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The Atlanta shooting, anti-Asian hate crime and what it means to be (Asian) American

This is a battle for our humanity. Please stand with us.
Michelle Yang with her brother just before immigrating to the U.S.
Michelle Yang with her brother just before immigrating to the U.S.Courtesy Michelle Yang

On Tuesday night, six Asian women were killed in a series of horrific shootings targeting massage parlors and spas in and around Atlanta. Over the past year, nearly 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents have occurred across the U.S., according to new research released by reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate. But with these shootings, nationwide anti-Asian violence has never felt more deadly.

With these shootings, nationwide anti-Asian violence has never felt more deadly.

Atlanta was the first American city I called home when my family immigrated in the early 1990s. Though we’ve long since moved away, the place hosts warm and lively memories of my auntie who petitioned our immigration teaching me English words during car rides, of delectable meals enjoyed in the back of her family-owned Chinese restaurant and observing my cool, older teenage cousins with awe.

Though over two decades have passed since I’ve visited Atlanta, the news of this latest monstrous crime, which has so far claimed eight lives total, still hits close to home. In fact, every report of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents I’ve absorbed since the beginning of the pandemic takes an expensive toll.

Michelle Yang standing in front of her family's takeout restaurant in Phoenix, around age 11.Courtesy Michelle Yang

In elementary school, kids taunted me with a tortured “Chinese dirty-ese” rhyme while making slanty eyes and blowing raspberries. In middle school in suburban Arizona, I received prank calls from youthful voices, gleefully threatening to bomb my house "like Hiroshima'' as they recited my address from the white pages. Walking home from school, a boy regularly jeered for me to “open my eyes.” I was shoved into lockers by boys for no reason I could discern; they just kept walking. At a barbecue in college, a white male stranger teeming with inexplicable hostility and disgust demanded to know if I could shoot pingpong balls out of my vagina. My friends, including other Asians who wanted to keep the peace, did not come to my defense.

Each one of these memories represents a sucker punch that flattened me in the most unexpected moments, fraying my will to live. All these incidents were constant reminders that my normalcy and acceptance was an illusion that could be shattered at any time. To always have your guard up is an exhausting way to live, yet the alternative can be worse.

Each one of these memories represents a sucker punch that flattened me in the most unexpected moments, fraying my will to live.

The pandemic, with its surge of anti-Asian resentment, brought these flashbacks flooding back. Every feeling of hate I’ve repressed over the last 30 years is rupturing. Our collective past wounds — from the Chinese massacres in the 1800s to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Japanese internment camps — are bleeding again, alongside the new gashes torn by the repetition of “China virus” and “kung flu” as prejudice boldly and publicly re-entered the American vernacular. Over and over, hate is asserting its prevalence and its destructiveness.

If I let it, the fear and hate threatens my faith in my fellow Americans. It threatens my sense of belonging, just as the terrorists and other attackers intended. At the same time, I refuse to forfeit my country and our values. I fought too hard to become an American, too hard to become a citizen in this country that I love, even when it feels like it does not love me back.

I refuse to erase the kindness of our neighbors who welcomed us when we moved into our first real house. I cannot forget the nurturing dedication of the many public school teachers who helped my transition as an immigrant student. I will not overlook the countless customers at our family’s takeout restaurant who befriended and supported us over the years — the type of customers who during the pandemic started tipping $20 for a $10 meal of phở at my brother’s restaurant.

Earlier this week, several Asian Americans were nominated for Oscars in multiple award-show firsts. “Minari,” a film about a Korean American family moving to a farm in Arkansas, was nominated in six major categories. For me, the part of Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent film that resonated most was its depiction of ignorance. I braced for racism in Chung’s storyline, set in rural America in the 1980s, but it never quite manifested. Instead, Chung authentically depicts ignorance through the curiosity of children, contrasting it with their endearing desire to befriend their new Korean American neighbors.

Like the Korean children in the movie, I too was called flat-faced and kids around me tried to imitate Chinese and Korean by making up random sounds. Though I wish I didn’t have to encounter this kind of hurtful ignorance, I was also invited to friends’ homes for dinners and sleepovers.

The film reinforced the idea that initial ignorance itself is not a crime. Inheriting the ignorance and hate of earlier generations may have been somewhat out of our control, but it is now our responsibility as individuals with agency to educate ourselves and each other, challenge past wrongs and stop the cycle. Perpetuating ignorance and fanning it until it festers into hate is dangerous and keeps us repeating history’s atrocities.

We Asian Americans are hurting right now. We need allies to fight against the injustices threatening our country and what we strive for it to stand for. We can’t do this alone. This is a battle for our humanity, for what it means to be American. Please stand together with us.