all in the family

Worrying About My Parents’ Safety Is a Permanent State

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy of the subject.

It was our first time in Napa. My father had been sent there for work, a weeklong assignment that required him to drive along the outskirts of the city and assess the quality of his company’s radio signals. Buoyed by the vaccine and months ahead of the Delta variant, my mother and I decided we would join him, transforming his work trip into a family one instead.

I had seen my parents only a few times over that past year, even though I lived an hour away. These visits were pale imitations of the “before times,” each one overshadowed by my anxiety over possible transmission. I was scared of getting COVID, but I was even more afraid of passing it on to them. For Thanksgiving, we “ate together” through a meshed window, my boyfriend and I in the backyard, my parents in the dining room. Other times, we would all stand in the garage, six feet apart, masks on, trying to forget the natural urge to hug each other. Upon learning of my father’s assignment in Napa, my mother announced that our family deserved a vacation.

My impression of Napa, based on what I’d seen from Instagram posts tagged #girlstrip or #bacheloretteweekend, was that it was basically one big adult playground in the form of 375 wineries. For my family, though, a trip to Napa represented something more, a peak of our cumulative 30 years in America. How thrilling it was to know that my parents had survived the $2-an-hour jobs in Oxford, Mississippi, and the consecutive years of dot-com-era layoffs in Austin, Texas. To visit Napa as tourists, even if on the basis of my father’s work trip, was to reach some unspoken echelon of life here, one we could have never imagined in those first two decades.

In Napa, the sun shone sweetly, a welcome respite from the sizzling Texas summers we were used to. During the day, my father would go to work, leaving my mother and me to our own devices. I ran on the trail behind our hotel, delighted by the crests and cliffs of the distant mountains. My mother spent her time reading Klara and the Sun. When my father returned at night, we walked through downtown as a family, taking our pick from restaurants that touted clams, tartines, and elaborate pastas. We slept well. This was luxury, we all agreed. It was nice to spend time with each other again.

One evening, we made the familiar path through downtown, filled with childlike giddiness at the prospect of choosing where we would eat our next meal. We were always talking about the next meal, even before having eaten the current one. “Do you want Italian?” we teased one another. “Mediterranean? Indian? Steak? It’s all here, in Napa!”

It was then that I noticed a man walking toward us from behind. In a sea of lackadaisical, wine-happy vacationers, this man moved furiously, his body hurtling forward as if possessed. He was short, his blond hair shaved close to his scalp. I noticed him because of this hair, which shimmered in the sun. I noticed him because two months prior a man shot up a massage parlor and killed the people inside, six of whom were Asian women. I noticed him because ever since the first utterances of “China Virus” and “Kung Flu,” I have never been able to stop noticing.

The man had a terrifying, twisted expression on his face. When he saw me looking at him, he flung his hood up and over his head. His pace did not slacken. He was, I realized, coming straight at us.

Over the past two years, there has been an uptick in anti-Asian violence, particularly against women and elders. From March 2020 to March 2021, reports of hate incidents against Asian communities increased by 74 percent. I remember those early days of the pandemic; my feed was filled with pictures and footage of yet another Asian elder who had been shoved to the ground, or beaten, or spit on, or verbally harassed. If you searched “attacks against Asian elders,” you would find a neverending list of victims, their ages, and the attacks they suffered: 61-year-old Noel Quintana’s face was slashed with a box cutter on a New York City subway; 70-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie was punched on the street; 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was shoved to the ground while taking his morning walk in San Francisco. Just two days after the assault, he died.

With each attack, my fear grew. It was the same as with COVID — I was somewhat scared for myself, but deathly afraid for my parents. Their daily ritual included taking a four-mile walk around their neighborhood and getting groceries from HEB and Costco. As the victim list grew, disproportionately populated by elders, I descended into a fit of panic and paranoia. My parents were almost 60. What if someone threw something at them in the parking lot or coughed in their faces at the store? What if someone followed them home after their daily walk? Overrun by the horrible possibilities, I inundated them with texts and phone calls reminding them to be careful. Make sure you always go places together, I pleaded, or don’t go anywhere at all! Wear your masks, but try not to stand out too much while wearing them, in case it ignites something in people. Dad, make sure you are always standing behind Mom. Dad, do you remember how to punch?

The man was getting closer. I turned to look, and then I was afraid to look again. Looking, I thought, would give him even more reason to do something. Instead, I faced forward but shifted my gaze to the corners of my eyes. My hands hardened into fists. I had never thrown a real punch before, but I knew you were supposed to lead with your first two knuckles. My parents continued walking, unaware. I changed my path so I was closest to the street. My mom walked next to me, my dad behind her. I flanked them both, determined to use my body as a shield should anything happen.

It wasn’t long before he caught up to us. I slowed my pace, hoping he would pass. He did not. I quickened my pace, thinking he would fall behind. He did not. He stayed next to us, even though the sidewalk had ended. We continued walking, my parents and me and him. My parents were looking the other way, pointing at buildings. I chanced a glance at the man — he was scowling, a challenge in his eyes, all while matching our steps, refusing to move on.

In those few seconds, my mind raced through all the tools at my disposal — could I punch? Remember to keep your thumb curled over your fingers. Could I kick? Remember to use your hips. If he tried to hurt my mother, if he had a knife or something worse, which limb, which muscle group, which organ could I stand to lose?

All of a sudden, the man jerked and lunged at us, breaking his pace. It reminded me of an exaggerated body check, the kind you see athletes do when they’re trying to scare their opponents or trick them into making a mistake. My parents stopped walking; they had finally noticed him. Me? I did not react. I did not want to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. All that fear and preparation and questioning came down to one simple truth: Should he do anything more, I would do everything to protect my parents. My head was very clear. It was simple, really.

He lingered for a moment longer, the challenge still in his eyes. When we did nothing, he sped up and stalked past us, disappearing around a corner. I kept walking with my parents, though we changed our direction so as to not follow him.

“Did you notice that man?” I asked them.

“I thought it was strange that he was hovering around us like that,” my father said.

“Really?” my mother said. “I only just saw him!”

“I was worried about you,” I told them. “I thought he was going to do something.”

We fell quiet then, contemplating the weight of what that meant. The fantasy of Napa felt ruined.

Last month, we received another devastating piece of news to add to an already unbearable accumulation: Christina Yuna Lee, age 35, was murdered in her apartment. Less than a month before that, Michelle Go, age 40, was pushed to her death in the subway station. What I want to say is that I am not afraid. I am not fazed. I am strong and will not bend to the will of those who seek to terrorize us or cut us down. But that is not my reality. My parents are at stake. Our sisters and elders are at stake. Our communities are at stake. We are at stake.

These days, I want to accompany my parents everywhere, but the truth is I can’t. We still live an hour away from one another, and I cannot be their chaperone, nor do they want me to. Something has happened in these past two years, a sizable shift in our roles as parents and child. The great tragedy of becoming an adult is realizing that you have to protect your parents, not the other way around. My fear has calcified me from being their child to being their bodyguard.

“You can’t live in fear,” my mother tells me. They have their own lives, ones that are not dictated by the headlines. They continue taking their four-mile walks that go all the way to the Interstate, continue their trips to HEB and Costco. They tell me about the great deals they got on the salmon, the bars of decadent chocolate. “Even when bad things are happening, you have to live your life with confidence.”

Separated as we are by distance, I take scant comfort in knowing that they go out together and that Texas is a driving-centric state, which lessens the possibility of close-range attacks. Instead, I redirect all the anxiety I feel about their well-being back to myself. When I walk outside, I balloon my arms out wide, swinging them comically across my body. I keep an eye on my shadow in case other shadows join it. I stomp my way down the street, imagining that each leg belongs to a larger-than-life kaiju and that anyone who dares look at me the wrong way will suffer the consequences.

Fear has a way of making you so small in a time when you have to be big. For my parents, that means continuing on with their lives. For me, that means letting them. There are no answers to these last two years, only questions. We are all trying to be our own version of big.

Worrying About My Parents’ Safety Is a Permanent State