When I left my native Atlanta in 1985 for college up North, I was raring to get out of town. I wanted to be a poet, and the literary world was in New York and Boston.
Meeting people on campus often evoked surprise. “You’re from Atlanta?” Classmates perceived Atlanta as “Gone with the Wind” or “Hee Haw.”
I explained: Atlanta was populated by people from everywhere. My lack of a Southern accent reflected it: in but not entirely of the South. I’d often been the only Asian person in the room, but Atlanta had an Asian population that was scattered, thus unseen.
Yet I was of the South. I called myself “Oriental.” I smiled upon encountering another Asian person in public. I smiled in general. I didn’t find Asianness and Southern accents incompatible, as I knew Chinese Americans whose families had inhabited small-town Georgia and Alabama for generations, as well as first-generation Americans like my parents, who came to Georgia as students in the 1940s and ’50s.
Still, the urban intellectual North won me over. Offered only European languages before, I abandoned Latin and French for Chinese and Japanese. I replaced “The Far East” with “East Asia.” At a dinner table spontaneously shared by Asian Americans, I laughed until I cried when a guy mimicked his grandfather’s Japanese accent. I’d never heard such mockery delivered with love, to a group that could relate with appreciation.
Throughout my twenties – in New York, college towns, and art outposts – I felt delivered from my isolation as an aspiring poet in a business hub, as a Chinese American in a culture that deemed a person Chinese or American. Eventually, I landed an academic job in no city at all, but a small town two hours from a major airport.
I’ve lived in that town, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, population 19,000, ever since. I cherish my colleagues, students, and neighbors. I’ve raised two kids and written four books here. While I can’t claim I haven’t missed urban life, nor that every neighbor was welcoming, I still believe that wherever you go, most people are good.
Over the years I’ve watched with sadness as colleagues of color left for more diverse settings, even before the Trump years, which brought me an increase in racial harassment and hostile interactions without provocation. I’ve generally felt that my early experiences prepared me to live as a tiny minority. But last week, when three Asian-owned spas in and near Atlanta were attacked, allegedly by a white gunman, killing eight people, six of them Asian women, everything flew into doubt. I’ve experienced numbness and pain, rage and despair, disbelief and awareness that I had expected this.
My job is safer than the jobs of spa employees, but I see anew how I coped with the pandemic under an openly racist president. When gyms closed and many took to walking for exercise, I cut back on going outside. After dark, I drove, even to travel two blocks. I appreciated the obscuring effect of masks.
As the wait for vaccination in Pennsylvania grew longer, the need to return to in-person classes more pressing, a friend sent a tip: one reason for the delay was a shortage of workers, and we could help. There was demand for educators and people to manage vaccination sites – and volunteers would be vaccinated. White friends signed up and got their shots. I wavered for weeks, worried that appearing at a COVID-related event would make me a target of violence. On March 16, I decided that any hate was likely to be verbal. It would be worse to get sick than be called something I’d surely been called before. Sticks and stones … . I registered to volunteer. Six hours later, the first of the three shootings began.
I now realize that my small-town life has always had an urban dimension: trips to see family and inhabit vibrant Asian-American spaces – in Atlanta. My home county of DeKalb, which counted 507 Asian residents in 1970, or about 0.1%, is now 6.5% Asian. Some areas are one-quarter Asian. My daughters and I love the international markets and food courts where Asians blend in, versus stand out. In middle age, I finally feel like an ordinary person in the city of my birth.
And I should have known there would be a cost. As the pandemic raged and many in power blamed China for everything, attacks on Asians followed, often where there should be safety in numbers: New York, San Francisco. Atlanta’s attainment of substantial racial diversity, which I found so exciting – my hometown, shedding its Scarlett O’Hara vibe! – had also made it a place where Asians, finally visible, were easily targeted.
Having just spent five years writing poems about Atlanta, I was primed to substitute mental for actual travel when lockdown began. Thus I hadn’t connected the dots. I was dwelling in a vision of Atlanta reborn, a city where the two Asian kids in fourth grade don’t avoid each other for fear of ostracism, where a lunch of Sichuan noodles is not alien but aspirational. The city where I was raised, in a loving home, in an area where most neighbors were welcoming. As long as my native soil retained that benevolent aura, if someone yelled “Go home!” from a truck window in Pennsylvania, the joke was on him because Atlanta was where I was headed, as soon as travel was safe.
Adrienne Su’s most recent books are “Peach State” and “Living Quarters”. She teaches at Dickinson College.