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Philly Asian Americans have experienced a year of hateful acts, and fear it’s going to get even worse

The rise in reported acts of hate has left people in the Asian community shaken and traumatized, constantly on edge, and worried they or a loved one could be the next person assaulted or killed.

People remember the victims of the Atlanta shootings at a candlelight vigil Wednesday night.
People remember the victims of the Atlanta shootings at a candlelight vigil Wednesday night.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Stephen Kulp was walking on a Center City street this summer, adjusting his face mask to ensure it covered his nose and mouth, when he was attacked for existing.

“Chinese virus, go back to where you came from!” the man shouted, his voice full of hate.

Near busy Broad and Locust Streets, the stranger then broke away from his group of friends, following Kulp.

“He was throwing extremely racist slurs at me,” Kulp said. “It’s hard to even recount because it was so intense and aggressive.”

The man’s friends eventually pulled him away, cutting off the attack. Kulp ducked into the lobby of an apartment building to collect himself.

It was the second time since last March, when the coronavirus pandemic began, that the 32-year-old had been verbally assaulted while walking by himself in Philadelphia.

The coronavirus “is something that is fueling an anger, fueling a bias, fueling a prejudice that they might already have,” Kulp said. “But I’m sure it has created a whole new population of folks with prejudice and bias toward Asian Americans, Asians in general.”

Across the country, the anger has escalated to violence, spurred by both the pandemic and racist views. On Tuesday evening, shootings at three Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta area left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent. Police have identified some of the victims: Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54.

» READ MORE: Suspect charged with murder after eight people were killed in Atlanta-area shootings

Authorities have been criticized for denying that race was a motive in the killings and saying the victims were targeted only for their gender even though Asian women have long been hypersexualized.

“Even though the news is saying they don’t know if it’s ‘hate-related,’ there’s no doubt there’s a connection to the Asian community,” said Alix Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group. “We can’t imagine this isn’t in part a result of what has appeared over the last four years around white supremacy and race-based targeting by the [former] president of the United States.”

Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym called the shootings “the latest escalation in the nation’s history of systemic racism and violence against Asian immigrants, fostered by a culture of white supremacy and misogyny that has long devalued the lives of immigrants, Black women, and women of color.”

On Wednesday night, Gym spoke at a vigil for the victims of the Atlanta shootings that was attended by more than 100 people.

In recent months, there have been brutal attacks captured on video in which Asian Americans are beaten, stabbed, or shoved in public, sometimes fatally. Such attacks have claimed the lives of Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, in San Francisco, and Pak Ho, 75, in Oakland.

In Philadelphia, reports to the city of anti-Asian American hate tripled between 2019 and 2020. People in its Asian communities are shaken and traumatized, constantly on edge, worried they or a loved one could be the next person assaulted or killed while walking on the street or riding the subway or doing their job. Some of the city’s 120,000 Asian residents, particularly those of East and Southeast Asian descent, say they are avoiding taking public transportation, walking alone, or going out at night.

“I think the fear of bias existed at the beginning of the pandemic,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, “but these recent episodes have really struck a nerve because watching the videos, they’re so violent.”

As others begin to feel hopeful, excited about increasing vaccinations and loosening restrictions, some in the region’s Asian American communities say they worry about what it will be like for them to return to restaurants, bars, and other public spaces, to be surrounded by even more people who may harbor hatred and feel emboldened to act on it.

“Just like many Americans, we look forward to the opening-up,” said Qunbin Xiong, principal of the Main Line Chinese Culture Center. “But for the Asian American community, the opening-up has become a factor of anxiety, because we don’t know what’s waiting for us.”

Over the last year, nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported nationwide, 97 of them in Pennsylvania and 59 in New Jersey, according to research from Stop AAPI Hate, which launched in March 2020 “in response to the alarming escalation in xenophobia and bigotry resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” In the first two months of 2021 alone, the organization logged 503 incidents nationwide.

Nearly 70% of the national reports were verbal harassment or name-calling, according to Stop AAPI Hate, and many of the assaults are brazen, with 35% happening at a business and 25% occurring on a public street or sidewalk. Of the people who reported being attacked, nearly 70% were women.

» READ MORE: Asian Americans in Atlanta are stunned by shootings as advocates demand action

In 2020, Philadelphia received 28 reports of acts of hate against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a city spokesperson said, compared with eight reported acts in 2019. In the first months of 2021, the city said it has received two reports.

But these numbers tell only part of the story. Stop AAPI Hate says reports represent “only a fraction of the number of hate incidents that actually occur,” and even Kulp, who chairs the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association, did not know bias incidents were reportable when he was harassed.

It is harder to quantify the pervasive anxiety, fear, and trauma that are triggered by the constant barrage of images of Asian violence and by the sounds of hateful rhetoric, which has intensified since former President Donald Trump used racist terms to describe the pandemic.

Statistics also don’t account for the United States’ history of state-sanctioned anti-Asian discrimination, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for decades, and the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Resurfaced trauma

As he reads reports of increased anti-Asian racism from his Berwyn home, A. Hirotoshi Nishikawa, 82, remembers what it was like to be forced into an internment camp as a child. He recalls being a 5- or 6-year-old in the Poston, Ariz., camp’s un-air-conditioned barracks, with no running water, on a 115-degree day as he itched all over from chicken pox.

He remembers the metal badges children back home in California wore that identified them as Chinese, not Japanese, “so that people, mainly whites, wouldn’t hassle them,” Nishikawa said. Ironically, he added, it was when he left the camps, where there were few white people, that he realized the extent of the public’s antipathy toward Asian Americans.

“The incarceration experience was somewhat unique,” he said, noting he believes today there are more “reasonable,” antiracist people in government and in society at large. “As we are seeing now in terms of anti-Asian activities, hostilities, people take it on themselves to do bad things, just because they have a mind-set.”

Rob Buscher, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said this year has been re-traumatizing for Japanese Americans, some of whom still remember being forced to go to mass incarceration camps because the government viewed them as threats to national security during World War II. Others have heard their relatives tell these stories.

“For this community of Japanese Americans, people who have had this experience, they never get over their childhood trauma,” he said. “A moment like this is resurfacing all of that.”

» READ MORE: Sixers coach Doc Rivers speaks out against rise of violence and discrimination toward Asian Americans

The surge of high-profile violence has exacerbated anxiety about the coronavirus, some Asian Americans say, and worsened their sense of isolation.

Even before the pandemic, Asian Americans faced barriers to mental-health services as they felt pressure to live up to the “model minority” myth, the stereotype that they can beat racism by studying and working harder than other racial groups, said Esther Castillo, the project manager of Chinese Immigrant Families Wellness Initiative under the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.

“There essentially is no space for people to talk about these kinds of experiences,” Castillo said. “When you have trauma, you have to address it. So you have to talk about it, you have to express it. And now people just bottle up all these feelings.”

When Castillo, a sociologist, recently reached out to people in Philadelphia’s Asian communities, she found many were struggling alone. The phone calls “devastated” her, she said, so much so that she had to stop for her own mental health. Some people told her they found themselves increasingly paranoid, with one couple sleeping during the day after teenagers rang their doorbell at night.

She can empathize with the fear. Last spring, Castillo said she and her husband were walking their dog in South Philadelphia when a man yelled to them, “Oh, you should take off your mask, because you guys brought the virus here!”

‘Unseen in public spaces’

The rise in racism and violence has also worsened long-standing anxiety among Asian Americans about being viewed as a “perpetual foreigner,” who is scapegoated for everything from wars to disease.

Many Asian Americans now “want to be unseen in public spaces,” Buscher said.

Xiong not only stopped taking the train from Delaware County to his job at Penn Medicine, but he also avoids passersby on walks from his car to the office.

“I try not to make eye contact with people,” he said. “I literally do not want to expose my Asian face to them.”

Seeing the news reports about increased violence, “it really chips away at your feeling of safety,” said Djung Tran, a Bucks County lawyer who is on the board of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania. “If you encounter this on a regular basis, you’re constantly on alert.”

Asian Americans across the region say they don’t see this anxiety going away anytime soon. Some say they worry about what will happen when society turns its attention to other issues and stops paying attention.

“It is never going to end,” Xiong said. “I predicted a year ago when Trump started doing this. He’s the seed of the hatred. Unfortunately you cannot just cut the plant. … The soil is there.”

In the face of this, however, Castillo said she has been heartened to see the organizing efforts of the Asian American communities’ younger generations.

After the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, they “realized the importance of doing antiracist work within our attempt to show ourselves in the most authentic way, in a way that deviates from the stereotypical model-minority myth, that we are suffering that we are hurting, and we have been hurting,” she said. “It’s just that we never showed ourselves.”

Staff writers Bethany Ao and Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.