One morning, 84-year-old Thai immigrant Vichar Ratanapakdee was taking his daily stroll in his San Francisco neighborhood. Without a moment to react, a man ran across the street forcefully shoved him to the ground. Two days later on Jan. 30 he was pronounced dead.
This is only one of many attacks towards Asian Americans, particularly the elderly, in recent months. Days later, a 91-year-old man was shoved to the ground in Oakland’s Chinatown. A 64-year old woman was robbed in San Jose. A 61-year-old Filipino man was slashed in the face on the New York Subway. The testimonies go on.
News of these attacks made biological sciences sophomore Thomas Tang’s “blood boil.”
The pandemic has exposed the “outsider” mentality and the pulling of two worlds in the Asian community, he said.
“Sometimes you are consistently praised, like ‘You’re so smart, and x, y and z,’” Tang said. “Other times, when you can scapegoat an entire country, you get a lot more flack for it.”
Some examples of anti-Asian and xenophobic rhetoric include, “You’re the reason this pandemic is occurring” and “Go back to your country,” he said.
In their February news release, “Stop AAPI Hate,” a coalition documenting and addressing anti-Asian hate amid the pandemic, received 2,808 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate nationwide between March 19, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020. These accounts range from physical assaults, coughing and spitting, verbal harassment to shunning or avoidance.
Tang said he now fears for the safety of his family.
“When I go to the grocery store with my mother, my biggest worry in the back of my head is ‘How would I act if someone attacked my mother [mostly verbally]?’” Tang said. “I definitely feel more of a foreigner than I have in the past.”
In a study of police records first reported in Voice for America, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found hate crimes targeting Asian Americans rose 150% in America’s largest cities in 2020, even as overall hate crimes decreased.
According to the same study, there were 122 hate crimes targeting Asian Americans in 16 of the country’s most populous cities in 2020 compared to 49 such crimes in those cities in 2019.
San Francisco Police Department (SFPF) Public Informations Officer Robert Rueca said he believes this topic needs to be addressed by everyone, not just the police or the Asian community. Racism is an important topic, regardless of the time, he said.
Rueca and the SFPD remain uncertain of the motives behind some recent attacks.
“At this time, we’re not able to state that racism is the reason why the Asian community is being targeted,” he said.
Rueca said there may be an aspect of underreporting, and the department is reaching out to the community to amend this.
“If the community is feeling like there is an uptick or they are experiencing certain behavior where they’re feeling threatened or victimized in a crime, then we want them to report that,” he said.
Food science sophomore Firm Suksunpantep said he believes this hatred has been fueled by rhetoric from former President Donald Trump and the media. He said he also thinks the anniversary of the start of the pandemic plays a role.
“It’s been a year now so people are getting tired of quarantine,” Suksunpantep said. “People might be getting more frustrated, more angry and it leads them to do horrible things.”
Suksunpantep said he has wondered if he would be the next target and feels the fear now instilled in the community that Asian elderly relatives can be targeted at any time for no apparent reason.
Architecture professor Don Choi believes Asian Americans are scapegoated because they are convenient to blame. He also thinks they are one of the many groups that have undergone demonization in recent years.
“There is a strong tendency for some groups to be COVID denialists or conspiracy theorists who are convinced that [the Chinese people, government or media] has propagated [COVID-19] as either a fake pandemic or pandemic that’s artificially started to cause harm to Americans,” Choi said.
Choi said he also believes Asian Americans tend to be overlooked as a large ethnic group due to a perceived sense of privilege.
“There is a sense that we don’t have any status to complain because we’re not discriminated against in the blatant ways that Latinx populations and the Black population are,” Choi said.
The majority of the crimes reported target the Asian elderly. Not only does Choi trace this to their sensitive physical condition and hindered abilities to retaliate, but also to their outside perception as “more Asian.”
“An Asian American Cal Poly student who was born and raised in California is going to seem very Californian as opposed to someone such as my own grandmother, who grew up in Japan and spoke with a Japanese accent,” Choi said.
He said he believes identifiers, such as speech and dress, differ from what people view as mainstream American norms, so looking and sounding more “foreign” can lead to targeting of the elderly.
According to Choi, COVID-19-related Asian sentiment affected everyday tasks such as grocery shopping. His wife, who is not Asian, had told him she would prefer doing the shopping alone since she is at less risk for COVID-19.
“In fact, what actually made her choose to do the grocery shopping and other errands was her worry that I’d be subject to harassment or violence,” Choi said. “She told me that COVID-19 was the reason, because she didn’t want to cause me any more stress.”
For Thomas Tang, the story of Angelo Quinto hit home.
Quinto was a 30-year-old, Navy veteran and Filipino immigrant. His family called the police because he was suffering from a mental health crisis. After a Northern California police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, he was pronounced dead.
At 17, Tang was involuntarily hospitalized for suicidal ideation.
“During the process, I was handcuffed by the police. I was put inside the back of a police car before I was driven to the hospital,” Tang said. “A part of me wonders just if I had acted more recklessly, I could end up at the same situation at 17 years old.”
In May 2020, a weekly Chinese Student Association’s Zoom meeting was “bombed” with a series of racial attacks from unknown individuals. After that incident, Tang said he took notice of all the other violent occurrences to the Asian community since.
Tang feels coverage of these issues from traditional journalism has been lacking, leaving many voices and stories to go unheard.
“Now [the media] is kind of feasting on the violence to drive clicks again and drive that sense of outrage,” Tang said. “I feel like it’s always been happening, but it’s more prominent now because it’s getting more coverage.”
In response to these events, the California Legislature approved $1.4 million in funding towards tracking cases, rallies and events have been hosted across the nation and there has been increasing support across social media platforms where individuals are voicing their opinions and illuminating their own stories of injustice.
Choi said he hopes these recent events bring attention to Asian discrimination and sentiment that has historically been talked about less. He also hopes it will unify the community and motivate more activism.