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Perspective | Magazine

I’m Asian American and racism makes COVID-19 more than a pandemic for me

Since last March, three generations of my family have been the target of racist acts. When will it get better for us?

The fatal assault on an 84-year-old Thai immigrant sparked protests like this one in San Francisco. Anti-Asian hate crimes spiked when the pandemic took hold, and they continue to rise.
The fatal assault on an 84-year-old Thai immigrant sparked protests like this one in San Francisco. Anti-Asian hate crimes spiked when the pandemic took hold, and they continue to rise.JIM WILSON/New York Times

On a cold and blustery morning, I was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side having dim sum with a friend. Carrying our leftovers, we went our separate ways. As I waited below ground for the next L train, a Latina woman came up to me in the otherwise empty corridor and gave me a hard shove. I could see her breath fume out of her nostrils as I stumbled backward. She yelled a racial slur at me and walked out of the station. It was March 2020, just as COVID-19 was gripping the nation. At the time, the Asian reaction was mostly to tiptoe around the news that came out of Wuhan. But people weren’t tiptoeing around us.

Hate crimes as a whole declined last year, but they went up against Asian Americans by almost 150 percent in 16 large US cities — 133 percent in Boston — according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. The center attributed the steep rise to “negative stereotyping of Asians relating to the pandemic” in tandem with the rise in COVID-19 cases last March. By the time I was getting forcefully pushed, the spike in anti-Asian assaults had already galvanized several advocacy groups to form a nonprofit, Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate, to track hate incidents and crimes; it has recorded nearly 3,800 so far. I thought we’d be past this by now.

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But we are not. Yesterday, eight people were killed, many of them women of Asian descent, in a series of apparently connected shootings at three spas and massage parlors in the Atlanta area. “The reported shootings of Asian American women on Tuesday in Atlanta is an unspeakable tragedy — for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the AAPI community — which has been reeling from high levels of racial discrimination,” Stop AAPI Hate wrote on Twitter.

Despite the steady vaccine rollout and the decrease of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, anti-Asian violence continues to rise. Social media is full of symbolic and physical threats. Racist incidents are surging so much that the White House, informed by Stop AAPI Hate data and other advocacy groups, held a listening session on March 4 with AAPI leaders. In a speech March 11, President Biden urged the nation to put an end to this division, saying that Asian Americans are being “attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated,” adding, “It’s wrong, it’s un-American and it must stop.” Why is this still happening?

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Incited by a dangerous mixture of paranoia and ignorance, and further fueled by the Capitol storming of January 6 by Trump supporters, some Americans are targeting their AAPI neighbors. In late February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, the former president once again talked about the “China virus” and was cheered by the audience. He weaponized COVID-19 initially by calling it the “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu” during his presidency; after he contracted COVID in October, anti-Asian rhetoric and conspiracy theories on Twitter went up 85 percent, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

From the beginning of the Gold Rush to the hysterics of “yellow peril,” Asian Americans have long been used as vessels of blame and anxiety. This happened during World War II when more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were ordered into internment camps, and after 9/11 when South Asians were victims of xenophobia and Islamophobia.

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We’re invalidated as people of color and ignored as equal citizens. In a recent New York Times article, actor Steven Yeun wondered aloud “if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American whose face was slashed with a box cutter in February, remembers the invisibility he suffered in the New York City subway: “Nobody came. Nobody helped. Nobody made a video,” he told the Washington Post. After generations of assimilation and sacrifice, why is the silence surrounding Asian Americans still louder than the Asian voice?

I stopped wearing a mask in public after the incident last March, fearing I’d be accused of having the virus. Meanwhile, my Chinese friend in Queens was attacked and spit on for not wearing one, singled out as diseased despite being in a train with other mask-less commuters. My best friend was called racial slurs as she commuted to class at Boston University. My mother, wearing her N95 mask while grocery shopping in Braintree, received cautious, disdainful glances from white mothers. My grandmother felt the same alienating tensions when she visited her senior center in Quincy, feeling invisible from white visitors who avoided sitting next to her. From grandmother, to mother, to daughter, our proximity to this violence and constant threat of bias alters how we go about our daily lives and isolates the Asian in our Asian-American identity.

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I first came to this realization in high school when my friend’s mom pointed out what she perceived as the difference between me and my other Asian friend: I was “the one that’s super Americanized.” After years of transforming myself into an all-American girl, I was so close to winning the game. But despite all the American culture I had absorbed (and Asian culture I had lost), still, I am disqualified. Not truly American, only American-ized. I’m now 21 and have been living in New York City for the past three years, but I’m hesitant to call it home. How has the most diverse city in the United States become a place that makes me feel unsafe, unsure, and un-American?

My mom, a 46-year-old Chinese woman who’s lived in the United States for 30 years, told me over a steaming hot-pot that Asians have never gotten the same respect as white people in this country. “We work hard, we respect others, and we don’t cause trouble.” The rise in cases is discouraging, but Manjusha Kulkarni, cofounder of Stop AAPI Hate, tells me she feels “heartened by the acts of civic duty Asian Americans are taking.” We’re persevering through injustice and demanding action, but we’ve had to sacrifice, proving ourselves through the currency of pain and suffering.

In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong writes, “I don’t think, therefore I am — I hurt, therefore I am.” Americans struggle to recognize humanism in non-white contexts. The second wave of attacks on Asian Americans mirrors the infection resurgences — except the nation is just waking up to the racist acts we’re facing. Often, the experience of people of color is invisible until it’s mutilated with pain to show that, indeed, we are humans too. What will it take for there to be a future where Asian Americans can exist as equals? Will there be a future where I won’t have these stories to tell?

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An-yi Cheng studies architecture at Pratt Institute. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.