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Stories Shed Light On Recent Attacks On Asian Americans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is video - sometimes grainy security camera video, but it's still horrifying, and so are the stories. In late January, an 84-year-old man knocked to the ground as he walked down a street in San Francisco. He later died. A 91-year-old man in Oakland shoved to the ground, medical personnel harangued as they leave long shifts in hospitals, parents afraid to go to the store or send their kids to school.

We are talking here about violence directed at Asian Americans. One group called Stop AAPI Hate has received more than 2,800 firsthand accounts nationwide of attacks or other abuse directed at people of Asian descent between March and December of 2020. We wanted to hear some of these stories to talk about the impact this has, what might be behind it, and thoughts about what would make a difference, so we have called professor Russell Jeung. He's chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. In 2020, he launched Stop AAPI Hate, the group we just mentioned.

Professor Jeung, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

RUSSELL JEUNG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Eda Yu is also with us. She's a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture. Last year, she wrote a piece for the member station KQED called What It Means to Make Art as an Asian American in the Pandemic, and she is with us now.

Eda Yu, welcome to you as well.

EDA YU: Thank you for having me as well.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Jason Wang, the CEO and owner of Xi'an Famous Foods in New York City.

Jason Wang, thank you so much for joining us as well.

JASON WANG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So before we jump in, I just want to mention that finding specific data about hate crimes is challenging for a number of reasons. Some of it is that, you know, jurisdictions describe this in different ways. There is no sort of national reporting standard. I mean, that's about, you know, hate crimes overall. What we do know is that there has been a spike in reported attacks, some of which, as we said, have been caught on camera. So, professor Jeung, you've been following this. Could you just tell us what you've discovered?

JEUNG: Yeah. What we've discovered isn't that we've just had a spike, but we've had a surge over the entire year last year with COVID-19 and with the president's political rhetoric in the last administration. We now have over 3,000 incidents and hate-filled incidents where people are tormenting Asian Americans. I can't describe the actual amount of hate that Asian American community is experiencing now. We have over 11% of our cases where we're getting pushed and shoved and actually physically assaulted.

MARTIN: You were saying earlier that you attribute this to - some of this to the rhetoric of former President Trump, who used racist language to describe the coronavirus, for example. Tell me more about that. Why do you think that's so?

JEUNG: Yeah. It's clear that it's COVID-19-driven and that Trump's hate speech went viral. So over - or almost a third of our cases, people say anti-immigrant statements like, go back to China, you f-ing (ph) chink. They use slurs, they refer to Chinese dietary habits. And so it is clearly racially biased.

MARTIN: I just want to hear what some of your experiences have been, if you all don't mind sharing them. Jason, do you mind sharing what are some of the experiences of you and perhaps employees of yours?

WANG: Yes, of course. For me, you know, as a business owner, we have a lot of employees in our business. We run a chain of restaurants in New York City, a chain of specialty Chinese food restaurants. And as such, a lot of our employees are Asian Americans. One employee was attacked on his way to work in the morning in broad daylight - unprovoked attack. Basically, someone followed him out of the train and just punched him in the face, broke his glasses. And he suffered a swollen face for the next few days. And then another case was a female employee was also punched in the face while on the way to home - back home in early evening hours. And, you know, there's been no provocation that led to these attacks.

It's affecting how we are conducting our business in that we are - you know, ever since we reopened our business back in July of 2020, we were aware of these attacks before they happened to us. We were aware that they were happening around the country. And as such, as a precautionary measure, we closed all of our restaurants early. We still do at 8:30 every day. And we're closed on all Sundays because on Sundays, there's just - there are just less people in the public transit system, so it feels a little less safe. But these attacks are happening during broad daylight, and that's something that we just cannot control and help with, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Eda Yu, what about you? What has this past year been like for you?

YU: This past year, I think, for me has been very difficult. But I think that the anger that I've been interacting with around these attacks and following these attacks and also sharing them on social media to try to raise awareness or build empathy for them - that has been very tiring and very exhausting in a way that I didn't necessarily foresee at the beginning of COVID, when it first arrived in the United States.

MARTIN: Professor Jeung, what about you? Do you mind if - you've shared some of your data, but do you mind if I ask you about your personal experiences?

JEUNG: It really did cut close to home. My wife was running on a trail, and someone actually blocked her path and deliberately coughed on her face. And I - like the others have said, it's so debasing and dehumanizing to be treated as an object in that way. So for the past year, I felt more and more now like we're under siege. And like Eda said, it's really tiring. Like Jason said, you're always hypersensitive to your surroundings. And I know that the respondents to our reporting center - we surveyed them and did a mental health survey, and they show signs of racial trauma. So this is longer-lasting mental health, anxiety, depression and somatic symptoms. So this is sort of a nationally traumatizing moment for Asian Americans.

MARTIN: Jason, can I ask you - is there a before and after for you? I mean, I know that, you know, earlier this year, maybe, The New York Times wrote a piece about the restaurant, and you talked about the kind of experiences you had growing up as a kid in Connecticut, you know, the kind of - the slurs, the kind of sense of exclusion, the microaggressions. But did New York City feel safe for you before this started?

WANG: Yeah. As I was growing up as a kid in Connecticut, New York City, especially the Chinatowns, felt like a - you know, a safe haven because, you know, every day when I'm going to go to school as the only Asian kid, you know, I'm being called all sorts of names. I have, like, spitballs spit at me, and I get, you know, shoved against the lockers, et cetera.

You know, I would go with my father to, you know, Flushing in Queens. And, you know, I'd get some food there and just kind of walk around and do some shopping, kind of stock up on supplies for the next couple weeks. And that felt good because it felt like this is a place where it's diverse. There are other folks like us - you know, that community feel where it's, like, all right. Well, we're much safer here. This is - I could really see myself kind of belonging around here. At least - even if it's not just, like, living in Chinatown, but at least people around here understand that, you know, Chinese people live here, too, and they - or, you know, Asian people live here as well.

But, you know, years have passed. Things have changed. And unfortunately, they've been going backwards. And it seems that now New York City - at least, you know, in some parts to some people - Asians are becoming the foreigners once again. And it's like we're losing this haven that is our city.

MARTIN: Eda, what about you? Is there a before and after for you?

YU: I mean, yes, definitely. I think I'm in a very interesting position where I happened to move to New York the September before COVID first arrived in the States. But definitely I felt a shift right around when COVID first started getting serious. I would say in late February and early March, I felt very uncomfortable taking the train. I felt like I was being looked at everywhere I went. People would distance themselves from me on the train.

And it was an experience I had never undergone before because I had grown up on the West Coast. I'm originally from LA, and then I lived in the Bay Area for quite some time. And in the spaces that I was occupying, I felt extremely comfortable, usually with a diverse group of friends and people surrounding me, especially within the arts community. So I don't know. I think that in New York, that difference was so pointed and so closely tied to all of the attacks that I was hearing about on a daily basis. And it really shook me. It really filled me with a sense of fear that I don't think I've ever felt before as an Asian person living in America.

MARTIN: It seems like people of East Asian descent seem to be particular targets right now. As you pointed out, professor Jeung, this has happened before. And I think most recently people might remember in the years following Sept. 11. where people, say, of South Asian descent were kind of also targeted for reasons of appearance. Is there anything that we learned from that era that would be helpful now? And I guess I want to hear more broadly from each of you - not that it's your responsibility to fix this. I am interested in your take on what would be helpful. So, professor Jeung, do you want to start?

JEUNG: We've really learned from Sept. 11. A lot of our Asian American organizations are led by South Asians. Stop AAPI Hate has South Asian leadership. And so we've really strategized and learned from the lessons after Sept. 11. You know, we prepared for what would happen if there was a mass shooting like at - like what had happened to us (unintelligible). We prepared for what happens if people get detained and deported or if people got - if there was a mass immigration ban, which actually occurred.

This is an Asian American movement and a moment where we are rallying together, even across ethnic lines and across racial lines, to build solidarity for racial justice. It's been - despite the darkness of the past year, that's what's been encouraging for me, to see people really standing up and supporting each other in this fight.

MARTIN: Jason, what do you think would make a difference?

WANG: I think that there's some - to some degree, I would say there needs to be some law enforcement reform for this issue as well. It's not like, you know, obviously, law enforcement is cracking down on Asians or, you know, killing Asians. It's more so that they - sometimes when there's a Chinatown problem - I've experienced this firsthand. When a - you know, a police officer comes in, it's - you know, the old saying - it's Chinatown, you know? So basically, it's dealt with in a different way in the eyes of law enforcement, at least in New York City, because it's, like, all right. Well, they got their own problems. I don't know what the heck is going on. I don't really speak their language. So, you know, let's just - I've had incidents where people were assaulted. The police officers come report in. They're kind of, like, oh, gosh, I don't understand you. You know, just - can you just work it out amongst yourselves?

So I think that is sort of a systematic issue as well, at least in New York City, that I've witnessed on multiple occasions. So I think law enforcement needs some reforms. They need to take these issues seriously. You know, Asian people are not foreigners. We're also American citizens. And, you know, there's an obligation by law enforcement to ensure the safety of its citizens. So I think that there just needs to be more dedication in law enforcement to actually crack down on these issues and actually bring the perpetrators to justice.

MARTIN: Eda, what about you? Final thought from you.

YU: What's really important here is true community action. So a lot of the social media discourse, like you mentioned, for me is starting this conversation and reminding people that their individual actions matter. That was one of the goals for our project, for instance, and one of the things that I hope people will take away from all of the information they're seeing on social media.

I was very frustrated with both the Asian and non-Asian community when we saw this recent kind of, like, deluge of attacks that were happening leading up to Lunar New Year. I was super-frustrated with the silence that I was seeing in general around these attacks on social media and in mainstream news and all that, but especially among my peers, who seem very vocal about social justice issues in general.

And so once kind of we released our project, I think that the conversation really did amp up. And I don't think that's necessarily because of the Protect Our Elders project. I think it was just the timing and the fact that a lot more attacks were happening and a lot more awareness was suddenly being raised. But for me, that's a very important first step that we shouldn't neglect and can honestly create a lot of social impact later on. And all of that motion is really due to social media. That community action is only made possible by these grassroots efforts that we do ourselves.

So for me personally, I think that that is where I see the most change happening. It's in the conversations we're having with other people. It's in the situations we're choosing to intervene. It's where we educate others and where we put our dollar, where we end up demonstrating solidarity. Those are the things that I think have really moved me in this time.

MARTIN: That's Eda Yu. She's a freelance journalist who writes about art and culture. We also heard from Jason Wang, who's the CEO and owner of Xi'an Famous Foods in New York City, and professor Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and one of the leaders of the Stop AAPI Hate project. Thank you all so much for sharing your experiences with us. I do hope we'll talk again in a better time. Thank you all so much.

JEUNG: Thank you.

WANG: Thank you.

YU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "BEACH DR.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.