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‘It’s a very specific kind of pain’: One year after the Atlanta spa shootings, Asian American women look back — and ahead

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Home-care worker Yan Xia Chen; "P.," an insurance claims adjuster; domestic worker Ashulaxmi Rajbhandari; Tina Tran (left) and her mother, Thuy Tran, who is a nail salon worker; dining service worker Shuling Liang.Erin Clark, Pat Greenhouse, Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Their names were Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, and Suncha Kim.

Those six women, all of whom were of Chinese or Korean descent, were among eight victims of shootings in the Atlanta area on March 16, 2021, that targeted three Asian-run massage spas. Among the Asian diaspora, the rampage was widely viewed as a toxic culmination of longstanding racism and misogyny, exacerbated by a pandemic in which Asians were scapegoated and vilified.

One year later, many Asian American women remain traumatized by the shootings, seeing their own families’ stories of sacrifice and resilience in the paths the six women forged. But anti-Asian sentiment is still surging nationwide: According to a new survey by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, nearly three in four AAPI women have experienced racism or discrimination in the past 12 months.

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Moreover, Asian Americans are still being victimized in episodes of extreme violence. In December, a 40-year-old Chinese American woman in New York City was shoved to her death in front of an oncoming subway train. In February, a 35-year-old Korean American woman was stabbed to death in her apartment in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood. Just last week, a 67-year-old Asian woman in Yonkers was punched more than 125 times in the head by an attacker who called her a racist slur.

“When I first heard the news [about the Atlanta shootings], I was very deeply shaken. I was scared. I was angry. I didn’t want it to be true. And yet I knew deep down that there was a part of me that wasn’t completely surprised. And that was the worst of all of it,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, at a virtual town hall Monday evening that honored the victims of the Atlanta slayings.

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“It’s a very specific kind of pain to see yourself, your parents, your grandparents, your children reflected in those who are being attacked,” she added.

The Globe asked five Asian American women in Greater Boston to reflect on the year since the tragedy in Atlanta. They shared their own stories of immigration and survival in a country that feels increasingly hostile, and their connection with the six women last March.

Shuling Liang walked through a flurry of snow during her commute home in Boston last week. For almost 20 years, Liang has been a dining hall worker at Northeastern University.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Shuling Liang, 55, Mission Hill

Liang is a dining service worker and union organizer at Northeastern University. She immigrated to the United States from China more than 20 years ago.

I worry for my kids more than for myself. I tell them not to go out so much or stay out at night, and if they do go out, I tell them to stay close to home. Sometimes on my way to work, I do get a little nervous. If people look at me funny, I’ll walk away if I’m on the street. If I’m on the bus, I’ll move or I’ll get off at the next stop. You can’t tell if someone is going to attack you or if they’re carrying a weapon. I’m afraid of people spitting on me. My husband tells me not to stand too close to the subway tracks.

When I heard about the shootings in Atlanta, I was afraid. I felt sad so many innocent people were killed. But I feel lucky I have immigration status. I have a lot of sympathy for the women who work in massage spas because they’re usually undocumented and in some ways, their jobs are harder than mine. They have to do that work to survive and they’re treated by society as if they’re undeserving. People who come to this country just want to be with their family and community. For those women, this was their greatest joy. It’s also mine.

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— As told to Deanna Pan through interpreter Karen Chen.

Thuy Tran was hugged by her daughter Tina. Originally from Vietnam, Tran started working in the nail salon industry because, she said, it was the only job she could get without knowing English.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Thuy Tran, 53, Quincy

Tran works at a suburban nail salon. She emigrated from Vietnam in 2015.

I followed my husband here. I knew it would be difficult to learn a new language, but I wanted my daughter to have the opportunity to go to school in an advanced country. I started working in the nail salon industry because it was the only job I could get without knowing English, but it’s still hard. My customers try to tell me what they want and it takes a few tries before I understand. I think they don’t like me. Even my co-workers laugh at me. It hurts. I try to learn English by listening to them speak, but I’m an older woman. I want to learn, but I don’t have time to study. I need to work for my daughter.

My husband left us during the pandemic. My rent is $1,500. I make $800 a month, plus tips, and my daughter works to pay some bills here and there. We have some savings, but we have to limit everything. My daughter tried helping me apply for food stamps, but we didn’t understand the application. I thought we weren’t eligible.

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What happened to those women in Atlanta was horrible. It makes people feel unsafe at work. I have to remind myself there are people who have it harder than I do, and I have to keep going and keep living.

— As told to Deanna Pan through interpreter Christine Nguyen.

Ashulaxmi Rajbhandari, originally from Nepal, scrapes by with cooking and nannying about 20 hours a week for families in Cambridge, Brookline, and Dorchester. She lives with her husband, who is unable to work, in public housing in Malden. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Ashulaxmi Rajbhandari, 65, Malden

Rajbhandari is a domestic worker for families in Cambridge, Brookline, and Dorchester, where she cooks meals and watches their children. She moved to Boston in 2003 from Nepal.

I came here as a visiting tourist and I never left. In Nepal, the Maoists were harassing us for money. They were taking families’ children and food. Hospitals, like the one where I worked, were targeted in attacks. My husband came later. In Nepal, he was a teacher and writer. He got sick several years ago and can no longer work. My income is never steady. I work 20 hours a week, sometimes a little more or less, depending on when the families need me. They pay $20 an hour. I wish I was paid more, but I’m scared to ask. My biggest fear for the future is I won’t have work.

I feel very sad about the women who were killed, and I try not to watch those videos of Asian people getting attacked. But I really love Boston and I don’t feel I’m a target here.

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— As told to Deanna Pan through interpreter Bishnu Tamang.

Yan Xia Chen, a recent immigrant, works as a personal care attendant in Chinatown.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Yan Xia Chen, 40, Chinatown

Chen is a personal care attendant for Chinatown elders. She emigrated from China with her husband and two children in 2019.

Like all immigrants, we came here seeking a better life. But as soon as we arrived, I realized the language barrier would be a problem. Because we don’t speak English, our employment prospects are narrower. We have to ask for help with everything we do.

I started taking care of the elderly in 2021. I go to their homes. I help them clean, cook, and shower. At first, I was scared of getting sick. I had clients who tested positive and recovered from COVID. I felt much safer going to work after I got vaccinated. My clients are lonely and isolated. Their children are very protective. They will call their parents every morning and night, and tell them not to leave their homes.

I try not to pay attention to the attacks against Asians. But from time to time, I’ll see one of those videos and I’ll feel so bad for the victims. People say we are actually safer in Chinatown where everyone is Chinese. But if you leave Chinatown, you are less safe. I try not to leave Chinatown, and if I do, I go with someone else in case something happens.

— As told to Deanna Pan through interpreter Karen Chen.

P. fought for years to have her husband's criminal case reopened and his conviction vacated to prevent him from being deported. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

P., 46, Lynn

P. is an insurance claims adjuster who resettled in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam in the 1980s. She asked the Globe to identify her only by her first initial to protect her husband, who had been ordered deported.

My husband and I were teenagers when we met. My parents didn’t like him at all. I used to sneak out to see him. During my senior year of high school, I found out I was pregnant with our son. My parents disowned me, and I moved out to be with him.

My husband, who is also from Vietnam, didn’t find out until 2002 that there was an order for his removal. When he was young, he let a friend borrow his car for a drug deal. He was in the passenger seat when they were arrested. The police told him to sign some papers, so he wouldn’t serve any time.

We found out about the deportation order after he misplaced his green card and tried applying for a new one. We spent years and thousands of dollars working to reopen his immigration case. The criminal conviction that led to his deportation order was finally vacated last year. We’re not as scared anymore. We’re optimistic we can put this behind us.

I was at home working when my sister told me what had happened in Atlanta. I was in shock. I remember talking to my sisters and friends about ways we could protect ourselves. I know someone who learned how to shoot and bought a gun.

Because we are Asian women, people think we are quiet and subservient. They think we are not strong or willing to stand up and fight back. That’s not true. Yes, we are quiet, but that does not mean we are weak. That does not mean we won’t fight. Try it and you’ll see.

— As told to Deanna Pan.


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.