A Vietnamese American mother travelling with her young children wonders if a cashier’s cold stare could turn into a verbal assault. A Chinese American nurse hears a patient refusing to be treated by her. An older Japanese American man gets nervous walking by a group of white men.
Even in cities that haven’t reported a high-profile physical attack on Asian Americans, life has changed in the shadow of rising bigotry during this pandemic. For a community that has often felt invisible in the white and black politics that dominate St. Louis, racist rhetoric has heightened a sense of isolation. It has also galvanized those who had preferred the perceived safety of quiet obscurity to speak out about the toll it’s taken.
Min Liu, a professor of communication studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, says her volunteer service used to center around cultural events in the Asian America Pacific Islander community.
“In the past year, I think I’ve subconsciously moved to more of an advocacy position,” she said. “I have definitely become more alert as a community activist.” Liu helped organize a vigil in March that drew hundreds of people locally, she hosted a “Stop AAPI Hate” webinar and has advised students promoting civic engagement among Asian American youth.
Liu’s shift into advocacy has been fueled by the concerns she’s heard from others in the St. Louis area. She recently met with a group of Chinese American women, who told her they have never felt this unsafe before. One shared the experience of her elementary school-aged daughter, who loved helping her teacher by passing out papers and supplies in class. A classmate told her, “I don’t want you to touch my desk. I don’t want to get the virus.”
The teacher intervened and told the student that was not OK.
Another friend confided that her second grader had seen one of the videos of an elderly Asian woman being beaten. She came to her mother, terrified, and said, “What if someone tries to kill you?” She begged her mom to let her lighten her black hair.
Even before the mass shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, hate crimes and assaults against those who appear East Asian have been increasing.
“These things cumulatively make people fearful and anxious,” Liu said. And yet there’s a fear about reporting such incidents, attracting backlash or alienating those who perceive criticism of racialized slurs as “political.”
Katie Xu, a senior at John Burroughs School, is part of the Asian American Civic Scholars, a group that advocates for more Asian American participation in civic life. She said some of her peers used to be hesitant about sharing their experiences because they would say “it felt less significant than the other forms of discrimination that other groups face.”
The past year changed that attitude.
“People my age are speaking out a lot more than I have seen in the past,” she said.
Ron Sakai, 60, of University City, is a compliance officer and a third-generation American of Japanese descent. His parents were imprisoned in internment camps in Arkansas in the 1940s. His mother was freed after about 18 months so that she could resume nursing school. And when his father was released, he petitioned to go back in order to rejoin his mother and younger brother, who were still being imprisoned. Sakai’s father was drafted into the service once he was released, made to fight for the country that had discriminated against and imprisoned him.
“My parents didn’t talk about it much,” Sakai said. They wanted him to assimilate. He didn’t have many Asian friends growing up, but that’s changed as he’s gotten older and more involved locally.
The rhetoric around the virus perpetuated by some political leaders is a reminder that some will always consider people who look like him foreigners.
The battle against xenophobia is a “centuries-long journey,” he said.
Here are the stories of those who plan to keep fighting.
Thi Nguyen, 38, neuroscientist, Webster Groves
Nguyen was driving back from a recent spring break trip to Dallas with her two children, who are in pre-kindergarten and second grade. They stopped at a gas station in Rolla, Missouri, to use the restroom and buy a snack.The clerk who was cleaning the coffee station stared at them as they walked to the restroom. She came into the bathroom sink to rinse out cleaning rags while Nguyen stood there.
“She was staring me down in the mirror,” Nguyen said. It was not subtle.
When they walked out, another man in the store stopped to stare at them.
Her children asked to buy a bag of Cheetos, but Nguyen’s gut said they should leave.
“There were two sets of white bodies staring at us,” she said. She noted the exit door nearby and told her children they needed to leave.
“It was the first time I felt unsafe, but not the first time I felt singled out,” she said. She didn’t think they were in danger of anyone pulling a gun on them, but the shootings in Atlanta had been a few days prior and the silent hostility in the store felt palpable. She has resisted talking to her children about the rise in hate crimes and the shooting, instead focusing on self love and community appreciation.
“I want them to be celebrated for who they are without that extra layer” of fear, she said.
When she walked out without purchasing anything, she also worried if she was perpetuating a stereotype in the mind of the clerk that Asians were cheap. But her sense of vulnerability was stronger.
“You have to trust your gut.”
Amy Kuo Hammerman, 44, stay-at-home mom, Creve Coeur
The aftermath of the Atlanta shooting dredged up years of trauma that Hammerman had tried to forget. The way the women victims, who worked in spas, were sexualized by the alleged killer triggered memories of comments she had heard.“You’re a little China doll.”
“You love me long time.”
“Go back to where you came from.”
“China doll, I’m going to tie you up and take you home.”
“I had buried a lot of the harassment and stalking,” she said. She didn’t really talk about it or tell anyone. “You put your head down and move on.”
Hammerman, who is Taiwanese and Japanese American, said she was shaken up for about a week after the shooting. She is married to a Jewish man and deeply involved in the Jewish community, and people often forget that she is non-white.
She’s sat in meetings when people have said, “There are no people of color in the room.”
It’s the paradox of being invisible and hyper aware of your differences simultaneously.
She and her husband have talked to their sons, who are in sixth and fourth grades, about teasing they might encounter and how to deal with it. When a friend at school kept taunting her son that he could have coronavirus, he eventually brought it up to the teacher.
“It’s been a balance between having them embrace their Asian Americanness but not have it be everything about them,” she said. Meanwhile, she’s made small adjustments — being more aware of surroundings.
She needed to buy groceries soon after the shooting and opted for a smaller Asian grocery closer to home rather than a larger store in a suburb farther west.
“For a while I was worried more about my parents who live in Chesterfield because so many of the attacks were against elders. ... It wasn’t until after the shooting that I started to worry a little for myself.”
Austin Tao, 77, retired landscape architect, Olivette
Tao came to Chicago when he was 10 years old to join his father already working in the city. His mother and sister stayed behind in Hong Kong. He didn’t speak much English, and his father worked long hours.The first year was pretty rough. Bullies picked on him until he learned how to defend himself.
“Pretty soon, you learn how to navigate the maze,” he said.
It wasn’t until after he was married and they had a daughter that he considered moving to St. Louis. The area offered great schools for the deaf, which was what his daughter needed.
He said that in the past 50 years here he hasn’t encountered blatant, in-your-face racism.
“Lots of things are very subtle, but I always felt like I fit in.”
The shooting in Atlanta renewed his vigilance.
“It’s really kind of weird to have that kind of feeling of always looking over your shoulder,” he said. But it’s also spurred the Asian American community into broader action.
“It has brought us closer together,” he said. Tao said he doesn’t want to live in fear. He wants to be able to keep his routine and frequent the same stores he’s used to. And that means raising awareness of how damaging the politicized and racist rhetoric about the virus has been and of how it can embolden hateful actions.
“It’s our battle cry now, the Atlanta 8,” he said. He’s hoping the tragedy might help spur gun reform. The suspect had purchased a 9mm semi-automatic pistol hours before he used it to massacre eight people on March 16.
Junnie Bae, 17, student, University City
Bae, a junior at Metro High School, spoke for the first time at the vigil to raise awareness about AAPI hate. He spoke about the results of an Instagram poll hosted by Asian American Civic Scholars questioning St. Louis-area teens in their community about their experiences.About 30 students, mostly from St. Louis County schools, responded.
The vast majority said they had encountered racist remarks and felt overwhelming concerned about hate crimes. One student said her boyfriend’s father called her the “China virus.”
Another shared that their family had trash left in their mailbox with remarks like, “go back home.” One student said her mother owns a Chinese restaurant and a customer said to her, “Why are you happy when your people are spreading this virus to America?”
Young people say they have received comments online telling them to “eat an (expletive) bat,” and calling them racial slurs.
Many adults in attendance were surprised to hear this was happening in local schools.
In some areas, Asian students are a small percentage of the student body, so there hasn’t been much discussion among school leaders about the rise in bigotry, Bae said.
His experience speaking at the vigil felt empowering, he said, because “my voice and experiences of Asian youth in St. Louis were heard.”
He plans to continue to speak out.