The US prides itself on upholding freedom — a bastion of liberty looked up to by most. As many non-Americans strive so hard to get the chance to set foot on US soil, the phrase “American dream” was coined. Yes, America was a dream.
Ha Vi moved to the US 15 years ago, bringing with her the big goals she knew she could only achieve there. She completed her degree in California, worked as a news anchor at Viet Today Television in San Francisco Bay Area and is now a Sanction Filtering Analyst at a bank in the same state.
Living with her two teenage kids and her mom, who just moved in with her a few years ago, Vi has achieved so much. She is living the dream, as they say. In fact, she is living many Vietnamese’s dream — building a good life in the US where opportunities abound.
But despite living in the US for more than a decade now, she still gets a second glance or an intent stare every now and then. Her kids, she says, also get bullied at school, with their peers calling them “Ching Chong.”
As the coronavirus became more serious, the number of verbal and physical attacks on Asians and people of color have become more and more rampant. Lucky for Vi, her family lives in northern California, where there’s a large Asian community. But she is aware of what’s happening.
“I saw some of my friends' businesses suffer from this hate crime. Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants were broken into and then looted. Seniors got humiliated, pushed and hit on the streets as they were fragile and did not understand English well to speak up,” Vi shares.
“People were afraid of going to places that gathered a large Asian community. I have been hyper-aware, so I have tried not going anywhere by myself or avoiding any places that can be the target of the crime.”
Like Vi, Uyen has been fortunate enough to not experience any serious attacks. She moved to the US eight years ago as an international student, which she says, exposed her to a diverse set of people. Even so, she gets racist questions from time to time, prompting her to speak up.
“Whenever I get that ‘look’ from people because I am Asian, it’s either I ignore them or say, ‘Do you have a problem?’ I noticed that racists really don’t expect Asians to talk back or defend themselves. But the moment we do, they stop crossing the line.”
“I’ve been here long enough to know when and how to speak up for myself and other people around me if such things happen.”
“Keep your head down, don’t cause any trouble”
Attacks on Asians and people of color in America have long been a problem, albeit not widely reported to authorities or covered by the media. But the coronavirus, which was first detected in China, an Asian country, has prompted more racism-related violence and hate crimes.
On March 16, six Asian women were killed when a gunman opened fire in three Atlanta-area massage parlors. Weeks before the incident, an 84-year-old Thai man was shoved to the ground while taking his morning walk in San Francisco. He died two days later.
In a video that has gone viral, an old Chinese woman was punched in the face on a street in San Francisco in what police say was an unprovoked assault. Even with her fragile stature, she was able to get a piece of wood and fought back. Her eyes were swollen, and her family said she suffered from PTSD.
Last Monday, an Asian man aboard a Brooklyn subway train passed out after being brutally beaten. The attacker walked off the train as if nothing happened, leaving the unconscious victim. On the same day, a 65-year-old Asian woman was punched and kicked on her way to church in Manhattan. The woman, with swelling to the face and pain in the left leg, was taken to the hospital.
The list of xenophobic rhetorics and physical attacks of different kinds in different American cities goes on. And most, if not all, are still under investigation.
A recent study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that while overall rates of hate crimes decreased by 7% in 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes surged by nearly 150%. More than 3,500 incidents have been reported since March 2020, with women reporting hate incidents at 2.3% times more than men.
With hate crimes against Asian Americans now in the national spotlight, the US Congress reintroduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which calls on the Department of Justice to review anti-Asian hate crimes related to the pandemic and improve case reporting. President Joe Biden, who condemned the rising attacks and urged the country to speak out and act, signed a memorandum condemning and combating violent attacks against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
However, even when xenophobic attacks are evident (and done in plain sight), data on hate crimes is scarce. Some victims opt to stay silent, scared that reporting their experience may only create more harm.
“Since the coronavirus pandemic started, I have seen countless Asian Hate Crimes happening to people surrounding us, and many were not reported as we often were told by our elders to just keep our head down, do our job, and don't cause any trouble,” explains Vi.
To protect herself and her family, she brings with her pepper spray, and learned some tips to handle violent physical attacks.
“We practiced using a commanding voice to not look weak in front of an attacker or to use pepper spray when we’re in danger. I also taught my kids to immediately call 911 when they’re attacked or record videos if they can for evidence,” she says. “Or, to be honest, we just really pray.”
She has lived in constant fear ever since hate crimes have increased, something she said nobody should experience. What used to be her dream place now seems to be unsafe. If she could, Vi wants to move to a safer place where there’s a strict gun policy.
Though also scared, Uyen said she is staying in the US.
“I agree that Vietnam seems like a safer option now, but if I were to choose, I’d choose to stay. I think it’s important now more than ever to be united and to fight back against these hate crimes directed at our community. Who else should fight? It should be us, the younger generation of Asian Americans. We should speak up for ourselves and make sure our voices are heard,” Uyen says.
What’s driving anti-Asian violence?
Many people attribute the uptick to the racist comments publicly made by former US President Donald Trump. The former leader referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus,” blaming the country for the pandemic that has now killed 550,000 Americans, the highest death toll in the world.
Trump’s rhetoric, which was completely unjustified, spurred anger among Americans, eventually leading them to attack Asians they see in public places.
“There’s a clear correlation between President Trump’s incendiary comments, his insistence on using the term ‘Chinese virus’ and the subsequent hate speech spread on social media and the hate violence directed towards us,” Russell Jeung, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate tells TIME.
The verbal attacks from the country’s (and basically the world’s) most powerful leader had given Americans the license to attack people in minority groups.
The attacks include not only physical assault (11.1%) but also verbal harassment (68.1%), shunning or deliberate avoidance (20.5%), and online harassment (6.8%). About 8.5% of the incidents involved civil rights violations, such as workplace discrimination, refusal of service, and being barred from transportation.
Trang Ho, who works as an auditor in Los Angeles, admits that being Vietnamese may derail her career. “I’ve heard from people at my firm that if you’re Asian, it’s hard to move up and become a partner. Especially for Asians who were not born in the States.”
She has not personally experienced physical or verbal harassment, but she knows friends who were unlucky to be caught in such incidents. “I don’t feel much at home here,” she admits.
In a paper titled “The Anxiety of Being Asian American: Hate Crimes and Negative Biases During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published in June 2020 in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, researchers from the Department of Sociology at Yale University detail the prevalence of racism toward Asian Americans throughout the country’s history, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled hate crimes.
“The pandemic has brought about a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, economic concerns, and changes to everyday life like social distancing and staying at home,” says Hannah Tessler, a Ph.D. student and one of the coauthors of the Yale report. “Because of these fundamental shifts in people’s lives, I think many are dissatisfied and looking for some kind of way to direct blame or release that dissatisfaction.”
As a matter of fact, 40% of American adults believe it has become more common for people to express racist views toward Asians since the pandemic began, according to Pew Research.
Beyond the US soil, racist and derogatory attacks have also been imminent in countries like Italy, Brazil, and the UK. Asians were reportedly punched and taunted and were accused of spreading the coronavirus. There were also attacks in Australia. Two men attacked a Chinese American in Spain and beat him so badly that he was in a coma for two days.
A Human Rights Watch report also revealed incidents of discrimination and attacks in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, as well as across the Middle East.
The HRW said government leaders and senior officials, in some instances, have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes, racism, or xenophobia by using anti-Chinese rhetoric. Several political parties and groups have also taken advantage of the health crisis “to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders.”
“The pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering. “Governments should act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.