An Asian American college couple tries to let their young love bloom, but racist incidents keep disrupting their honeymoon phase.
There’s a picture of us meeting in person for the first time on the second floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, taken via self-timer on Snapchat. It was September 2020. You can sense the awkward nervousness we felt, with his arm carefully placed behind my lower back and me giving the camera a big thumbs up.
We’re dressed in classic first date attire: me in a navy jumpsuit that I frantically purchased a few days before and him sporting a striped button-down shirt with chino shorts. Our masks cover half our faces, but you can imagine the wide grins underneath as we pose in quite possibly the least romantic place to meet in all of New York City. He had just returned to the city and his college dorm at Fordham; I had taken the bus in from my parents’ home in Tenafly, New Jersey.
Two months earlier, in July — six days after my 19th birthday and at the height of the pandemic — I had downloaded Hinge out of boredom and curiosity. I was always rolling my eyes at friends who downloaded dating apps “just for fun,” but adrift in the unbearable abyss of quarantine, I let myself do the same.
To my surprise, I immediately received a message from Bryce, whose profile picture was thankfully not a shirtless mirror selfie. He was home in West Virginia but would be moving back to his dorm near Lincoln Center, just a few subway stops from my school, N.Y.U., in the fall. From that first connection, things unfolded quickly: Hinge messages became text conversations which escalated to daily good morning/good nights and hours of laughter-filled FaceTime calls.
Every day, Bryce and I talked about our families (we each have a younger brother, and our fathers are both doctors), whether we wanted children in the future (yes), and our experiences growing up as Asian Americans (my family is from Korea; his is from Vietnam and the Philippines). He was the only Asian student in his Appalachian school, while I saw people who looked like me almost everywhere I went in Jersey. He also warned me that he was 5’ 5”, which I (at 5’ 4”) said didn’t matter at all. But more than anything, we would talk about what we wanted to do once we were back in the city.
“Have you ever had dim sum?” he said.
“Only once,” I said, embarrassed by my lack of culinary exposure.
“OK, we have to go to Jing Fong in Chinatown. Their banquet hall is huge — you have to see it.”
I kept a “To Do” list of our future in-person adventures: dim sum at Jing Fong, stroll through Central Park, tour N.Y.U./Washington Square Park area, cook Korean food together, first hug!!!!
After so much anticipation and waiting, here we finally were, in person, checking “first hug!!!!” off the list. Despite my never having been in his presence, his embrace felt comforting and familiar, and I thanked God that he smelled like some sort of fancy cologne and not Axe body spray. Along with the start of a new semester, September 2020 marked the official beginning of our relationship.
The euphoria of our first meeting, however, was short lived. The city was not quite how we remembered it. There were some minor differences that were immediately noticeable, like how the downtown A train was much less crowded. Or how the dim sum at Jing Fong came in plastic takeout containers instead of bamboo steamer baskets. And how you no longer had to squeeze through a sea of people on the narrow sidewalks of Chinatown.
But other changes were more unsettling and indicated a dangerous shift in attitudes over the months we were gone.
On my way to meet Bryce for our third date, a stranger on the sidewalk muttered to me, “Chink, I swear, you’ll all be going back to China soon.”
I was too stunned to turn back and get a look of his face, but I still remember the harsh rasp of his voice. It bothered me even more that he didn’t shout at me but rather spoke at a volume only I could hear — it felt personal, targeted.
I couldn’t help but mention the incident to Bryce when I saw him. Not wanting to worry him too much, I casually slipped it into our conversation while we stuffed our faces with sushi: “I forgot how crazy things happen here so often” and told him about the slur I was called on the way there.
I forced a chuckle and picked up a piece of salmon nigiri.
Bryce seemed more surprised than concerned and reciprocated my nonchalant tone: “What? Well, that’s not good.”
I pushed the stranger’s racist remark to the back of my mind, and we continued our date as usual, heading to Central Park for an outdoor comedy show.
But the Covid-scapegoating and racist name-calling didn’t stop. A short while after our date, it happened again, at the deli next to my dorm, where an elderly man started yelling at me to get out, using the same piercing slur that the stranger had.
Flustered, I ran out without my groceries, fighting back tears. Whether it was a blatantly xenophobic comment directed toward me in public or an ill-informed joke from a co-worker at my internship, I couldn’t seem to escape the impression that I wasn’t welcome in this city.
The first person I immediately thought of and wanted to talk to after these incidents was Bryce, but this was supposed to be our honeymoon phase, free of negativity and real-world complications. Wouldn’t telling him every time something happened just cause unnecessary concern?
I decided to take a leap of faith and tell him anyway. Earbuds in, I went into my closet to avoid disturbing my roommate and started a FaceTime call that would last over an hour.
Bryce’s empathetic response made me wish I had told him about my experiences sooner. The seriousness in his voice was a stark contrast from his usual goofy, easygoing self, and he affirmed that he cared deeply about all things that happen in my life, good or bad. While he hadn’t encountered the same harassment, he began to express concern for my safety.
The next time we saw each other, Bryce gave me his pepper spray and, knowing that I had never owned any, taught me how to use it. Then, we enabled location sharing on my phone in case anything happened where he needed to know where I was. And while I thought this was enough, he insisted on putting his credit card on my Lyft app so that I didn’t have to worry about the cost of late-night rides back to my dorm.
“I’m here for you, OK?” he said. “I love you.”
His words felt like cool aloe vera on a fresh sunburn. I appreciated the pepper spray and safety tips, but it was his warm reassurance that I needed most. Knowing that I wasn’t alone and that we could navigate this changed city together brought me so much comfort.
Months later, some aspects of the city returned to prepandemic normalcy; at least, the bamboo steamer baskets were back.
“Has it really only been a year and a half together?” I said to Bryce, as a dim sum server offered us more Har Gow from her cart.
He smiled and planted a kiss on my cheek.
But while more people started riding the subway and going to restaurants in Chinatown, the Asian hate only worsened. Michelle Alyssa Go was pushed in front of a train in Times Square. Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in her apartment on Chrystie Street, only a 10-minute walk from where I live.
The thought that I might be attacked next can creep into my mind at any time, during a lecture on Zoom or when I’m doing my laundry. But I try to remember the feeling of that first embrace I shared with Bryce more than 18 months ago; this city is the place where our love became real.
And we are here to stay, enjoying the best wonton soup at Noodle Village, strolling through Washington Square Park, and going grocery shopping at Deluxe Food Market on Sunday afternoons. After all, this is our city too.
When I think about Bryce and me, the typical depictions of young, careless love don’t seem to apply. We are more cautious, purposeful, and real than ever.
Recently, many local campaigns have launched to try to combat Asian hate. I am most drawn to the message of the “I Still Believe in Our City” campaign, which highlights the beauty and strength of local Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Weirdly enough, through all this madness, never once have Bryce and I wished to leave. There’s something undeniably magical about being in love in New York City. And we’re not going to let any racism or hate take that away from us.
Joyce Juhee Chung, a junior at New York University, is a finalist in the Modern Love college essay contest.
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