Can you speak English?

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Can you speak English?

The author is a Washington correspondentof the JoongAng Ilbo.

Recently, I was in southern Virginia. I felt an uncomfortable glance from a white male. He was talking to his friends and then approached me. I didn’t welcome him approaching me without wearing a mask, and he suddenly asked, “Can you speak English?” Then he went on to ask why an Asian was there.

When I said that it was an inappropriate question, he claimed he would have asked the same thing if I were French. “Shame on you,” I said and left, but that unpleasant feeling stuck with me.

When I interviewed Francesca Hong, a second-generation Korean American who was elected to the state congress of Wisconsin in the November election, she shared a similar story. After Donald Trump was elected president, it became common that she was asked if she could speak English at grocery stores. Hong said it was awkward to explain that she was an American paying taxes and running a business diligently.

Can you speak English? It is a basic sentence that can be found in the first chapter of an English textbook. But it has become a complicated question with racist connotations in American society.

Korean American journalist Amara Walker of CNN experienced a similar insult while covering the hurricane in Louisiana in October 2020. A man at the airport mimicked what he thought sounded like an Asian language and started an argument. It also started with “Can you speak English?” As more discrimination continued, Walker wrote on social media how the thought of the experience still made her shiver.

Now that hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, I feel like “Can you speak English” is just the beginning. As random assaults on Asian elderly people continued, multiple Asian women were murdered.

After the Atlanta shooting, Korean American actor John Cho shared a tweet from author Min Jin Lee, “I will never be ashamed of being hated for my race. This shame belongs to the racist.” But in the past few years, that shame is hard to see in the United States. We’ve seen the president openly telling congressmen of color “Go back to your country” or “whites have superior genes.”

Two months have passed since the administration changed and the pandemic is approaching the end, thanks to the vaccines. But there are no signs that hate crimes will end. Even as anti-racism rallies are spreading across the United States, we continue hearing news about assaults on Asians. To prevent rapidly growing hate crimes, America urgently needs a vaccine called “shame.”
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