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The Newest Chapter for AAPI Folks? Unity.

19 May 2022

“We can’t define ourselves and our community through our trauma. If we do, the people we end up hurting the most are ourselves.”

Over the last two years, I’ve developed a specific morning routine. I kiss my partner goodbye as he leaves for work and tell him that I love him. I wait with a heart-sickness in my chest as the front door closes behind him and pray my love can protect him from violent racists, even when we’re apart. I brush my teeth, put in my contacts, and make sure to pack my sunglasses to make sure I can hide my eyes. I avoid walking alone or taking public transit at any costs.  And whenever I see an Asian woman, I feel that same terrible little heart-sickness from earlier. I picture her as the latest victim of a viral story. Picture the grainy 15-second clip circulating the internet, her trauma immortalized in black and white, like something already from the past. Picture her family’s horror and grief. In my imagination, our families never look too different. Where are you going? I whisper to her in my mind, I love you, be safe. As she leaves my line of sight, I pray that the strange, intense kinship I feel for her can follow and protect her from danger. To another person, this probably sounds strange, but this is part of my Asian American experience, and I know that I’m not alone in the way I feel.

Asian America has never felt so unsafe. According to LAAUNCH’s new 2022 STAATUS Index, despite a new administration, lowering Covid infection rates, and an improved economy, violence against the AAPI community is continuing to increase. Nearly a third of Americans are unaware of the fact that anti-Asian hate crimes have increased almost 340% from 2021. An increasing percentage of Americans wrongly believe that Asian Americans are responsible for the spread of Covid-19, from 11% to 21%.

But one of the things that gives me hope is how connected I feel to other Asian Americans, for the first time in my life. We’ve managed to make something beautiful blossom in the midst of the ugliest conditions: we are united for a common cause, united in our love for our families, our friends, and each other. For this AAPI Heritage month, I spoke with eight members of the AAPI community on their experiences, how they’re handling the trauma of it all, and how they’re continuing to support one another/getting the support they need.

Jamie Somphanthabansouk, VP of People and Culture at Youth To The People

Laos-American Jamie Somphanthabansouk’s childhood focus was all about conformity. 

“All my parents wanted was for me to assimilate,” she says, recounting how her parents encouraged her to socialize with her white peers, rather than the neighborhood kids. “We grew up on welfare, on food stamps, and we lived in Section 8 housing. A lot of the kids around were Laos, Mien, or Hmong.” But now more than ever, Somphanthabansouk feels connected to the AAPI community. “Now, any time I go down to the subway, I look out for myself, but also for anybody that I should stand next to, who is like me.”

Somphanthabansouk makes sure to check on herself, while coping with the attacks. “Maybe it’s a part of my Buddhist upbringing, but I try to flow like water,” she says. “I try to check in with myself and my body. I try to release as much as I can when I can.” She also mentioned that professional therapy has also been helpful for her to process her feelings.

More than anything, Somphanthabansouk looks to the future for hope. “I feel like the activist community at the moment is young,” she gushes. “They’re so inspiring. You see people who aren’t even in college, especially women, who have these influential platforms on social media and you really want to see more and more support for them. Unlike how I was pushed to assimilate, the younger generations aren’t taught to do that. They’re taught from a young age to pull together as a greater whole.”

Kishan Desai, Customer Experience Manager at Youth To The People

Kishan Desai, who is Indian-American, had a very multicultural upbringing with a father raised in the UK and a mother raised in Zambia. His neighborhood was densely populated with AAPI families, and Desai understood from an early age that people don’t necessarily have to be “from that country” to still belong. “No one from my family is ‘from’ India, except for my grandparents,” he says. “My parents grew up with different cultures and still hold Indian values, so why can’t I? I come from a big family, so I went to school with my cousins. I never felt alone, or like I had to assimilate. I felt like I was in a space to have the best of both worlds.”

Desai feels deeply tapped into the pain and fear of his community acutely. 

“I think because I’m South Asian, people don’t really remember that I’m still Asian and that I’m still part of a community that is still hurting,” he says. “Even if it’s not hurting me or my family members. Why are innocent people being forced to pay for something that they have no control over?”

Desai is hoping that the more the AAPI diaspora continues to unite, the stronger we will become through celebrating our similarities and learning about what’s uniquely different in our respective cultures. 

“Yes, we’re all Asian, but what does that really mean?” he asks. “Culturally, we have so many differences, from countries — and even regions and provinces! With the Asian community, it’s so large, and it can be difficult to relate to one another because of that gap of differences. We should have these conversation with our friends and our friends’ friends — because if we can’t even educate our own, how can we expect other people to understand us?”

Jude Chao, Founder of Love, Jude Skincare, Author, and K-Beauty Blogger

Taiwanese-American Jude Chao grew up in the 1980s in her parents’ restaurant in Decateur, Illinois. The restaurant was well established in the primarily white community by the time Chao was born, but she still has memories from her childhood of anti-Asian hate directed at her family.

“I remember our restaurant getting vandalized,” she recalls. “I remember a rock getting thrown through our window, too. I remember the cops calling at 2 AM, and my dad having to go over there and deal with it. It really, really scared me. Even as a kid, I understood there was a vague sense of danger.” So to Chao, the new visible attacks aren’t “a shock”. “It’s always been happening. It’s just that it’s getting a lot more attention now.”

And while the activism in the community has been inspiring for her to see, Chao feels that it’s important to have grace for members of the community who need to take a step back from engaging with the news.

“We can’t define ourselves and our community through our trauma. If we do, the people we end up hurting the most are ourselves,” she says firmly. “I think that’s a psychological form of self harm. I think it’s perfectly valid that people need to take a step back sometimes. I’ve seen people accused of not caring or not knowing—no, we do know. We can be aware, without wanting to go down the rabbit hole and just doom scroll. Some people also have traumas that they’re not ready to put out there, and to put themselves at risk again.”

Su Lee Diaz, Regional Sales + Education Executive at Youth To The People

Korean-American Su Lee Diaz’s childhood was steeped in tangible anti-Asian sentiment. 

“My parents are from Korea,” she says. “I was born in New York, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian-American and Irish-American. It was very white. One of my earliest memories was moving into our apartment in Queens, and an adult white male stopping in front of the lawn where I was playing and saying derogatory slurs to me,” Diaz recounts to me. “I was maybe four, and he was slanting his eyes at me. It was like that all the time, so I thought it was normal. That it was just something that adults did to children.”

Growing up with indicients like that and with school children bullying and attacking her taught Diaz that anti-Asian sentiment was very much real and around her. So to cope with the last two years, Diaz took time away from social media to protect her mental health. “People reached out to ask if I wanted someone to talk to, and honestly, I didn’t want to talk about it,” she says. “I wanted to be alone and to let myself be angry.” She decided to focus on the happiness her new relationship brought her instead.

“I felt like happiness and joy had been robbed from all of us,” Diaz reflects. “I’ve spent so much of my life struggling with depression and anxiety and being othered, so I wanted to block everything out and just focus on this relationship because it felt good and I felt happy. I just wanted to be happy and in love and bask in this.”

After two years, Diaz is still on edge, but has returned to social media to support AAPI creators. 

“In the last few years, I’ve been following so many Asian content creators,” she says. “I’m gonna follow anyone, no matter what they’re creating. I want to give them views and likes. We struggle so much with being seen—we always feel invisible, and tend to fly under the radar. I feel like supporting these creators helps give them visibility, and that gives us all more visibility.”

Kirin Bhatty, Celebrity Makeup Artist

Kirin Bhatty is a celebrity makeup artist who boasts a portfolio of multicultural celebrity clients, but before she was working with celebrities, she was a self-proclaimed late bloomer who struggled with self-acceptance and pride in her heritage. Her parents immigrated from Pakistan to the US in the ‘70s, and while her upbringing was racially diverse, Bhatty was still the only South Asian amongst her peers. 

“So many kids in school just want to fit in,” she says. “And my mom was picking me up in traditional clothes, and I was going to school with delicious food that smelled a certain way.”

As someone raised valuing community solidarity, Bhatty feels intensely connected to our community. “I know there’s been a thing between India and Pakistan after the divide,” she says. “Maybe if we were all back in our motherlands, we would feel differently, but in America, I feel so close to my Asian community. I feel so seen by all my Asian brothers and sisters.”

To support the community throughout the violence, Bhatty has made it a point to show up and listen as members of the community are processing their emotions. 

“I think a lot of us come from a very private-natured background,” she mentions. “We don’t spill our hurt. But it’s so important to make space and let people talk about their hurt.”

For Bhatty, it also means showing up in person, like making a buddy system with her closest friends.

“There’s power in choosing to band together and continue to flourish, instead of hiding away,” she says. “To face so much violence by standing together. The more we stick together, and uplift each other, and the more we tell our stories, the more our stories will be woven into the fabric of America.”

Jason Lau, Founder of Phytosurgence

Hong Kong born and Vancouver raised, Jason Lau struggled with the confusing pressure to assimilate while growing up. 

“I wanted to be more Westernized, and my parents wanted me to fit in,” he recalls. “But when they saw how Westernized I had become, they were like ‘Oh, no, don’t forget about your Chinese heritage.’”

Growing up, Lau lived in a mostly Asian immigrant community, but he still internalized many microaggressions made against Asian men, and still remembers a childhood incident when a stranger harassed his mother and him for speaking Chinese.

“‘You don’t speak Chinese in Canada’,” he imitates the man. “‘You speak English here.’ He wouldn’t let it go until we acknowledged him and got into our car. I think that was probably the most violent act that I’ve ever experienced.”

By comparison, watching the violence inflicted on AAPI women makes Lau feel a little guilty at times. “It’s just that you don’t have to feel as scared as other people do. And all you can think, at that moment, is what can you do to help,” he says. “But, you also don’t want to go up to any random Asian person on the street, because what if you’re overreacting?”

A huge part of supporting the API community has been using his voice to tell his story on social media. “It’s insane that people are out there treating Asians as if they aren’t people with lives and loved ones,” Lau says. “I thought that if I shared my family stories, and showed that they’re people with emotions and memories, that would help. Everyone needs to be acknowledged and protected, and you can’t just glaze over just because you aren’t personally impacted by these attacks.”

Lau hopes the greater AAPI community itself will support each other, especially through business. 

“I was raised in a mom and pop shop,” he says. “It means a lot for those Asian-owned businesses to receive support, because it meant a lot to me and my family. I saw an Asian family with their child at the farmer’s market selling homemade oat milk, and I just had to buy from them. Even if your reach is small, you’re still helping people out who are similar to you.”

Nikita Charuza, Founder of SQUIGS Beauty

Indian-American Nikita Charuza has a family with a deeply rooted history and a longstanding tradition of courage. Her grandparents immigrated from India to the US following the Partition of India, and her family has faced plenty of anti-Asian violence. 

“The amount of times my mother, while taking the subway in the city in the 70s, would get spit on?” she shakes her head. “There was even a moment of violence that happened with my grandfather, including a knife incident.”

But even with a family history of resilience, the last two years have still been a struggle. 

“It’s one thing to not like a person because of something small, but it’s another to think, ‘I don’t like you for who you inherently are’,” Charuza points out. “That’s what has been so scary to see take place against our community.”

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t absolutely terrified,” she admits. “I consider myself a strong woman of color, and it’s scary to feel like I can’t go outside without letting one of my loved ones know where I am. It feels like that could have just as easily been me. Especially as a mother — is this the world my daughter is going to grow up in?”

Not if Charuza has anything to say about it. As an editor, she’s constantly working to highlight Asian-owned brands and founders to support. 

“I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my job as a journalist and a fellow brand owner if I didn’t,” she says. But for Charuza, it’s not enough to just support Asian-owned brands, it’s also about connecting and listening to people’s stories.

“It’s about connecting with someone else,” she insists. “Maybe someone will read this and think, ‘oh my gosh, I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who feels this way, I’m not the only one afraid to take the subway.’ It’s having a conversation about how we feel and uplifting each other. That shows other people that we’re not going anywhere.”

Han Na Shin, Model and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan 

Han Na Shin was born in South Korea and immigrated to Michigan, when she was four years old. A child of the ‘90s and early aughts, Shin describes the racism she faced as a child primarily as microaggressions. Before college, Shin’s Korean-American community were the members of her local church. 

“I was around grandmas and grandpas who were in the Korean War, who experienced the Japanese occupation,” she says. “So I learned a lot about being Korean, but in the context of America, in the sense that everyone around me was middle class—you know, beauty supply, restaurant, dry cleaners.” 

Shin’s middle class background plays a significant part in how she’s continuing to support the AAPI community, especially as a P.h.D candidate. 

“I’m researching how Asian Americans have been handling everything in the last few years,” she tells me. “I think it’s been my way of coping—learning and educating. It can be emotionally draining, but academia is full of rich, white men. They’re shocked whenever they hear that I grew up working class, or used food stamps growing up. They say stuff like, ‘I’ve never met an Asian who grew up poor before.’ Academia is so white and privileged—who is going to do this work, if I don’t do it?”

Her studies have led her to the conclusion that to keep the Asian American community united and moving forward, we must first dismantle anti-Blackness within our own community and build stronger bridges with other communities. “There have always been tensions between different races, especially between the Black and Asian American communities,” she says. “White supremacy works to divide us. These communities need to find a common ground, so we can work together in solidarity.”

Written by Jennifer Li for Youth To The People

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