Anti-Asian sentiment has skyrocketed in recent months, though it has been a consistent issue for much longer. Especially in the wake of a virus seemingly having originated in China, fear of and racism against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has fueled numerous hate crimes targeting Asian Americans. The uptick in violence has left many — both in Berkeley and all over the country — feeling fear and anger.
Sonny Han is the owner of Payn’s Stationary, an Asian-run stationery, art, and office supplies store on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. As an Asian American person, Han was frightened by the recent anti-Asian attacks that have occured in the Bay Area. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the organization Stop AAPI Hate has reported nearly 3,800 hate crimes against Asian Americans. With a new hate crime receiving media attention seemingly every day, racially-driven hostility has created fear amongst the Asian community.
“I was very scared in the beginning. I felt so terrified of what could happen,” stated Han, “but I feel very fortunate to be in such a safe neighborhood.” Han reiterated that he did feel unsafe when the attacks were first reported, but has felt a lot more secure lately, simply because of his store’s locale. “I feel so lucky that nothing has happened,” he said.
Han continued on to say that he’s been in other countries with other cultures and ways of life, but Berkeley is unique in his mind. “I’ve lived here a while, and there’s no other place like this one.”
Amanda Sieu, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), is the president of Berkeley High School’s (BHS) Asian Pacific Islander Club (APIC). Recently, she has heard about several violent acts targeted towards the Asian community, from an Asian man getting cut across the face on February 3, to several elderly Asian women being shoved to the ground. Sieu stated, “I know many of these [attacks] are an act of racism towards the Asian community, especially because the Asian community has been blamed for the spread and source of [COVID-19] by many racists.”
While there has been a rise locally in violence against the Asian American community, the national spotlight has been focused on the hate crime in Atlanta, Georgia, in which eight people — six of them Asian women — were shot and killed by a 21-year-old white man, who committed the terrorist act at a series of Asian spas. Sieu addressed the murder, saying, “A police officer on the case reported the shooter was having a ‘bad day’ and that’s why he shot up these spas. That reasoning makes absolutely no sense to me because this type of violence should never be reasoned with having a bad day, if it could be reasoned at all.” She continued, “I hate to see seemingly hardworking, innocent people be shot to death because of a racist, xenophobic person.”
A Cambodian and Chinese American, Sieu’s parents own Dream Fluff Donuts, a donut store in the Elmwood neighborhood. “A lot of people know our donut shop as an Asian-owned family business, and these more recent escalated hate crimes towards Asians put me slightly on edge. Before going out of the house, my dad sometimes tells me about a new story of another Asian hate crime around us to remind me to be extra careful.” She added that it’s disappointing to see the blame of the pandemic being put on Asians. “And to go as far as harming and attacking Asians, especially the elderly, makes my heart sink,” said Sieu. Especially as many Asians are immigrants and already have it harder, Sieu continued, “I’m glad there’s somewhat of an awareness about this hate, but that said, there’s still not enough recognition for the injustice and racist attacks some of the Asian community is facing.”
Also a senior in AC, Joann Yu is currently the vice president of APIC. She too has heard many examples of hate crimes on the news, like Asian seniors in Oakland getting pushed over on the street, or Asian Americans being robbed. As an Asian student at BHS, Yu said, “It’s a lot of … fear.” She talks regularly with her family, and the conversations she’s been having with them have shifted to subjects like these hate crimes. Yu referred to her family members, saying, “For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve really experienced hate crimes so near to where they live.” For many people, their proximity to the violence is what has differentiated these attacks from previous displays of racism.
These acts of hatred aren’t discussed enough, Yu continued. Even at BHS, “There hasn’t really been a coming-together [or] a talk about it, which was really disappointing for me.” Yu noted that none of her teachers have discussed these racist acts, and it feels like the lack of discussion and reflection has suppressed their level of extremity. Yu explained the reasoning behind the silence, saying, “I feel like a lot of people want to talk about it, but they don’t want to be the ones to bring it up.”
Yu also mentioned that Asian American history is very minimal in the BHS curriculum. “That really affects how we talk about discrimination against Asians. We don’t really know a lot about the discrimination, and we don’t have the vocabulary and the historical knowledge to really back up our thoughts. Something really needs to be done about that.” Many BHS students, Yu continued, simply aren’t aware of the degree to which hatred and racism has ended up in violence. She pointed out that if students are uninformed about these issues, they won’t be able to fix them.
Such issues have manifested, in part, as a result of the role Asians have played in American society. Yu mentioned how the model minority myth has been applied to Asian Americans in the past few decades. “[The model minority myth occurs when] Asians have reached the same social and economic status as white people, so then our problems are kind of lesser.” This thinking is harmful to Asians, but also has a ripple effect on society as a whole, “because when one community is being harmed, it affects everyone,” said Yu.
Yu added, “Everyone needs to be talking about this more, because this isn’t something that happens once and goes away forever. If it’s happening now, it will happen in the future unless we do something about it now.”
As the Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), Cynthia Choi has helped found Stop AAPI Hate, a non-profit organization focused on combating anti-Asian racism in America. From building awareness about racism to offering actionable ways to make change, Stop AAPI Hate is well-known for providing the public with a space to share their experiences of being a target of xenophobia, whether that be a explicit anti-Asian assault, or something normalized, like being called a racist slur in the workplace.
“When we started Stop AAPI Hate over a year ago, we were blown away by how many people came onto our site and reported what they were experiencing,” recalled Choi. With the intent of spreading awareness of anti-Asian acts, the Stop AAPI website has given people a forum to report every act of hate under the sun. “It doesn’t have to be a crime for it to matter,” Choi said.
Stop AAPI Hate has conducted numerous interviews and studies with young Asians, and found the fear entrenched in them devastating. “A lot of them talked about fearing for their parents, fearing for their grandparents. So this is a difficult time, and I think that to have to worry about your own sense of safety going to the grocery store or just walking around your neighborhood is a violation of our basic human rights.”
Even since the very founding of the United States, Asian Americans have been alienized. Choi said, “There’s a presumption that, just based on our appearance and our identity, we don’t belong here. … That can make us easy targets, especially during times of crisis.” Even before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Asians had been thought of as “other,” making them particularly vulnerable, she continued. Choi also added that, especially as immigrants who don’t speak fluent English and are still adjusting to a new governmental system and cultural norm, they are often a vulnerable group that is easily targeted.
As the daughter of immigrants, Choi has firsthand experience with the difficulty of navigating the public school system, advocating for her family, and living in the United States with limited English proficiency.
When she was a kid, her family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood. During her family’s first night there, their home was vandalized and car tires were slashed. While there was no racist message left for her family, she said, “I do remember my parents, in hushed tones, talking about the fact that, ‘Oh, it’s because we’re Asian.’”
While there are quite a few clear examples of racially-driven crime, there are also many smaller acts of hatred towards the Asian community. Choi explained, “Hate speech is protected speech in this country, and so it’s not illegal.”
Choi also added, “That type of speech should be condemned, and there should be [a] code of conduct, and consequences for that type of behavior, because it does make people feel unsafe, it does make people feel unwelcome, and it does affect peoples’ health and well-being.”
Asian Americans, both locally and nationwide, have been a target of racial hostility for years. From the mainstream circulation of these incidents to how they have managed to seep into the normalcy of everyday life, anti-Asian acts and sentiments have impacted people not just in Berkeley, but all over the world.