Olivia Wong’s voice shook as she spoke to a crowd of 100 gathered on a chilly April day in Mineola to honor hate crime victims.
“Let us share our experiences, lean on each other and stand as a community,” said Wong, 17, of New Hyde Park. “A single candle can [light] one person, but 1,000 can light a path for everyone. I implore you to be the spark that changes the narrative for us all.”
Her grandmother, Dorothy Lin, 73, was in the crowd. She grew up in Malaysia and immigrated to the United States in 1970. Lin, of New Hyde Park, recalled thinking, “We used to keep quiet and go to our little corners, but not now — because of the younger generation.”
The galvanizing moments, like the one in Mineola, emerged soon after reports of physical assaults and verbal harassments — many of which captured on video — targeting Asian Americans became public. Some advocates and experts have tied the rise in anti-Asian crime to geopolitical tensions and the rhetoric of elected officials, including former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”
With the uptick in violence came an awakening for a younger generation. Many said they felt compelled to act. So they marched in their communities. Some learned their family history as well as that of Asian Americans. Others raised funds to channel their anger and frustration into something they saw as more productive.
“It’s an awakening and a call to action,” said Alex Mak, 21, of Harlem, who graduated from Stony Brook University in May. “This has been a transformative moment for myself, my peers and the Asian American community.”
Reports of hate incidents soared to more than 6,600 nationally from March 2020 to March 2021, according to data from STOP AAPI HATE, a coalition that collects self-reported incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Over the same time span, 26 instances were reported in Nassau County and 10 in Suffolk, mainly verbal harassments directed at women of East Asian heritage.
The surge of violence unleashed a renewed search for visibility in a community that long had felt unseen in a country it calls home. From mid-March to May, #stopAsianhate rallies and panels were held weekly on Long Island, where the population of those of Asian descent has doubled to more than 200,000 since 2000. They are the fastest-growing racial group in the country, as well as on the Island, according to census data and the Pew Research Center.
For teens and young adults in particular, this moment has led them to reexamine their identity and how that intersects with their place in America. Some described a painful process informed by their experience of being perceived as the “perpetual foreigner” (facing questions like where they come from) or “model minority” (seen as hardworking overachievers who accomplish the American dream).
Newsday spoke to six Asian Americans of East and Southeast Asian descent about their participation in youth activism in recent months, as well as decades ago.
Olivia Wong, 17, New Hyde Park
Until this year, Wong, a Chinese American, didn’t know who Vincent Chin was.
Wong came across Chin’s name when researching an editorial for her school newspaper, The Chariot, at New Hyde Park Memorial High School. She was appalled to read that the Chinese American man was bludgeoned to death in 1982 by a Chrysler plant supervisor and a laid-off autoworker in Detroit. They mistook the 27-year-old groom-to-be for Japanese and blamed him for the decline of American auto jobs.
Wong also learned about pioneering Asian Americans such as Corky Lee, who photographed the protests that erupted after Chin’s killers were sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $3,000. Lee died of COVID-19 in January.
It “opened my eyes to knowing history and knowing the impact that Asian Americans have had,” said Wong, a senior who is graduating Sunday and will attend Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. “We don’t see their representation in the media or historical figures that look like us.”
‘My generation, my peers, we have the power to change.’
A comment from Daniel Dae Kim, an actor known for his role in the television drama “Lost,” has stayed with her. Kim said: “We are 23 million strong. We are united. And we are waking up,” referring to the total Asian population in the United States.
“I think it spoke to me because we are just getting started,” Wong said. “A big part of the ‘we are waking up’ quote is that this generation, my generation, my peers, we have the power to change.”
Alex Mak, 21, Harlem
Mak panicked when his mother told him that someone had yelled “go back to your country” when she rode a city bus in February.
The then-Stony Brook University senior wanted to drive home to Harlem. His mother told him to stay on campus.
Mak, whose mother is Japanese and father Chinese, was hurt that she was verbally abused by a stranger and told to leave the country where she raised four children.
Mak said the sadness and anger he felt were compounded by news reports of senior citizens and women attacked in public. His 92-year-old grandmother, he said, feared going outside. His own sense of isolation and loneliness grew.
‘It still feels as if the world is falling apart.’
“I’m in a community full of amazing people,” he said of the campus. “It still feels as if the world is falling apart.”
In April, Mak and others at the Japanese Student Organization held a unity walk across campus. When he addressed the crowd of about 50, Mak scanned the many faces he didn’t know.
“These people, they are on my side,” he said. “If push comes to shove, I know we would come together. … We can come together when it matters.”
It made him feel less alone.
“It’s almost like restoring faith in humanity,” said Mak, who plans to go to Japan in September to teach elementary schoolchildren English for a year through the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. “It was something that truly touched my heart. I was in a moment of awe. I was at a loss for words.”
Joan Miyazaki, 70, Stony Brook
Miyazaki, whose mother was sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Arizona during World War II, recalled members of her parents’ generation who said “the very minimal” about their incarceration.
During the war, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were incarcerated for up to four years.
“Most Japanese Americans would tell you that we tended to lay low,” said Miyazaki, who grew up in a post-WWII era in New York. “We just tried to sit in as much as possible rather than expressing our identify”
In the late 1970s, Miyazaki saw a Japanese troupe’s performance of Taiko drumming, and it shed light on how she viewed her own identity.
“I looked at it and thought this belonged to me,” she recalled. “It made me really proud of my Japanese heritage because it was cool. To my eyes, it was better than rock and roll.”
‘The only way we are going to get around the worst of these problems is to get people to understand each other and see each other as human beings.’
Miyazaki participated in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations when she was a student at New York University in the late 1960s and later founded the Taiko Tides club, a Japanese traditional drumming group for students, at Stony Brook University, where she was a biology professor.
“The only way we are going to get around the worst of these problems is to get people to understand each other and see each other as human beings,” she said.
Eri Kim, 24, Manhasset
Kim laughed at the results of a survey that asked Americans to name prominent Asian Americans.
The top three answers were “don’t know” (42%), Jackie Chan (11%) and Bruce Lee (9%). Chan is a Chinese actor from Hong Kong. Lee, the martial arts legend and actor, died in 1973.
The answers in the survey conducted earlier this year of 2,766 U.S. adults by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change didn’t surprise Kim. But she was dismayed.
‘Surely there has to be more room for our story other than that of Kung Fu masters.’
“Surely there has to be more room for our story other than that of Kung Fu masters,” said Kim, who is of Korean descent.
The survey reminded Kim of the invisibility of Asian Americans. In television shows, movies and other media, she said she rarely saw herself in the characters other than being a sidekick or a nerd.
“When I was very young, I didn’t think that being Asian was cool,” Kim said. “Because it’s not seen as something cool or desirable. It makes an Asian American person want to distance themselves from that part of who they are.”
It was a process she had grappled with and what prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in East Asian Studies at New York University. She also works for the Korean American Association of Greater New York.
Kim had attended several vigils and rallies condemning attacks against Asians in Flushing and Nassau. She said feeling the presence of others with a shared goal has brought her relief. She was glad to know families were not bearing their trauma alone. Despite the activism, Kim said she felt ambivalent over its impact.
“While I feel a lot of optimism, I’m still feeling pessimistic that it will lead to long-term change in the way Asian Americans are seen,” Kim said.
Kaitlyn Thitibordin, 17, Jericho
When Thitibordin, a senior at Jericho High School who graduated earlier this month, visited New York City with her friends before the pandemic, she said they’d get catcalled.
A few times, men shouted: “Me love you long time,” a line from “Full Metal Jacket,” a 1987 Stanley Kubrick film about the Vietnam War.
The teenagers were upset but feared confrontation, so they brushed it off, Thitibordin recalled.
Then in March, she learned that a man shot eight people in three Asian spas in Atlanta area. Six of the victims were Asian women. The gunman, who said to authorities that he had a “sex addiction,” was indicted on murder charges in May.
“It makes me think of my mom,” said Thitibordin, who is of Thai descent. “It’s not doing any of these women, like my mom or like the lives lost in Atlanta, any justice to the heart they put in the work or the heart they had in working for their family to reduce them into a fetish.”
‘It’s important to change the narrative.’
In April 2020, Thitibordin and a few others created Project Angel Island, named after the immigration station in San Francisco that served as a port on the West Coast from 1910 to 1940.
The group began as a COVID-19 relief project but evolved to become a platform for members to write blog posts on its website and create educational infographics on Instagram. They cover topics from lack of Asian American representation in school curricula to anti-Semitism.
To Thitibordin, change begins with education and telling the stories of people of color.
“It’s important to change the narrative,” she said.
Frank Shih, 69, Setauket
Decades ago, Shih joined the pickets outside the Confucius Plaza construction site in Manhattan’s Chinatown to demand an Elmont contractor hire more Chinese American workers.
It was 1974 and Shih had just graduated from Greenville University, then Greenville College, in Illinois. One time, he said he and other young activists who climbed over the fence were arrested.
That weekslong protest marked the birth of Asian Americans for Equality, a New York City-based organization whose founders included City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.
“That was a big moment for many of us,” said Shih, noting that many activists took inspiration from the civil rights movement.
Shih, who immigrated to the United States from Singapore with his parents when he was 8, said reading the works of Malcolm X helped him understand his own identity.
“It made me aware of the fact that you can be successful, but you are still not seen as Americans,” Shih said.
Shih said he since has seen more political engagement and a growing Asian population, as well as the number of Asian role models. He believes the moment represents a “greater opportunity” for change.
‘The current crisis is very transformative and has awakened a large group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have paid attention.’
“I think the current crisis is very transformative and has awakened a large group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have paid attention,” said Shih, a retired college administrator who teaches part time at Stony Brook University.
While history may appear cyclical, “Every cycle is different from the last cycle,” Shih said. “But it’s spiraling in a good way.”
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