At the start of January, my dad, a refugee from the Vietnam War, and I were making the usual rounds through Oakland’s Chinatown, popping into a few produce markets and dim sum restaurants to stock up on supplies for the week. As we turned the corner on our way out of the district, a man ran a red light and swerved in order to avoid hitting us. As we all pulled up to the same red light a block later, the man proceeded to yell racial slurs at us before my dad and the man stepped out of their cars, preparing to fight. As bystanders began recording videos on their phones, the man thought better of his actions, got back in his car, rolled up the window, and took off the moment the light turned green.
My dad is a refugee from the Vietnam War and fled South Vietnam as a child just a few days before tanks rolled past his childhood home and the Fall of Saigon ensued. After bouncing around refugee camps in Guam and San Diego, my family eventually settled in Westminster, California, home to the largest population of Vietnamese-Americans per capita in the U.S. and a part of Little Saigon in Orange County.
While my dad occasionally recounts stories of some of the racism and discrimination that he faced as a kid and teenager — he was wrongfully arrested and spent a night in jail after a group of teenagers threw a bottle at a cop car while he was in high school — the stories fade away once he reached adulthood and the Asian community became more accepted in California. But the incident from early January darkly foreshadowed the string of hate crimes that would hit the Bay Area and the country as a whole just a few weeks later.
Stop AAPI Hate — a San Francisco State University project that tracks self-reported acts of hate and discrimination against members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the entire country — found that there have been over 700 instances of anti-Asian hate in the Bay Area alone since the beginning of the pandemic, and even that number is likely an undercount.
At the end of January, an 84 year old man was murdered in San Francisco, a 91 year old was violently pushed, and countless other instances of physical and verbal attacks have ensued, particularly targeted at the elderly Asian community. The attacks on the elderly were particularly horrifying not only because the attackers are targeting such a vulnerable community, but because of the important role that elders and ancestors play in the Asian community.
The second wave of attacks began just a few weeks before the Lunar New Year, a time in which, traditionally, my family, and many others, would spend the whole day visiting all of our elders to pay our respects and collect lucky red envelopes, otherwise known as lì xì in Vietnamese. These attacks, combined with the former presidential administration’s mentality that the severity of the pandemic was being exaggerated, and that it was only affecting the elderly, have highlighted the stunning lack of respect for elders that persists in parts of American culture.
Hate crimes are never an easy topic to tackle. For now, my best advice is to continue to spread the word. Many of these crimes have been caught on camera. Plaster the perpetrators’ faces across your Instagram feed and make sure to self-report any hate crimes you experience or witness to Stop AAPI Hate.
The Asian community can often seem like an invisible part of the American melting pot, but do not let the atrocities that occur profit from the same obscurity. The history of Asian immigrants is dark and largely forgotten; Portland’s history in particular will likely shock you. Communication combined with education are the best tools to combat the ignorance and hate that is prevalent in our country. Take care, and happy belated new year (chúc mừng năm mới).