A frightening encounter at the park during the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to have a difficult conversation with my two kids about racism.
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Kelly Yang and her kids
Credit: Courtesy of Kelly Yang

“Can you read, you oriental?” the woman shouted at me.

I looked up from playing with my dog and kids in the park near my house in the Bay Area. I had my dog off leash, tossing a ball with him in a shaded area off to the side where there were no people. It was a mistake that would cost me dearly, as the woman charged toward me without a mask.

“What’s ‘oriental’, Mommy?” my kids asked. I ignored the question as I quickly put my dog on a leash and called back to the woman, “I’m sorry. It’s my first time at this park with my dog. I didn’t know. I saw other dogs off leash, so I just assumed ... I understand now. You don’t need to be rude about it.” My kids and dog and I huddled together, hoping she would stop charging forward and give us the social distance we needed.

But she didn’t stop. It’s terrifying when someone charges toward you without a mask during COVID-19.

“Ma’am,” I called out to her, my voice louder this time. “I really need you to stop coming over. You’re too close. You need to stop.”

The woman looked to her husband, on the other side of the park. He also started walking over without a mask, with their dog. Now the two of them were both charging over. At this point I was full on panicking. As he got close to me, he called out, “Go back to where you came from.”

The words knocked the wind out of me, for they were words I never expected to hear in the progressive Bay Area. But thanks to "coronaracism," now they were everywhere—no corner or park safe. I turned to my kids, humiliated, devastated. I wanted to cover their little ears—they had never heard such terms hurled at them before. Instead, I whipped out my phone, thinking it might deter the couple from getting closer. At the sight of my phone, the couple quickly walked away.

Afterwards, I sat down on the grass shaking. It was impossible to enjoy the park after that, so we left.

In the car, my son asked me what the couple meant. I sat and debated for a long time. I’ve been called racial slurs in my life, more so recently thanks to COVID-19. And I have even written books for children about racism, including my award-winning debut novel Front Desk and my forthcoming young adult novel Parachutes, about teenagers who face discrimination when they come to the United States from China to study. You’d think I’d be an expert on talking about these issues by now, but when it came time to tell my own kids, I still struggled to find the words.

Do I tell him? Would that scar him? Should I brush it off and say, "Nah, they didn’t mean anything." But by doing so, would I be partaking in the normalizing of racism?

In the end, I decided to be open and honest about it. I told my son and daughter they called Mommy a term that’s very mean toward Asian people.

“Why’d they say go back to where you came from?” my son, 10, asked. “Do they mean go back to our house, three blocks away?”

I swallowed hard and shook my head. “No, that’s not where they mean.”

My son sat with this information, very very quietly, all the way until we got home. As he ran inside to tell my husband what happened, he burst into tears.

Later that night, we had a long family discussion. We talked about the history of Asian American racism, going all the way back to late 19th century with the Chinese Exclusion Act. We talked about President Trump calling COVID-19, the “Chinese Virus.” My kids asked many questions, ranging from “Does that mean people hate us?” to “Are we ever going to go to that park again?” to “What’s going to happen next time—what are you going to do to keep us safe?”

They were heart-wrenching questions to hear as a parent. I wished I had a good answer, especially to the last one, but the truth is, I didn’t know. But I was glad we were having the conversation. That’s when I realized, maybe that is the answer—to have the difficult conversations we thought we didn’t need to have in 2020. In talking honestly about my fears and feelings, I hope that I am giving my children the tools to process and combat racism when it happens, which is to identify it and speak out. As Dani, one of the strong female protagonists of Parachutes says, “Our voice is our armor.” While I can never 100 percent prevent the next racist attack from happening, I hope that by giving my kids these tools, I am equipping them with a fighting chance—to process, heal, and grow.

Kelly Yang is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of the children’s book Front Desk and the forthcoming young adult debut novel Parachutes. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kellyyanghk and online at kellyyang.com.