HUFFPOST PERSONAL

I Grew Up In A Massage Parlor. The Atlanta Victims' Children Could Have Been Me.

My mother recently said, in Mandarin, that she wanted to close her spa earlier at night because “America feels unsafe.”
People bring flowers to a memorial outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta on March 19, 2021, after a gunman attacked three spas and k
People bring flowers to a memorial outside of Gold Spa in Atlanta on March 19, 2021, after a gunman attacked three spas and killed eight people.

When I heard news of the Atlanta shootings that took the lives of eight people, I was getting ready for a late dinner with my family.

Since I live on Guam, 14 hours ahead of Georgia, I read the news on Wednesday. As I walked to the kitchen door, I spotted my mother and asked, “Did you hear? A man killed eight masseuses in Georgia.” [The victims were later revealed to be non-masseuses as well.] I saw her shoulders drop. 

I’m Chinese. I’m 21, similar to the age of some of the victims’ children. My mother worked in the massage industry her entire life.

In the past year, there have been a reported 3,800 hate crimes against Asian people, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit that tracks hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Statistics rarely move people to action, but for the first time in my memory, conversations about the racism and bigotry that have shaped my racial identity have entered the forefront of public conscience.  

Many have called the Atlanta spa shootings a hate crime against Asians. While it’s hard to pinpoint the motivation of a person, we can’t ignore that the killings targeted women whose jobs were tied to race, class and gender. 

After the attacks, dozens of news article about “#StopAsianHate” and the Georgia shootings popped up on my Twitter thread. As a student reporter, I write about violent crimes and aggravated assaults. But that evening, one USA Today story about Xiaojie Tan, one of the victims, felt eerily relatable. 

She was described as the best friend of her 29-year-old daughter, Jami Webb, a 2019 graduate of the University of Georgia. Like my mother, she toiled long hours each day, carving out a better life for her child. 

I read every word of the article, including the photo captions, and looked at the picture of Webb leaning against Tan’s fiance, Kevin Chen, attending the vigil in honor of her mother. 

I never met the victims in the Atlanta-area shootings: Suncha Kim, 69; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Yong Ae Yu, 63; Soon Chung Park, 74; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Daoyou Feng, 44.

But had I been born at a different time in a different state, Webb’s mother could have been mine.

I’m the daughter of a masseuse, and used to the strange looks, raised eyebrows and the shaking of heads when people talk about masseuses, often with racial slurs or derogatory undertones.

Growing up as the daughter of a masseuse is no easy ride. I struggled to describe the massage industry to my friends, many of whom had never set foot in one and presumed them all to be sex parlors. When my Chinese mother attended a beauty academy to test for a spa license, her achievement of receiving a professional degree was met with scorn.

We were one of the many Chinese families on Guam that worked in the massage industry, but people assumed that day spas, night spas, nail salons and massage parlors were all the same: If they were affordable and filled with Chinese women, they were regarded as problematic. 

Sometimes, in response to the misconceptions, I tell my friends about the massage parlor where I spent 15 years finishing homework while waiting for masseuses to relieve the aching muscles of clients. Their jobs, like my mother’s, demanded they stay on their feet, soothing the pain tourist by tourist. 

If my mother needed help, I assumed the role of makeshift receptionist and told the masseuses: “Returning couple. Both want a foot massage. Other masseuse already inside.”

When I exchange words with them in Mandarin, I sense how unfamiliar they feel in a country that seems perpetually foreign. But ultimately, these masseuses are my aunts: After an hour, who asks if they relaxed? Who wonders how they feel cleaning a stranger’s feet? Who even cares about them? 

The night after the Georgia attacks, my parents talked about their fears over a meal of hot pot, previously a festive occasion in my home. The attacks in Atlanta came as no surprise; Asian Americans are minorities in America, and the pandemic has done little to curb discrimination against us. 

My parents, overlooked as immigrants the past two decades, worried about their children. What would it mean for their daughter, me, to return to the States after the pandemic? Would it be safe? 

When I asked my parents how they felt about the attacks, I’m not sure what I expected. I wonder if the many news articles written in English — the language that taught me everything I knew — meant much to my Chinese parents, who focused on the violence and hate. I doubt my parents looked into the fetishization of Asian women at the heart of the Georgia killings.

Any attempt to justify this crime by citing a 21-year-old white man’s sex addiction and “temptation” that he wanted to “eliminate” is wrong. What matters more, however, is that one man’s horrific actions thrust many employees in the massage business, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere, into a questioning that felt all too familiar. 

These women were mothers, wives, fiancees, daughters. They had Asian names with children raised in the States. They had lives abroad, with family ready to see them return. Even if authorities have denied that the shootings were linked to race, let us not forget the names of these women. 

People assumed that day spas, night spas, nail salons and massage parlors were all the same: If they were affordable and filled with Chinese women, they were regarded as problematic.

My mother recently said, in Mandarin, that she wanted to close her spa earlier at night because “America feels unsafe.” Her language seemed to suggest mixed feelings in the country she calls her second home — a longing to describe so many emotions without knowing how. 

But as her daughter, translating her anger into English isn’t about feeling outraged. For protection, I’ve been taught to stay quiet, a long tradition it has taken the deaths of eight people — six of them Asian and female — to elicit a collective response to. 

I’m a Chinese American raised on the island of Guam, a student journalist trained to write about sexual misconduct and aggravated assaults. I’m also the daughter of a masseuse, and used to the strange looks, raised eyebrows and the shaking of heads when people talk about masseuses, often with racial slurs or derogatory undertones. People assume I, the daughter of an immigrant masseuse, will be defenseless against their cruel words. 

In response, I share my story. For over a decade, massage made me — the daughter of a masseuse — less, not more relaxed. I flinch when customers ask for two-hour massages, demanding the masseuses perform grueling work. I shudder when classmates ask me about the obscure storefronts of other massage parlors, many of them ignorant that immigrant women — who, in my life, have rarely heard their voices on a national stage until now — constantly live with the stains of sex work and sexism, regardless of what they choose to do.  

In the massage parlor, there is familiarity in the way masseuses gently nod at me. There is the rushing pace to find a client’s room and my quick response instructing them where to go. In the massage parlor, silence is not deafening, but brimming with hope.

Immigrants build their lives out of parlors and spas, partly because the jobs give them a chance without using English — a language that united the majority of the world but ostracized them, the minority.

It’s uncomfortable to speak about a massage parlor. But this is where I grew up.

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