How Do You Name a Hurricane?

By Amy Lee Scott

First, watch the storm gathering. On the map there is a bustle of white, so much like a twirling petticoat that spins faster and faster. When it gets big enough, the astronauts post photos. News outlets flash warnings. People clear supermarket shelves, hammer up boards, track down batteries. Outside, the wind thrashes.

***

Arthur. Bertha. Cristobal. And Dolly.

Use old names, like our grandparents’. Names that stick. That is why we began to name them: the old labels—just numbers—were not enough. We needed names to contain such catastrophes.

Why would anyone even live there? someone said after looking at photos of decimated islands. They are destroyed year after year.

We weren’t noticing the hurricanes. Here, we were scrolling and scrolling past black squares. Past Black faces:

George. Breonna. Ahmaud. The list went on.

***

My son’s elementary school cafeteria is standard issue. Rows of tables sit squat to the ground and the air smells of pancake syrup and multipurpose cleaner. I’m volunteering for lunch duty and he waves at me approximately fifteen times per second. He cannot believe I am there: his mom. At his school. It’s a delightful impossibility that tickles him silly.

The first time I stop at his lunch table he gives me a giant hug. I know most of the kids in his kindergarten class and give them air high-fives. We are used to Covid protocols. I help them open their milk cartons and granola bars and wipe up a spill.

I’m about to circulate again when one of the kids demands to know who I am. He has an adorable upturned nose and loud voice. My son shoots me a look and I instantly know that this is the class bully. “This is my mom,” my son says, and gives me a protective squeeze.

The kid squints his eyes, and scoffs, “No way. There’s no way that’s your mom. You don’t even match!”

My son doesn’t get it. I’m his mother, we match in every way that matters, from our taste in pop divas, to our love of Roald Dahl. But the boy is right. My son, despite having half of my DNA, does not look Korean, like me. Nor does he look like his pale Swedish father.

There’s no point in correcting the child but I try anyway, fumbling through my son’s ethnic genealogy before the kid rolls his eyes and starts chatting with his neighbor. I wink at my son and give him another hug.

As I walk away, I survey the cafeteria. It is a sea of white faces. A handful of brown faces giggle in the crowd. Only two Asian kids stand out, their glossy black hair poking out of their beanies. I grew up eating in a similar cafeteria, with similar demographics. I never thought it bothered me.

But looking at my son, a pit forms in my stomach. If I had never volunteered, no one would have guessed that he doesn’t match—that he isn’t white.

***

I scrolled through BBC, CNN, Fox, scrolled until the words ceased to matter. Everyone was marching or breaking windows.

It was the worst hurricane season on record. In Michigan it seemed that no one noticed. Summer ebbed into fall and the black squares receded.

In October 2020 my governor was nearly kidnapped—for being a woman, for being too strict about the whole Covid thing—by fourteen American militants with three plans:

  1. Kidnap Gretchen Whitmer at her home, by any means necessary, while her family slept.
  2. Take over the Michigan capitol building and execute public officials—on television.
  3. Burn the whole damn thing to the ground.

Why do you even live there? texted friends when they saw photos of the militants shouting on their Twitter feeds. Crowds of men in combat gear swarming our capitol building with pistols clipped to their hip bones, bearing rifles, rising up.

***

My children now know about melanin, how they match and don’t match with their family and friends. I’ve been performing the reckoning as any suburban parent has, probably getting everything wrong.

They know that some people have more melanin—“Like Mama, like me,” my boy says, holding his tan arm out next to mine. “There are others,” my boy says, crooking his head in thought, “at school, with even more. We like to build trains together.”

He nods, satisfied that this is enough.

Once, while lying next to my boy for our nightly chat, I posed a question: “Did you know that some people can get hurt because they have more melanin in their skin than we do?”

“But why?” he asked, his gentle eyes clouding, then flashing bright like a lightning strike in the middle of a storm.

***

They named a late 2020 season hurricane Iota—the smallest thing—a jot.

Hurricane Iota hit Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson windscale, with wind greater than or equal to 157 mph, where “catastrophic damage will occur.” It was later downgraded to Category 4 but no matter the category, the damage was done.

At the end of it, while people pawed through the wreckage of their world, the disaster was tabulated: $10 billion in damages. 100 lives lost.

On the news I saw a great panoply of palms splayed open in the detritus. Nowhere and everywhere, the remnants of homes. That same blue ocean I squinted at as a child sparked, unassuaged.

How do you name a thing that collapses a life so completely?

***

Shortly after Hurricane Iota, U.S. Covid numbers surpassed 4 million. My nearly-kidnapped governor pleaded for people to scale back Thanksgiving 2020, to just stay home.

My preschool-aged children squawk, “Mama, my mask!” if it slips even a little below their noses. They breathe a sigh of relief when I help them square it to their dear little faces. They take my hands in theirs, certain they are safe.

A full year after Iota, 44.9 million people had contracted Covid in the U.S. 724,000 had died. Imagine the entire population of Seattle just dead and gone.

My family has had the test many times, the long cotton swab digging into our sinuses, making our eyes water, making my kids gag, then giggle: “That tickled, Mama.”

***

My phone buzzed: WTF! Are you watching this?!

I flicked on the TV and the same deep unease I felt watching combat-clad men nonchalantly shouldering rifles down the halls of my state’s Capitol returned in an instant. There they were again: legions of red hats and fatigues scaling scaffolding, then the walls of the U.S. Capitol building. I couldn’t stop scrolling. Newscasters and commentators began to name the impossible for what it was: an insurrection. Lawmakers huddled in their barricaded chamber wearing what appeared to be crumbled plastic bags. I learned later that they were emergency gas masks that whirred constantly, a physical soundtrack of the anxiety surely gripping each of them.

There are two images I can’t stop seeing. The first is of a man wearing a tan and black hooded jacket strolling through the Capitol’s halls with a flagpole propped against his shoulder. A Confederate flag hangs like a stain fluttering behind him as he moves between two Civil War-era portraits: one is of an anti-slavery senator, and the other is of a former Vice President who was known for his vigorous defense of slavery.

The second image is from footage shot after the rioters left their four-hour occupation of the building. They left their selfie sticks and sunglasses and many water bottles abandoned around the furniture they destroyed. This footage records three black maintenance workers sweeping up the mess, the detritus of a failed coup attempt.

***

“Are you okay?” I texted my sister, a Korean adoptee like me. “I can’t stop crying,” I typed before her three little dots could finish.

A 21-year-old white man walked into three Atlanta spas and killed eight people. Six of the victims were Asian women.

The shooter explained to the cops that the shooting wasn’t racially motivated at all. He just needed to “eliminate the [sexual] temptation.” Captain Jay Baker, a white male sheriff’s official on the case, thought that the shooter must have just “had a bad day.” This man was later removed from the investigation when people learned that he had posted Facebook ads encouraging people to buy shirts emblazoned with “Covid 19: Imported Virus From Chy-na.”

Of the seven women killed, four were Korean women.

Throughout my life people have asked, and I have spent no small amount of time wondering, if I ever thought about whether or not my biological Korean mother might have been a prostitute. “Aren’t you so glad you were adopted?” They smile, relief clearly written across their faces. “You’re so lucky you grew up as an American.”

The shooter had been to two of the spas before. They had been targeted for prostitute sting operations in the past. He thought about just shooting himself but then thought it would be better to help those like him, sex addicts, and exterminate the temptation at its source.

Six of the murdered women share my black hair and almond eyes. Their families post photos of them smiling, arms slung around their children or pets. I look closely into the faces of each of the Korean women. I check their ages. Any one of them could have been my biological mother.

People have joked that my extremely kind and extremely white husband must have had yellow fever to marry me.

Once, as a college student, I stepped into my department’s elevator with a professor many decades older than me. The doors closed and I realized the man was standing quite close. He said that I had an exotic look about me. He smiled, warmly probably, just making small talk, probably, and asked about a white plastic ring I wore. “Ivory?” he asked with a conspiratorial tone. I shook my head but he didn’t see me. “It’s just so exotic.”

The man was at least twice my size. He leaned closer, to examine my exotic ring, and while I told myself this was harmless, that he meant nothing, it was impossible not to feel a familiar sense of dread as I smiled tightly and counted down the floors, willing the metal box to open so I could escape.

There are nice white men everywhere. I married one of them. But then there are others who are unable to see me as anything but an exotic body. An other.

***

I went to the Atlanta spa shooting vigil with my husband. The university students who led it were outraged and beautiful. They sang songs in trembling voices that brought tears to my eyes. They left plastic tea lights scattered before a marble-clad department building. The dark settled. I kept watching two children in a red wagon festooned with all the right signage. #stopAAPIhate. #asianlivesmatter. The kids held their placards and yawned. It was way past bedtime.

I had left my two children at home with a sitter. “Where you goin’, Mommy?” my three-year-old had chirped before I left. “On a date.” I sidestepped the truth, kissing her sweet little lips. “Okay. Love you,” she snuggled against me, safe as can be. When I came home I tiptoed into her room. She breathed so surely. I watched her small body rise and fall with each breath. It could all end. As surely as a breaking levee. The crack of a tree felled by lightning. Eight bullets.
I put the candle in her window.

Delania Ashley Yaun
Mario Gonzalez

My daughter slept on, unaware.

Xiaojie Chan
Daoyou Feng
Hyun Jung Grant
Suncha Kim Soon
Chung Park Yong
Yue

***

My son obsessively watches hurricane documentaries on Discovery Channel. The last few weeks it’s been the same one over and over again.

“Mom, did you know that hurricane season starts in June and ends in November?” “Mom, but did you know that the season is just going to get longer and longer?” “Mom, did you know the earth is heating up and mega storms will become even more common?” “Mom, can a hurricane really see? With one eye?”

I watch him watching the storm clouds gathering on his screen. The wind battering palm trees into the ground. He recites the names like an incantation. I hear him whispering them to himself when he builds his elaborate Lego towns: Katrina. Harvey. Sandy.

It’s nearly the end of the 2021 hurricane season. One month to go and already

$55 billion in damages. There have been so many massive storms that we only have four names left. Then we’ll have to start all over again, right back at the top of the alphabet.

My husband tells our son about the hurricanes he drove through as a dumb college student in Miami. “The water just poured into the car but we kept driving.” Our son’s eyes saucer. I can practically see his thoughts forming.

“Mom, what if a hurricane came to Michigan? What if everything flooded and we got to ride our house—like a boat?”

To him, it’s a game. He’s too young to understand the power of wind and water. At his swimming classes he leaps into the pool with a giant grin. He snaps his goggles over his eyes and splashes, flounders, gulps in water until the instructor taps his head and he rolls to his back. Water streams off his face and his smile

cracks my heart. All the things he doesn’t yet know. The one about Hurricane Ida, just last month, where a grown man in Louisiana walked into knee-deep water outside his own home, and the alligator that pulled him down and down. His wife on the porch, calling his name.

***

Time marches on. The Atlanta spa shooter strikes a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. He pleads guilty to four murders, gets four consecutive life sentences, no possibility of parole. The Wolverine Watchmen who waited in the dark to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer claim entrapment. The FBI set them up.

Oh well, people shrug all around me. I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal, if the government made it up. As if a plot of any kind to kidnap a sitting governor is fine by them. Time passes so swiftly and so many people forget.

The insurrection becomes a punch line on late-night shows. The same lawmakers who wore those crumpled emergency gas masks as they cowered on the Senate floor bicker over terminology. The investigation of the hundreds arrested is borderline harassment, one lawmaker huffs. As the months slip by, some people start wondering if it wasn’t an insurrection at all. Some say it could hardly qualify as a riot. In fact, those loyal American citizens were more like tourists, just passing through, snapping photos—you saw them, right? So peaceful, not breaking any rules—as lawful citizens it’s their right to be there, after all.

Maybe they got a little carried away. Maybe one or two of them were “having a bad day.” The ease with which language erodes then erases astounds me.

***

I keep a catalog of all the freak accidents I have ever heard about. The always-approaching threat of death lurks every time I walk down the hall. I could miss a stair step. I could trip and my face could land just the wrong way on my water bottle’s metal straw. It happened to a woman in England and it killed her. I stopped using metal straws immediately upon hearing that story. This is what it is to live with anxiety.

Most of my anxiety is rooted in obsessing over, and attempting to ward off, improbable scenarios like death-by-metal-straw. Another portion is related to just existing in the world as a woman—never run at night, always check the back seat, carry my keys like a talon between my fingers—the normal misogyny many women are taught and internalize from girlhood.

Just last week, my university had a near-shutdown because some faceless man on the internet threatened to shoot any woman he came across on campus. The authorities said they checked it out but there wasn’t anything to worry about. Leadership sent emails saying students could attend class virtually if they wanted. My female colleagues and I locked our suite door and planned our escape route, should anything happen.

“I’d crawl out the window,” I explained. “There’s no line of sight from the door. Then I’d hang and drop.”

“You don’t think that would kill you?” My coworker leaned her head out our open window and I joined her. We peered down to the concrete below.

“It’s what, fifteen, twenty feet down? Maybe I’d break some bones but I think I’d survive. Especially if I hit the flower bed instead of the concrete.”

She cast a doubtful look at me.

“I mean, we would probably hear shooting downstairs first so we would have time.” She thought about that then nodded. “You’re probably right.”

The conversation felt shockingly normal. It voiced the complicated algebra women constantly run in the background to evaluate what place or which person is safe, or not. It is the core math our children are learning each time they run active-shooter drills in class.

It’s what allows women all over the world to justify entering their offices, grocery stores, and salons. The percentage of death-by-daily-activity is relatively low. To dwell on the potential of a freak tragedy does nothing. We still have to live. So we nod at the passerby, smile at the cashier, open the door to our massage parlor and hope the worst does not befall.

***

I’m snuggled with my son watching yet another hurricane documentary when intense music swells and the screen fills with a simulated hurricane. It’s cut with snippets of real hurricane footage, the wind raging.

“This is the hurricane’s wall.” The narrator’s voice drops by an octave. “Located just outside the calm eye, the eyewall is actually the most dangerous part of the storm.”

My son squeezes my hand, eating the drama up. The footage shows a town being absolutely hammered by the storm. Palm trees blow so raucously their fronds run parallel to the ground and appear to be shrieking.

Eyewalls are formed by vertical clouds swirling, wind rushing toward the center of the hurricane but never quite getting there. Instead the winds get caught up with each other, chasing and chasing. Eyewalls carry the massive force of a storm. It is where the most damaging winds occur, the most torrential rainfall.

“Mom, did you know there was a hurricane named Hagadus? It means speedy and it was, speedy that is.” “Mom, Hagadus was so big it connected with another storm. It was like a superstorm.” “It was so big it even made its own tornadoes!”

According to Google, my son is not wrong. Only, its name was Hagibis, meaning rapidity in Tagalog, and it was a typhoon. The only difference between a typhoon and a hurricane is where one is located. We have hurricanes in America. They have typhoons in Asia. Yet hurricanes and typhoons are both made out of the same circling cloud matter that comprises all tropical cyclones. The same swirling clouds mount and mount to create the same devastating eyewalls. The same swaths of destruction. Words matter until they don’t. Language defines until it can’t.

Hagibis didn’t care either way. It bundled up all its whirring energy and pressed all its Category 5 force toward Japan, killing 74 people in the process. It heaved a massive tornado onto the shores of Ichihara. A 5.7 magnitude earthquake rumbled off the coast.

At $15 billion in damages, it is the most expensive typhoon on record. The damage was of such magnitude that an international committee agreed to retire the name Hagibis so it can never be used again to identify future typhoons.

What must it have felt like, to be caught up by that wind shear?

***

I keep watching grainy security camera footage of Asians being kicked, punched, and bricked while bystanders do nothing. Or scramble to close doors. The one that breaks me is of the father walking down a San Francisco street, his assailant suddenly punching him down to the ground. Punching and punching. The man’s whole body crumpling under the blows, while just out of reach, the father’s baby sits helpless in a stroller.

There is no sound. That is left for the viewer to imagine. The child is just out of reach. Watching. His little foot kicking in and out. The stroller rolls backwards— perhaps pulled by a bystander in an attempt to keep the child safe—and that is when the father leaps off the ground and lunges for the stroller handle. He yanks the stroller back close to him, where nothing is okay, and ducks to check on his child.

That image of this father leaning over the stroller while his battered body must ache from the attack is the one that replays through my head every time I buckle my daughter into her stroller.

Time marches on. Prior to Covid I was normal-careful. A woman is taught to be careful. But I had let my guard down. I had become used to feeling safe. Then the Chy-na flu came.

I watched people in my nice white suburban town take a wide berth when they saw me coming at the grocery store. They were probably just being courteous but as an Asian walking in a Kung Flu world I questioned everyone’s motives.

Now I have pepper spray. I scan constantly. I know where all the exits are. I think twice before entering the grocery store. And all the while I have to operate every day with the awful knowledge that all of my surveillance, all of my vigilance, will do nothing to protect my children or me from a sudden, random, racist attack.

***

At peak pandemic I was working from home full-time while my two preschoolers ran rampant in my Zoom meetings. It’s only recently that I feel like I can let out a sigh of relief. It’s only recently that I can admit how afraid I was to leave my house in the spring and summer of 2020—not because of a global health pandemic, but because I was Asian.

This was the height of Kung Flu rhetoric. On several occasions I had slunk lower in my driver’s seat and held my breath when trucks waving Confederate flags drove next to me in the town I call home. I constantly wondered what would be said or done to me as I tried to buy food for my family.

I was afraid so I put up my American flag porch bunting quickly and purposefully to signal to my mostly white neighborhood that I am safe, American like them—not an other, not a threat. I am increasingly filled with an unnameable dread that makes me feel small simply because I am not white. It gives me a newfound perspective of the chronic fear that many people of color might feel when they kiss their children goodbye every day. It is the kind of fear that is untenable. It is not fine.1

Because I grew up in a white family and a predominantly white town, I somehow failed to ingest the life-saving anxiety of existing without white skin. All of my friends kept saying that they didn’t even think of me as Asian, so I forgot, too. Now I see more clearly. You can only hear Kung Flu and Go Back Home blaring on the news so many times before reevaluating your position in the world.

But, has anyone ever told you that in real life? people gently ask when I try to tell them about my new version of anxiety. No, not a single person has said those things to my face. Not yet. But it’s the cringing, held-breath nature of not yet that makes my skin—which I can never discard—crawl.

Let’s call it stress. Let’s call it trauma. And it lives deep in the seams.

Looking at my children’s beautiful faces this morning, I had the unsettling and increasingly common feeling of gratitude that my children can easily pass as— and are often mistaken for—white. That they can walk through a decidedly unmagical world cloaked in the skin of safety. All of this is to say that maybe it’s not anxiety. There is something deep within me that is thrashing. Name it: pain, fear, exhaustion. It no longer feels within my control.

Because I am fucking angry.

There is no such thing as a Category 6 hurricane. To reach Category 6, winds would need to exceed 200 mph, bearing down like the mighty rushing wind whispered in ancient prophecies, to fill each house and sweep away everything in its path. Science never imagined there would be such a need, to name such a storm, for how do you name the apocalypse that will ravish us all to the ground?

***

Since I wrote this essay in 2021, anti-Asian American hate crimes have only escalated. I haven’t found the words to process the senseless murders of Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee. I look at their beautiful faces and mourn. In them, I see my sister, my daughter, and myself.

In memoriam Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee.

Michelle Go
Christina Yuna Lee

Footnotes

1 I believe that one antidote to rage and despair is action. In researching this essay, I came across resources that have deepened my understanding of Asian American history. If you would like to learn more, visit: stopaapihate.org; aaja.org; taaf.org; veryasianfoundation.org.


Amy Lee Scott received an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her most recent illustrated essay can be found in Black Warrior Review, and past work can also be found in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, New Letters, and the anthology After Montaigne. Her work has received notable mentions in Best American Essays and the Best American Travel Writing series.

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