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Asian American students voice their stories in effort to combat anti-Asian violence

Asian American students voice their stories in effort to combat anti-Asian violence

Picture of Katherine  Kam
A demonstrator wearing a face mask and holding a sign takes part in a rally to raise awareness of anti-Asian violence
(Photo by RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images)

When the COVID-19 pandemic started a year ago, New York City high school student William Diep shared on Instagram how violence and racism toward Asians had shaken his identity as a Vietnamese American. “I love my culture,” he said. But “due to the rise in xenophobia, I’ve learned to be scared of who I am.”

Rather than keep quiet, Diep decided to launch his own online campaign, “Virus: Racism,” which he described as “a student-led movement to end discrimination against the Asian American community because of COVID-19.” He asked other Asian American high school students in New York to share their experiences online, too.

“I’ve gotten my fair share of glares on the street and people stepping away from me on the sidewalk,” high school student Jacquelyn Chin said on Instagram. Another girl, Christina Li, said that videos of anti-Asian violence had made her “sick to my stomach.” She added, “As a Chinese American, I now have to balance my hope with fear. When the time comes and it is announced by medical professionals that quarantine efforts can be loosened, I will not be able to go outside without fright from being attacked or spit on.”

When high school student Luan Gao was inside a train station, he said, “A man in front of me turned around and spit in my face, saying, ‘Get out of my country, coronavirus.’”

“He did it with the most arrogant expression — a look of disdain and an arrogant smile, as if he had done something right,” Gao said. He was surprised and hurt that bystanders had failed to come to his aid. “With no one calling out what the man was doing towards me or anyone comforting me for the pain I had just gone through, it was as if this was just another normal day for them to live through.”

Amid a rising wave of anti-Asian attacks, indifference from bystanders has anguished other Asian Americans as well. In February 2021, an attacker slashed Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old New Yorker of Filipino descent, across the face from one ear to the other during a morning train commute. “I was scared because I thought I was going to die and nobody helped me,” Quintana said in news reports. As others moved away from him, he left the train and got help from a ticket booth agent who called 911.

Many incidents have occurred in New York City, but Asian Americans have been targeted across the country. “Since the onset of the pandemic, anti-Asian hate incidents now primarily directed at East Asians have skyrocketed according to both official and unofficial reports,” states a report from the Asian American Bar Association of New York. “Across the country, there were more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents related to COVID-19 between March and September 2020. And this number understates the actual number of anti-Asian hate incidents because most incidents are not reported.”

Most recently, a 21-year-old man shot and killed eight people — six of them Asian women — at three spas in the Atlanta area on Tuesday. Although the gunman has reportedly told police he was not motivated by the victims’ race, the massacre adds to the terror that many in the Asian community are feeling right now.

“This latest attack will only exacerbate the fear and pain that the Asian American community continues to endure,” the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate said in a statement. The group, which tracks self-reported hate incidents toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, has tallied 3,795 incidents from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021.

Many other incidents have been explicitly racist. On March 9, 2021, Filipino Uber driver Raph David encountered a passenger at Los Angeles International Airport who wanted to sit in the front seat. Uber’s COVID-19 safety policies forbade doing so. When David told the man, Kyle Harrington, that he couldn’t sit up front, Harrington allegedly slammed the car door and began shouting racist insults at David, including telling him to go back to his country.

This time, a bystander came to the defense. Stella Hwang confronted Harrington as soon as she heard him yelling at David. Outraged, she scolded Harrington for setting a poor example for the two boys accompanying him and said, “The world does not operate like this.”  

“You see all the people that are being picked on,” she said during a TV interview later. “It was only right personally for me to jump in and do the right thing.”

Other bystanders have gone to heroic lengths. In March 2020, at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas, Jose Gomez thought that Bawi Cung and his family, who are Burmese, were spreading coronavirus and slashed them with a knife. A store employee, Zach Owen, fought off Gomez, which saved the family from life-threatening injuries. Owen suffered wounds to his hand and leg.

Despite Owen’s bravery, we live in an age when more people seem unwilling to defend or console someone who’s been hurt or insulted. As a police officer recently told me, “People don’t help anymore. They just pull out their phones and start recording.”

The Asian American teenagers who are combating hatred and violence via the “Virus: Racism” campaign are impressive, too. Many are using their social media smarts to amplify their voices.

Diep, now a 17-year-old high school senior, told me that his generation has shed much of the stigma that inhibited their forebears from speaking out. “I think for previous generations, racism and discrimination, these were very much taboo topics and people didn’t really want to talk about them,” he said. “But within my closest friend group, we always talk about politics or racism or what’s going on in the world. Among our peers, we always want to talk about these things. It’s so important to have these conversations.” 

The past year has been brutal for these students, with health fears, school closures, isolation, and anti-Asian racism. “We’ve definitely been through a lot of hard times, and we definitely feel very stressed and feel very down and unmotivated to do some of our work,” Diep said. “Other friends have fear that if they go outside, including myself, that if we’re just on our way to the subway or to the supermarket, that we would be randomly attacked or harassed. We are basically scared for our lives to do simple acts.”

Amid the turmoil, they draw strength and comfort from each other. “Staying strong and united is the only way that we can survive this pandemic,” Gao said.

In February 2021, Diep organized a roundtable discussion for young people to discuss the wave of attacks on older Asian Americans across the country. For instance, in January 2021, an assailant shoved Vicha Rapanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man in San Francisco, so hard that the grandfather fell to the ground and later died. “Many of us were frustrated and disappointed, but a lot of us were also not surprised by this racism,” Diep said. “This racism isn’t new. It’s been going on for so many years in America.”

It’s part of a much longer history that includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, and the racist depiction of Asians as the “yellow peril.” During the pandemic, the scapegoating has only intensified.

Diep, who is college-bound this fall, said that he wants to expand his “Virus: Racism” campaign as a university student. When I asked him what advice he’d give to other Asian American students during this fraught time, he told me: “Do what makes you scared.”

“If you’re scared about racism, that’s OK,” he said. “But making sure that you have these conversations — speaking out within your friend group or calling out the racist people at your school — is so important.”

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