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Brenda Huang / Senior Staff Illustrator

Andersen Gu, a Columbia College sophomore, knows what it means to navigate New York as a Chinese American. Growing up in a predominantly Chinese-immigrant community in Queens, surrounded by people who looked like him, Gu found comfort in the community in the city; hearing people around him speak different languages made him accustomed to diversity and attending Chinese school connected him to his origins and community.

That changed when Gu and his family moved to Long Island. Unlike the ethnic enclaves of Queens, his new community introduced him to an outsider experience, where parents at his high school campaigned to limit classes for English language learners in response to an influx of Asian immigrants moving to the district. But in the past year, as violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans have surged drastically, Gu and his family face a new degree of anxiety. Queens, the community that was once a haven for their East Asian origins, no longer feels safe for people like him.

“I can definitely sense that almost-tangible feeling of fear around the community,” he says. “Last summer when I worked in Flushing, Queens, … you could definitely sense that shift in security. I remember my parents explicitly telling me at the time to stay home more, and not just in terms of the pandemic restrictions, but more because of the fears of becoming a victim of anti-Asian violence.”

The atmosphere of pervasive fear motivated his family to take their safety into their own hands. For Gu’s father, that meant buying a gun.

Across the United States, assaults against Asian Americans have increased by 150 percent in 2020, not accounting for people unable or unwilling to report crimes to police. Accurate data on the motivations of attacks against the Asian community are largely unavailable—there are no current uniform databases for anti-Asian attacks, and the only statistics available right now are a compilation of self-reports from Stop AAPI Hate, which estimates around 3,800 anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States over the past year.

Two weeks ago, a man in Atlanta, Georgia killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. According to reports, the suspect claimed he had a “sexual addiction” and was attempting to eliminate his “temptation” at three Asian-owned spas. Nearly all of the shooting victims, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, and Daoyou Feng were of Asian descent, except for Paul Andre Michels and Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz.

In the wake of the tragic murders in Atlanta, mainstream media coverage has focused public attention, for the first time in recent memory, on racist violence against Asian people and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The ethnic identities of victims are being directly referred to in headlines, such as “Asian-Americans Are Being Attacked. Why Are Hate Crime Charges So Rare?,” “There were 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents, mostly against women, in past year,” and “Brutal Attack on Filipino Woman Sparks Outrage: ‘Everybody Is on Edge.’” Major media outlets have put advocacy organizations like Stop AAPI Hate on a national stage and centered on Asian Americans’ and Pacific Islanders’ experiences with racialized violence in the United States. But even though some non-Asians are acknowledging anti-Asian racism, it remains unclear whether circumstances have genuinely worsened in recent months, or if people are finally starting to pay attention to a pervasive problem.

The words of Asian Americans at Columbia in recent weeks hold remnants of the lived experiences of their community—experiences within a history replete with racism, violence, and exclusion that makes the recent attacks far from surprising. Awareness and attention on this threat and the fear it causes have undoubtedly skyrocketed in recent months, but the racism, violence, and scapegoating of Asian Americans are not a shock or revelation to what they know.

“There’s always been running anti-Asian sentiments. … The presentation of the origins and the circulation of COVID serves as a catalyst for this potentially more recent coverage and common awareness of these crimes,” says Sophia Kato, a junior at Barnard. “It’s a domino effect when some act is almost considered normal, it becomes somehow more frequent. It’s always existed, and I just think that the frequency and the level of trauma that is inflicted have reached a pinnacle.”

For many Asian Americans, the lack of visibility of anti-Asian racism in American society does not accurately reflect their realities. For many Asian immigrants and first-generation Asian Americans in particular, outdated and false stereotypes continue to affect their lives in the United States. In the months before Rachel Lau, a sophomore at Columbia College, immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong, she was warned of the racism and danger Asians in the United States faced. Lau’s family and friends warned her to be careful, relaying stories of people having their windows bashed in and police officers and strangers assaulting them on the street.

“[Violence has] always just been something that’s been in the back of my mind,” she says. She recalls the cautions from friends and family that stayed in her head. “They’ve been like, ‘Hey, you need to be careful. There’s a lot of hate crimes out there.’” Lau pauses as she recounts hearing horrific stories of violence against Asian Americans, yet her voice remains monotone and controlled.

Lau’s mother now sends her tweets every day over WeChat, telling her to be careful every time she leaves her dorm. She says she feels like a child again, needing warnings from her mother on when and where she will be safe to go in the city.

Consequently, Lau is not convinced that attacks against Asian people have actually increased, but rather that media coverage has finally made non-Asian people aware of enduring, systemic violence.

The racism that Asian community members have faced in the United States has not always manifested as physical violence or intimidation. Rita Nguyen, a sophomore at Barnard, recalled the first time she experienced discrimination after moving to a new neighborhood in Los Angeles at the age of 10. She prefaced her story by saying she had never experienced a hate crime herself, but she then recalled a childhood memory that had escaped her until our conversation. She was at home one day when she answered the phone and handed it to her mother.

“One of our neighbors lost a dog, and they were like, ‘Hey, we know that you have grandparents that are from Vietnam, and they’re really old, so did you guys take our dog to eat him?’” Nguyen says. “I thought it was funny [at the time] … but I didn’t realize now how horrible it was and how traumatic it was for my mom to realize that they [neighbors] were thinking that.”

Years later, she is horrified at having to encounter racism at such a young age. Now, as a young adult, she imagines the concern and distress her mother felt after learning that their neighbors viewed them with such vitriol. Her grandparents, who could not speak or understand English, lived with Nguyen and her mother at the time; she sympathizes with how terrified her mother must have been going on walks with her parents, and the extent to which she felt it was her duty to protect the safety of her loved ones.

“I don’t think I really internalized all of that [neighborhood incident]. I kind of pushed it away, and it kind of was something that came up now that I think about it,” Nguyen realizes.

In the eyes of some students and their families, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened blatant public discrimination. Walking around her hometown of Berkeley, Kato observed how her dad received explicit comments, such as being told to “go back to [China]” or being called “China boy” and “Chinese man.” Kato notes she feels more “ticked off” with her experiences of stereotyping, rather than sad or threatened, as her experiences differ from her dad’s and are often perpetrated by peers or through catcalling.

These prejudiced comments and cases of harassment are not incidental; they are steeped in the centuries-long dehumanization of Asian Americans and the steady social structures and policies that made this discrimination legal and relevant throughout the last 50 years.

During the first wave of AAPI immigration starting in the late 19th century, the United States government passed several racist laws limiting people of Asian descent from acquiring American citizenship due to their lack of “whiteness.” Known as the “yellow peril,” this idea classified Asian people as “unclean and unfit for citizenship in America.” This fueled xenophobia against Chinese immigrants in places like San Francisco and contributed to Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned all immigration to the United States from China. It was the first immigration law barring entry into the United States based solely upon race.

Perhaps the most sensational media story which echoes current events is the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Chin, who was Chinese American, was attending his bachelor party in Detroit, Michigan when two white men mistook him for “the Japanese” who they believed were taking their jobs in the automobile industry. The white men beat Chin to death. At their trial, the judge sentenced the assailants to probation and a $3,000 fine. Chin’s story is similar to the more recent death of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant who died last month of a brain hemorrhage after a man violently shoved him to the ground in San Francisco’s Anza Vista neighborhood. Ratanapakdee’s death points to an emerging pattern of random attacks against members of the AAPI community. The San Francisco district attorney stated there was no evidence indicating that the attack was motivated by his Asian descent, despite the assault’s occurrence in a pattern of anti-Asian hate crimes.

Recent attacks are the most violent examples of the persistent alienation of Asian Americans. For many, microaggressions and stereotypes are accepted as part of the AAPI experience, rather than harmful indications of a larger racist and hateful culture.

Asian Americans from vastly different backgrounds have encountered similar stereotypes stemming from the myth of the “model minority.” At his high school on Long Island, Gu’s classmates often approached him for help on math assignments when, in his own words, he is “not particularly good at it.” Stereotypes such as academic proficiency can seem complimentary on the surface, but can ultimately contribute to significant harm. During his childhood, Gu brushed the stereotypical comments off—it wasn’t until much later that he realized that his peers had racially categorized him, and Gu began to feel that incidents like this contribute to an idea of what Asians should or should not be.

Kato also recalls the microaggression that sticks with her to this day, when she began to recognize the image that Western society projects onto Asian American culture. She was at a summer camp playing charades when someone pulled a card depicting an Asian character. She remembers a white girl pulling back her eyes and launching into an explicitly racist impression of Asian languages and people. She had a hard time recounting the specific details of the situation, but was able to put her words together with grace when expressing how she had felt at the moment: purely confused and hurt.

“I remember sitting there confused because I literally had no idea what it meant––I don’t know why you’re bowing, or why you’re pulling back your eyes, or what your impression means, and I just didn’t know how to react,” Kato says.

Nguyen highlighted her tendency to dismiss her experiences facing microaggressions growing up, especially in comparison to recent violent attacks that made national news. She recognizes that her dismissal has led to desensitization to discrimination and microaggressive comments.

“I don’t want to say that [microaggressions] are light, or that they’re not an important issue, because that type of stuff is obviously not okay, but I think after so long, you get desensitized to people making snarky comments and snide things about you being Asian,” Nguyen says.

Lau recalls how this pattern of internalizing racism can also result from first-generation guilt and feelings that AAPI discrimination is a small price to pay to be American.

“I’m an immigrant, my parents have always taught me to keep my head down and to not get into any conflict. So I was taught to ignore that type of stuff and to be strong … [because] we are grateful enough to be in this country,” Lau says. “I was told we shouldn’t care about the small comments people make because it just comes with living here.”

To work toward protecting Asian Americans, community members believe it is imperative to reevaluate the true definition of Asian identity and how it fits into the ongoing conversation of race and racial inequities in the United States.

“I want to reemphasize the idea of thinking of race less in terms of the black and white binary so much as there’s a whole spectrum in terms of individual-specific issues that apply to communities of color, and I think to assume Asian Americans as lying either on one side or the other … is a very reductionist approach to Asian American specific issues,” Gu says.

Students like Gu believe this mindset could impact not just understandings of the AAPI community, but how the cooperation between different movements, especially Black Lives Matter, can be used to uplift one another and move toward active change. Rather than pitting the liberation of different identity groups against each other, Nguyen sees an opportunity to lift up marginalized people of all backgrounds.

“A lot of Asian Americans are using this movement as an opportunity to compare to the Black Lives Matter movement … which is really messed up, and it just takes away from the Black Lives Matter movement,” Nguyen said. “You can uplift one movement without comparing and taking the power away from another.”

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Anti-Asian sentiment COVID-19 Asian at Columbia Asian at Barnard model minority myth yellow peril Stop AAPI Hate