Photo by Eric Lawson, drawing by Jonathan D. Chang
"Where are you from?"
The San Francisco Bay Area.
“Ok, but I mean...where are your parents from?”
“Awesome! I love pad Thai.”
This exchange above has happened frequently to me since I was a child and still happens from time to time as an adult. Taiwan has a little more clout now because of how well it is handling the coronavirus and of being the land of origin for boba milk tea. But what the example illustrates what many Asian Americans felt for a long time, i.e. we’re all lumped into the same category of “Asian.”
Asians are grouped together despite coming from many different countries, living in different neighborhoods, and having vastly different average household incomes: this income disparity can be seen between the relatively higher incomes of East Asians (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Korean) compared to the relatively lower income of Southeast Asians (e.g. Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Cambodian) in the U.S.
This is why the Asian American Panethnicity movement, referred to by Professor Yen Espiritu in her book of the same name, exists and why it’s important. Asians from all different backgrounds and countries need to find solidarity in the U.S. and work together. Since we are all seen as the same in America, we face similar experiences of racism and are subject to the same discriminatory policies in multiple sectors of our society (government, education, etc...). Many of us feel like we're treated like guests living in America despite it being our home country. As a result, my experience as a Taiwanese American is much more similar to that of a Thai American than it is to a Taiwanese person growing up in Taiwan.
That is why when I saw the video of Mr. Vicha Ratanapakdee (pictured above), an 84 year old Thai man, murdered on the streets of San Francisco in broad daylight, it hurt personally. Mr. Ratanapakdee was just taking a walk and unprovoked, was violently shoved to the ground by a 19 year old male. This violent news reminded me of why I felt anxiety as a child for my grandparents going out and now the anxiety I have for my own parents who have recently become grandparents.
During the pandemic, I told my father to be careful when he goes out: firstly, because of the virus, secondly, because of the anti-Asian attacks that have been happening in the Bay Area. He told me, "If it happens, there's not much I can do." This was disheartening to hear. For half of my life, my father has been physically stronger than me. As a child, looking up at him, he was like superman lifting large objects with ease and constantly fixing things around the house.
Over the years, he seems to have gotten shorter and weaker while I've become taller and stronger, and he's right: if someone much younger and physically stronger than him were to physically attack him,, there's only so much he can do.
Surveillance photos of a man suspected of three assaults in Oakland’s Chinatown on January 31, 2021. If you have any information, please contact the Oakland Police Department at (510) 238-3426.
If you look at recent reports of anti-Asian racist attacks in the U.S., these attackers mainly target the elderly and women. Shortly after Vicha's attack, there were three attacks against the Asian elderly reported in Oakland Chinatown, one of them being a 91 year-old man who was thrown to the ground. The neighborhood has recently implemented a volunteer squad to patrol the area in response to the rise of attacks against Chinatown.
This is what it's like being Asian in America.
This kind of violence is not new, but it has become worse during the pandemic. Wording like the "Chinese virus" or "kung flu" which have entered the vocabulary of many Americans, further exacerbating this anti-Asian racism. I'm proud to be Taiwanese American and have constantly had to explain to others the difference between Taiwanese and Chinese. But, when it comes to anti-Asian racism, offenders do not give a damn about socio-political differences between countries.
Therefore, an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us. We're seen as a monolith and are treated as such. The Asian American community needs to protect the most physically vulnerable in our community: the elderly, children, women, those with disabilities. To make this effective it also means different Asian groups standing in solidarity with each other: Taiwanese helping Chinese, Filpinos helping Japanese, Koreans helping Vietnamese, etc... We also need allyship across the board: black, white, Hispanic, First Peoples, more.
Yik Oi Huang, passed away in January 2020 from a 2019 attack.
Two years ago, an 89 year old Chinese great grandma Yik Oi Huang was brutally beaten and left to die. A year later, a few months before the pandemic, she died from her injuries. Around the same time a video of an older Chinese man who was being physically harassed while collecting cans became viral online. Now, during the pandemic, reports of anti-Asian racism have risen dramatically, with Ratanapakdee being the latest victim. What is hard to ignore from all the attacks I just mentioned are that the suspects and perpetrators are all black. Me pointing this out is not a call for anti-blackness. This is a call for awareness.
Tensions between the black and Asian communities are at the heart of Down a Dark Stairwell a telling documentary that explores the death of Akai Gurley, a young black male, who was killed by NYPD Officer Peter Liang, a Chinese American male. The film centers black and Chinese American voices, the main interview subjects being from one of those communities.
It's insightful to see how the same tensions that are happening in the San Francisco Bay Area are happening all the way across the country in New York City. In one scene, a Chinese American woman shares a story about how black youths are beating up Chinese elderly in their neighborhood, but it goes unreported. In another, a black woman shares her frustration that the Asian community has been silent in the face of racial injustice against black people for far too long.
Dark stairwell that Akai Gurley was shot and killed. A new light has been installed after his death. AP Photo by John Minchillo
What is great to see is how more young Asian Americans are stepping in to organize and protest for the Black Lives Movement (BLM), a movement that has rightfully moved into the public consciousness and the mainstream. However, anti-Asian racism still feels marginalized and normalized in the U.S. with the anti-Asian accounts I mentioned above receiving far less media attention than their white and black counterparts.
I hope that our black friends will join in the fight against anti-Asian in the light of the recent attacks against the elderly in the Asian community. We cannot do this alone. We need members of the black community to call out anti-Asian behavior when they see it in their community. This is a life and death matter. Supporting BLM and fighting anti-Asian racism is not mutually exclusive. What these movements highlight are just how damaging white supremacy is and how it builds resentment between the minorities. We need to recognize this and work towards solidarity.