News·10 min read

'Something Needs To Stop': The Fears AAPI Women Are Living With In The US

A montage image of Michelle Li, Chelsea Peng, and Patricia Park
Photo credits from left to right: Doug Howell, Babyhouse NY, and Ars Magna | Design: Camille Rapay
May 2, 2022

Hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US spiked by 339% last year. And nearly 3 in 4 AAPI women have reported experiencing racism, discrimination, or both. Let that sink in.

Earlier this year, the killings of Michelle Alyssa Go and Christina Yuna Lee in New York City left the AAPI community reeling. Go was pushed in front of an oncoming subway train. And Lee was stabbed more than 40 times in her own apartment building after being stalked. Their deaths left many asking, ‘why’ and ‘when will this end?’

This AAPI Heritage Month, three Asian American women are sharing their realities with theSkimm. And what motivated them to write op-eds, essays, and post on social media about anti-Asian hate. From feelings of frustration and disbelief, to receiving racist messages about “being very Asian.” They’re also sharing how all of this hate is creating change in the community, affecting their mental health, and sharing ways that you can make a difference. Meet:

Psst: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chelsea Peng, senior editor at The Strategist
Photo: Babyhouse NY | Design: Camille Rapay

The power of speaking out

What motivated you to write or post about your experience?

Chelsea: “I was trying to express frustration and helplessness. In the essay, it was kind of a call to action because I think a lot of us feel like when we see these things all the time, it does feel endless. The tendency is to isolate or maybe grieve privately versus reaching out to others, trying to build community, and confronting the feelings. 

“[Or] not changing the subject when you're talking to one of your well-meaning white friends who might not necessarily understand. I think a lot of times, the response is just like, ‘you know, I'm sorry you're going through this.’ But that's it. That's a hard stop. A lot of us, because we don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or be seen as an angry minority, don't take it any further than that.”

Michelle: “I thought about the audacity of it and at where I was in my life, I felt like ‘I want people to hear this. I want people to hear these words.’ Because words matter and these [hateful] words are still being spewed. And it's unreal to me that this is my reality in 2022.”

Patricia: “I did not understand this fear that I was feeling each time I boarded the subway. I was born and raised in New York. I've seen a lot of sh*t. You learn to have a tough skin about stuff. But something in this moment felt different.

“I think the essay came out of a place of fear and frustration, feeling like ‘oh, yet another Asian woman is followed into her building, bludgeoned, and it's not a hate crime.’ I felt like something has to be done. Something needs to stop. It’s the small moments that I've witnessed where I've tried to speak out in some way and all I see around me is the bystander effect or this ‘not my problem.’”

Michelle Li, co-founder of The Very Asian Foundation
Photo: Doug Howell | Design: Camille Rapay

How anti-Asian hate is taking a toll on the AAPI community

How has anti-Asian hate affected your day-to-day or mental health?

Chelsea: “If I see a person on the train, I'll watch out for them. Along with watching out for myself. Especially if it's later at night. If I'm walking around, [I’ll look] behind me but also try to watch over her. It's a lot of energy, but I have the energy. It is extremely tiring and not everybody should bear this burden, but I can, so I will do as much as I can.”

Michelle: “I still have this inherent fear or anxiety or concern just about being in any space. You don't know what kind of people are out in the world and how they feel about things. So it has definitely changed how I behave, especially when I'm with my son.”

Patricia: “I have become hyper-alert in public in a way that I haven't in decades — maybe not even ever. Little luxuries like being able to read on the subway, check your email — I don't do any of that because I have to have my head up, eyes peeled. I have to surveil. That takes a mental toll. My work has been affected, sleep is affected. I wish I could get back to reading on the train. I wish I could play Words With Friends on the train. I wish I could do anything but be hyper alert.”

How is hate impacting families and parenting?

Chelsea: “My parents have always reinforced the idea to be proud of our heritage and not shrink away from the discomfort. In talking with them, it's actually more my fear because I don't want anything bad to happen to them. And I think a lot of people in my generation feel that way as well, because we don't want our parents to be attacked. We don't want our grandparents to be attacked.”

Michelle: “I want to make sure that I am preparing my son for the way the world might see him. I don't want to create narratives for him so that he's skeptical of everybody, but I want him to be aware so that he can always be safe. I think it's really important to have age-appropriate conversations

“For example, to point out the differences in people so that you are recognizing race or gender or whatever it may be. So that you're recognizing differences and similarities, and then being able to celebrate them and accept them. My son is three, he still hasn't really gotten to that level yet. But I hope that's what we can do.”

Do you see mindsets within the AAPI community evolving?

Chelsea: “I definitely do. I think a lot of it is generational. We're being told to speak up and speak your mind. I think a lot of us are using that to our advantage — writing, making art, being an activist, and being out there.

“Internally, sometimes there is that conflict [with] ‘eat bitter’ — when you're taught to just suck it up and move forward. That is a large part of the Asian experience in this country — to just work hard, keep going, and make a better life for yourself and your family. I think we're all starting to realize that [it’s] not working. [And it hasn’t] worked well in the past either, but especially now that we're being brutalized.”

Patricia: “I think so. I think the reaction that [the op-ed] got, the responses that I've received from the public — those are all signs. I can only speak for the Korean American community in New York — members within it, not the whole community. But the response I've heard is, ‘we're tired of it.’”

Patricia Park, author of "Re Jane"
Photo: Ars Magna | Design: Camille Rapay

How you can support the AAPI community — this month and beyond

How are you representing your community in your personal and professional life?

Chelsea:“For me personally, I'm already pretty visible. I have green hair. I'm proud of who I am, and my attitude is like ‘come at me, I'm here.’ I also think in the way I present myself, it is a way of taking up space. I physically wear voluminous clothing. I'm loud in the way I dress because I do want to be seen. And I do think that an Asian person being really visible and like a human exclamation point is important, especially now. I’m fortunate enough to not have had anything particularly traumatic happen, and I'm grateful for that. But for my community, I really want to be out there.”

Michelle: “[The Very Asian Foundation] is brand new. We are still in the building phases because we've only been around three months. But we're so excited and proud of what we've done. We've already raised thousands of dollars for organizations [that support Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders]. We're coming out with a national book campaign in May [to get more AAPI books in schools and libraries].”

PS: Find out how an appearance on “Ellen” helped launch Michelle's foundation. 

Patricia: “I'm in this weird moment. When I do speak up, I'm afraid that it will cause more damage or harm to other parties involved. I don't know how to run a bystander intervention. I'm not trained in self-defense. I don't want to confuse moments that are potentially life-threatening, violent, aggressive, can inflict harm versus settings where speaking up actually just asserts your authority.

“[My] upcoming YA novel, ‘Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim’ tackles these very issues, these issues of microaggressions, wokeness, performative wokeness. In my previous novel, ‘Re Jane,’ it very much talks about discrimination and also the objectifying and and sexualizing of Asian females.”

How can other people show their support?

Chelsea: “[If] you're meant to be my friend, you're meant to care about how I feel. Even if it is uncomfortable for you, as it is uncomfortable for me to share my feelings. The ‘I'm sorry you're going through this’ seems like an ending in this conversation. Keep it going. Even acknowledging that you maybe can't fully understand but wanting to listen is super powerful — listening thoughtfully and not inserting yourself necessarily.

“Also, amplifying people's voices in your life. I see when my white friends amplify their other white friends' projects, but I get nothing. It's as easy as reposting — there doesn't have to be anything added. Even sharing someone else's voice on your network in the hopes that it'll reach someone who's maybe not thought about this before.”

Michelle: “Just supporting small businesses would be great. Learning the history in your area is one amazing way. There's always this misnomer that Asian people don't exist in certain places. And that's just not true.

“We need to talk about celebrating contributions by Asian Americans. In society, we talk about [Japanese] internment and we talk about the [Chinese] Exclusion Act. We talk about a lot of bad things that happen to our community, but in reality, there are so many contributions as well.

“And then, just don't be a jerk. Be nice, ask questions, be respectful. Be open to the idea that Asian Americans are not perpetually foreign and they are not a model minority. They are just people living in your neighborhood and they’re just like you.”

Patricia: “Just making folks in our community feel like you have their back — whatever form that takes. Let's say it's in a meeting, it's having another AAPI’s back. If you're witnessing what seems like aggressions, give voice to that.”

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