I am a big city girl, having lived in New York, San Francisco, Washington and Hong Kong, all of them cosmopolitan, international, if not progressive cities when it comes to the arts, culture, gender and politics. Diversity, exposure and acceptance – whether racial, sexual, gender or socioeconomic – was, in retrospect, taken for granted.
Diversity was a given – my Caucasian, Indian and Latino friends celebrated the Lunar New Year and Autumn Moon festivals alongside me, while I celebrated Diwali, St Patrick’s Day and their children’s quinceañeras.
In Hong Kong, my colleagues included Britons, Australians, Filipinos, Indians, Singaporeans, South Africans, and people from many other countries. In coexisting, we learned about each others’ cultures and backgrounds. There were certainly cultural and linguistics barriers, but I was privileged enough to be exposed to such a diversity of cultures and thought.
I use the word “privilege” on purpose; it wasn’t until the aftermath of last year’s US presidential election that it hit me that, in living in these big metropolises, I had lost sight of the rest of the country, and the reality that I was not part of the majority but rather the minority.
Under this new administration, discrimination, and at times racism, seems to have reared its ugly head in everyday life. I noticed the shift in the election year, when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns started to be ramped up.
Maybe I had been a bit slow in noticing, since I had always lived on one US coast or the other. I hesitate to say I had been living in a bubble, but the bottom line is that it was a bubble. My friends in big cities called the states in-between “flyover states,” a way of saying these states were second-tier.
Many of us had never visited states such as Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, and if pushed would admit that we had little desire to. And yet, the results of the election clearly showed that the majority of people in the “flyover states” were Trump supporters, and in many cases conservative in thinking.
So imagine my surprise when I moved to Fresno in 2015. As the fourth largest city in California, sandwiched between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Fresno is working-class and known for its three-digit summers and, as I fast discovered, conservative outlooks.
Imagine my shock when, over drinks, a friend turned to me and asked me to vote for Trump. “Why?” I asked. “It’s obvious and just look at what Obama did or didn’t do, let’s start with the health care fiasco,” she said.
I was taken aback. Until that point, my friends had been mostly Democrats, supporters of Barack Obama and Clinton, and several were advocates for women’s rights, same-sex marriage and a comprehensive immigration policy.
Well, maybe we could have a lively discussion, or even debate. But no such luck. “You are going to vote for him, right?” my friend repeatedly asked.
When I moved to Salinas last year, about two hours south of San Francisco, the conversations often had a similar ring.
Why should I have been shocked when a winery owner rolled his eyes at me and said, “Of course”, when I asked if he agreed with Trump’s plan to build a US-Mexico border wall. “Best idea ever,” he said. And then the unimaginable happened. “The Chinese know a lot about walls too,” he said, nodding at me.
None of this should have surprised me since it was all happening in the aftermath of the new Trump administration. There were shifts, however slight, in the kinds of stories I was writing about, in the tone of the conversations, and it seemed to trickle down to everyday life as well. Maybe there was a segment of the public who felt they now had the licence to expose their raw feelings and viewpoints, whereas they were hemmed in before.
This new chapter brought changes. I was driven out by my landlady and her husband for no reason, even though I paid my rent on time and rarely came home and used the kitchen or bathroom. They started leaving notes accusing me of leaving a drop of water by the sink, and for a week turned on the jacuzzi right outside my room even though it disturbed my sleep. By contrast, they were sweet to the other two tenants, who were white.
“I think they are racist,” one of my colleagues commented. My father concurred: “These days there are some segments of the population who don’t treat Chinese very nicely.”
It’s hard to attribute how much of the shift is due to President Trump, or what the true impact is of his executive orders on immigration, the impending border wall, and the finger pointing and accusatory tone that he uses when talking about Chinese workers stealing jobs from Americans.
It isn’t just the Chinese. I live in a city that is predominantly Latino-Hispanic, many of them migrant workers who work in the fields.
On a similar line, I was infuriated when a 40-something white man, jobless and able-bodied, said he refused to work in the fields. “It would be too taxing on my body,” he said. Does he think the Mexicans enjoy the back-breaking labour of picking lettuce in the fields, with often 10 hours under the sun?
And then there was the viral story of David Dao, the physician who was dragged out of a United Airlines plane by security officers after he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. It matters that he was Asian. Would the same have occurred if the passenger were a tall and strapping white man? Somehow it seems unimaginable.
These snippets and stories tend to create an aura that is disturbing and at times dizzying. Ultimately there is nothing surprising about racism and discrimination, but it is sad when we’ve taken three steps forward but could potentially be moving backwards.
Amy Wu is a journalist based in Salinas, California