Sometime last summer, I got a call from my dad. He had been watching reports of anti-Asian violence on the nightly news for days — video after video of Asian elders and women being attacked in broad daylight. He needed to rant. “What is the country coming to?” he seethed. “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?”
He was talking very literally about bystanders — those you could see in the CCTV footage just standing there while a person next to them was beaten— but it felt like a metaphor, too. Here we were, two Koreans separated by 35 years, one an immigrant and the other native-born in the U.S., each equally worried, incensed and bewildered by the specter of violence — something the American Dream told us would no longer be a threat as long as we worked hard and held tight to the inherent goodness of this country.
“I try not to bring it up with your mother, but we both worry about you being out in San Francisco. Not only because you might get randomly attacked. But just because you gravitate toward trouble sometimes,” my dad told me on another call last week.
“Gravitate toward trouble? Where do you think I get it from?” I snapped back. “What I worry about is you coming to visit.”
A vision of prosperity, safety and stability is what brought my parents from South Korea to the West Coast in the early 1980s. Still, they endured slights, slurs and physical violence while hustling part-time jobs in a series of gas stations, swap meets and motels. Even after they grew their own businesses (first a laundromat, then a liquor store), my parents’ time in California, the Pacific Northwest and Texas made them crave a place where our Asianness would no longer feel foreign. They penny-pinched for years to afford to move us to Hawaii, the rare minority-majority state in the union. I’m sure watching Hawaii-born Barack Obama be inaugurated the same year I graduated high school felt, to my parents, like a well-timed turning point for the nation.
Now, more than a decade later, we’ve witnessed a 169 percent spike in anti-Asian violence across major American cities over the past year, ranging from random attacks in the Bay Area to the planned Atlanta massacre. That violence doesn’t seem to be slowing down — a realization that reminds my parents of when they first arrived in the country and learned that being broke meant being worried for their safety, either at home or at work.
The feeling only got worse after my dad was robbed at gunpoint (twice) in the early 1990s while working the night shift at our family’s liquor store in dusty Delano, California. In one case, the perpetrators mocked him for being Korean and speaking with an accent. “It’s exhausting to feel that people might target you, and you can’t do anything about it,” my mom tells me. “It’s a feeling that you’ll never really make it in America. But what we did was just put our heads down, push the fear aside and work.”
The trauma of the past reverberates today, and for many others like my parents, it’s resurfaced with every report of another anti-Asian attack. In a Pew Research poll from April, a third of Asian adults reported that they’ve feared someone would assault them (more than any other ethnic group). Meanwhile, 80 percent of respondents said they believe the violence is increasing. Just considering that possibility makes me anxious about the country that awaits the next generation of my family. It also makes me wonder about the cumulative impact of seeing, mulling and internalizing all this pain — generation after generation, decade after decade, headline after headline.
According to the psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk, the ability to feel safe is “probably the most important aspect of mental health.” So the long-lasting impact of living with the fear of violence is obviously very troubling: Generational trauma can leave a family struggling with emotional intimacy, distrustful of the outside world, overprotective of their children or just hypervigilant to perceived weakness.
I see this first hand in my parents’ near-fanatical obsession with hustling for financial security despite the short tempers, long hours and sheer exhaustion that come with it. I hear it in the way my mother warns me to “not attract attention” in unfamiliar spaces, and her cautiousness whenever I talk about traveling around America. I feel it in the way we struggle to unpack issues of race and class — a topic that, for much of my upbringing, we didn’t really touch.
For Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of the nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action and a founder of the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate, the struggle to break the cycle of trauma is a historical one, but she also believes that 2020 can be a turning point. “Many of our community leaders have been fighting anti-Asian violence, discrimination and the policies that harm us for a very long time,” she explains. “That includes institutional forms of violence through the immigration system and through our criminal justice system. But this period has been unlike any other in my memory, because there is a realization that our national reckoning with race includes us, too.”
The trend of violence has inflamed an argument within the Asian community about crime, punishment and where we fit into the social order of America. Despite recent analysis that suggests the majority of people who target and attack Asians are white, the viral images of young Black men shoving and beating Asian elders has become a particularly divisive flashpoint among young Asian Americans grappling with our history of racism and erasure.
Much has been debated about the tenuous relationship between Asians and Black and brown communities, made brittle by historic tragedies like the killing of young Latasha Harlins and the subsequent 1992 L.A. riots, complete with the image of “Rooftop Koreans” aiming their guns at young Black men looking for merchandise to loot. Looking back, we understand the forces at play: How redlining and racist housing policies left Black and brown families in underserved and underfunded neighborhoods; why Asian immigrants filled a hole created by white flight and zero investment; how the clash of distinct cultures (including a language barrier) and the lack of trust in a violent environment crystallized fear and loathing on both sides.
Three decades later, those tensions have come back again, sparking especially defensive, often racist rhetoric: I’ve read dozens upon dozens of comments from angry Asian Americans in Facebook and Reddit groups, casting sarcastic blame on “BLM,” frothing about how “thugs” need to be “taught a lesson” and demanding increased policing and prison time.
Oakland organizer and youth counselor Eddy Zheng sees such rhetoric as a bitter symptom of trauma and oppression under white supremacy, where minority communities are forced to fight for agency and resources. “It was hard to formulate our response, because we wanted to condemn the attacks [on Asian Americans], but not while advocating for increased surveillance, policing and more punitive policies,” says Zheng. “We wanted to make clear to our elders, women and survivors that this is unacceptable, but also that more violence cannot address this long term.”
Zheng immigrated from mainland China with his parents in 1982, but grew angry and restless during the early years while watching his parents struggle to earn money. Impatient and reckless, Zheng and two friends hatched a plan in 1986 to rob a family that sold pricey herbal medicines in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They cornered the family at gunpoint as they walked into their home, but a lack of valuables inside led to an impulsive plan B: They tied up the wife, drove her to the family’s shop and cleared out the cash.
The trio could have made off with more than $34,000, if not for a cop that pulled their car over for busted headlights, then noticed a terrified, shaking woman in the back seat.
The case was open-and-shut. Zheng was tried as an adult despite being just 16, and he pled guilty to all 16 felony counts for the botched robbery and kidnapping, believing it would shorten his sentence. Instead, he received seven years to life, and spent the next two decades at San Quentin State Prison, cycling through parole hearing after parole hearing. It was only through the years-long efforts of activists and the Asian community that he was paroled in 2004.
Then, in 2010, Zheng was robbed at gunpoint after parking his car late at night outside of his home in Oakland. He was stunned: His brother had been robbed at gunpoint four months prior. A few months before that, his mother was shoved to the ground and mugged outside of her home. It led to deeply uncomfortable confrontations with his family, who rushed to conclusions about the perpetrators, their intentions and what they deserved. His mother used a Cantonese slur which translates to “Black devils.” His brother, rippling with rage, threatened to buy a samurai sword to cut down “thugs.”
Zheng didn’t feel the same way. He had spent too much time in prison, learning from and talking to people who made life-shattering mistakes. “I’ve been on both ends of the gun. I understand why you end up there,” he says. And he felt convinced that catching his mugger and jailing him wouldn’t create any real change. The moment clarified for Zheng how poverty, racism, incarceration and recidivism are systemic, not individual, forces. Instead of demanding that police find his attacker, Zheng told the responding officer that he wished only to speak to the perpetrator — learn about his life, his needs, and hopefully steer him toward help.
He still recalls how the officer, a Chinese-American man, stared blankly as Zheng explained his model of restorative justice. Members of his family were equally puzzled. “Sometime after my robbery, my nephew came up to me and said, ‘Uncle Eddy, my dad thinks you’re weak because you didn’t fight back,’” Zheng tells me. “And I just thought, ‘Well, I guess you’re right.’ I guess I did lose my possessions and my pride. But what should I have done? Even if I was a hero and grabbed the gun and killed him, I would have to live with that. And nothing around me would change for the better.”
Like Zheng, Choi is also critical of how incarceration and policing have failed to keep the Asian community safe. Victims and survivors of violent crime are often re-traumatized by a criminal justice system that’s convoluted and biased, she says. And sometimes, interactions with law enforcement turn deadly for innocent people. Instead, Choi stumps for policies like the Asian Pacific Islander Equity Budget, a $165 million project approved by the state of California last month. It will distribute funds to social services and grassroots organizations that work to prevent violence and poverty.
For Zheng, it’s about investing in a more restorative process, which is what ended up working for him. “It’s because many people didn’t give up on me. They supported and invested in my education and my growth. And I was able to stop the cycle, and start working to fix it,” he says. “We need more of that.”
When my dad took his first job in America, pumping gas in Compton, California, his manager put a pistol in his hand on his first night, told him to buy a holster and warned him of “troublemakers.” It was a bizarre crossroads for my father, who had worked as an architect in South Korea before moving to the U.S. and realizing he couldn’t find work without additional years of pricey schooling. Instead, he leaned into a different version of the dream: Owning a business, growing a family and protecting it at all costs, even if it meant viewing human beings as walking threats.
Now, decades after my dad last shot a gun and finally nearing some semblance of retirement, he’s starting to see a different perspective on race, violence and how America will evolve. “Living in America, you start to make judgments about people based on the only information you have — what they say, how they look, how they look at you,” my dad tells me. “But you stop seeing the person, and start making calculations. It hardens the heart. And never fixes anything.”