Dominic Escobal has been avoiding excessive outings for months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, however, those rare trips outside have become charged with a sense of danger — a dread. This feeling, it’s new for him. Uncomfortable.
“It feels like I have to look over my shoulder sometimes,” said Escobal, president of the University of Maryland’s Filipino Cultural Association and a junior biology major.
On Feb. 12, Howard County Police reported a cluster of burglaries that occurred the night before. The burglars struck six businesses in the county, four of them Asian-owned; a post on the Columbia Kung Fu Tea’s Instagram showed a smashed-in door, glass shards spread on either side of the empty frame like mounds of rock candy. Urban Hot Pot’s post displayed similar disarray: a plank of wood covered the gaping hole of a window or door, a shelf’s contents ripped, ransacked and thrown across the floor.
The police stopped short of labeling the burglaries as hate crimes, but the incidents left a gash on the traditionally joyous occasion of Lunar New Year. At the same time, news of an alarming increase in violence against Asian Americans was spreading through the university community, leading the Asian American Student Union to start drafting a statement condemning anti-Asian violence.
In the first half of 2020 alone, there were 20 anti-Asian hate crimes reported to New York City Police, the Queens Chronicle reported in September. The year prior, only one incident was reported.
Information about a series of attacks on elderly Asian Americans in the Bay Area has circulated on social media, including a video of an 84-year-old Thai man being violently pushed to the ground by a younger assailant. The man died as a result of the assault.
The recent attacks on the community have disproportionately targeted women and elderly people, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition that collects self-reported hate crimes. But these attacks have rippled throughout the Asian-American community at large. At this university, Asian students make up about 16 percent of the student population. Some say they are shocked by the graphic nature of the recent attacks. They also understand that anti-Asian racism has deep roots.
Some point to former President Donald Trump’s use of phrases such as “kung flu” and the “Chinese virus” as sources of anti-Asian sentiment. A study published in September connected this use of anti-Asian rhetoric when talking about COVID-19 with an increase in bias against Asian Americans.
No matter the cause, however, Escobal says he’s worried. Some of his friends are, too.
He recently received an alarming text from his father: “There seem to be a lot of anti Asian sentiments recently. Be careful. Try not to travel alone ok”.
“I will always be seen as an outsider”
There are two main patterns of stereotypes that befall Asian Americans, said Dr. Janelle Wong, an American studies, Asian American studies and government and politics professor at this university. The model minority myth makes it “difficult for people to see racism against Asian Americans” by pointing to their relative academic and economic successes without taking into account historical patterns of anti-Asian sentiment.
The second, the perpetual foreigner myth, “paints Asian Americans as disloyal to the U.S. or as having dual loyalties,” while also emphasizing the otherness of the Asian Americans — seeing them as inherently different.
This othering has contributed to anti-Asian sentiment this year and throughout the rise of the pandemic. Wong contributed to the design of a survey conducted over the summer among Asian-American voters. Out of the 1,569 respondents, 27 percent said they worried “very often” about “experiencing hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination because of COVID-19,” while 24 percent said they worried “somewhat often.”
For Tong Li, a first-year graduate student studying violin performance at this university, memories of being harassed go back to when she was little.
When she was 10 years old, a group of young boys stopped her as she walked home from school. “Chinese girl, Chinese girl,” they called. She had recently emigrated from Qingdao, China, with her mother to meet her stepfather in Lorain, Ohio. Her new neighbors were primarily Black, Latino and white, she said. Almost no one around her looked like her.
About four years later, at a Cleveland Orchestra concert, Li left her seat during intermission to get some water. During her trip, she said, she accidentally bumped into an older woman who looked at her and said, “These Orientals have no manners.”
Li was stunned. The people around them looked on but said nothing, she said.
At the time, Li didn’t even know what “Oriental” meant — it was an unfamiliar word, and it didn’t seem to quite belong with the other, more hard-edged slurs sometimes slung at her community. But she could sense the cruel way in which the woman had intended it.
“I knew it was bad, that she meant it very badly,” Li said.
When Li was in eighth grade, she moved to Oberlin, a nearby, liberal pocket of Ohio. Li said she didn’t feel discriminated against in her community there, because of her school’s heavy focus on civil rights — but she didn’t feel quite seen either. Her history textbooks briefly skimmed the construction of the early railroads and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Gaps remained. Li said she felt like “the yellow girl between the Black and white world.”
Today, she continues to experience othering at this university, she said, often in subtle ways.
She has lived in the United States for the majority of her life and considers English a second mother tongue — she speaks it better than Mandarin, she said. But some assume the opposite.
Last semester, Li wrote a paper for a class in a subject that she found difficult, she said. When grading her paper, Li said her professor noted it contained grammatical errors — and added that the errors were excusable, seeing as English was Li’s second language.
But Li said she doesn’t consider English her second language. If anything, she said, her trouble writing in an academic format had less to do with her being Chinese and more to do with the fact that she had grown up in a middle-income American neighborhood.
Li said she talked to the professor about the incident and believes his comments were intended to be kind. But she still felt that his perception of her might have been a bit colored by confirmation bias, she said.
“That definitely made me feel like I will always be seen as an outsider,” Li said. “Just because of my face and my name.”
“I’m not a dirty person”
Mira Baum’s visits to the grocery store are tense, these days.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Baum noticed customers giving her a wide berth or abruptly switching aisles when they saw she was Asian, she said. Baum is adopted; around her white mother, the customers shopped normally.
One summer day, as Baum walked into the grocery store alone, an older white man spat at her, she said.
This kind of mistreatment was new to Baum.
“The fact that it was even happening to me was surprising to me,” said Baum, a senior kinesiology major. “Because I’d never experienced that type of racism in my life.”
She still notices people turning away from her in the grocery store, pushing their masks closer to their faces to avoid breathing her air, she said.
“I’m not a dirty person,” Baum said. “I’m a normal human being.”
Dr. Terry Park, a lecturer in the Asian American studies program, said the false association between Asian Americans and the spread of disease is a stereotype with a long history.
In Park’s Introduction to Asian American Studies class last semester, his students focused on three case studies of historical Chinatowns in the United States: San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu.
Students examined public health policies and discrimination in these ethnic enclaves; they traced a common thread of racial associations with disease and threats to public health. Park said that in enclaves such as San Francisco during the mid-to-late 19th century, public health fears on the part of the government became self-fulfilling prophecies: The city “refused to provide proper sanitation to the inhabitants of Chinatown.” Abandoned by the government, he said, residents were forced to make do on their own. Without the proper sanitation resources, they failed to control the spread of pathogens, he said.
The city’s refusal to help — and the anxiety around Chinese Americans being carriers of disease — played into the role of “medicalized nativism,” a term coined by the historian Alan Kraut that describes a kind of xenophobia associated with the fear of foreign disease.
“It’s important for people to step back and see this is not the first time this has happened,” said Park. “Not just in the U.S., but just throughout the world. Specifically Chinese or East Asian-presenting bodies as harbingers of disease.”
Baum has experienced alienation before this year. Growing up Jewish, she had little connection to her Chinese heritage.
When she arrived at this university, Baum’s connection to her religious community was cut off, truncated by an irrefutable fact of life: She looked different from other Jews. They didn’t recognize her as one of their own; when she went to Hillel, people would ask if she needed a translation or if she even knew what their prayers were, she said. She didn’t quite fit in with her Asian-American peers either, at least not at first, she said.
But recently, as anti-Asian sentiment blossomed violently around the country, some began to see Baum not just as a stranger but as a threat.
“I think the way that people judge Asian people, it can range anywhere from fetishizing them, all the way down to thinking they’re dirt,” Baum said.
“When life returns to normal, we will be otherized in different ways.”
For Patrick Peralta, confronting racism against Asian Americans means facing bias within his own community.
Peralta is a junior government and politics major. He serves as administrative affairs vice president for the Asian American Student Union. Peralta said that, this year, he has had new and uncomfortable conversations with his parents about anti-East Asian bias within the Filipino community.
“As important as community empowerment is, we also need to recognize what’s going on in ourselves,” Peralta said.
Asian Americans might be called a coalition, but they are not a monolith. The attacks against Asians and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment has not always reflected that plurality, despite the community’s cultural differences, conflicts and unique hierarchies. Though Trump’s rhetoric targeted China, the harassment happening throughout the pandemic has been less discerning in its prejudice.
Peralta said that visibility means recognizing the ways in which different groups and Asian organizations on the campus diverge — and standing together, despite those differences.
“It’s also a matter of courage,” he said, explaining that many social organizations had to figure out how to engage with the political moment.
Peralta is not the only one opening up new dialogues.
In May, Baum had her first conversation about race with her mother. She revealed the experiences she’d had with racism — the incidents only she was privy to and her mom never was, the suspicious glances from strangers and the spitting and the lack of acknowledgement of Baum’s humanity.
She also recounted the smaller comments, the ones that had left pinpricks long before the pandemic: how school peers would ask her to help her with their math homework, or to paint their nails, or to teach them how to use chopsticks.
After their conversation in the spring, Baum’s mother would stay up late researching certain concepts, trying to better understand her daughter’s perspective.
Baum said she never resented her mother for not knowing these things. But now her mother sees her a bit more clearly.
“I think she just understands me better,” Baum said.
Wong believes that part of finding a solution to a culture of anti-Asian bias is starting education on the topic early — in elementary school — and finding solutions that aren’t carceral.
“We don’t want a reaction to anti-Asian incidents to lead to overpolicing,” Wong said.
Rather, Wong said she believes that to confront anti-Asian bias, people have to also confront the history of Asian stereotypes.
“I think we have to look beyond the exact moment to the root causes,” Wong said. “This moment has shown us how … fragile belonging can be in the U.S.”
“This is part of a larger history,” Peralta said. “When the virus passes, when life returns to normal, we will be otherized in different ways.”
In late January, President Joe Biden put out an executive action condemning violence and xenophobic language against Asian Americans. His statement was a direct refute to Trump’s continued stoking of prejudice, an early attempt at reconciling the racial politics that have sharply divided the country. Last week, House Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) joined Biden in condemning anti-Asian violence in a Zoom conference with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus.
As policy leaders start to speak out, the work within the Asian-American community continues. There are more conversations to be had at this university.
“This year, even though it’s been traumatic on a race level,” said Peralta, “it’s sort of empowered us to have these conversations around race that we otherwise would not have had before.”