“Before the pandemic, I had no problem really going out and traveling,” said Hana Lee, a Korean American from Colorado Springs. “It was just fun.”
She said the first time she felt targeted for her ethnicity was on a recent trip to New York, when a stranger called her “a Chinese cockroach” and took her photo, which she said made her “very uncomfortable.”
“I was shocked, but at the same time … this unfortunately is normal for people like me these days,” she said.
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“This feeling of having a loss of sense of safety is such a violation,” said Cynthia Choi, Co-Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a founding partner of Stop AAPI Hate. “It’s such a basic human right to feel like you can leave your home and not be subjected to discrimination, to hate.”
Attacks on Asian Americans
Stop AAPI Hate received more than 6,600 reports of hate incidents from mid-March 2020 to late March 2021 – ranging from verbal harassment to civil liberties violations and physical assault – as China was blamed for COVID-19.
“We believe it’s an undercount,” Choi said. “Our reporting center is the canary in the coal mine. We know that there are many, many more who are being affected.”
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Many Asian Americans have felt the mental toll of racism throughout the pandemic.
Nicole Brooks felt it when she took her parents to see the cherry blossoms in their own city of Portland, Oregon, this spring.
“I was actually really scared to have them sit by themselves and walk away from them,” Brooks said. “My parents are originally from Singapore. English is their first language, and yet in spite of that lack of a barrier, it still has felt like the increase in Asian American hate crimes has certainly changed our perspective.”
Asian Americans have been targeted in a number of high-profile attacks around the country, like the 65-year-old woman who was beaten in broad daylight outside a Manhattan apartment building as staff looked on, then closed the door without helping.
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“For me, there’s this fear of who’s going to shut the door and not understand and not speak up for me, for my parents,” Brooks said.
“How should I feel about traveling to a city where I don’t know anyone or that I have to worry when I’m taking my mixed-race child to the park without my husband?” she asked.
Hate affects everyone
Her husband, Barrett Brooks, who is white, said he’s talked about the power of words with his side of the family, which he described as spanning the political spectrum.
“I’ve really tried to emphasize the importance of language and how we talk about the pandemic and its origins and the people impacted,” he said, noting the danger in conflating criticisms of China with Asian Americans and treating them as a monolith.
“People take action on that,” he said. “They feel empowered to abuse people and to harm people, and it affects more than just the people we see in videos. That affects the entire population.”
“We know that the attacks on Asians, it’s not just here in the United States,” said Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Cynthia Choi. “It’s abroad. It’s everywhere.”
‘I’m here to fight back’
Winton Tran of New York said he actually feels safer traveling abroad. He visited the Dominican Republic this past spring and said people seemed much friendlier and more welcoming. The vast majority of Dominicans are mixed descendants of European (Spanish) and African heritage, but there is also a small Asian Dominican population.
“They didn’t look at you with the disgusting look that I feel like (I get) in America,” Tran said, recalling how he felt judged for wearing face masks in the U.S. before they became the norm.
People in Asia have worn face masks for years for various reasons, including protecting themselves and others from illness and blocking out air pollution.
In a webinar for travel industry professionals this past March, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said, “… the community and the world is taking a look at the U.S. and watching these horrific things and ends up saying, ‘Hey, is America really a welcoming place? And that’s been something we’ve built our whole travel industry on for decades … It’s not who we are.”
Tran said hearing about Asian hate was so hurtful early on that it felt like “my heart was bleeding,” but he channeled that pain into activism.
“I’m here to fight back,” he said, acknowledging the struggles refugees faced just to get to the U.S. from countries like Vietnam, where his family is from. “We can’t just be quiet. We can’t just leave.”
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‘The best revenge is to live a good life’
“I think it’s important to stand up for yourself and be aware of your surroundings and look out for the people around you,” said Sam Fong, a Chinese American from the San Francisco Bay Area and moderator of the Facebook groups Subtle Asian Travel and Asian Investors Network.
Fong said he’s not really worried about himself. “However, I’m worried about my parents who are definitely in the age range of people who are targeted. I’m worried about people like my sister, my friends.” But he’s not letting that steal his joy.
“You know the best revenge is to live a good life and not get bothered by people who are more ignorant than you,” Fong said.
“I can’t wait to get back out there, once it’s safe to do so again,” said the avid traveler who’s visited more than 40 countries. “I would just be a little more cautious.”
“Travel is one of the joys, right?” said Stop AAPI Hate co-founder Cynthia Choi. “I think we need to be vigilant, but not allow this period of racial trauma, this racial reckoning, to take away the joy of those experiences.”
Hana Lee said she’s let go of the name-calling she faced on her trip to New York.
“I still think that we should be forgiving for the people who attack us verbally,” she said of people who may be experiencing homelessness and have mental health issues of their own.
Nicole and Barrett Brooks plan to keep traveling, as do her parents.
“Definitely an added layer of consciousness now to our surroundings, no matter where we are, whether that’s travel or here at home,” Nicole Brooks said. “But they’re excited to travel.”
“We love it,” her husband said. “It’s a core part of our life and our shared experience together as a couple. We definitely want to extend that to our son.”
Winton Tran, who has visited dozens of countries through the years, is already thinking about his next trip.
“What are you going to choose, to stay home all day?” he asked. “That’s not the life that I want.”