An Incident of Anti-Asian Hate
Updated: Mar 4
*TRIGGER WARNING: racism, anti-Asian racism, misogyny, some violence*
This afternoon, I shared an article on Facebook about the Asian-American experience in the US today, in response to the surge in hate crimes during the pandemic. Two hours later, I was the victim of anti-Asian violence. I am writing this reflection in order to share the experience from my own position as a young English-fluent Asian-American immigrant woman and social justice worker.
My partner, Erik, and I were at the corner taco truck right outside of the Myrtle-Wyckoff L and M train station. With the exception of grocery shopping, we had just concluded two solid weeks of hibernation. We decided to break our homebody tendencies and take the 10 minute bike ride out to this immigrant-dominant area of Bushwick in order to get some fresh air and treat ourselves to eating outside. The area is filled with immigrant street vendors, hustlers selling goods, and pedestrians. After being socially isolated for so long, on a sunny day like today, it felt wondrous.
We had placed our order and stood aside waiting, when a man came walking down the street, making a commotion and yelling loudly at whoever was near. He strode up to people standing by, yelling and hurling verbal violence ("SHUT THE F*** UP"). Some of what he said was general, and some of his words revealed the problematic state of his world view as a man ("SUCK MY D***" a few times, and "HOW MANY D***S HAVE YOU SUCKED?") and as a straight man (the f**ggot slur was yelled multiple times). His speech and mind seemed sluggish, at times blanking, and he didn't seem to have complete motor control. He was very clearly either mentally ill, or had used some sort of substance. People fled around him. We focused on looking away. He made his way to the taco truck, and yelled some insults at the two women inside, going back and forth a bit, presumably hoping for some food.
"Ya está listo." One of the two women in the taco truck tapped on the side of the truck to call me. Erik and I went up to the window, intent on not minding the man beside us. I could feel him watching. I paid cash. "You Chinese?" he asked, followed by something about someone’s (possibly my) child getting killed. I got my change and as I was handing over some of it for tip, he addressed me. "Can I get some money?"
He had come close to me -- too close. I put the remaining $5 bill back in my pocket, looked up at him with as much an empathetic expression I could muster with my Asian eyes above my mask, and responded, "I'm sorry, I can't." Then, he hit me. It wasn't a strong hit, and it left no marks. But it was intentional, and there was force. The hand pushed itself from my chin to my chest. Or was it the other way around? I still can’t remember. He yelled again, including the word "Chinese," and a more assertive "this is why your child get killed."
Erik thrust his body between us. The man was after me, increasingly trying to move toward me, moment by moment. I was trapped, surrounded by piles of snow. Erik followed his gut instinct, and was gently but firmly asserting dominance back, intentionally not backing down, while trying to make way for me to escape through the side. The man grew more irate with anything I'd say, his eyes fixated on me, his arms swinging at the air. I was maintaining eye contact while expressing as much empathy as I could muster. An "it's okay, please" from me was met with, "it's okay?! You're telling me it's okay?" An "we're just going to walk away" was similarly met with more anger. Erik tells me that the man did also shove him, but it was clear: the man was primarily after me. Towards the end, in a strange moment of tender vulnerability, he seemed to embrace Erik's outstretched arm.
We were able to tear ourselves away, leaving all the immigrant vendors around us in quiet, slight shock. I caught a glimpse of one of the taco truck women making a phone call. In hindsight, I only wish I could have stopped her, as that was plenty unnecessary, but I couldn't spare a moment. We walked and processed, then ate our tacos and quesadilla when we found some bleachers at a park. The sting of the hit went away by then, but the cognitive shock remained.
It's curious how much cognitive activity can happen while you are simultaneously frozen and in shock. I'd already been reminded of the surge of anti-Asian violence while we were taking in the urban scene outside. Before the man had even appeared, I found myself worrying for a lady that had walked by with her young girl on the sidewalk. Right after the man hit me, I visually imagined the specific instances of violence in public spaces like these that were shared in the article that I’d just posted two hours ago. Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who got pushed and killed. The 61-year-old Filipino man whose face got slashed. I remembered a video I'd watched of a young woman that got pushed and had a gash on her forehead. "Thank God it's me, and not another elder," I’d thought. I remembered that book I just got in the mail because my dad discovered the translated version and loves it: Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach us About the Mysteries of Life and Living. I thought, "Is this the sort of moment that the authors would have found richly telling?"
I was not surprised to discover anti-Asian and misogynistic hate. I was shocked that it could happen to me. As an Asian-American immigrant who has been living in the US since age 10, and was previously undocumented, I mastered assimilation and integration as an art and science. I could, and have, skated by as a poster American. As long as no one knew about my legal status that followed me everywhere, I belonged in this country without the shadow of a doubt. I knew that with non-Asians, one better connects by making eye contact rather than not, by speaking explicitly rather than implicitly, by making feeling much more evident rather than suppressing emotions --and I applied all these approaches consciously in my response to this man. I thought that hate happened to those more vulnerable in our population. I prided myself in having played helpful roles in gaps for such vulnerable individuals, such as by cultural and linguistic translation. And when I read and shared the piece just a couple of hours ago, all of this felt so far away from me. Not only am I culturally and linguistically competent, but I am also young: I just did not think this would happen to me.
I am sharing this story now for several reasons.
First, I want to make clear that this was anti-Asian hate (as well, again, as misogyny). I've observed Asian-American organizer friends on Facebook warn about the need to be careful before labeling hate suffered by Asians automatically as anti-Asian hate, and I want to be clear that this was indeed anti-Asian hate. I understand the caution of falling prey to potential unnecessary fear mongering, and this is reasonable particularly as we step out of the Trump years of terrorizing immigrants, but this is not applicable here.
Second, as a social worker I want to say that this man is a byproduct of a system that had severely already failed him. It doesn't justify his act, and nor does it erase my right to feel grief for what sense of safety I've lost for myself and my beloved Asian-American community. He seemed like someone who didn't seem cared for in a time of need. It was clear that he had no support. I've been asked whether I called the police. I know for a fact that caving into my own fear to call the police would have additionally severely upended his life, so I wouldn’t have done it anyway.
The man hit me and he threatened me. I was not seriously hurt. But experiencing hate based on my race in such a direct, physical, and immediate way for the first time and realizing that such a thing is possible is, still, a devastating thought. In this time of increased racist violence against Asian-Americans, I hope that non-Asian people will gain greater appreciation for the fact that, though Asian-Americans are often conflated with white Americans for some of our peoples’ relative level of privilege, that we suffer yet cruelty for being different. I also hope that Asian-Americans who, perhaps like myself, have the privilege and ability to “blend in” as Americans, are awakened to know the gap between how we are viewed by others and how we might view ourselves. There is a lot of disconnect in the systems of communication and understanding that we as Asian-Americans come from, and the systems we are trying to engage in. In order for Asian-Americans to uphold the dignity of their own being and people, perhaps we can all try to more actively and productively reconcile.
I wonder about the potential need to start carrying mace wherever I go, along with the Narcan pouch that I got back in my MSW program. I am physically fine, and I know better than to trace back my actions to wonder what I might have done better. Still, there is a piece of me inside that was forced to engage a little too directly with the brokenness of this world today.
For Further Reading
For individual learning
Opinion on HuffPost: This Is What No One Tells You About Being Asian In America In 2021 by Sharon Kwon
"Since the start of COVID-19, there has been a 1,900% rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans, and more specifically, against elderly Asian Americans, which has struck a painful chord within many of us who were raised to respect and protect our elders. But what has been even more painful was the lack of attention this received in the mainstream media."
Op-Ed on Truthout.org: More Policing Is Not the Solution to Anti-Asian Violence by Jason Wu
"More recently, 72 Asian organizations in the Bay area issued a statement, in response to the surge in Bay area attacks, demanding action and making it clear that, “As organizations with a long history of protecting and advancing the rights of communities of color, we know that an over-reliance on law enforcement approaches has largely been ineffective and has been disproportionately harmful to Black communities and other communities of color. We believe the solution to violence is to empower our communities with resources, support, and education — this is how we make all of our communities safe.”"
Report from Office of NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams: Improving New York City's Responses to Individuals in Mental health Crisis
"The risk of being killed during a police incident is 16-times greater for individuals with untreated mental illness than for other civilians approached or stopped by officers."
What needs to be done
If you or someone you know has suffered any kind of anti-Asian hate incident, please report here: https://stopaapihate.org/
CNBC: How to support Asian American colleagues amid the recent wave of anti-Asian violence by Jennifer Liu
Research article on the need for greater mental health support and community-based efforts: Psychological impact of anti-Asian stigma due to the COVID-19 pandemic: A call for research, practice, and policy responses by Misra, S., Le, P. D., Goldmann, E., & Yang, L. H. (2020).