A regular visit to a California DMV office on July 21 was anything but normal for 23-year-old Sharon Lam, who emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States nearly 20 years ago.

“I went to the Montebello DMV and I was translating for a friend’s mom who is Chinese and Vietnamese,” said Lam, who is a U.S. citizen living in Los Angeles.

One of the DMV associates told Lam, “Why don’t you speak English? You’re young. This is America.”

Lam, who did not want to make a big fuss, simply shook her head and sighed. “I was mad and annoyed,” said Lam. “I was just being polite and not making a scene. Like I said, it was the DMV.”

Lam’s incident is one of many cases of anti-Asian discrimination since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has been the reality for the Asian American population in the United States for the past few months. As a direct result, a number of organizations helped to form the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center to record cases of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander discrimination in California and the U.S. The newly created center received its first reports on March 19.

Dr. Russell Jeung, a professor and department chair of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said the goal of Stop AAPI Hate was to document the racism that Asian-Americans were experiencing so that the government could be held accountable and future incidents could be prevented.

“Before we created the website Stop AAPI Hate, we expected that when COVID-19 arrived from China, that Asian Americans would be blamed and they would be met with interpersonal violence and racist policies,” said Dr. Jeung. “What struck me again was how virulent and angry people were towards Asian Americans and how many Asian Americans were experiencing it.”

In the span of 14 weeks, from March 19 to June 24, Stop AAPI Hate collected over 800 cases of anti-Asian xenophobia, discrimination and attacks in California alone. Upon further examination, the largest number of cases came from Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, with 183 and 182 cases respectively.

Breakdown of reported cases by counties from March 19 to June 24. (Image and data courtesy of Stop AAPI Hate)
Breakdown of reported cases by counties from March 19 to June 24. (Image and data courtesy of Stop AAPI Hate)

Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, calls this disturbing, and an issue that needs to be taken seriously. “In California, it is pervasive and it is very concerning and that while people are sheltering in place, Asians and Asian Americans are experiencing discrimination, and are being verbally and physically assaulted,” said Choi.

One statistic that stands out is how gendered discrimination is during this pandemic. In California alone, 466 of the reported cases came from women, which accounts for more than half of the total cases. Choi believes the high amount of reported cases by women is because they are more likely to report these incidents in comparison to men.

In March, Amanda Wong, a Chinese American, was a victim of a verbal tirade while shopping. “I went to Costco once and two white ladies basically said it was my fault that the [corona]virus was here,” said Wong. “I responded and they were cursing me out as if I was not born here. I legit was like ‘I’m an American just like you and she didn’t say anything.’”

This encounter affected Wong for the next few days. No one intervened to help her, she said. “No one stood up for me. No one said anything to me. I was so shaken up. I started crying when I left to my car,” Wong said.

According to CAA’s Choi, women face more verbal and street harassment. “One of the things that’s very disturbing and what we know to be a pattern is that racism and sexism often go hand in hand,” said Choi. “Our suspicion is that Asian women and women in general are more vulnerable to these attacks and are also subjected to sexist remarks.”

As the number of coronavirus cases rises, so does the tension and animosity towards Asian Americans in public gathering spaces. Stephen Tran is a Vietnamese American who helps his family run their restaurant, BurgerIM in the Northern California town of Carmichael. On July 18, he was the target of a physical and verbal altercation from a customer.

According to Tran, the customer chose not to follow the restaurant’s policy of waiting outside after paying. “I had asked him to wait outside and he just got very aggressive off the bat right away. He was like ‘F' you and your chinky policy,‘” said Tran. “He wasn’t having it so he kept walking in and out of the shop and just getting very aggressive and calling us COVID and telling us that we need to go back to China.”

In the security footage, the customer was seen throwing his drink at Tran and attempting to punch him as well. “When he had thrown his drink at me, it was just an instinct to jump on the counter to get this guy out of there,” said Tran. “I had to get ready to defend myself and not give him an opportunity to put his hands on me.”

The entire incident left Tran concerned not for himself, but for his younger family members. “It affected me a little bit different, where if this happens to me, who knows if this is going to happen to my little brother or little sister at any point,” said Tran. “People have to learn how to stay humble and respect others and treat everybody the same.”

There have been plenty of cases where people are racially profiled as Chinese when in actuality, they have different ethnic roots.

“Racial profiling is an automatic assumption based on your implicit bias that if you feel threatened by the way someone looks, you’re going to react in flight or fight mode and that’s what’s happening. If they see someone who looks Asian, they feel threatened and they either fight and harass or [flee] and shun us,” said Jeung. “In the US, people aren’t aware about all the different ethnicities from Asia and so they just make these automatic assumptions based on how you racially look and that’s why they’re harassing Asian-Americans.”

While the harsh treatment toward Asian Americans due to COVID-19 may be new for some, this is not the first time the community has been cast in a negative light. Whether they were racially profiled as the “yellow peril,” or barred from entering the country through federal laws, such as the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asians have been at the epicenter of racial tension throughout American history.

“Sometimes we could be model minorities, insiders, and [be] used as the good minorities to vilify other minorities, but in this moment, we’re shifted from being the model to being the perpetual foreigner and the outsider,” said Jeung. “This perpetual foreigner rationalization, this outsider rationalization gets worse in periods of war and epidemic, and that’s what’s happening at this moment.”

When it comes to addressing these issues, Choi believes that it is the responsibility of those in power to create the change that is needed.

“We need to hold our government accountable and [enforce] existing civil rights laws and statutes,” said Choi. “We want to focus on addressing the underlying causes of violence in these attacks, which starts in the schools, which also starts in our homes and in our public institutions.”

Accordingly, Choi, along with others, has been working with Gov. Gavin Newsom on this issue. “When this was brought to [Newsom’s] attention, he condemned it without hesitation. Now we [would] like him to use his platforms and his ability to direct agencies to take this on through public education, through the enforcement of civil rights statutes and protections that should be afforded to everyone regardless of their immigration status, race, ethnicity, national origin,” said Choi. “The same way he is trying to protect the residents of California from this pandemic, he should also ensure that Asians in this state also have the support of the government.”

Despite all the negativity surrounding Asians during this pandemic, people like Choi remain hopeful for the future.

“I’m very hopeful because it’s galvanized our community. It’s reminded us that whether we’re fourth generation, Japanese Americans, or recent immigrants [and] undocumented citizens, we are all vulnerable to racism,” said Choi.

Choi added, “I think this is a moment for my organization, the work through Stop AAPI Hate with our partners and really throughout the country for us to stand together and fight racism in all its forms, including the anti-black racism we’re all trying to address.”