Last June, while I frantically dashed through Costco to grab food for my family, I spotted an older Korean woman struggling to lift a pack of water bottles. I don’t speak Korean, but I picked it up. I asked if she needed more. She pointed. I put the rest in her cart. She bowed, and I smiled behind my mask. What I did wasn’t extraordinary, but part of what’s been ingrained in me as a child of Taiwanese immigrants: our gùng gungs, nǎi nais, lolas, and halmeonis deserve the utmost respect.
Of course, you don’t need to be Asian American to care for the elderly. But since the start of COVID-19, Asian seniors have disproportionately been the target of cruel verbal and physical attacks that have exponentially increased. According to Stop AAPI Hate, from March to December 2020, 126 incidents were reported against Asian Americans over 60 years old. Unfortunately, Asian elders are easy targets; most don’t speak English. In New York City alone, 1 in 3 Asian seniors live in a limited English-speaking household, can’t defend themselves, and likely won’t report what happened.
When I first reported for this site about why the phrase “Kung Flu” was racist, I received Facebook comments arguing that the problematic term used to describe COVID-19 actually wasn’t “real racism.” A few months later, I wrote about the alarming increase in attacks as the pandemic continued on. (The current tally, as of February 2021, is at 2,808 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate from 47 states and the District of Columbia.)
I'm writing my third story about anti-Asian hate crimes, specifically against elders. I pause writing to cry. Last year, when I wrote that "Kung Flu" is racist, people said: "It's not real racism." A year later, I am mad. Words have power, and I'm using every word I've got.
— Jennifer Chen (@jchenwriter) February 22, 2021
A year later, I am mad. I can’t look at videos of Asian seniors being beaten and assaulted. I am actually grateful that my ahma isn’t alive right now. If she was, she could be pushed, shoved, and head cracked by someone who will not likely be charged with a hate crime. Under federal law, hate crimes must be a direct threat involving a weapon, like this person who threatened to kill Asian Americans on Lunar New Year.
In the Asian American Pacific Islander community, many of us pride ourselves on “saving face.” We are taught to endure silently—but we can’t do that any longer. Especially in the wake of 61-year-old Noel Quintana, who was slashed with a box cutter on the NYC subway, or a 91-year-old man who was pushed to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown, both in February 2021.
While the videos circulating are vital to document what is happening, for many Asian Americans like myself, seeing people who look like us attacked is taking a toll on our mental health. Lisa Son, a psychology professor at Barnard College of Columbia University, says, “The only way to help each other cope with this violence and to address mental health is to speak out, and to confide in others. We know that Asians put less weight on the ‘individual self…’ but this translates into a true isolation.”
Among those speaking out are prominent Asian American celebrities who are lending their voices and platforms to spread awareness outside of the AAPI community. Daniel Dae Kim, Gemma Chan, Chrissy Teigen, Olivia Munn, and fashion designer Philip Lim have all been vocal, posting #StopAsianHate Instagram posts.
On Instagram, Crazy Rich Asians leading man Henry Golding posted a discussion with writer Eric Toda about the anti-Asian violence. I reached out to Golding, who shared his sentiments: “The main goal needs to be to reach out to other communities for union, because spreading these stories between ourselves is preaching to the choir.”
“We need everyone, not just Asian Americans, to recognize the severity of the issue.”
Simu Liu, star of the upcoming Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, retweeted photos of an assailant in Flushing, New York, who pushed an Asian woman into a pole. She required hospitalization and 10 stitches. In response to an e-mail for this story, Liu commented: “For our allies, it’s important to hear our words and not compare our struggles against those of other minority groups. We need everyone, not just Asian Americans, to recognize the severity of the issue and to take active steps in preventing it from happening anymore.”
There is a groundswell of grassroots efforts to protect Asian elders. In Oakland, 26-year-old Jacob Azevedo was outraged at a disturbing video of an 84-year-old Thai man killed in San Francisco. He took to social media to volunteer to escort elderly Asians on outings so they wouldn’t be harmed. Within days of his announcement, 400 volunteers came together to keep seniors safe in an effort called Compassion Oakland. In New York City, Asian American business owners joined the #EnoughIsEnough fundraising campaign to provide free meals to the community—some of whom are afraid to venture out because of the ongoing violence.
Says Golding: “It seems that the attacks aren’t covered thoroughly across the board, which leaves it to members of the public to spread the news via social media, like Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu, who have done great AAPI chats on Clubhouse.” Recently, a #StopAsianHate Clubhouse talk—featuring Daniel Dae Kim, Daniel Wu, Lisa Ling, and Van Jones, among others—discussed what can be done to push this movement forward.
During the Clubhouse chat, Dion Lim, a San Francisco TV reporter, said her email has been inundated with videos and anecdotes. “Ninety percent of these incidents don’t ever see the light of day. People are afraid and hindered by cultural barriers.” Jones later added, “I know a lot of Black people are ashamed and outraged on what’s happening. You don’t let this happen to people who are elderly and scared.”
“People are afraid and hindered by cultural barriers.”
At the local government level, Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) and David Chiu (D-San Francisco) introduced bill AB 557 on February 22 to the California Department of Justice, requesting a toll-free hotline and online reporting system to allow victims and witnesses to anonymously report a hate incident. “Every city needs to have a reachout program that calls people directly in the Asian American communities,” says Son. “Since the need for anonymity is so strong, we need to set up anonymous hotlines. We need translators to ask questions and get accurate reports of all racist acts.” In a positive gesture, the California State Legislature approved $1.4 million in state funding toward research for organizations tracking the anti-Asian hate incidents, which awaits Governor Newsom’s signature.
Back in March 2020, I could see the trajectory of what the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” would bring to my community. As the year wore on, I collected more headlines, images of battered faces, and storefront signs that demanded we go back home—as if America is not meant for us.
“Go back to China,” is meant to silence our voices and put us in our place. “We can do what you want to you here in America,” said one misspelled racist sign placed on the door of a Japanese cookware store in Torrance, California.
Words have power, and I’m using every word that I’ve got. I hope you will, too.