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Elderly Asian Americans are living in fear as assaults, confrontations soar. A retiree worries: ‘If people beat me, I can die right away’

If white seniors had been the victims, this country would have declared a national emergency by now.

At a “Fight Anti-Asian Hate” rally in Quincy early this month, Doris Zui, 7, displayed a sign.
At a “Fight Anti-Asian Hate” rally in Quincy early this month, Doris Zui, 7, displayed a sign.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

A few weeks ago, Y. W. Shen, a petite Chinese American woman in her 70s, was on her daily walk in Medford when out of nowhere she was shoved to the ground by a stranger who muttered, “Chink bitch,” before sprinting off.

The incident took place in broad daylight near a busy playground, but no one offered to help her as she sat on the curb, clutching a tissue to her bleeding head, Shen said. Doctors at the emergency room later told her she likely suffered a concussion.

Recalling the attack later, Shen said she felt like the 65-year-old Filipino woman in New York City whose brutal beating just one day before hers was caught on video as security guards in a nearby building watched and locked the doors.

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“People usually jump to help someone if they have fallen down,” said Shen. “It’s as if we are not seen as really belonging to American society, so it feels OK to treat us differently.”

Shen had a similar experience a year ago in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. She was crossing at an intersection when two white men in a SUV drove right up to her, spitting and screaming: ”Virus, bitch!”

That time, Shen managed to angrily yell back a profanity.

As infuriating as the incident was, Shen said what made her even more mad was this: The racist assault took place in front of a bus stop in Medford where a dozen people were waiting.

“Nobody did anything,” Shen recalled. (To protect Shen’s identity, the Globe is using her Chinese name.)

Shen’s experiences were never captured in police logs because she, like many Asian Americans, are reluctant to report a hate crime. For some, it is a language barrier, while others fear retaliation, or, as in the case of Shen, they simply don’t trust law enforcement.

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For these reasons, the incidents that are reported plainly represent a fraction of the actual number. An organization called Stop AAPI Hate has tried to quantify the real number by collecting reports from the Asian American community, and identified 3,795 incidents across the country over roughly the first year of the pandemic.

But here in Massachusetts, police departments in Lowell and Quincy, cities with sizable Asian American populations, say they do not have a single report of a hate crime against Asian Americans over the past year. Boston and other major cities, however, have seen a sharp rise in anti-Asian hate crime since 2019, even as the overall numbers of hate crimes have declined.

Boston recorded 14 anti-Asian incidents — primarily verbal assaults — in 2020, up from eight in 2019. Already in 2021, the city has eight reported cases, according to the Boston Police Department. That compares to 16 reports of hate crimes against Black people and one against a Hispanic person this year.

Anti-Asian hate has been surging as some people, looking for a scapegoat or blinded by bigotry, blame COVID-19 on China. Elderly Asian Americans, in particular, feel under attack after a spate of incidents in New York and California were caught on video and went viral. One 84-year-old Thai immigrant died in January after being barreled to the ground outside his San Francisco home.

Local Asian American groups say they are unaware of similar assaults against seniors. But the March 16 mass shooting in the Atlanta area that killed eight — including six Asian American women — is heightening fears of potential violence spreading here.

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All of which raises the question: What kind of society are we when senior citizens are picked off for blood sport? For many Asian Americans, myself included, this crosses a line. We are a culture that fiercely values those of the older generation who made sacrifices to allow their children to have a better life in America. To attack them is to attack our very essence. To have to tell our parents and grandparents to watch their backs is heartbreaking. I am certain if white seniors had been the victims, this country would have declared a national emergency by now.

How J.H. Tang, 72, lives her life is the new normal for many older Asian Americans. The South End resident avoids going out alone, and, when she steps outside, she takes a good look around.

“I never really felt this kind of fear,” Tang said in Cantonese, speaking through a translator. “I feel like the Chinese are especially being targeted. We are treated like enemies, like we all have the virus.”

Her son recently bought her pepper spray, but the grandmother of five wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“I am afraid of using it,” Tang said. “What if they have a weapon? I don’t want to escalate the situation.”

Vivian Tseng, a 69-year-old retired corporate lawyer in Concord, had a completely different response after the Atlanta murders: She decided to learn how to shoot a gun. Like many Asian Americans, Tseng has been feeling invisible and helpless after a year of growing anti-Asian sentiment.

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“It’s driven by rage and a sense of aloneness,” Tseng said. “If I don’t do something for myself, nobody is going to save me.”

Long Nguyen, the father of state Representative Tram Nguyen, was an undercover police officer in Vietnam. But now, at age 67 and living in Methuen, he is scared to leave his house. In frail health, he knows he cannot defend himself.

“If people beat me, I can die right away,” said Nguyen.

He tells his wife to come straight home from work and not run unnecessary errands. He also advises her to wear a mask and a hat. “Don’t let people recognize you as Vietnamese,” he said.

When Nguyen learned about the beating of a 83-year-old Vietnamese immigrant in San Francisco that took place a day after the Atlanta shootings, he realized he knew the victim, Ngoc Pham, who was his supervisor on the police force in Vietnam. Nguyen still had Pham’s number and reached out to check on him after an image of his badly bruised face was splayed over the Internet.

Pham told him he is going be OK, but Nguyen remains shaken. “Oh my God, maybe me later, next time,” he said.

President Biden, through an executive order in January, has taken aim at anti-Asian hate and has directed the Department of Justice to make it one of its highest priorities. Last fall the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts created a civil rights task force, and much of its current focus is on preventing hate crimes against the Asian American community, according to a spokeswoman.

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Police departments in Boston and Lowell say that since the Atlanta killings, they have stepped up patrols, from Chinatown to Fields Corner, from Cambodia Town to the Buddhist temples in Lowell. They’ve also made sure bilingual officers are working those beats.

“We understand a lot of these crimes may go unreported,” said Boston police Deputy Superintendent James Chin.

Chin said Boston police have been working closely with Asian American groups to encourage reporting of incidents of any kind. The department is also translating its brochure on civil rights into multiple languages, including Chinese and Vietnamese.

One of the biggest challenges is that undocumented immigrants fear deportation if they deal with the police.

“We don’t care about their status,” said Chin. “Don’t be afraid to report.”

Chin grew up in Chinatown, and his parents are in their 80s. For him, this wave of anti-Asian sentiment “hits home a little closer.”

“We are not like New York or San Francisco,” said Chin, but “everyone is on edge. … We want to be vigilant.”

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino has been tracking decades of hate crime data. These acts tend to be vastly underreported, especially among Asian Americans, said the center’s director, Brian Levin.

“This data does not reflect by any means the cumulative impact of actual hate crimes directed against Asian Americans,” said Levin, a professor of criminal justice. “What it is effective at is showing the trends, locations, targeting, and timing.”

Levin has found that Boston, New York, and Los Angeles are often a bellwether for hate crime for the rest of the country. What is troubling about the current climate of anti-Asian bias crimes — beyond an overall increase — is that the cases have been more violent.

One way to protect Asian Americans is strengthening hate crimes laws. Representative Grace Meng, a New York Democrat, has introduced legislation calling for greater federal oversight of COVID-19 related hate crimes and requiring the Justice Department to provide Congress with regular updates about bias incidents. In Massachusetts, Long Nguyen’s daughter, state representative Tram Nguyen, is co-sponsoring a bill that would bolster the Commonwealth’s hate crime statute.

While some Asian American groups don’t agree that legislative fixes are the best way to fight bias, Nguyen, along with Attorney General Maura Healey, sees updating the law as a way to increase accountability in the criminal justice system.

“It is important to name hate crimes for what they are. They are meant to terrorize communities,” said Nguyen, a Democrat from Andover. “This bill is not going to end hate and violence. It will allow justice to be served.”

Shen, the woman who was shoved to the ground in Medford, still does not feel comfortable reporting the assault to the police.

Lieutenant Detective Paul Covino of the Medford police said he understands how some victims are wary of law enforcement, and so encourages Shen’s friends and support network to report the incident on her behalf.

“We’re here to help her, not to hurt her, or make her look bad,” said Covino. “If we have no one reporting to us there are Asian hate crimes going on, we assume there are none going on.”

Asian Americans are nearly 10 percent of Medford’s 57,000 residents. Like Lowell and Quincy, Medford police have not received reports of anti-Asian hate crime over the past year.

Are we to believe Massachusetts is largely insulated from anti-Asian hate? Or are our society and systems so broken we have lost our way? No community should live in fear, and it’s time we fix this.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.