Asian American women after Atlanta shooting: ‘This could have been me’

The six Asian American women killed in the Atlanta shootings represented a diverse…

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They represented a diverse community: A single mother of two sons in their early 20s. Two emigrated from South Korea in the 1980s. A grandmother of six in a multiracial family with relatives in Japan. A Chinese American mother who owned two spa businesses. One had no family in the United States.

Six of the eight people who died in the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March were women of Asian descent. They represented a diaspora that includes some 50 ethnicities, even more languages and dialects, and countless experiences.

Yet despite the diversity of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) experience, the women’s deaths resonated throughout the community in a distinctly familiar way.

And they particularly hit home for many Asian American women: That could have been my mother, my grandmother. It could have been me.

So different, yet somehow so similar: That has long been a characteristic of the Asian diaspora in America, said Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, a professor of Asian American and diaspora studies at Duke University: The “idea of ‘people like you’ as Asian Americans has been strangely specific yet diffuse.”

“My immigrant experience is not the same as these women, but I felt it in my bones. Because to be here is to be the same,” Chow said.

We spoke with 10 Asian American women across the country about the connection they feel to the six slain women, despite living drastically different lives. They shared stories about the sacrifices of their immigrant parents and grandparents, and the resilience required to assimilate in a country where Asians face ongoing harassment and xenophobia.

Kym Lee

38, Smryna, Ga., Taiwanese American

When Kym Lee read about the victims, and the long hours they worked to support their families, she thought about her own mom.

Lee’s family emigrated to Duluth, Ga., when she was 4 years old and opened a silk flower store at a sprawling flea market. Throughout her childhood, she and her siblings worked weekends at their parents’ business, which grew from one booth to two, then three – and eventually, a stand-alone store.

Nearly three decades later, Lee’s mom still works 10 to 14 hours a day, every day, she said.

“What I appreciate about that is the hard work ethic that my parents instilled in me – to get our homework and everything done, so we can work on the weekends so we’re selling things and studying and doing the best that we can,” she said.

Lee read that the daughter of one of the slain women said her mom worked 12 hours every day. Lee thought: “That’s my mom. That’s 100 percent my mom.”

“That’s what a lot of immigrants do: You come here to just build a better life and give a better life for your family. You’ll do whatever it takes.”

After the shootings, Lee received a text from a friend relaying a warning about an active shooter targeting Asian businesses: Tell your Asian friends with businesses to shut down, and don’t come out tonight.

“That was Tuesday night, and all of the stories we were hearing, when I was trying to pull up news reports, it was just so confusing. Then the next day the narrative had completely changed,” she said, when the suspect told police that the shooting was not racially motivated.

“There’s so many levels of injustice and racism in this, because we took the word of the shooter that it wasn’t racism, but we didn’t give that same benefit of the doubt to the women, who now have no voices to speak.”

Days after the shooting, Lee wrote a public post on her Facebook page addressed to the news media. She was upset and struggling to process the shootings, and frustrated with the lack of details about the women and the speculations about whether they had been involved in sex work. She wrote:

“These women deserved so much more. To be remembered with respect and dignity. I grieve them and how they were so unjustly portrayed.

“This could have been my grandma.

“This could have been my mom.

“This could have been me.

“Media, do better. Recognize your racial biases, and don’t let this happen again.

“In their memory:

“Soon Chung Park, age 74

“Suncha Kim, age 69

“Xiaojie ‘Emily’ Tan, age 49

“Hyun Jung Grant, age 51

“Yong Ae Yue, age 63

“Daoyou Feng, age 44

“Delaina Yaun, age 33

“Paul Andre Michels, age 54

“- Signed, An Asian-American woman”

The weekend after the shooting, Lee marched with her children and her Korean American husband at a protest denouncing racism and violence toward Asians. They held signs carrying the names and ages of the shooting victims. She explained to her children that Asians were being discriminated against – which turned out to be an easier conversation than she had anticipated, because she had taken them to Black Lives Matter protests last year.

“It was sad how quickly they understood what was going on. I just can’t believe in 2021 we need Black Lives Matter signs and now we’re fighting against anti-Asian hate.”

“I took my daughter to one of the rallies . . . and was thinking, ‘We have got to do better. For her.’ The shooting sprees were about Asian women – grandmas, moms and me – but it’s really about her.”

Mariah Hatta

50, Little Rock, Japanese American

In 2008, Hatta was one of about 10 people working at the Arkansas Democratic Party headquarters when a gunman opened fire and killed Bill Gwatney, the state party chairman.

Hatta, a public affairs consultant and artist, has worked on several political campaigns, including Bill Clinton’s campaigns in 1992 and 1996. She settled down in Arkansas in 2005 after working there on a presidential campaign.

Hatta frequently gets calls from people checking in on her whenever a mass shooting occurs. That’s how she found out about the Atlanta shooting.

“People reach out to me when these things happen. Sometimes it’s worse than others. Sometimes it’s unfortunately just another shooting,” she said. “But this one is different in that workplace ones always kind of hit a little close to home. And being primarily women and then Asian women, it was just a little harder, because obviously I identify as both.”

Hatta grew up in a small town of 10,000 people in a northeastern Ohio. Her mother is White. Her father, who is Japanese, came to the United States in 1961 for college, where he met his wife.

She spent a gap year in Tokyo, where her father is from, in the 1980s. People would ask her: “Isn’t America so dangerous? Don’t people pull out guns all the time?”

Decades later, there have been so many mass shootings and so many people whose lives have been permanently altered by gun violence. But for Hatta, the Atlanta shooting impacted her on multiple levels.

There was a familiar banality of the circumstances: The victims were simply people who showed up for work that day, like herself in 2008. They were immigrants, like Hatta’s father – who came to America for new opportunities.

When Hatta found out six of the victims were of Asian descent, she thought about the fact that the thousands of verbal, physical and online attacks reported to the Stop AAPI Hate hotline since the outbreak of the pandemic have been disproportionately reported by women.

“You add a gun to the situation and Asian women are even more vulnerable. . . . Knowing people who chose to come here and made a life, and just to have something like this happen – I don’t want to say it’s worse than if it happened to someone else, but it adds so many layers as to why it hurts.”

“You see people getting attacked for being Asian, and it’s just kind of like: Where are we?”

Karen Watkins

45, Grayson, Ga., Black and Filipina

Watkins’s mother was in her 20s when she left the Philippines to attend college in the United States. She worked as a bookkeeper and lived in a studio apartment, saving money to send home to support her family.

Growing up, Watkins saw people in grocery stores mock her mother’s race and accuse her of “stealing their jobs.” She was in the back of the car when police pulled her mother over and an officer spoke to her in a demeaning way and claimed not to understand her broken English.

“These are things burned into my memories,” she said.

Yet somehow, her mother kept a smile on her face and never took it personally.

“She’s brilliant,” said Watkins, a Gwinnett County School Board member. “She’s smart. She’s financially savvy. They would – in front of her children, me and my brother, chastise her: ‘You should learn English.’ But she would take it with a smile on her face.”

The images that came to mind when Watkins first heard about the shootings were of her own mother being harassed at grocery stores.

“I saw those women and thought, ‘It could be me because I look like my mother.’ I remember those people getting mad at her in the grocery store. If they had a gun and they got frustrated, they could just shoot at her.”

A daughter of a Filipina mother and an Afro-Caribbean father, Watkins was always been enmeshed in two cultures. Nowadays, with the racial justice movement around the killings of unarmed Black men and the violence against Asian Americans, Watkins said she feels like the entirety of her identity is under attack.

“You’re killing all my people. These are my people. You’re killing us all.”

The Atlanta killings resonated on many levels, including when she saw that the sons of one of the victims are also half-Asian and half-Black, she said.

Watkins said she wasn’t shocked by the shootings. Instead, she was reminded that despite the senselessness of the tragedies, they can also galvanize minority communities to come together against violence and racism.

“What I learned from all this is, we have to, as people of color . . . stick together, because this is where we have an opportunity to help make change so that we do not get harmed,” she said. “There’s power in numbers.”

Susan Lee

70, Hercules, Calif., Chinese American

Lee, a retired college dean, is a fourth-generation American who was born and raised in San Francisco. She remembers hearing about the experiences her older relatives had with discrimination and assimilation. For example, her uncles changed their last names from Leong to Way, which is not immediately recognizable as Chinese, so they could blend in professionally. They were strategic about it, she said: Don’t make waves. Don’t make trouble.

Her dad “had lots of stories to tell us about how they were discriminated against, and they learned strategies to protect themselves and to deal with the racism that they just came to accept, in terms of treatment.”

“That generation [my parents and grandparents], really, the thinking was: Come here. Lay low. Get your education.”

Lee and her husband, a Korean American, have built their family with an eye toward making progress over the isolation and discrimination that their elder generations faced. They adopted two children from Korea and tried to make sure they always felt they belonged and were fully integrated into a diverse their community.

“As parents, we were very intentional about the decisions we made, in terms of where we were, where we lived, what schools, what friends we wanted them to grow up with,” she said about her children, who are both adults now.

But she and her husband had hoped to see more progress by now.

“I still have an elderly aunt and uncle who live in the city. We go and have dinner with them every Sunday night and it doesn’t feel safe in San Francisco, because of what’s been happening across the country,” she said. “And I have not felt unsafe like this in my lifetime. I just haven’t.”

She said she believes former President Donald Trump and his attacks on China have played an outsize role in fomenting an environment of disdain toward Asian Americans.

“I know that there’s a lot of mental health problems that we will face as a society because of covid, and I think that’s part of it [the attacks],” she said. “But I believe that Trump calling it ‘China virus’ or ‘kung flu,’ that that kind of mentality, that kind of hatred and ignorance and racism that comes from a person who’s the president of this country, trickles down.”

Lee’s reaction to the shootings in Atlanta: Shock. Sadness. And somehow familiarity, like the stories she had heard about her parents and grandparents.

“I think every immigrant’s story is similar in some ways, where they just all want the same thing,” she said. “They want to be safe. They want to have food and housing. They want their children to have an education. They want to get a house at some point. It just seems like, why can’t we make that possible?”

Snigdha Hoque

38, Fayetteville, Ga., Bangladeshi American

Several years ago, Hoque was working as a cashier at a McDonald’s when an elderly woman walked in and began berating her.

“I’m not ordering any food from you,” Hoque, who wore a hijab to her job, remembers the woman telling her. Hoque asked: Did I make a mistake? Why won’t you order with me? The woman replied: “Because you are a Muslim.”

Hoque turned red and began shaking, and her manager stepped in. Later, her manager advised her not to work the drive-through window, for fear of additional harassment, physical attacks or even a shooter.

“I was really scared,” she said.

Hoque valued customer service, remembering her regular customers’ orders and details about their lives. But sometimes male customers responded to her friendliness with unwanted advances, making crude and sexualized comments related to her ethnicity, she said.

“I took it very bravely, but on the inside, I was really really insulted,” she recalled.

She was reminded of those incidents at work when she found out about the shootings at the Atlanta-area spas.

When she heard that the suspect told police that his actions were not racially motivated and that he had a sex addiction, Hoque could not separate the violence from the sexualization: “When the women got shot, the [suspect], he just openly said that’s not racism but that’s . . . obviously happened with me,” she said, referring to the sexual and racial comments she had faced on the job.

Any of those instances she faced could have easily gotten out of hand and become violent, she thought.

Hoque arrived in the United States in 2006. She is married to a U.S. citizen and was naturalized in 2013. Although she is an American, she is constantly reminded that others don’t immediately view her as a citizen or as someone who belongs in the country, she said. And life as a service worker added another layer of invisibility, she said.

In 2016, when she was offered the job at McDonald’s, she was desperate to work anywhere because of a financial emergency in her family.

When she read about the spa workers and the families they were supporting through their work, she felt like she could relate: She could have taken a job at a spa instead of at a fast-food restaurant.

“These women went to work because they had to. It wasn’t because they could take off time and stay home. They had to go to work to support their families,” she said.

Now, Hoque works as a canvasser for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights and protections of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women.

“People think we’re submissive and we don’t really speak up. Sometimes, I was told, ‘Oh, you’re not a typical Asian woman,’ because I always spoke up.” Now, she said, she is focused on “fighting for AAPI women’s rights and so that no one else is a victim of racism and sexism.”

Julia Shyu

29, San Francisco, Taiwanese American

When Shyu found out about the shootings through her friends, she heard the gunman was targeting Asian-owned businesses. She immediately thought of her mother, who operates a hair salon on Atlanta’s Buford Highway, catering to a mostly Asian clientele. The salon is located in a strip mall about 8 miles from two of the three spas the shooter targeted.

“It made me really nervous when I found out the information because that just hits so close to home,” she said. “She works in a plaza called Pinetree Plaza. They’re all Asian-owned. He could’ve gone door to door. Real quick. It would’ve been super easy for him. It was really upsetting.”

Shyu already worried about her mother working during the pandemic. Now she worries about her even more.

“Day in and day out, they have to use their bodies to make an income and have their livelihoods be okay. And to have that threatened . . . that just seems so harsh to me.”

Shyu, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan, was born in the United States and was raised in a tightknit Taiwanese American community in Atlanta. She works as an associate director at a media agency in San Francisco.

After the shooting, she purchased pepper spray for her mom.

“I asked her, ‘Don’t you feel anxious or scared?’ And she said, ‘Julia, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to be scared all the time? What’s the point?’ It made clear to me – I underestimate the fragility of it all.”

You feel protective of your parents as children, Shyu said. But then she remembers the strength and resolve of first-generation immigrants like her parents, who left their home countries to start new lives in America.

“There are a lot of things that come easy to us but not easy to them. Then I have to remind myself that actually, they made a life here on their own, so they’re much more resilient,” she said. “My parents are much more strong than I give them credit for.”

Thao Lee and daughter Pajouablai Monica Lee

52, St. Paul, Minn. and 29, Berkeley, Calif., and Anchorage; Hmong American

Whenever Thao Lee hears about a mass shooting, she worries for her three children, who are spread out across the country from Alaska to Washington, D.C. Nowadays, with a pandemic and reports that Asians across the country are being harassed, she worries even more.

Lee is a refugee from Laos, who settled in Spokane, Wash., in 1985 at 16 years old. She and her husband gave their children both Hmong names and American names, and they have a close, huge family. Word spreads fast, especially through Lee’s mother, an avid listener of Hmong radio who calls her grandchildren individually whenever she hears of a crisis.

The day of the shooting, the multiple family text and Facebook messaging chains went into overdrive as relatives checked in on one another, sharing tips on how to stay safe and urging vigilance.

Lee’s daughter, who goes by Monica, said it felt like the shooting validated a growing fear among her family and Asian American friends.

“Leading up to the shooting, all of these anti-Asian hate incidents were happening to our elders, right. And so I think just when the shooting happened in Atlanta, it just compounded all the feelings that I think we were sort of suppressing at that time or didn’t really know how to process yet,” Monica said.

For Thao, the shooting reinforced her feeling of vulnerability during the pandemic. The shooting could have happened anywhere, she said.

“It could be me, it could be any of my children or anybody who is Asian now that because of all this going on. Even when I go to the store, I have to watch my back all the time. If I have to sneeze or cough, I really have to look around to see who is around me, what are they going to act or how are they going to look at me,” Thao said.

The Asian diaspora in America is diverse, including when it comes to socioeconomics. Hmong Americans tend to experience more poverty than many other Asian American groups.

“We all know of women who work in these sort of working jobs,” Monica said. “Being Hmong American also means that oftentimes we come from low-income working-class backgrounds.”

That includes her mother and her aunts, who took cleaning jobs at office buildings on the weekends to earn extra income for their families.

“I mean, that’s exactly what our parents do, right? Especially immigrant Asian parents who will work double time, or work two or three jobs no matter how hard it is,” Monica said, “just to make sure that their kids have better comfortable lives than they did.”

Monica said the shooting made her wonder about the support and connections society provides to those who are often overlooked, especially people who work in lower-wage jobs and have limited language capabilities.

“I always think about that like, you know, I love how these GoFundMe’s came to be. But on the flip side, it just it sucks that, like, why couldn’t we have helped these people beforehand?” Monica said. “Why were they subjected to these positions, and I guess their position in society, before the shooting happened?”

HJ Kim

35, Anchorage, Korean American

Kim moved to America from South Korea in 1999 as an eighth-grader, eventually settling in with a host family in Anchorage. After attending college in Montana, she moved back to Anchorage to start working. But after her work permit fell through, she was no longer eligible to stay in the United States.

She was in her early 20s at the time and didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket back home to Korea, she said. So she overstayed her visa.

She worked several jobs, including waitressing, and earned so little she could barely afford housing. Then she found out she was pregnant.

“When I was pregnant, I almost became homeless because I didn’t have any money and it was hard. I thought about going to homeless women’s shelter and things like that, but I didn’t want to risk myself,” she said.

Instead, she applied for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants legal status to some people who entered the country as children and are unlawfully present. Even going to the hospital during her pregnancy made her fear deportation.

But she was approved and has been renewing with the program every two years since. She now works for a government agency and raises her 5-year-old son as a single mother.

“I’ve come from basically zero to here. I am very thankful,” she said.

Kim constantly fears losing all that she worked for, including her ability to take care of her son.

“In a sense I felt like, ‘What if I was in a supermarket, or I was in the spa, and someone came in with a gun? Am I able to take care of my child if I were that person? What is going to happen to my child?’ I [read about] this one lady who had two boys. The two boys said how great of a mom she was, how she was trying really, really hard. My heart ached.”

When she saw that another victim was a Korean mother of mixed-race children, she saw in them herself and her own mixed-race son.

“I felt really bad for her sons, because my son is also half Korean, half White. And I know that her sons, both of her sons were mixed race, and I just somehow put myself into her position. What if I were her? What if my son was the one who was interviewed this interview?”

Michelle Ming

23, Brooklyn, Chinese American

Ming was born in Indiana to parents who emigrated from China and were the only ones in their families to live in the United States.

Her mother was in graduate school when she was born, so Ming was sent to live with her grandparents in China until her mother obtained her degree. Then, when Ming was 4, her father died of cancer.

“Reading a lot about the women reminded me a lot about my mom and also my grandmother, who’s still in China, but she is very much working class and has suffered through a lot just to make sure her kids were able to have a better life. And I think my mom was the same way.”

Ming was “thinking about her struggles in this country and trying to not just make enough money to support me but also dealing with so much racism and sexism along the way. I really thought of my parents in these women.”

Ming, a campaign manager for gender and worker justice at the advocacy organization Citizen Action of New York, said her first reaction to the shootings was: “Of course this happened. It was the inevitable end point.”

For months, many Asian Americans across the country had witnessed attacks and harassment spurred by the pandemic and had become increasingly anxious. Yet she still felt there wasn’t enough awareness of the xenophobia tied to the pandemic.

“I’m seeing a lot of Asian people, that this was the final wake-up call for them rather than all the hate that has gone on during the pandemic and all the racism that had gone on beforehand, [and it] finally took a shooting to get them to pay attention.”

Among the things that too many people seemed to newly learn about Asian Americans in the wake of the shooting: That there is a growing contingent of them in the South. Ming grew up in Texas and North Carolina, two states where the Asian American population has increased.

“People always forget that there are Asians in the South. There’s a level of invisibility, when in actually, there are so many Asians in places like Georgia and Texas.”

“I definitely feel like I’m still processing,” Ming said in an interview late April, more than a month and a half after the shootings. She is constantly reminded of the shootings and other violent attacks in her work, which is focused on social justice and advocacy. As the only person of Asian descent in her organization, it can feel isolating to process it alone.

“Having that constant stream of images and video of violence has made it very hard to process and hard to grieve,” Ming said. “I think it’s going to be an ongoing grieving process.”

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