Joann Lo admitted that, in recent weeks especially, she’d found a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic.
Perhaps it was more of an ironic silver lining though, for when asked about how the steady stream of news reports about Asian American and Pacific Islander residents being targeted by harassment or violence was impacting her family, Lo found a bit of comfort in the need to stay at home and minimize trips out into the public.
“In a way, it’s kind of a relief,” the Glendale mother said in a recent interview, “because we’re not out there in spaces to be subject to these comments or attacks.”
Like many of her fellow Asian Americans, Lo is acutely aware of the rise this past year of hateful rhetoric and harassment — and even violence — being inordinately directed toward their community alongside Pacific Islanders. This xenophobia trend developed in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic thanks to its alleged origins in China, with many accusing then-President Donald Trump of fanning the flames by insistently using terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” in statements and at speaking events.
Throughout 2020, reports of anti-Asian hate incidents surged 145% in American’s largest cities, according to a preliminary report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, in spite of overall hate crime reports falling by nearly 7%. In Los Angeles, 15% of the hate crimes in 2020 targeted Asian Americans, after representing 7% of the reports in 2019.
Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit coalition formed after the pandemic began, reported it received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans since last year; at least 800 of these attacks were in California. About 68% of those incidents involved verbal harassment, while 11% involved physical attacks. The nonprofit also said that women report hate incidents 2.3 times more often than men.
“On average, that is about 11 a day,” noted Tong Cho “T.C.” Kim, president of the Korean American Foundation of Glendale.
In 2021, there have been numerous physical attacks against Asian Americans reported, including in the Bay Area and New York. Last month, a white man shot and killed eight people at spas in the Atlanta area. Six of the victims were Asian women, and although the suspected gunman attributed his rampage to a so-called “sex addiction,” commentators have pointed out the association of sexualizing and fetishizing of Asian women and massage parlors is just another layer of racism.
“Last [month’s] event is not just an event that came out of racism,” observed Telly Tse, who added that he felt Christian fundamentalism and a toxic gun culture also factored into the tragedy. “I think there are a lot of other issues that come together with it.”
Tse, who was raised in Alhambra and has lived in Glendale since 2015, said the recent attacks are “unfortunately nothing new” for the AAPI community.
“It’s been like this one way or another in the Asian American experience,” he said. “The awareness of things overall has gotten better, but they also have been exacerbated by the former president, by the things he would say.”
Glendale is home to a vibrant Asian and Pacific Islander community, which comprises 16.3% of the city’s population according to a 2019 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau; another 3.4% is projected to identify as two or more races. There are numerous Korean churches throughout town, and Central Park is home to the Peace Monument, a tribute to the Korean “comfort women” during World War II. Glendale Unified School District offers dual immersion programs in Korean and Japanese.
Additionally, the Census Bureau estimates that 28.2% of the unincorporated La Crescenta-Montrose area is Asian and Pacific Islander, while 5.2% identifies as two or more races.
Tse, whose parents are from Hong Kong, said he has in recent weeks especially checked in on Asian friends and family members and found himself struck by the variety of stories he has heard in return. He encouraged others to do the same, even if just to lend an ear.
“If I hadn’t checked in and just asked, who knows how much happens to people in our community unless someone reaches out to them,” he explained. “I can’t assume what people have gone through based on my own experiences. I have been very fortunate throughout my entire life, but I can’t assume that that’s the most case for most people that I talk to.”
Lo, who moved to Glendale 12 years ago after living in Highland Park, said she has never dealt with physical attacks, although she has been targeted by and witness to harassment and micro-aggressions that are unfortunate norms for Asian Americans.
“Even in California, I’ve gotten, ‘Oh wow, you speak English so well,’” she said. “Those little incidents have made me feel like an outsider, and I feel like it happens to a lot of Asian Americans as well. I think a lot of us tend to sweep it under the rug, but now more of us are speaking up.
“I never thought before about needing personal protection, but that’s definitely something my extended family and other Asian American friends are talking about now,” Lo added. “My friends sent me pepper spray to carry. I’ve never thought about that before. My mom lives in Irvine and asked me to order these personal alarm things for her and her friends’ keychains.”
Kim, who was born in South Korea and immigrated 43 years ago to Arizona, said Asian Americans have been gradually unlearning the mindset of keeping your head down in these types of confrontational situations. That mentality, he said, was partially borne of being a “model minority,” one who works hard and without raising a finger. He was taught this as a student, when he was the first Korean at his middle school.
“When I’d get home, my parents would say ‘just be patient’” in response to bullying, he said. “They’re just silencing the abuse that we were experiencing. That seems to be changing. More recently, people are starting to speak about it and rise up about it.”
Lo said she had a similar experience growing up in the United States, where her parents emigrated to from Taiwan.
“I was taught to not let people see how they affect you,” she said. “I’m seeing how I and a lot of others were raised to be silent and not speak up. Now I’m seeing that more people are saying, ‘No, this isn’t what we should be doing.’
“Part of it is, ‘Fit in. We’re in another country, so fit in, assimilate,’” Lo added. “I understand that it came from a place of love and care, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to address discrimination and racism and to stop it.”
Now, Lo is wearing the parent shoes and navigating these challenges, which include weighing whether to have her kids return to the classroom. She has a 9-year-old daughter at Edison Elementary School — “I think it was too much for her to process,” Lo said, of the recent violence — and has had more thoughtful conversations about current events with her 12-year-old son, who attends Roosevelt Middle School.
“He definitely was shocked. He looked scared,” she said. “I just tried to reassure him — as a parent you want to try to reassure your kids — that we’re safe, we don’t go out as much and we’re going to be OK. My kids are already concerned about COVID, so they don’t want to go back to in-person instruction right now.”
Later on, Lo said she discussed attending the Stop Asian Hate rally in Koreatown last Saturday with her children, because she taught them from an early age that it’s important to stand up against injustice. Her son told her he didn’t want to go.
“When I asked why, he said, ‘I don’t want to die,’” Lo wrote in an email. “After the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, he’s very afraid to out to public places.”
Kim, who also serves on the boards for YWCA Glendale and the Glendale Police Foundation, observed that his community has gradually relaxed a tendency to group itself off by ethnicity, especially in places like school campuses — “It’s almost a self-defense mechanism,” he said. More recently, he said, families have become more open to marriage outside of their ethnicity and less concerned with homogeneity.
There is also less pressure to abandon native languages in favor of English, Kim added, in part because companies with international operations or ties prize multilingualism. In his work with the Police Foundation, Kim said, he has helped educate the Glendale Police Department on cultural sensitivities and has helped recruit Korean American officers.
“It can make you more money!” he quipped.
Immigration culture and policy on the part of the United States has also changed since he moved here, Kim noted.
“Thirty, 40 years ago, it was more missionary work or volunteer work in developing nations,” he said. “Now, it’s more like partnerships. You’re meeting people and finding ways to collaborate.”
The national conversation about historical racism against the AAPI community has drawn parallels to last year’s reckoning with institutional racism against Black people, a moment that was also crystallized by tragic killings. Lo observed that there was a lot of mutual support between the two communities, which she said stood in contrast to the perceived prejudice of some older Asian Americans toward Black people.
“I’m hopeful that seeing Black Americans coming out and being supportive of our community can help change that perception,” she said. “I’m optimistic [of this moment]. A lot of my Asian American friends have been supportive of Back Lives Matter a lot, and I think we’ve learned a lot from that movement. I saw pictures of African Americans at Stop Asian Hate rallies across the country this weekend. It’s what’s encouraging and part of what gives me hope, seeing the interconnections between the racism that our different communities face.”
Tse hedged his bets a little more, but still harbored hope for even a little progress to emerge out of the tragic events.
“I think time will tell if peoples’ attention will stay with this,” he said. “There are two hopes I have. One is this awareness sustains itself and people understand that it’s an ongoing thing, and the other hope is that people understand that this is not an isolated event, but it is the culmination of a lot of issues we have in society.”
Christian Leonard contributed to this report.