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  • Jeenah Gwak

Dear Reader,

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

About a year ago, What We Experience was just an idea in my head. I had been entertaining this idea for months, wanting to act on the lack of awareness on anti-Asian sentiment spurred by the pandemic. Exactly how it all came together in my head, I don’t recall. But when it did, I texted Hope, asking her if she wanted to create a magazine with me to advocate for Asian-American experiences. She replied right away, loving the idea and agreeing wholeheartedly. Hope probably had no idea what she was getting herself into, but I knew she would be the perfect co-founder and editor. We arranged to meet on Zoom that Wednesday.


It has now been a whole year since the idea of What We Experience was brought to life. In celebration of this and in honor of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I want to share with you the story that started it all.


 

“Don’t speak English, huh?”


A question I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t know how to respond to these four words. I was roaming around in Times Square with my mother on a trip to New York, scouring for something to nourish our grumbling stomachs before we had to check in to Carnegie Hall for my piano performance. We moved briskly in the blaring city, flustered by the unfamiliar throng of strangers around us. Suddenly, a middle-aged white man, who seemed to be advertising for a nighttime show, shouted at us, “Don’t speak English, huh?” I slowed my pace and turned my head around sharply. He was looking straight at us. We made eye contact. He smirked. Baffled, I returned my gaze towards the buzzing city and hurried my mom along on our way. She hadn’t heard what he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.


I played this ten-second encounter repeatedly in my head for the next few days. Initially, I found fault in my own reaction. Why didn’t I say something? Why did I allow that man to find satisfaction in my silence?


He had assumed that I was incapable of speaking English. But little did he know, I speak English better than my first language, Korean.


As I reflected on this incident, I began to recall memories from elementary and middle school. Classmates had expected me to be good at math, just because of my race. Gym teachers had been taken aback when my athleticism outstripped their expectations for a small, Asian girl. Strangers had noted that my eyes were big for an Asian person.


The truth is, even in Bellevue, racism exists. Sure, the encounters aren’t as overt, but the experiences are real. And more often than not, these facetious confrontations are overlooked as harmless.


These verbal altercations are so normalized that they have become integrated into our daily lives. Thus, many Asian Americans encounter this on a regular basis. However, growing up in Bellevue, Washington, where there is a large Asian-American population, I have found myself in a “Bellevue bubble,” shielded from anti-Asian sentiment. I knew xenophobia existed. I was fully aware of the anti-Asian sentiment that had endured throughout our nation’s history. Yet, it didn’t hit me until I experienced it firsthand.


In the months following this encounter, as the pandemic hit its peak, countless brutalities took place against the Asian-American community. In early March, for instance, an Asian man walking around in a surgical mask in Brooklyn, New York, was stabbed more than a dozen times. Later that month, a 92-year-old Asian man was physically assaulted and thrown out of a convenience store by a white man, who shouted racist, hateful slurs towards the elderly man. Despite these persisting attacks, mainstream media failed to report on such experiences; my only source at the time was NextShark, an Asian-American news platform.


For the most part, Asian Americans are not represented in media, as mainstream media seldom incorporate our perspectives and experiences. While it is true that we are a racial minority, the lack of proportional representation dawned on me. I so desired to amplify the voices of my fellow Asian Americans. I wanted to provide a safe media platform for Asian Americans to come together and share their unique stories, emphasizing that while we share similar experiences, there isn’t just one “Asian narrative.”


 

As personal as this story is, I know very well that this is not a unique experience. I recognize the significance and validity of your stories. What We Experience now has nearly a thousand readers from all around the world, serving as a space of solace and inspiration for readers of various backgrounds. If you have any experiences you would like to share, please don't hesitate to reach out.


Thank you for being here. It has truly been a dream come true to witness the growth of this media platform.


Sincerely,

Jeenah Gwak




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