Marginalia 1: Death on Chrystie

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011; Woodblock print with acrylic ink, 32 1/4 x 29 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, and then sat on it. But last week, an Instagram post from Ruth Chan reminded me that a year (and change) has passed since the Atlanta Spa shootings. Not much has changed. When friends ask me how I feel, I put on a brave face. That determination to keep living my life in spite of it all, it isn’t fake–but the sadness that wells up inside is also real, along with other, more difficult emotions, emotions that I would rather not name.

A note on the image: Hung Liu (1948-2021) was a well-known figure on the Bay Area art scene. I first encountered her work at Rena Bransten’s gallery in San Francisco. I was working my first art-related job downtown, and on my lunch breaks, I would wander neighboring galleries. During that period, I must have seen hundreds and hundreds of shows. Only a few artists ended up enduring in my memory. Liu was one of them. But perhaps that is a topic for another post.

*

February 22, 2022

I heard about Christina Yuna Lee’s death late Sunday evening. I was taking a break from preparing a paper for a workshop, and decided to check the news. It was February 13th, and I was sitting in bed, surfing the internet on my laptop.

I can’t remember the exact headline now — something about how early Sunday morning, an Asian-American woman was murdered in her own home on Chrystie Street.

My heart dropped when I read the headline. Lee was murdered just blocks from me. That very Sunday—the Sunday before Valentine’s Day—we walked to Bangkok Center Grocery in Chinatown to pick up some ingredients for a curry, and then looped up to Stick with Me Sweets on Mott to pick up chocolates for Valentine’s Day. We narrowly missed the crime scene, passing north of it. Had we not gone to get chocolates, we would probably have walked right past Lee’s apartment building.

She died early Sunday morning, lying in her own bathtub. I studied the surveillance footage, the photographs of the apartment building, the photographs of the man who followed and killed her. I studied them, I realize now, because I was wondering: How close had I come to death?

This man — did I recognize him? Did I pass him in the park, or on the street, while walking my dog, or coming home from errands? Did we ever interact?

If I were Lee, would I have noticed him? Could I have survived? Not second guessing her choices, but playing out my own odds.

I cried a little reading about her. Over the next few days I would cry a lot more. Out of rage, I suppose, and sorrow. And a sense of sisterhood, that we were both women who were drawn to this city by its diversity and culture, and both women who hoped that we could make our lives here. For a year, for ten years, for a lifetime.

*

In recent years, I found myself increasingly drawn to the area around Chinatown. Here, I felt at home. That was one of the reasons why we moved downtown in the first place. To be closer to it all.

Living here has also made me see how long-standing structural factors work to compress together a motley set of marginalized communities into a constricted geographic footprint, and then subject them all to the same pressures. There isn’t enough to go around — not enough space, not enough resources. Even on the best of days, it is a fragile situation.

*

Later, thinking about my deep well of grief, why my thoughts kept returning to Lee’s murder, I realized that I wept, also, out of sorrow and rage, for the way that we, as Asian-American women, continue to be the targets of objectification and sexual violence. But we are supposed to laugh off the objectification — “yellow fever” — and try our best to keep ourselves safe.

I thought about how this has been a theme through my own life. I want to be see as a professional. I want to be seen as a scholar. I want to be seen as citizen, a New Yorker, an artist, a creative, a writer. I want to be seen as so many other things—and yet, I cannot escape the brute fact of my physical body.

*

When I married I thought about taking my husband’s name. Unlike mine, his is unmistakably Anglo. With this new name, I could pass—on paper.

*

I haven’t found an elegant way to deal with this in my own life.

I haven’t found a way to deal with it at all.

*

I am afraid that one day, my body—the foundation for my being, my life—will also one day cause my end.

*

I weep because in this I have no choice, nor did Lee, nor did all the others.

We can never shed our physical bodies, our flesh, our skin. We were born this way, and this is how we must pass through the world. We were born this way — in this, we had no choice — and, for some of us, we will die because we were born this way. We will die because we were born in this skin, in this body.

I weep because I wish this weren’t true.

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