By Daniel Dunaief
When I was in college, I learned an important lesson in class that had nothing to do with the subject I was studying. Many years ago, I attended an early morning anthropology lecture.
Pacing at the front and bottom of a semicircular stage, the professor shared details about the hungry ghost festival. In various parts of Asia and India, people practice a ritual in which they relieve the suffering of their deceased relatives by providing food. During this time, the professor said, people prepare meals and leave empty seats for ghosts, who ritualistically consume the food.
Seated next to a friend from our dorm, I was busily taking notes, not only because I wanted to do well on a future test, but because I also found the description fascinating.
That’s when the professor became distracted. Someone from the audio visual department was quietly packing up equipment at the back of the room.
“Excuse me,” the professor yelled to the man. “What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” the man said.
“Well, you should be,” the professor barked back.
The man continued to try to pack up the materials quietly. The noise, which I barely heard from a seat that was much closer to the back of the room, was still too much for my professor.
“You’re sorry, but you’re still disrupting my class!” he shouted.
“I’m packing up the material. I work for the university. One of the other classes needs it now,” the man replied. “I’ll keep it down.”
“No, this is ridiculous,” the professor said through gritted teeth. “I won’t tolerate this. You will leave.”
The man stood still, unsure of what to do. In that moment, I felt like I had a choice: I could either say something to support the man in the back of the room or walk out of the class. By doing and saying nothing, which is what I did, I felt like I was accepting the professor’s behavior.
When the man spent one more minute doing his work, the professor demanded to know where he worked so he could show up and bother him while he was trying to concentrate.
All these years later, I still think of that small moment. These types of incidents require a readiness to think, speak or act, especially to something that disturbs or distresses us. It’s akin to what coaches say all the time in sports: know what you’re going to do with the ball before it comes to you. If you have to think too much about your next move, it’s going to be too late.
A recent anti-Asian incident in New York City, in which security guards watched as a man knocked down and kicked a 65-year-old woman on her way to church, reminded me of the need to be prepared to do the right thing, even when someone wrongs someone else.
We are more likely to act when we are prepared to help, even if the moment creates discomfort for us.
Nowadays, we all have an opportunity to support each other, particularly amid anti-American attacks on members of the Asian American community. These cowardly verbal and physical assaults will become less prevalent if perpetrators know we’re all prepared to stand up for our friends and neighbors who have become the target for random anger during the pandemic. Asian Americans are not an enemy of the rest of us any more than our heart is the enemy of our body. We should stand with, and for, each other.