This chaotic past year has seen a sharp and troubling rise in violent attacks against Asian Americans—Asian American elders in particular. Technically, I’m Asian American. Specifically, I’m half Korean, half Italian-Irish-etc-etc. I find myself in a strange zone: affected but not affected, angry but hesitant to take up space airing that anger. But before saying anything else I’d like to start with some of these people’s stories and (where possible) their names.
1. December 15th, 2020. Portland OR. An Asian American man waiting at a MAX stop was attacked by a man who asked “Are you Chinese?” before punching him in the face and fleeing the scene.
2. December 17th, 2020. NYC. A 32-year-old Asian woman riding the A train near West 4th Street was punched repeatedly in the face by six people who hurled coronavirus-related racial slurs while confronting her for not wearing a face mask. The woman refused medical attention.
3. December 23rd, 2020. Antioch, CA. Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Filipino American in the grips of a mental health crisis, was killed in his home by police who kneeled on his neck until blood flowed from his mouth. He died at the hospital three days later. His sister Bella said “I’m always going to regret calling the police and hope no one has to regret doing what they think is the right thing.”
4. December 30th, 2020. East Bay, PA. State Police were called to respond to a “distraught” young man on an overpass, and claimed that 19-year-old Christian Hall, a Chinese American adoptee, had “retrieved a firearm” and “pointed it in the Troopers direction” causing them to fatally shoot him down in self-defense. A witness video later surfaced, showing that Christian was standing on the bridge with his hands raised as the officers opened fire.
5. January 28th, 2021. 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai immigrant and grandfather, was taking his daily walk near his home in San Francisco, when an attacker ran across the street and shoved him to the ground. He sustained brain hemorrhaging and died in the hospital without regaining consciousness.
6. January 31st, 2021. Three attacks in Oakland’s Chinatown district. A 91-year-old man “suffered lacerations, abrasions and a contusion to the left thumb” when a stranger approached him from behind and shoved him to the ground. The perpetrator also attacked a 60-year old man and a 55-year-old woman in the same neighborhood, causing the woman to lose consciousness.
7. February 4, 2021. Brooklyn. Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American, was riding the L train from Jefferson Street to his job at a mental-health nonprofit in Harlem. A man behind him started kicking his tote bag, and when Quintana asked what was wrong with him he lashed out with a box-cutter, leaving a deep, shocking scar across Quintana’s face that would require 100 stitches. “I asked for help,” said Quintana. “but nobody helped. Nobody moved.” The attacker escaped and is still at large. “I don’t want to think because I’m Asian. I don’t want to think about that. Because it could also happen to anybody, but — I don’t know.”
8. February 16, 2021. NYC. In Flushing, Queens, a 52-year-old Leelee Chin-Yeung was thrown to the ground and knocked out after a verbal altercation while waiting in line at a bakery. She was taken to New York-Presbyterian with a head wound that required 10 stitches to close. This followed two attacks on Asian elders reported on the very same day in NYC: a 71-year-old woman was punched in the face on a moving Midtown E train, and a 68-year-old was punched from behind on an A train platform in Harlem.
As Instagram infographics will continue to inform you over the coming weeks, this isn’t new. The historical precedent for anti-Asian violence in America is overwhelming and under-taught.
In 1871, 18 Chinese American boys and men, nearly 10% of the total Chinese population of Los Angeles, were lynched by a 500-strong mob, when an argument between two rival businessmen over a woman led to the death of a white civilian caught in the crossfire. Pursuing justice in the massacre’s aftermath was complicated by a statute passed by the California Legislature in 1863 prohibiting Asian Americans from participating in court proceedings as witnesses or victims. Ultimately, a handful of men were convicted of manslaughter, but all were released a year later when the California Supreme Court overruled their convictions on a technicality.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Chester Arthur, making it illegal for Chinese workers to immigrate to America, or for Chinese people already living in the United States to become citizens. This repulsive piece of legislation would not be repealed until 1943. In fact, it was renewed every ten years until 1904, when it was extended in perpetuity. The Immigration Act of 1917 went further, creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone” stretching all the way from Polynesia to Turkey, from which only those whose professions were included in a narrow list that included “government officers, chemists, authors, and merchants” could hope to gain entry.
Japanese internment camps. Yellow Peril. Vincent Chin. A newer indignity – this backstabbing label of “model minority”, where we can be invoked at any bigot’s convenience to disparage another minority group, almost always Black people. Kung Flu.
Despite this wealth of historical evidence, I struggle to accept that this recent wave of violence is racially-motivated. I find myself searching for excuses that diminish the very possibility. Surely it’s just a robbery, and the victims happen to be Asian. Absolutely anyone can get stabbed on the subway. Rick Moranis got punched too. And we have no unique claim on police “resolving” mental illness with excessive or deadly force.
Thankfully, tragically, we have numbers on which to anchor our sense of the facts. Stop AAPI Hate has released a report which describes a disturbing upswing in the number of anti-Asian hate incidents, over 2,800 cases between March and December. New York City alone saw a jaw-dropping 1,900% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020.
It’s still hard to talk about.
Reading pieces by other writers over the past few weeks, it’s clear to me that I’m not alone in approaching the prospect of publicly unpacking anti-Asian racism and issues of Asian identity with dread. And it’s complicated. Growing up in Korea as a multi-racial person, I was regarded as not white, per se, but irrefutably not Korean. I therefore expect to spend the rest of my life being continually surprised by reminders that the world around me has decided I’m Asian American.
I’ve dealt with the boss who sneered “You Asian.” at another driver who cut him off as we drove on the BQE in his sports car. His panic-drained face as he realized his transgression, and his total relief when I (WHY?!) scrambled to smooth it all over, are etched in my memory. Another boss at another workplace asked me (in a meeting! In front of people!) why Koreans eat dog, a question wholly unrelated to the marketing materials we had gathered to discuss.
I’ve shrugged these moments off, or limited my responses to cathartic venting at my closest friends, not because I don’t see them as forms of racism, but because in those moments I tend to feel that they’re stupid, unimportant forms of racism. I was less able to contain myself when, at the beginning of the epidemic, a group of teenagers refused to get into the elevator with my mom at a Boston shopping mall, screaming about COVID as the doors slid shut between them.
While the violence against Asian Americans slowly gains visibility in the news, the questions keep coming. How do we reconcile our desire for justice with the knowledge that the criminal justice and carceral systems have been weaponized to suck the lifeblood from the communities of Black and brown Americans? How do we address cross-cultural tensions responsibly, without fomenting a dangerous backslide into racial suspicion and anti-Blackness? Few things are more depleting than watching the comments section on each and every news story about anti-Asian violence collapse in a toxic froth of back-and-forth accusations, grievance one-upsmanship, and mutual gaslighting.
I find the most hope in the efforts of groups like Safe Walks NYC, who only days ago launched a Chinatown chapter of the organization they originally founded in response to a string of attacks near the Morgan L train station in Bushwick. Volunteers make themselves available to neighbors, providing escorted walks to and from subway stations. The solution they present is elegant and ideologically resonant in a year where the goal of defunding police and reinvesting in restorative, community-based solutions seems attainable rather than utopian.
I also wonder – if we’re hearing about so many cases of violence against Asian elders, how many more unreported incidents must there be? There are surely victims whose attacks were not caught on video by bystanders or security cameras, who picked themselves up off the ground and headed home in that dazed, trembling, dream-state familiar to anyone who has ever been mugged. What about people who lack social-media-savvy children and grandchildren (never mind Olivia Munn) to spread the outrage of their stories? And even those who do… some of us with Asian elders in our lives might not be surprised to see them slap a bandaid on a cut that should have stitches, shut down our anxious interrogation, wave away suggestions of police reports and hospital visits, and mask up early in the morning for their daily walk, private, stubborn, and scared.
I don’t mean to assume the character of anyone else’s elders. My own don’t all fit the stereotypes. Asian American is a broad, problematic label, encompassing too many ethnicities, economic realities, cultures, and experiences to make sense as an indicator of anything. The richest Asian Americans earn more than even whites, while Asians in New York represent the lowest-earning immigrant group. The Trump era predictably exacerbated these disparities. While the Cambodian American refugee community suffered a 279% increase in deportations just between 2017 and 2018, 2020 saw Tony Pham, a Vietnamese refugee whose family arrived from Saigon in 1975, become the interim Director of ICE. Some of our countries of origin have colonized each other. Some of us trace our roots to places so geographically removed, that before landing here in the melting pot our people might never have crossed paths at all.
But those distinctions probably won’t matter to a person who attacks an Asian, and so this fear might be one of the few experiences actually shared between many of the otherwise unrelated peoples who check that box when filling out a census or college application. That is, the fear that someday soon, a bigot on the subway might punch us in the back of the head, and the people around us might decide that we deserve it.
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