Racist attacks and hate incidents against Asians and Asian Americans have spiked in the last year as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country. The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate reported that nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incidents were recorded since 2020, with a disproportionate amount targeting women in particular.
The rise in anti-Asian attacks has sparked increased media coverage and social media outcry. In response, lawmakers in Massachusetts have sponsored an expansion of two hate crime laws that would add gender and immigration status as protected groups in a state where over 7% of residents, or over 482,000 people, identified as Asian in a 2019 federal census count.
Yet the rise in reports likely does not capture all the incidents that have occurred. A March survey from the nonprofit AAPI Data shows that Asian Americans are the least likely to report hate incidents for various reasons, including fear of retaliation and a desire to avoid attention.
TODAY spoke with three survivors of random violent physical attacks, who opened up about their traumatic experiences and shared how they're coping and how their lives have changed.
Noel Quintana, 61
On the morning of Feb. 3, Noel Quintana caught a New York City subway on his way to one of his two jobs as an administrative assistant at a facility for mentally challenged people.
He hopped on a Manhattan-bound L train and stood at the door opposite one opening, he told TODAY in a phone interview. When the train stopped at Bedford, a station in Brooklyn, the door opened and a man boarded and stood next to him.
"There's not much space. So when he kicked (my) bag, I moved my bag away from him, and then I put it in front of me," Quintana, who identifies as Filipino American, explained. "But then a few more minutes, he kicked again my bag."
The train came to a stop at First Avenue, the first stop in Manhattan after Bedford. Quintana said he moved inside the train towards the aisle and asked the man, "What's wrong with you?"
"Then when the train stopped and opened the door, he came over then slashed me," he said.
It happened so quickly that at first, Quintana didn't realize what had happened.
"So I thought he was going to punch me," the 61-year-old recalled. "But when I realized that he was holding a box cutter, and the reaction of the people sitting in the train, so I realized that he has slashed me. So I put my hands on my face, and I saw the blood."
"So I panicked and asked for help, but nobody helped me," he said.
Eventually, a transit worker came to his aid when Quintana got off the train and walked to the First Avenue station booth.
I never thought of that happening to me. I've been taking the train. I came here in New York (in) 2008. So I've never had an incident before.
Quintana has been taking the subway since he came to New York in 2008. He said he was motivated to share his story to warn others.
"I never thought of that happening to me," he said, adding that he's never experienced anything like this before.
Quintana's case is being investigated by the New York Police Department. NYPD confirmed to TODAY that a police report was filed that matched Quintana's story. The case has not been classified as a hate crime or bias incident and the suspect did not mention the victim’s race, officials said. According to an NYPD spokesperson, 28-year-old Pashawn Boykins was arrested on March 5 and charged with assault but the department is also requesting that anyone with information about the incident contact police.
The suspect's lawyer did not respond to TODAY's request for comment but told “60 Minutes” that Boykins had pleaded not guilty and prosecutors didn’t bring hate crime charges against him because Boykins' past criminal record includes at least one other violent crime on the subway, which was committed against a non-Asian victim.
"It's hard to speculate because he didn't say anything," Quintana added. "I was told that in 2019, there were only three (cases of) Asian American violence compared to 29 in 2020. So this anti-Asian violence, I guess, is now being linked to COVID-19 because Asians are being blamed for what's happening in the country ... so I think the pandemic triggers the increase in Asian American violence."
Go out and speak out so that our voices would be heard. Because if our voices would be heard, the authorities would do something about it. We also prevent this happening from other people too.
Quintana told TODAY he is still experiencing negative effects since the attack two months ago — from sleepless nights to numbness on his face.
"Sometimes I drool and sometimes it affects my appetite ... I taste food differently now," he explained. "There's food that I like before, now, it seems that I don't like it anymore."
He added that his physician told him it would take "months to really feel the way I used to feel on my face."
Quintana hopes that other victims will hear his story and be moved to say something about their experiences.
"Go out and speak out so that our voices would be heard. Because if our voices would be heard, the authorities would do something about it. We also prevent this happening from other people too."
Noriko Nasu, 44
Noriko Nasu was meeting up with her boyfriend, 50-year-old nurse Michael Poffenbarger, in Seattle on the evening of Feb. 25, around 9:30 p.m., when the two of them were attacked by a male stranger on a downtown street.
Nasu told TODAY she had first spotted the man when she was driving.
"And as I turned the corner, I saw this person standing on the side of the street looking around," Nasu said. "As soon as he saw me, he kept staring at me. And I didn't have very good feeling, but it was still pretty early in the evening. There's a lot of people around."
She said she was right in front of a busy restaurant with people inside when she parked, directly across the street from the suspect.
She said she'd never seen him before and tried to keep an eye on where he was while she got out of her car.
"He was on the sidewalk and watching me park and as I parked my car I could see he crossed the street towards my car and he stood behind my car ... so I locked the door and then I tried to use a mirror to see where he is and I couldn't see him," she continued. "I don't know what he was doing so I waited for maybe a minute or so and finally he moved away from the car and across the street to where he was standing originally.
"And then at the same time, I saw my boyfriend coming towards my car so I feel safe," Nasu, a native of Japan, recalled. "So I got out the car, went to see my boyfriend and he had to get something out of my car so we went back to the car. And as we retrieve the stuff, shut the door, walk the street, that guy came back towards my car and then kind of went behind us and turned around."
At that point, Nasu said she thought the man was going to ask them for money. But instead, he hit her.
"Next thing I know, I just felt this big impact," she said. "I didn't even see it coming."
"I must have blacked out 'cause I was on the ground and I couldn't breathe because I was wearing double mask at that point and I could feel that blood was filling up my mask and I just couldn't breathe ... I woke up and then I took off the mask, and ... my consciousness was reduced, in a shock and pretty dazed but I could kind of sense that my boyfriend and the guy was kind of fighting," she said. "And my boyfriend was yelling and I didn't really hear the guy say anything, maybe like making noise a little bit, like fighting noise."
Nasu said she didn't fully understand what hit her until she watched security camera footage later, which TODAY reviewed.
"It looked like a sock and he put a rock inside and he was using it as a nunchuck," she said. "So he hit me and then ... what I remember was, then he hit my boyfriend and then my boyfriend started screaming 'Help!' and then people started coming out from the restaurant and then the guy left."
Poffenbarger was also injured and both were later taken to a local hospital.
"When we were in the emergency room, people (were) asking, 'Why do you think you guys are attacked? Do you think it's because you're Asian?' I'm Asian. My boyfriend's not. And we're like, 'No, I don't think so.' ... We didn't really want to believe it was racially motivated because frankly, we never expected that can happen especially here in Seattle. (I've) lived here since 2004."
We didn't really want to believe it was racially motivated because frankly, we never expected that can happen especially here in Seattle.
According to Nasu, their take on the attack changed after watching the video of the incident.
"Later we got the surveillance video and we watched it and we could see the guy was clearly targeting me from the beginning and he's watching my every move. And when after my boyfriend show up and when he attacked me, even though my boyfriend was closer to him, he actually went around my boyfriend, so he avoided hitting my boyfriend, went around him and hit me first.
"And you could see in the video ... he was gonna walk away after I went down. He was walking away and my boyfriend was yelling at him and then he decided, 'OK, he's making too much noise. I need to finish this guy too.' So he turned around, came back and he started swinging the thing at my boyfriend. And after that he got really angry and he hit my boyfriend and he kept charging at us until people came to help."
Nasu, who is also a mom to two teenage daughters, said she decided to go public with her story after seeing the surveillance video. She said the attack isn't classified as a hate crime because "the person didn't say anything."
But after speaking with Chinatown Night Watch, which helps patrol the area where she was attacked, Nasu decided to tell her story to "raise awareness."
The suspect, Sean J. Holdip, is facing two counts of second-degree assault charges. In a statement to TODAY, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office explained they charged Holdip with assault instead of a hate crime “based on the evidence from investigators so far.”
“Investigators are looking for evidence that would allow us to prove a hate crime beyond a reasonable doubt,” the statement reads. “At this point, based on the evidence received from investigators, we have not filed this case as a hate crime because, as horrible as this attack was, we do not believe we can prove a hate crime before a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. We are ethically bound to only bring cases that we believe can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Holdip’s trial is scheduled to begin on May 12.
The attack left Nasu with facial injuries and a concussion, though she says it's "getting better."
"I have big bumps on my face, like cheek, nose, under my nose, so when I speak or I smile, like I cannot smile the way I used to. It's a bit lopsided and it's like I'm smirking," she said. "And then doctors say it's gonna take like a year for this to heal and now I'm a little worried like, 'Do I ever look the same?' I don't know if those cuts will heal and disappear."
She said she still has a concussion that causes brain fog, dizziness, headaches and light sensitivity.
"It comes and goes but when it's bad ... I couldn't remember my address, even though I live here since 2008. I couldn't spell my name, even though I have a master's degree so I just don't feel like myself," she added. "I thought I will be OK ... going back to work, and now I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't have, because I'm like, sleeping between classes. I'm a teacher, and I'm teaching remotely so between class I have to lay down and so that's the physical part. Mentally, I'm still in shock. I still can't understand why people do this to other people."
Nasu also added that Poffenbarger has been traumatized by the incident too. "I think he's more traumatized than I am," she said. "He was fully conscious during the attack and he fight this person and he saw me go down. And I had reduced consciousness so I was pretty confused. So I didn't feel scared or anything at the time of the attacks, but now he's having nightmares and he is super careful or scared of people approaching him. So if he's walking on streets, if some homeless person or some sketchy-looking person comes, he will cross the street."
Though Poffenbarger has lived downtown for years working late hours as a nurse, Nasu said he'd "never had this problem before so I think his trauma is pretty bad."
She added that her trauma stems from the aftermath of the attack.
"Realizing how it's affecting my face, like my teeth don't look the same. My smile don't look the same," she said. "And the fact that I was probably attacked just because of my ethnicity, because I'm Asian, that is just really difficult."
Denny Kim, 27
Denny Kim was also in a metropolis when he was attacked on a major street. The 27-year-old Los Angeles native was going to meet a friend on the evening of Feb. 16, between 8 and 9 p.m., but wanted to get a bite to eat beforehand. "I basically grabbed some sushi over at this spot called, Roll Roll Roll. ... This took place in Koreatown, Los Angeles," Kim told TODAY, pointing out that he was ambushed in the same neighborhood that made headlines as the site of the L.A. riots in 1992.
"Once I arrived on Kenmore Street I was just eating my food and waiting for my friend to pick me up. And these two guys I saw coming from afar, they were basically throwing up like hand signs ... like gang signs, I don't know. ... I've never seen these guys before. These guys were complete strangers to me."
Kim, a Korean American and Air Force veteran, recounted the incident vividly. "I saw these two guys. They're basically hurling racial insults at me ... saying like, ch--- ch--- making fun of my eyes. They're saying Chinese virus," he recalled. "I felt like they just looked at me as if I was just this creature that was just existing here on Earth, they didn't look at me like a human being. ... And they didn't look at me as an equal, but instead they were just fueled by ignorance and absolute hate."
He continued, "They got really close to my face, right in front of my face, actually, and one of them struck me on my face. And they kept on striking my face. I fell down to the ground. They kept on beating me up. And I was on the ground, I was just trying to fend for myself. I was just trying to block all those kicks and punches."
Kim credits the friend who was coming to pick him up for saving his life. "Luckily my friend Joseph Cha, he was the one that came in the nick of time. He basically hopped out the car and started chasing those assailants away. He started screaming at them, he started chasing them away. They got scared and they basically ran away like cowards."
Unlike Quintana and Nasu, Kim didn't immediately report the attack that night.
"We went home. I didn't want to go to the hospital initially. I didn't want to do anything to be honest. I just wanted to stay at home and just recover," he told TODAY. "It took me about a couple days to actually go to the hospital, and actually file a police report as well."
He explained that he was convinced to share his story after attending an anti-Asian hate rally in Chinatown, Los Angeles, "so we can ultimately spread awareness and possibly prevent this from happening again."
Kim said, "This has never happened to me physically, this physical assault, I've never experienced something like this ever in my life. But, verbal assaults, you know, me getting bullied ever since I was a kid growing up here in Los Angeles. That has always been there, other races calling me (anti-Asian slurs) and putting their fingers on the side of their eyes to imitate my slanted eyes, that has always been there, and I grew up experiencing that all throughout my life."
Kim added that even in his career in the Air Force, he felt there was subtle discrimination.
"I remember one time, my leadership, he made a joke, saying that he felt like he was running a sweatshop now that he had an Asian working under him, which was me. I never felt like I fit in, or belonged in the Air Force," Kim said. "I didn't have any friends. I was always hanging out by myself. And yeah, I just basically felt excluded."
I want to promote unity and peace. I want to promote having compassion on other people instead of being so disrespectful and filled with such hate.
After the attack, Kim suffered multiple injuries to his face and body. "I received a black eye on the right side. I had a lot of bumps and bruises on the left side of my forehead," he explained. "When I hit the concrete, I had a lot of bruises on the back side of my head as well and when I went to the hospital, I received a CAT scan, and they found out that my nose was broken. I had a fracture on the right side of my nose."
Nowadays, Kim tries not to return to the area where he was attacked. "I'm recovering but I still find it pretty difficult to go to that area, Koreatown. I do my best to avoid that area ever since that incident occurred."
So far, police haven’t arrested any suspects, though officials said they were investigating the case as a hate crime. Los Angeles Police Department confirmed to TODAY that Kim’s case is an ongoing investigation.
In February, an analysis done by the LAPD showed reports of anti-Asian hate crimes doubled during the calendar year 2020 vs. 2019, though the overall number of reports is very small — 15 in 2020 compared to seven in 2019. The total number of hate-related crime reports rose nearly 28% in 2020.
Kim said he wants others to "know that racism isn't cool ... we're living in 2021, but we're still dealing with issues that we're dealing with back in the '60s. I feel like we need to progress just as a society, and throw away all of our differences and educate ourselves on different cultures and be more open-minded instead of being ignorant, insulting and disrespectful. I want to promote unity and peace. I want to promote having compassion on other people instead of being so disrespectful and filled with such hate."