Saratoga community responds to rise in anti-Asian violence with calls for change

April 1, 2021 — by Selina Chen, Shreya Rallabandi and Carolyn Wang
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Photo by Selina Chen

Freshman Minh Do’s twin sisters held signs at the Stop Asian Hate rally in front of Saratoga City Hall on March 20.

 

“Pig,” “Stupid and Chinese,” “Asian and Chinese same s—” and “Mind Ur business b—-” are messages freshman Minh Do, who is half-Vietnamese and half-Chinese, received on Instagram when he tried to refute a user by the handle of Seba who claimed that China manufactured the coronavirus.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have risen dramatically to nearly 3,800 incidents over the course of roughly a year during the pandemic as opposed to last year's count of about 2,600, with the most significant one being the shooting at Atlanta, Ga. that killed eight women, six of whom were Asian. This and subsequent tragedies, including the murder of an 84-year-old Thai immigrant in San Francisco and the assault of a 26-year-old Asian woman in San Jose, prompted a call for change from the Saratoga community.

At the state level, new pieces of legislation have been introduced to combat and better track hate crimes, including House Resolution 23, a bill introduced in February by 28th District’s Assemblymember Evan Low along with 67 co-authors. Rallies in the South Bay have occurred in recent weeks and crowds are getting larger and louder, Low said in an interview with The Falcon.

Even so, fear is prevalent.

 

‘I feel oppressed’

The online attacks directed at Do were due to his active role on social media trying to debunk myths surrounding Asian Americans. He said that although he’s just an ordinary citizen, he has been reposting stories with the message that these issues are real and must be addressed.

Do acknowledge he’s not overly worried for his safety within Saratoga because of its large Asian population. Even so, he has taken precautions.

“I set up a shortcut on my phone so that if I say ‘Siri, help me,’ my phone will call my parents, send them my location and start live streaming a video recording from its camera,” Do said. Do also ordered pepper spray to protect himself from potential threats.

He knows from WeChat groups that many Asian Americans are even considering buying firearms for self-defense. But within his family, Do’s 70-year-old grandmother is simply staying home.

 

‘We need to take action’

In an interview with The Falcon, Saratoga mayor Yan Zhao said that her own 87-year-old mother is also afraid to walk outside after hearing stories and seeing videos of anti-Asian hate crimes.

“As the mayor, if I'm afraid of walking down the street in my own city, then how do I tell my residents that our city is safe?” she asked.

Although no anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported in Saratoga, she thinks that victims tend not to speak up about it. Asian Americans traditionally keep their heads down and avoid making a fuss, she said.

 “When I was canvassing in my campaign for city council, this gentleman told me ‘I’d only vote for someone who’s white’ and shut the door in my face,” Zhao said. “Back then, I kept quiet and walked away.”

Now, however, Zhao feels more compelled to speak out, which is why she decided to organize a rally on March 27 in front of Saratoga City Hall along with the mayors of Cupertino, Campbell, Los Gatos and Monte Sereno.

An engineer by trade, Zhao never expected that she’d be the one to organize a big anti-hate rally, but things had gotten so bad that her anger and grief made her feel that she had to take action. At least 1,000 people made their voices heard that day.

“People are united regardless of our political differences,” she said. “It's sad that it takes such dire circumstances for this to happen, but it’s a good thing that we put aside our difference to fight for our basic human rights.”

 

‘Are they just doing this as if it's a trend?’

Junior Maya Vasudev, who is of mixed Tai Dam (a Laotian minority), Indian and Caucasian descent, initially felt that the school administration’s response to AAPI attacks was lacking. She saw them promote  the  Living Room Conversations meeting and emails telling students to go to CASSY for help if they need it. They didn’t do anything until so many people were talking about it, she said.

However, she felt better after learning that some administrators, including principal Greg Louie and assistant principal Matt Torrens, attended the Saratoga rally in solidarity with the Asian American community.

Vasudev also pointed to a large influx of performative social media activism that has been surrounding the movement. 

Vasudev finds such activism largely ineffective. “I've seen a couple people who just post a blanket statement to stop AAPI hate, and that's it,” she said. She acknowledges that there are still ways that people who can effectively use social media for substantive activism, such as reposting and donating to hate crime victims’ GoFundMe pages. 

Even so, Vasudev said that the common assumption is that they’re posting because it’s trendy to do so. 

“I’m disappointed, but am I surprised? Not really. There’s always going to be people who are going to pretend as they care for clout, profit or money,” Vasudev said.

When asked “how can I be a better ally?” by people who have reposted infographics on their social media, she responds by telling them to seek external resources, put in an effort to read about the history of AAPI hate and listen to the marginalized groups affected while maintaining their platform.

“For me, spreading awareness about an issue is like the bare minimum,” Vasudev said. “Listen to what minorities are saying and give them the means to do so.”

 

‘Where have you been for years?’

Although instances of anti-Asian hate crimes have increased due to the coronavirus and the hatred stoked by former President Trump and his allies, many Asian Americans have expressed that anti-Asian sentiment has been festering in the nation for centuries. Chemistry Honors teacher Kathy Nakamatsu recalled her elementary school days when her classmates would come up to her and say “Hi-yah!” or do the Karate Chop.

She remembered a teaching job interview in which she asked the principal whether they had gang problems, only to be told by the principal, in a matter-of-fact way, that while the community didn’t have gangs, they had white supremacists.

“I told her I was a bit nervous about that,” Nakamatsu said. “[The principal] said ‘don't worry, if they see your name on their class list, they'll just ask to be removed from the class, and we'll do it.’”

Years later she still sees signs of racism. 

During the early stages of the pandemic, Nakamatsu and her husband, world-renowned concert pianist Jon Nakamatsu, were walking down the street in their Campbell neighborhood when a man in a car rode by them and yelled, “Go home to China.”

This kind of overt racism is deeply painful for her because of the racism her parents experienced as children in the 1940s. Both of their families were sent to Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Her mother, now 83, has also experienced harassment in recent months.

“This guy rode by on a bike and hollered, ‘Are you a ch-nk?’” Nakamatsu said. “She just ignored it, but then he circled around and came back to ask her again, ‘I said, are you a ch-nk?’ She said, ‘No, I'm Japanese,’ and luckily, he went away. It scared us because what if he had continued? What if he hadn’t gone away?”

While Nakamatsu believes it would be helpful if the administration did more to address anti-Asian sentiment within the school community, she understands that their hands are full with the school’s reopening. She believes that in a typical year without a pandemic at its forefront, the administration would be able to handle the AAPI situation differently.

Additionally, she said that not every teacher would be comfortable if asked to talk about it in class.

“I struggle with bringing social-emotional learning into my classroom, so I’d be very nervous,” she said. “But my door is always open if you want to talk about it.”

 

‘I hope students feel comfortable talking about these issues’

On Thursday morning after the Atlanta shooting, English 11 Honors and Creative Writing teacher Amy Keys opened up a Jamboard with her students with a warm-up question: “What do you know about the history of Asian American immigration and how do you feel about Atlanta?”

After her students shared their reactions to the violence, they talked about the history behind the American Dream, Angel Island and Asian immigration since the 1800s. She shared poems about immigrants’ experiences at Angel Island. 

“It seemed to me that there were a real receptiveness and eagerness to talk about it,” she said about her lesson that day. “I saw kindness between students and a lot of nodding. It felt like a lot of solidarity between Asian and non-Asian students.” 

Afterward, several students privately emailed Keys to express their gratitude for having the chance to talk about the topic in class. Although Keys wishes she could talk to her students in person, she noted that she had learned a lot from her students and colleagues who shared their perspectives about growing up Asian American.

Keys said she has started reading more about anti-Asian racism, especially about its intersection with misogyny, to educate herself of the historical context.

“My advice to students is to try and recognize microaggressions on a smaller scale and discuss it before, not after, it turns into a brutal attack,” she said.

 

‘I lived and breathed the model minority myth’

Guidance counselor Alinna Satake remembers being 7 years old and watching her younger siblings play around a department store — climbing and running like all kids do — when two older white women remarked that they should just go back to China, a place Satake had never seen in her life.

She recalled that she started yelling at her siblings, berating them for getting in trouble — and for being noticed.

“You never forget the first time someone tells you to go back to where you came from,” Satake said.

Satake, a Saratoga High alumna, was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. Like others of her generation, she was taught to keep her head down, work hard and never question authorities. If something went wrong, her parents automatically assumed she was at fault.

This made her less inclined to believe the attacks are widespread.

“I wondered what they were doing to catch attention,” Satake said. “I was blaming the victim and trying to rationalize for myself.”

A recent incident that underscored the challenges facing the community right now was that of Xiao Zhen Zie, the 76-year-old Asian grandmother living in San Francisco. In early March, Zie was punched in the face but she “came after the dude who attacked her with a two-by-four and whipped the daylight out of him,” Satake said.

Satake felt personally connected to this incident because Zie speaks Taishanese, the same dialect as that of Satake’s grandmother. After she heard Zie’s story, Satake began to challenge the model minority myth because she didn’t want her kids to grow up in the same way.

It is difficult, however, because she is never sure if she’s being oversensitive.

“When you've been raised to think a certain way, you don't recognize racism and microaggressions because you're ‘dying by a thousand cuts,’” she said.

On top of that, Satake said that being a woman makes her situation “a double whammy.” In situations where she feels condescended to or patronized, such as when being cut off in a meeting, she wrestles with the uncertainty of whether a man is simply being a jerk, if he’s asserting his male privilege or if it’s because of her skin color.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, an organization tracking anti-Asian hate in the U.S., women experienced more than twice the amount of anti-Asian violence than men between March 2020 and March 2021.

The rising anti-Asian sentiment directly impacts Satake’s family. For her mother, who is “going bonkers” about finally being able to go shopping after being vaccinated, Satake is walking the line between trying to not make her mother feel stymied while telling her that it might not be safe to go out.

“It’s heartbreaking when my daughter asked if we're safe here when we went on a walk in Cupertino,” Satake said. As she spoke, tears streamed down her cheeks.

To Satake, the way to stop anti-Asian racism is through more active steps, such as hiring more Asian American teachers so that children have role models who look like them or making the effort to pronounce minority names correctly.

“There's nothing that makes me cringe more than a bunch of people saying, ‘Oh, I stand by Black Lives Matter and I stand by the Asians,’” she said. “What does that mean? Are you disrupting microaggressions and taking active steps to be educated? That work starts with me, recognizing how I myself have contributed to that problem, and I would really love for all of us to pause and think about it.”