For the past 16 years, I’ve lived in New York City, the world’s melting pot. Ever since I could remember, my goal was to live and work in the Big Apple. In 2006, it finally happened: The girl with immigrant parents and big dreams got a job that took her to the greatest city. I bought into the hype that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I was never self-conscious about living here as Asian American — until the pandemic. Wuhan flu. Kung flu. Chinese virus. Those words uttered by even the former president.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was coughed at during a routine trip to the grocery store in my neighborhood on New York’s Upper West Side. I remember walking down the street and it was like the parting of the Red Sea: People distanced themselves from me so quickly. Wearing a mask, they only saw my eyes, and they equated me with the virus.
These reactions are ugly, and they hurt. This is the country that welcomed my family when they fled communist Vietnam in 1975. I was born in Canoga Park, California. The Valley. Yes, that one. You know our slang: For sure. Totally. That’s so tubular. Those were the words that came out of my mouth growing up.
But lately, I no longer feel safe. Violence against Asian Americans has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Just the latest example that has made headlines: On Feb. 13, Christina Yuna Lee, 35, was found murdered in her Manhattan apartment. Police say she was followed into her apartment and then stabbed multiple times. My first thought: Did the suspect pick her because she’s Asian? While police still don’t know the motive, it’s almost irrelevant, because whether she was targeted because she was Asian or it was a random attack, she is gone. And the growing violence around me has shattered my sense of safety and security.
The growing violence around me has shattered my sense of safety and security.
What frustrates me is when people ask me if this really is happening: Are there really more attacks against Asian Americans, or are people just more aware and reporting them? Am I being gaslit for something my community is experiencing?
Look at the numbers: The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported that anti-Asian hate crimes increased 339% nationwide in 2021, compared to 124% the year before. Stop AAPI Hate recorded more than 10,000 “hate incidents” between March 2020 and September 2021.
Lee is hardly the only Asian American woman whose attack has made headlines. Hoa Nguyen. Michelle Go. Katie Hou. Their names, faces and stories haunt me. Nguyen, a 67-year-old grandma assaulted just blocks from her home. Go, 40, who was pushed to her death in front of an oncoming subway train. Hou, a 37-year-old mom, told NBC New York that she was punched in the face twice while she was with her 7-year old daughter. The irony is that she and her daughter were attending a solidarity rally.
Stories like this aren’t confined to major cities: This violence is happening everywhere. As a journalist, I strive to be objective, but the truth is this hits way too close to home.
These women could’ve been my grandma, mom, auntie, cousin, friend. They could have been me. These women were going about their daily lives when violence erupted. I lie awake at night, thinking about them and their families. I think about my family, especially my 10 year-old daughter. I’m terrified something could happen to me, or even worse, she could witness something happen to me.
Now, every day I think about the path I will take to walk to the grocery store or work or the playground. Is it a busy route? I’m a little on edge turning a quiet corner. If I make eye contact with a stranger, will that person shout something at me? When someone gets too close, I feel my body tensing up. I'm constantly cognizant of the time of day.
Nervous thoughts run through my mind at times: Should I carry pepper spray? I often resist the temptation to use my AirPods, and when I do — always during the day — I wear one on just one side, keeping the other ear free to listen for anything else. I cannot remember the last time I took the subway alone.
I wasn’t always like this. My sense of safety shifted about a year ago with reports of Asians becoming targets of hate and violence around the country. Some of the attacks were caught on camera. I watched the videos over and over in horror and disbelief. In the beginning, the suspects went after the most vulnerable: the elderly. My phone blew up with calls and texts from my mom, brother, aunts and cousins, most of whom live in Southern California, with everyone expressing concern, disgust and putting each other on alert. I remember telling my mom, “Don’t go to the store. Can you get it delivered? Even if it costs more, that’s OK. I can pay for the difference.” I didn’t want my mom to take a risk. She not only had to protect herself from COVID-19, but also the virus of hate.
I know the stereotype of Asian women: demure, exotic, subservient. I am none of those things. This isn’t about weakness: I’m writing this to explain how these headlines and violent attacks affect my community, and to encourage people to speak up and report incidents that are happening.
I know the stereotype of Asian women: demure, exotic, subservient. I am none of those things. This isn’t about weakness.
In the pre-pandemic days, I was probably too lax. I took my independence and mobility for granted. One of the things I loved most about New York was that the city was always hustling and bustling. I walked around freely at all hours. Now, my female friends and I make a point of texting and calling each other when we get home after a night out. I’ll hail a cab or grab an Uber instead of taking a subway or walking.
I worry about any kind of confrontation, verbal or physical. I think about my 10-year-old daughter all the time. What would I say to her if I got hurt? How would I explain why this violence exists?
And even worse: What if I didn’t come home to her at all?