The Shape Of Our Eyes

By Anthony Nguyen

For as long as I can remember, the shape of my eyes has been quite the distinguishing feature that has made me stand out amongst a crowd even though I didn’t necessarily want to for those reasons. I was often singled out for being Asian, having the features that I do, and some of the attention that I received for simply existing was probably not the healthiest of experiences during my formative years. Grade school was quite the turbulent time period because I was usually the only “Na-goo-yen” in a class and on multiple occasions I was the butt of many jokes and microaggressions (I’m of Southern Vietnamese heritage so “Nguyen” is pronounced like “Win” but with some fancy inflections). Some of my more questionable peers would say things that consisted of blatant stereotypes about my culture, mockery of my language, fetishization of my mother (eventually, I experienced this myself once I started dating), grossly fallacious statements about us eating [insert domesticated animal but with derogatory intentions], and the oh-so-ubiquitous chanting of “ching-chang-chong” while the offender(s) would pull their eyes back into slits. To be honest, it’s not so much different these days and where these almond-shaped eyes are becoming very weary, tearful, and tired of what they’re repeatedly seeing.

Covid-19, the coronavirus, SARS-CoV2…however you’d like to appropriately and accurately call it, has resulted in a profound and deep societal impact on the AAPI Community.
With all the hate and xenophobia that has been more blatant and audacious in the world, a simple walk these days can feel unnerving and scary especially when we’ve been bombarded by triggering news feeds, stories, and/or have witnessed/experienced the crueler sides of humanity for ourselves. We, more so than ever, are also worried about our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, bà and ôngs (Vietnamese for grandmother & father, respectively), friends, and for our own personal safety because we know that we are not spared the probability that we, too, could be targeted next or that someone could be having “a bad day”. My family has been working in the nail & spa industry for decades and it was only recently that I’ve developed a newfound fear of the color “red” and I’m not referring to the paint/polish choices. What pains me as a clinician and a member of the AAPI community is that I know there are individuals right now who are silently suffering, feel helpless, and are fearful about leaving their homes because of what could happen to them.

These hate crimes are very real and this reality we live in can put a lot of strain on our mental health, make us more alert/hypervigilant when we’re out and about, or even cause us to experience an overwhelming sense of danger and anxiety regarding our personal safety.
For some, it might be harder to sleep at night or to even be present when we’re at work because of what has been haunting our headspace. I know that it’s a lot to take in and so I highly encourage making time for breaks and disconnecting from the news and social media in order to give yourself a moment of reprieve. When it feels like you’re alone and vulnerable, it may be helpful to connect with some close friends, allies, your family, or find meaning and solidarity in local activist groups that are working towards making the communities that we live in safer. Please know and remember that you’re not a virus, your features are not “exotic”, your life has value and meaning, you’re not the reason for this pandemic, you’re more than just the punchline of any racist joke, and most importantly you’re not defined by the shape of your eyes.

For so long, staying silent has been the status quo and where reaching out for help may be discouraged depending on one’s personal upbringing and culture.
Let’s face it, some of us were told that mental health challenges “don’t exist” and that we can virtually resolve any issues faced with “perseveration and endurance” (this is only partially true). However, staying silent may cause us more harm and does not actually resolve the root of the issues and denies us our human experience. Seeking help and talking to someone, for me, was a call to take action and ultimately became one of the most liberating things that I could have done and especially so when the culture I grew up in taught me to “suck it up” and to persevere despite all odds.