There’s a photo of us meeting in person for the first time on the second floor of the Port Authority bus station, taken via the self-timer on Snapchat. It was September 2020. You can feel the awkward nervousness we felt, with his arm neatly placed behind my lower back and me lifting the camera with a big thumbs up.
We’re dressed in classic first-date attire: me in a navy jumpsuit I frantically bought a few days before and him wearing a striped button-up shirt with chino shorts. Our masks cover half of our faces, but you can imagine the wide smiles underneath as we pose in the most unromantic place to meet in all of New York City. He had just returned to town and to his college dorm at Fordham; I had taken the bus from my parents’ house 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 always rolled my eyes at friends downloading dating apps “just for fun,” but adrift in the unbearable abyss of quarantine, I let myself do the same.
To my surprise, I immediately got a message from Bryce, whose profile picture thankfully wasn’t a shirtless mirror selfie. He was at home in West Virginia but would return to his dorm near Lincoln Center, a few subway stops from my school, NYU, in the fall. From that first connection, things happened quickly: pivotal messages became text conversations that escalated into daily good mornings/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 dads are both doctors), whether we wanted kids in the future (yes), and our experiences as Americans. Asian descent (my family is originally from Korea; his is from Vietnam and the Philippines). He was the only Asian student at his school in Appalachia, 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 were talking about what we wanted to do when we got back to town.
“Have you ever eaten 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, walk through Central Park, visit NYU/Washington Square Park, cook Korean food together, first hug!!!!
After so much anticipation and waiting, we were finally, in person, checking out “first hug!!!!” off the list. Although I had never been in his presence, his embrace was comforting and familiar, and I thanked God he smelled like some kind of fancy cologne and not an Ax body spray. Alongside the start of a new semester, September 2020 marked the official start of our relationship.
However, the euphoria of our first meeting was short-lived. The city wasn’t quite as we remembered it. There were a few minor differences that were immediately noticeable, such as the fact that the downtown A train was much less crowded. Or how Jing Fong’s dim sum 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 troubling and indicated a dangerous shift in attitude during the months of our absence.
On the way to meet Bryce for our third date, a stranger on the sidewalk whispered to me, “Chink, I swear, you’re all going back to China soon.
I was too stunned to turn around and see his face, but I still remember the harshness in his voice. It bothered me even more that he wasn’t yelling at me, but rather speaking at a volume that only I could hear – it was personal, focused.
I couldn’t resist mentioning the incident to Bryce when I saw him. Not wanting to worry him too much, I casually slipped him into our conversation as we stuffed our faces with sushi, “I forgot how crazy things happen here so often” and told him about the insult addressed to me on the way.
I forced a chuckle and took a piece of salmon nigiri.
Bryce looked more surprised than worried and replied in 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 racial slurs have not stopped. Shortly after our date, it happened again, at the deli next to my dorm, where an older man started yelling at me to get out, using the same piercing insult the stranger had.
Confused, I fled without my groceries, holding back tears. Whether it was an openly xenophobic comment made about me in public or an ill-informed joke from a co-worker, I couldn’t escape feeling like I was unwelcome. 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, with no negativity or real-world complications. Wouldn’t telling him every time something happened cause unnecessary worry?
I decided to take a leap of faith and tell him anyway. Headphones in place, I went to my closet to avoid disturbing my roommate and initiated a FaceTime call that would last over an hour.
Bryce’s empathetic response made me wish I’d told him about my experiences sooner. The seriousness of his voice was a stark contrast to his usual goofy, easy-going self, and he claimed he cared deeply about everything that was going on in my life, good or bad. Although he did not experience the same harassment, he began to worry about my safety.
The next time we saw each other, Bryce gave me his pepper spray and, knowing that I had never owned one, taught me how to use it. Then we turned on location sharing on my phone in case something happened where it needed to know where I was. And even though I thought that was enough, he insisted on putting his credit card on my Lyft app so I didn’t have to worry about the cost of late-night rides to my dorm.
“I’m here for you, okay? ” he said. “I love you.”
His words sounded like fresh aloe vera on a fresh sunburn. I appreciated the pepper spray and the safety tips, but it was his warm reassurance that I needed most. Knowing that I was not alone and that we could navigate this changed city together gave me great comfort.
Months later, some aspects of the city have returned to pre-pandemic normalcy; at least the bamboo steamer baskets were back.
“Has it really only been a year and a half together?” I told Bryce, as a dim sum waiter offered us more Har Gow from his cart.
He smiled and placed a kiss on my cheek.
But as more people started taking the subway and eating out in Chinatown, the Asian hatred only got worse. Michelle Alyssa Go was pushed in front of a train in Times Square. Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in her apartment on Chrystie Street, just a 10 minute walk from my house.
The idea that I might be attacked next can creep into my mind at any time, during a Zoom conference or while I am doing my laundry. But I try to remember the feeling of that first hug I shared with Bryce over 18 months ago; this city is where our love became real.
And we’re here to stay, enjoy the best wonton soup at Noodle Village, stroll through Washington Square Park and shop at the Deluxe Food Market on Sunday afternoons. After all, it’s also our city.
When I think of Bryce and me, the typical depictions of young, carefree love don’t seem to apply. We are more cautious, determined and real than ever.
Recently, many local campaigns have been launched in an attempt to combat Asian hatred. I’m particularly drawn to the campaign message “I Still Believe in Our City”, which highlights the beauty and strength of local communities in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Strangely, through all this craziness, Bryce and I never wanted to leave. There’s definitely something magical about being in love in New York. And we’re not going to let racism or hate take that away from us.