The Emotional Toll of Enduring Anti-Asian Attacks
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon for a walk at Ocean Beach in San Francisco when a white man came running at my elderly father and me. He waved his arms, gesturing at us, and started shouting.
“Oh no,” I thought. “He’s going to try to shove my father.” I reached out for my father’s arm. My father is 88 years old and disabled due to spinal stenosis combined with a childhood bout of polio. He needs two canes to walk.
I tried to hurry my father back to the car, but the white man followed us, shouting, “Yes! Lift those legs! You’re already moving better!” Then he shouted at me, “Do you understand?”
Although there were other people at the beach that day, none were in earshot. No one saw us being accosted by this crazed white man. No one came to our aid.
Fortunately, we made it back to our car, and I was able to drive away to safety.
But the incident shook my father’s nerves. He began to suffer from nightmares and panic attacks. I had to take him to the hospital for an EKG once because he thought he was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack, and his doctor prescribed a low-dose anti-anxiety medication for him. But one of the side effects is drowsiness — never great for an elderly person.
I learned to internalize the othering as shame, as though we somehow had not projected our trustworthiness hard enough, earnestly enough, strenuously enough. As though we had done something wrong merely by existing.
This incident infuriated me because I realized how impossible it would have been for me to protect my father if that man had tried to harm him physically. He was a big, tall, strong, fast able-bodied man. My father is frail, a survivor of cancer and open-heart surgery, a former refugee whose childhood was marked by 12 years of war. When he was four, he and his family had to flee their hometown of Nanjing during the Japanese invasion of China. As a child, his family faced near starvation as they fled across the country, trying to stay one step ahead of the invading army.
He had hoped his senior years would be peaceful.
I think of the Asian seniors who have been killed or severely injured by younger, strong men physically attacking them. For example, 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee in San Francisco and 75-year-old Pak Ho in Oakland were killed in front of their own homes. In New York City, 65-year-old Vilma Kari’s brutal attack by a man shouting, “You don’t belong here,” was caught by security cameras while nearby guards watched and did nothing.
Now when I take my father for a walk, I carry a personal alarm, a small air horn, and pepper spray. We don’t walk at the beach anymore. Too secluded. Too windy. Too hard for other people to tell what’s happening until possibly too late.
There is nothing new about anti-Asian racism. There have been documented attacks against Asians in the U.S. from mob violence and mass lynchings to legislative hate that banned Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens until 1943 and other Asians until 1952.
Anti-Asian violence and psychological terror aren’t even new in my life or my father’s.
When I was 12, my family moved to a small farm outside Vermillion, South Dakota. I saw firsthand how the police profiled the Indigenous population and looked the other way when white people committed crimes. My brother was profiled when he walked into stores or drove his pickup downtown.
White men drove in front of our house shooting five of our dogs over the years and leaving their bodies for us to find at the end of the driveway. We reported their killings to the sheriff’s department. They did not investigate.
My white classmates at school made fun of my name, my face, my body, and my perceived accent. A white teacher docked points off my scores on tests, saying it would teach me humility. White boys physically attacked my brother on school property, at after-school sporting events, and at his workplace. It astounded me the violence and abuse, physical and verbal, that white people could get away with.
In fact, our governor in South Dakota, a white man, William Janklow, had been accused of raping his 15-year-old Native American babysitter when he was head of legal services on her reservation years earlier. He was disbarred from ever practicing law on the Rosebud Reservation again, but he’d fled before he could be investigated. A book came out, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, detailing the accusation while he was governor, but Janklow won reelection handily anyway.
During the years my family lived in South Dakota, an FBI agent from Sioux Falls drove down to interview my family and me twice: the first time because someone had claimed we were growing rice (an impossibility in a blizzard zone, by the way) and the second time because a neighbor’s kid claimed we were spies. I have no idea what we were supposed to be spying on.
The FBI agent was always friendly and polite, and frankly, the second time he came, we were relieved to see a familiar face. We figured, “Oh, he knows us already, so he knows this is ridiculous.”
It was only later as an adult I’d think, “Yeah, he knew us from the first interview, so why did he need to drive down and check out this new racist rumor?”
My family and I did not talk about these incidents among ourselves and certainly never with other people when I was growing up. I learned to internalize the othering as shame, as though we somehow had not projected our trustworthiness hard enough, earnestly enough, strenuously enough. As though we had done something wrong merely by existing.
Now as an adult and a caregiver for my father, I feel nothing so much as furious at former President Donald J. Trump who fomented anti-Asian hate with his constant use of the racist terms “China virus” and “kung flu” as a way to distract people from his administration’s gross incompetence in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic.
I feel furious at the media that repeated Trump’s racist rhetoric not just this past year but for the four long years of his white supremacist term of office.
As attack after attack against Asians occurs across the U.S., with more than 6,600 incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and March 2021, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders groups have formed citizen patrols for the streets of Chinatowns from San Francisco and Oakland to New York City. My father’s doctors have used our case to prepare a bilingual guide for seniors with resources for reporting hate crimes, for finding mental health care to deal with the anxiety, and for taking bystander intervention classes to disrupt a hate attack.
But despite these precautions, I know my father still feels stress and anxiety. And I know the fury and sadness that I feel because we have to endure this hatred in our own country because of our ethnicity.
What I wonder is what will it take for these able-bodied people behind these attacks to feel shame for their hate?