Letter to You

You don’t remember me. Why would you? For you, it was just another day at school. For me, it was the day you took my voice.

2017, my junior year of college: the Honors advanced writing class. The assignment was for everyone to give a presentation on whatever they wanted. I chose to do mine on the lack of Asian representation in the media. I had never been given a chance to talk about the subject in a formal setting, so this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.

I spent hours doing my research and making my PowerPoint pop with colors and images. It was a project I was excited to work on—it was a glimpse into the struggles within my community.

During the presentation, I felt the energy of the topic coursing through me. It started as a spark. As I spoke, the spark grew into a fire that warmed me from the inside out. I was angry at the lack of positive representation and disappointed I had to even talk about it in the first place. But I was glad I had a platform to spread awareness. Public speaking made me nervous, and I was worried I would stutter or stumble over my words. But even I could hear the articulation and clarity in my voice, reinforced by my passion for the topic.

After I finished, the other students asked me questions and shared their comments. I don’t recall any of them. But then you raised your hand. Do you remember what you said? I doubt it. Allow me to refresh your memory.

You said, “That’s cool, but don’t we have more important things to worry about?”

The energy rushed out of me, the fire extinguished by an arctic gale. I froze in place. I heard your words, but my mind was still trying to register their meaning. I was acutely aware of the rest of my surroundings. Someone near me wore too much perfume, the cloying scent making me nauseous. The sunlight streaming through the window cast a harsh glare in my eyes. The wooden podium where I gave my presentation bit into my fingers where I gripped it.

I didn’t have the strength and the voice I do now.

So I agreed with you.

I nodded my head, more out of instinct than choice. “Yeah, I guess we do,” I said. The words barely came out, but the betrayal they held thundered in my ears. I sat back down, and the next student started their presentation.

Emotions churned in my stomach. When I got home, I threw up—a delayed reaction after I pierced through the cold fog of your words. The bile burned against my throat.

I wish another student had spoken up. I wasn’t the only Asian student or student of color. I couldn’t have been the only one who felt strongly about the topic. Maybe they were just as shocked as I was to say anything. Maybe they hadn’t found their voices yet, either.

I wish our professor had said something. Out of all my college professors, he was one of my favorites because he seemed to genuinely care about his students and their education. But in that moment, he didn’t support me. His silence made him complicit, and it stung.

I wish, I wish, I wish.

Wishes only get you so far. The ones left unfulfilled leave a bitter taste in your mouth. 

I haven’t forgotten about that day, even after all these years. For the longest time, I regretted not saying anything. I was mad at myself for being so weak. There were so many times when I almost approached you after class or tried to send you a strongly worded email. But I could never follow through.

Fast forward to today, and things have changed. I’ve grown since then. I’ve found my place in my community as an Asian American. I’ve found the strength to speak up. While I can’t change the past, I can act in the present.

This is what I wanted to say. This is my letter to you.

What’s important to you is subjective. While others, including myself, may share your feelings, they don’t discount what we experience individually. Climate change, poverty, hunger—those are all noble and important causes. I care about them, but I care about other issues, too.

As a white male, you’ve been lucky enough to see yourself in the media. You have seen yourself as the hero and the intellectual and the physically attractive. Growing up, I only saw myself as the nerd, sidekick, and kung fu master with an inauthentic Asian accent. I saw stereotypes and caricatures that were far beyond any accurate recognition.

You have the privilege and luxury of not having to care about representation. You’ve always been represented. You’ve always been the protagonist, and I’ve been the tokenized side character. Sometimes, I’ve even been the villain.

Would your response still be the same now, while Asians face a rise in racism worldwide because of the Coronavirus? I want to believe that it wouldn’t. I want to believe that, like me, you’ve grown since that time. Our community needs allies, and you could be one of them. 

What you said hurt. It was ignorant and condescending. It made you part of the problem I was referring to in my presentation. But looking back, it was part of the journey that led me to where I am now—writing for an organization that uplifts the Asian and Asian American community. Representation has gotten better, but we’re still a long way away from where we need to be. The cause is still important to me, and I will keep fighting for it.

Even though it’s likely you’ll never see this, I’ve said my peace. Writing this letter was just as much for me as it was for you, maybe even more. I can move on with my life, and you can’t take my voice away again.

Yours truly,

An Asian American with important things to worry about,

    Eric Nhem

Author’s note:

I’m the type of person who thinks of ironclad arguments I should have said long after a conversation has happened—in the car, in the shower, while I’m trying to sleep, etc. And then I fixate on those unspoken words and let them fester in my mind. Very healthy.

I’ve held onto the words of this letter for over four years. To be able to put them on paper has been a cathartic experience for me. While I do try to live a life of no regrets, I’d be lying if I said a small part of me didn’t hope I run into that student in a grocery store and shove the letter into his face, but that’s just me.

To those of you reading this, I offer a simple piece of advice: if you’re given the chance to speak out to defend yourself and your community, take it without hesitation. Don’t wait as long as I did. Remember that your feelings are valid. Remember that you are allowed—and encouraged—to take up space.

Editors: Emily X. Nikki J. Nadine R., Zoe L. Sam L. , Anoushka K., Joyce S.

Cover Photo Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-paper-envelope-on-table-211290/