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Panda Express employees say they've faced racism amid coronavirus pandemic

"I thought for a second, 'Am I not American enough for you?'" one employee said. "This is the only country I have ever known."
Attendees line up to try Panda Express' General Tso's Chicken at Chinatown Summer Nights in Los Angeles in August 2016.
Attendees line up to try Panda Express' General Tso's Chicken at Chinatown Summer Nights in Los Angeles in August 2016.Casey Rodgers / Invision for Panda Restaurant

A Panda Express employee was driving to work in mid March when a truck began speeding up and honking repeatedly. The employee, who was driving a company-branded car, said the truck's driver then raised his middle finger and said, "Go back to your country," before swerving into the employee's lane and repeatedly braking.

The employee of the fast casual chain, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, was shocked that the brand had triggered so much hatred and anger.

"It was hurtful, frustrating and shocking all at the same time," the employee told NBC Asian America. "What struck me was that I consider myself an American."

The employee, an area coach of operations for the company who has been with Panda Express for 18 years, is Chinese American and was born and raised in Louisiana.

"Even though I was one of the few Asian kids in my community growing up, I never felt this much like an outsider," the employee said. "I thought for a second, 'Am I not American enough for you?' This is the only country I have ever known."

Reports of animosity and hostility toward Asian Americans have continued to surface amid the pandemic. Nonprofit group Stop AAPI Hate has received more than 1,100 cases of bias incidents toward Asian Americans since mid March.

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In recent weeks, a health care worker of Asian descent in Denver was told to "go to China if you want communism" by protesters, and Senate Democrats called for federal action in response to a wave of anti-Asian sentiment.

Panda Express employees, who work for one of the largest Chinese American restaurant chains in the world, have been no strangers to the hostility.

Andrea Cherng, the company's chief marketing officer, said that Panda Express is "unapologetic about being American Chinese" and that the harassment its employees have faced does not stem solely from the virus.

"The fact that racism against people of Asian origins escalated so quickly and so brutally points to the real problem — that this is systemic," she said. "And it may always be an issue until it becomes every person's problem. Everyone, no matter their heritage, has a role to play in contributing to a culture that insists upon respect."

While the company declined to provide an estimate of how many have been reported, Cherng said there have been "enough incidents for us to take serious action in protecting our Panda family," leading the company to roll out xenophobia de-escalation training and resources to its employees last month.

The training included supervisor coaching for handling incidents that may arise and tip sheets for employees to refer to. The company has also had a COVID-19 task force since January, she added, which has monitored the virus and has made changes such as closing dine-in services and implementing social distancing protocols.

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The employee who was harassed driving to work said the experience was not unique, adding that colleagues said they had heard similar stories of being yelled at and feeling unsafe, like a colleague who was told when buying hand sanitizer: "It's all because of you people bringing the virus here. You all don't need to buy anything, because you all have the virus, and you should just go back to your country."

"It was horrible to be made out as something lesser than human," the employee said.

To Cherng, hearing about the response has been a disappointment.

"Our associates are on the front line, driving to and from work every day to serve guests and their communities. They are just trying to make an honest living to support their families in this crisis," she said. "The disappointment lit a fire in us — a commitment to stand for our people who represent a myriad of beautifully unique origins and an equal commitment to stand proud in our brand's distinct ethnic Chinese origin."