and Trauma: An Asian American Woman’s Story

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Christina Yuna Lee. This name haunts me along with the list of all the other Asian American women that have suffered at the hands of the violence due to the duality of race and gender. She was murdered in the bathtub of her New York City apartment at 4 a.m on Feb. 13. Flashbacks to the Atlanta spa shootings, it seems nothing has changed in the grand scheme of things, despite my efforts here at Cornell to spread awareness of issues plaguing the Asian American community. It took me some time to read the details of her murder because of the busy work I had to do and the brevity of time I had to fall apart and process.

As an Asian American woman, I constantly have to be aware of the environment I am in, the people I am with and the remarks I may receive. I worry for my mother every day when she travels by the subway in Boston to head into work. It is a constant, quiet yet loud fear — something that never fails to leave my mind.

As I scrolled through my Instagram, reading about the latest tragedy, a post with a woman holding a sign caught my eye: “It’s exhausting, going from invisible to “fetish” to model minority to hunted like prey.”

That single sentence summarizes my experience and conflict with my identity as a Chinese American woman, a first generation, low income student at Cornell, daughter of two immigrants from China and Hong Kong who reside near Boston. The number of ways to describe my Asian American experience seem endless but are expressed succinctly in this one sentence. It is one sentence that can be expanded to many layers of racial tension, exotification, xenophobia and cultural commodification.

Resources at Cornell including Asian & Asian American Center and the Asian American Studies program have helped me untangle the complicated threads of my identity. These resources have encouraged me to celebrate my heritage as an Asian American and to dissect the institutional forces that have shaped my minority status. Organizations like the Advocacy Project and Alpha Phi Omega have strengthened my resolve to advocate for my peers and others’ voices who have been silenced. They have granted me tools to communicate my cause and gain rapport with my peers and community.

My work to educate others and the effort to listen to others’ stories has been enlightening but also burdening. In some ways, using my identity as a tool for advocacy has led to great motivation and invigorating discussion. It drives me to pursue racial solidarity with other minority groups. On the flip side, it has predisposed me to burnout and becomes the forefront of my racial trauma. It bleeds into my emotional state every day, whether or not I consciously think about it.

My underlying fear about the violence committed against women is capable of unsettling my focus every single time. How do I protect my mental health when these thoughts can occupy my mind at any possible hour of the day? I try hard to keep myself together and occupy my schedule with the many meetings to participate in, projects to work on and social gatherings to attend. Most days, I can move on from this thought quickly as I have my to-do list and planner calling for my time. But other days, such as the day after Lee’s body was found, it brings me through a loop of anguish and bitterness where I can no longer ignore the list of names that I locked away in my mind. The names of Asian American women who have fallen victim to this violence in just the past few weeks, not even this past year. I take my limited time to reflect on the collection of tragedies that put me through this vicious cycle of desensitization and trauma.

At the end of the day, I still reflect on the Atlanta shootings from almost a year ago; I still return back to square one of being angry and frustrated at the world. Anger can be productive for the work of justice, but I am tired of anticipating the next tragedy, tired of imagining my friends, family and strangers being the next headline and tired of restarting my center of focus. Every time I move one or two steps toward a new goal of education and personal growth, a tragedy like Lee’s makes me feel like I have been set five steps back.

Since this incident and as the anniversary of the Atlanta shootings draws near, I have been able to hold conversations with and create safe spaces for others who want to talk about this event. This type of mental and physical labor never feels easier as time goes on; it only becomes less challenging as I continue to unpack mine and others’ racial trauma. 

Gigi Wong ‘22 (she/her) is a senior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Rooms run periodically throughout the semester.