“You Just Feel a Little More Like An Outcast”: Asian Americans Amid Anti-Asian Violence
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“From what I remember, I was going out on a normal walk. I like fresh air. I remember passing by a house that had a Trump flag on the front, and yes, there were people outside of the house, and one of them, a woman, [...] took one look at me, and—how to describe it—she looked very annoyed, angry, [and] hateful. And she saw me, and her expression was like that. And she went up to me after that, and I was not expecting anything good if the expression on her face was any indication, and she told me I was a ‘dirty chink’ and also the classic ‘Go back to China,’” junior Rachel Lin said.
“[My mom] told me that she was at the supermarket. This was maybe three months into quarantine, and she said that one lady came up to her and told her to go back to her country, which she was assuming was China, because my mom isn’t even Chinese. My mom is Thai, for reference. She thought it was crazy. The lady just had the audacity to come up to her and say, ‘Go back to China’ or something,” junior Paige Wolfing said.
These are not isolated cases.
In San Francisco, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old immigrant from Thailand, died after a man pushed him down the streets on January 28. A month later, Xiao Zhen Xie, a 75-year-old Chinese woman, was attacked on the streets and fought back against her attacker.
And in Atlanta, Georgia, eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, were shot in a massage parlor by an assailant who claimed to have a “sex addiction” and carried out his shootings in an attempt to eliminate his temptation.
Anti-Asian hate crimes across the country surged by 169 percent in the first quarter of 2021, with New York City experiencing the largest spike—223 percent. Research by Stop AAPI Hate, an organization created in March 2020 committed to combat anti-Asian racism, recorded 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents since the pandemic started, with women making up 68 percent of the share of reports.
Statistics tell a story. Yet they do not tell individual stories. For people who have either experienced a racist incident or live in fear of experiencing one, these numbers are personal. “You just feel a little more like an outcast,” one anonymous sophomore said in response to the attacks. “You feel a little less of an American even though you’ve been here your whole life and you know it’s your own country, right? It just feels like your own country is turning against you.”
To be an “insider” or “outsider” in this country takes on a literal meaning in the context of the pandemic. To be inside is to be safe as much from the virus itself as from racist jabs about the “Kung Flu,” and to be outside is to be in danger of both. Those who dare to go outside become acutely aware of just how much they are forced to feel like outsiders. “The biggest thing for me is being afraid because when you're walking on the street, you have to look over your shoulder at all times because it’s actually a little scary now when you have to go out,” the anonymous sophomore said. “I have a sister. I don’t want her walking around. I’ve been trying to go with her everywhere because I don’t want her to get stabbed.”
Passersby are not necessarily the enemy. For the sake of safety, though, many students stay on guard. “When I start passing people on the street or when I’m alone—especially white people, not that I have anything against them, but in my experiences a white person has spewed words of hate at me—there’s a feeling of tenseness,” Lin said. To have to navigate the neighborhood in a full suit of armor is still a new experience for Lin, who only recently moved to Staten Island from Chinatown. “To be honest, I was a bit shocked because we just moved. It was a new neighborhood, and my neighbors had thus far been nice,” she said. “This experience actually kind of opened my eyes to that, and it let me down a lot [...] I was expecting to feel as safe here as I did there, and now, that has gone under because of this experience and a few other experiences just like that.”
Danger forces adaptation for where you walk, when you walk, and with whom. Yet perhaps the pressure to change ought to be placed more on the attackers than on those being attacked. Asian Americans have been adapting themselves to survive in a hostile environment for generations, but in an attempt to assimilate, a part of the original self is lost. Principal Seung Yu recalled a particular incident: “When I was in elementary school growing up in North Carolina, I remember feeling embarrassed of being Asian—being a Korean American—because at the time, I heard every derogatory name […] and I just remember feeling embarrassed,” he said. “Fortunately, as I grew up, I've learned more about my family [and] our culture, [and I] really gained a sense of pride.”
Asian identity is not something to change. What can change is how we go about thinking of ourselves in the Asian American community. “I'm hopeful for this moment,” Sonya Kim, a parent of a 2020 Stuyvesant alum, said. “For better or for worse, this has been a wake-up call for the Asian American community.”
The wake-up call rings loudest in the ears of Asian Americans. Yet other groups, too, must be prepared to hear the call and answer it. “There’s this idea about Asian Americans being considered ‘other’ and/or invisible, [but] Asian Americans have a rich history in this country and beyond,” Yu said. “It needs to be seen, heard, and valued, and it starts there from every individual.”
In addition to discussing just current events, it is also imperative to confront the long-standing model minority myth, a term that coins Asian Americans as hardworking and, thus, socio-economically successful in America. However, this perception has forced a racial wedge between other minority groups while overlooking the adversities that the Asian community faces. “Like all stereotypes, the model minority myth creates separation among groups. In this context, it misconstrues how successful certain ethnic groups are when the reality is much more complicated,” social studies teacher Hing Li said.
Dismantling this myth is key to recognizing that Asian Americans indeed face racism and hate crimes. “Not a lot of people are actually recognizing these crimes as hate crimes against Asians,” junior and Stuyvesant Asian Coalition Vice President Alice Zhu said. “Some people try to look the other way [...] Part of that comes down to that there’s been such a long-prevailing myth of Asians being the model minority that now [...] that there's a rise in actual Asian crimes, a lot of people don’t really want to recognize that.”
Education is a first step. To educate is to raise awareness of the rich and extensive history of Asian Americans along with the struggles that they’ve faced. “Education is one of the best antidotes to racism. Asian American history has to become part of the New York City school curriculum,” Kim said. “This way, Asian American students not only have pride in the contributions that Asian Americans have made to this country, but non-Asian students also see that Asian Americans are an integral part of American society and culture, and hopefully, that builds tolerance and respect for their Asian peers.”
Speaking up, whether it is through social media or protests, is a powerful tool in and of itself in amplifying voices. “We should all speak up, and this is not the time to be quiet. We should all raise awareness that this is happening to the AAPI community,” Kim said. “And for young people who are really good with social media, they can use their platforms to shine a light on this problem. They can organize rallies within their communities [and] just in general, become an activist because [... it] gives you agency and sort of control over the situation somewhat.”
Whether it is educating friends or attending rallies to stand in solidarity with the Asian American community, increasing the visibility of Asian Americans ultimately starts on an individual level. “Each person is capable of different things, and that is what makes us unique. Use your developed skills, passions, talents, and more to begin a conversation or engage directly in the cause,” Li said. “It might not be anytime soon, but I want you to understand who you are as a person and develop your identity. This may take months or even years. The change you want will not happen overnight. I believe in each and every one of you. Most importantly, you are not alone. We can do this together.”