One night, during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China, my father made the fateful decision to save the local mayor from being beaten to death by the Red Guard. He was in the midst of being shamed and “re-educated” for his previous status, and would soon succumb to his injuries and neglect. After dark, my father snuck into the shed where the mayor was imprisoned, freed him, carried him on his back, walking 11 kilometers on zigzagging mountain trails, and hid him in a cave. Nobody saw him do it, but the Red Guard suspected his involvement. Even after a month-long interrogation, my father kept his jaws clenched and refused to admit anything. As a result, my parents and 10-month-old sister were kicked out of their ancestral home and stripped of everything they were allowed to own. They moved into a dirt cave that was dug into the side of a mountain. My two brothers and I were born in that cave. That’s how I grew up: in extreme poverty, surrounded by ridicule, rejection, and discrimination from other villagers and their children. At the same time, I was protected by the unconditional, fierce love of my family.
It was a dark period. I developed a calcium deficiency, due to malnutrition, and had many serious health problems as a result. At that time, I was never strong enough to run down the mountain slopes or catch dragonflies with others. As a young child, from the big rock where I often sat, I watched with envy as others played, dreaming of joining them. I also dreamt of owning a dog, a friend who could accompany me wherever I went. But my parents struggled to put food on the table for us, let alone feed a dog. Slowly, that desire became dormant.
After a very difficult early childhood, things began to change dramatically for the better. After the cultural revolution failed and many of the restrictions were lifted, my father was able to start a small business that changed our lives completely.
Fast forward until two or three years ago. I began the conversation about owning a dog with my family. At first, the idea seemed out of reach for many reasons. First, my husband and young son were not immediately in love with the idea. My husband’s and my traveling schedules made things difficult as well. I am a teacher trainer and consultant outside of my regular working hours, and I travel to work with different school districts frequently. My husband traveled as well and had odd hours and varying schedules. We thought we would not have the time to care for a dog properly.
During the pandemic, since we were home every day, I again brought up the idea of rescuing a dog. After much discussion, we decided to go for it. Immediately, with a friend’s assistance, I jumped into action. My friend provided me a list of animal shelters and taught me how to search and apply for the dogs we liked. She also helped me to understand what kind of dog would be a good fit for our family. The search was on!
We preferred having a puppy over an adult dog because we wanted to own the dog for many years if possible. We also hoped to avoid newborn puppies; since we had never owned dogs before, we lacked the experience for proper puppy training. The first time I applied for a Golden Retriever I was so anxious and excited. I checked my email several times a day for a reply. A week later, I still didn’t hear anything back. My friend and I thought it was due to the high demand during a global pandemic so I moved on to the next dog — a Black Lab. This time, my friend suggested that I call them. So I did. But I was informed that the number was for their shop only, and adoption was strictly through online application. Then, that evening I saw on their website that the dog I was interested in had a pending adoption.
I began to extend my search further. Most of the time, my applications just disappeared into cyber-space. After I put in the 7th application, I finally got a reply from an animal shelter in Illinois. After a few back-and-forth email messages, we set up an appointment on Christmas Eve afternoon to meet Clifford, and if everything worked out, we would have a dog for Christmas. My son was not too excited about the driving since it was nearly three hours away, but we were excited about getting a dog.
We were on the way when I received a call from the animal shelter. I was informed that Clifford had been adopted by a family the day before. I sadly turned the car around and went back home. When we got there, I went to my office upstairs and cried.
After Christmas, my friend (who is White) checked in on me. She was quite hesitant at first, but eventually, she said to me, “I hate to tell you this, I’m afraid your experience might have something to do with your name.” It was only then that it dawned on me; I have a distinct Chinese first and last name, and I was a Chinese woman applying to have a dog. Were there stereotypes associated with Chinese people and dogs that were being applied to me?
I really did not want to believe it. I talked to my husband who is a White American. Of course, he didn’t think it could be possible. So, I decided to experiment. We both began to apply separately. Can you guess what happened? He got a reply almost instantly. I still got nothing.
At this point, I began to feel somewhat nauseous. I didn’t even have a real person to confront! It was probably just the implicit bias and racism, which was perhaps even unconsciously ingrained, that influenced coordinators to prefer a familiar name over a foreign one, or choose someone who sounded more like them, than like me, a woman of Chinese descent.
Two weeks later, after my husband submitted only two applications, we adopted Oscar, (a 6-month-old puppy) into our family. We ended the nearly three-month-long, often very frustrating search, on a happy note.
Initially, my experience of adopting Oscar was too raw to share with others. It was after the Atlanta shooting on March 16, 2021, that I finally spoke up about my story on FaceBook.
The responses to my post were overflowing with support and love. One person I barely knew from Colorado wrote me an apology card and mailed it to me.
After the Oscar incident, I began doubting myself. As an Asian American woman, if there was not a fair chance of getting a dog, how likely is it that I could even dream of pursuing a leadership position in the field I feel so passionately about?
The reality is, that as Asian Americans, there are things like this happening in our lives, sometimes daily. They often go unnoticed, but cumulatively, they matter a lot, and can ultimately make a big impression. Little things (like the Oscar incident) can chip away at humanity, faith, and trust. It can erode our perception of having a fair chance to simply live with the dignity we should assume is the right of every human being.