Despite living in a city infamous for its lack of public transportation, I had excitedly accepted the challenge of getting around Los Angeles via bus, metro, or on foot. That all changed when the pandemic started.
Initially, my anxiety was due to COVID-19, but then it was the trauma of watching Asian Americans like me get beat up or killed while walking on the street or on public transit in my city and cities like mine. In March 2021, seven people, mostly Asian women, were killed in the Atlanta-area mass shootings. Then, a few months ago, I saw myself in the grisly murders of Christina Lee and Michelle Go in New York City.
Now, with anti-Asian hate crimes increasing by 339% last year, I’m terrified of being outside and away from the safety of my home or car. As soon as I step outside, I’m hyperalert and hypervigilant about everything and everyone around me.
When anti-Asian hate crimes began to rise as the pandemic progressed, I was grateful for the mask mandate, as I thought it was helping me blend in by covering my face. I continued my routine of taking long walks in Los Angeles, thinking that this mask would provide me with anonymity and safety. However, very early on, when I was wearing a hat, sunglasses and a mask ― my entire face covered ― I heard two men snicker behind me and say, “Look at that Asian girl.” At that moment I realized that I will always stick out, regardless of how much I try to hide myself.
Today I avoid being in heavily populated Asian spaces. The 2.7-square-mile Koreatown used to be my ultimate safe haven and a place where I could exist as a Korean and an American. It’s usually where I can find all the comforts and familiarities of home from across the Pacific Ocean. But these days I try to minimize my time there because I can’t help but feel like we are a massive collective target.
Because of this fear, I never leave home without pepper spray, with the safety unlocked and in an accessible place in my pocket. When another body approaches, I instinctively put my hand around it in case I need to protect myself. It’s exhausting and requires more mental exertion and bodily awareness. I can’t stop looking at everyone like they’re a potential threat.
I’ve created a safety plan in my head ― always keep an eye on the exit, don’t look people in the eye, have my pepper spray ready, and get ready to run. I avoid the neighbors, strangers and passersby I used to smile at and instead try to disappear even more than I already did as an Asian American ― the invisible minority.
And when our cries are met with silence from our allies, the message is loud and clear, once again: We don’t matter. After Atlanta, a common recurring theme that I heard echoed among my Asian American therapy clients was that they didn’t feel acknowledged or seen by the non-Asian colleagues, peers and friends in their lives. We didn’t get the “are you OK” messages or the check-ins from non-Asian friends and co-workers. We continued to feel unseen and unheard.
And so, in order to cope, we turned to each other. Asian American mental health care providers in California saw an increase in demand for services in the wake of surging anti-Asian hate incidents, including the killings in Atlanta. Crisis Text Line reported at the start of the pandemic that the number of Asian Americans seeking support more than doubled.
I facilitated virtual support groups for Asian Americans after the events in Atlanta, and the familiar feelings of fear, loneliness, isolation and anger united us from all over the country.
I met Asian Americans from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds: Korean, Chinese, Indian, Filipino, trans-racial adoptees, third-culture kids, and those without access to an Asian community. Due to many years of my internalized racism and succumbing to the model minority myth, I am the “token Asian” of my friend group, which has resulted in a lack of real connection to an Asian community. Therefore, I cherished my time in these support groups. I also needed support and understanding.
We cried together and processed our fears together. We talked about our vision and goals for how we want to move forward as Asian Americans, individually and collectively. We validated and offered support to each other, which made us feel safe and connected, regulating our nervous systems and allowing us access to deeper parts of the brain used for thinking and processing.
We decided that we need to be louder and prouder. We need to mobilize and use our voices even when we feel stuck and frozen. We need to educate, speak up and spread awareness. We need to see ourselves and each other if we want others to see us.
So lately I’ve been trying something new. I’ve been actively seeking and cultivating relationships with other Asian Americans as a way to feel like a part of a community ― which is a basic need, as humans are biologically wired to want to connect and belong.
With them, I don’t have to explain the filial piety and sense of guilt and duty I have toward my parents. I can sing songs in Korean at karaoke. We can order all the spicy food and name all the dishes correctly.
With them, I feel safe and accepted, even as the world keeps spinning and the anti-Asian violence continues.