For Asian and Asian American families around the country, the pandemic had already dramatically reoriented their relationship. For some, it drew them in greater proximity to each other. For others, they were kept apart, left fearing for one another’s safety.
Then, in the middle of an alarming surge in hate incidents targeting Asians, particularly women and the elderly, came a deadly Tuesday in March when eight people, including six Asian women — Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue — were killed in an Atlanta-area mass shooting.
Their killings triggered a wave of grief across Asian communities in the United States. Many Asian Americans warned that the signs were always there, that the hate and the racism were nothing new.
But what felt new, for some Asian Americans, was the way their relationships with their parents had shifted as a result of the spike in violence, which has further highlighted their shared vulnerability. We spoke to several Asian American women about the impact the Atlanta-area attacks, in particular, had on their relationships with their mothers.
Each said they could see themselves — and their mothers — in the women who were killed. Some heard their parents say they felt unsafe for the first time in their lives. For others, it sparked new conversations and revelations about how anti-Asian racism has shaped their lives. In their collective grief, these women say these interactions have allowed them to see each other — their struggles, their defenses, their pain, their fierce desire to protect one another — more clearly than ever.
At 10 every night, Naomi Williams texts her mother, a 79-year-old Japanese American immigrant, now living alone in San Francisco. Williams says her mother is “hearty and hale,” a woman who, as far as she can remember, has never once been to the hospital.
“I would describe her as a person who is very impatient with other people’s anxieties.”
But on March 16, the night a gunman embarked on a bloody rampage at three Asian-owned massage businesses, Williams’s mom expressed something she’d never said in the 50 years she’s lived in the United States: She felt unsafe.
A couple days later, Williams’s mother texted her a selfie holding a telescope-style walking stick. She carried it “so she’d feel safer walking around the city.”
Her mom was inspired by 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie, herself the target of a violent attack at a bustling intersection in San Francisco, just one day after the Atlanta-area attack. A viral video of Xie showed her with two swollen black eyes, gripping a wooden board she used to defend herself against her assailant.
Williams herself had taken to carrying a stick when she left the house — a three-foot-long bamboo stick her youngest son had used for martial arts classes.
Still, the image of her mother arming herself, in whatever way she could, was heartbreaking, said Williams.
“There’s not a lot we can do to be with her or help her,” because the family has been social distancing during the pandemic, Williams said. “Plus, she doesn’t particularly want my help.”
Her mother’s earliest memories were shaped by the end of World War II in Japan, Williams said: bombings, cities on fire, the deep poverty that followed the war’s end. Williams believes these experiences helped shape her mother’s expertise at “gaman,” a Japanese phrase describing the ability to endure.
The Sunday after the attacks, Williams sought solace by tuning in to a virtual service at an episcopal church she had been trying out recently. Williams describes it as a “very White space.” The pastor did not mention the attacks in her sermon, typically written to reflect what’s happening in the country or the community.
Had Williams not written down the names of the victims in the comments section during a call for prayers, there would have been no recognition of the attack at all.
She says she can’t expect her White husband or two adult sons to really understand how she feels, “and they definitely don’t.”
With her slight build and light gray hair, Williams, who is biracial, has more in common with others who many who have been recently attacked: Asian, older, female.
At a time when she feels “wrung out and hopeless,” Williams is grateful to have her mom to check in with.
“She’s the only person I talk to at all with whom I have that particular kind of identification of being an older Asian woman feeling unsafe in the world.”
It’s a ritual Anita Ramaswamy and her parents have shared for years: sitting around their dinner table, poring over the newspaper — either the Arizona Republic or the Wall Street Journal — discussing the day’s events with one another.
Because of the pandemic, Ramaswamy, an Indian American investment banker turned freelance writer, returned to Scottsdale from New York City to stay with her parents for the last few months, where they happily fell back into their mealtime routine. As the weeks wore on, they began noticing more and more stories about attacks against Asians and Asian Americans.
Ramaswamy is outspoken, a trait she gets from her dad, she said. The two of them would get worked up over the news, ultimately getting frustrated over how powerless they felt.
Her mom, on the other hand, was more reserved, she said.
“She’s always observing, always studying,” said Ramaswamy. “But she won’t often share what she’s feeling.”
Then the Atlanta-area attacks happened — news that Ramaswamy delivered to her mom.
“It was just shock and horror,” Ramaswamy said. “We were all just imagining ourselves in that situation, just going to work on a normal day. … It was almost easy to see ourselves in those shoes.”
When George Floyd was killed last summer, Ramaswamy was acutely aware of how her neighbors reacted as the country erupted with calls for social justice. She recalled a person who said on the app Nextdoor that he would stand outside his house with an AK-47, ready to shoot any protesters who entered her parents’ gated community. It was the first time she says she ever felt physically unsafe in her neighborhood.
The spike in hate incidents against Asian Americans have sparked deeper conversations between Ramaswamy and her mother about assimilation, safety, solidarity and the ways they’ve perceived their place in this country.
She’s asked her mom, for instance, why they didn’t teach her how to write in Tamil as a child.
They were just trying to fit in among their mostly White, conservative neighbors, she said her mom explained to her.
“Their whole outlook was, ‘Let’s assimilate at all costs,’” Ramaswamy said. “We don’t really want to draw too much attention to ourselves.”
After the attacks in Atlanta, Ramaswamy says her mom is more willing to talk about subtle and overt forms of racism. Before, microaggressions like someone asking her to repeat her name, over and over again, were simply what she expected as an Indian immigrant.
It has been a scary and turbulent time, but Ramaswamy is glad, at least, that she could weather it alongside her family, in particular her mother.
“I’m getting to know her, all of these dimensions of her that I didn’t even know existed.”
Pawleys Island, S.C.
Lorraine Chow first noticed a change in her mother when then-President Donald Trump called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.”
Chow’s mother had never before voted in a U.S. presidential election. Living in California, she didn’t believe her vote counted for much, Chow explained. None of her mom’s friends were politically engaged.
But Trump’s rhetoric set off Chow’s mother, who immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 18. She began posting more on Facebook and WhatsApp, enough that Chow teased her about becoming an Internet troll. Last year, her mother voted for the first time — against Trump.
But as his rhetoric spread across the country, Chow and her mom, who lives in a majority-Chinese community in Alhambra, Calif., shared a growing rage at how they were being scapegoated.
The Atlanta-area attacks marked a tipping point.
“I’ve never thought so much about being Asian in my whole life,” said Chow.
“I’ve been going through all the stages of grief, because this whole event has been so triggering. And it’s brought up a lot of things that I repressed that have happened.”
Chow and her mom try to call each other every Sunday. But after the attacks, Chow felt despondent and anxious before their call. They didn’t talk about race often and tended to avoid painful subjects, Chow said. She doubted they had the shared vocabulary to talk about it on a deeper level.
The question — how did her mom feel about the attacks? — just kind of “fell out.”
Her mom responded that she was scared. And then, that she felt powerless.
Chow quickly changed the subject. It was too much for her — her mom is the type of person who is reliable, gets things done, who exudes capability and control. It was unlike her to say she felt helpless.
After the call, Chow had a plan of action. She was going to fight back.
She learned that her congressman, Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.), was going to be in town to meet constituents. Chow recalled how when Rice had contracted the coronavirus, he referred to it as “the Wuhan flu.”
She was going to write an angry letter to him, maybe publish it in the local newspaper. Her mostly White community needed to hear from an Asian American voice.
In the weeks since the attacks, Chow sent her mom an article addressed to heartbroken Asian women; her mom bought pepper spray off Amazon to help keep safe.
Chow has not sent Rice her letter yet. She wants to do the subject justice, and she wants to set a good example for others, including her mother.
“I’m really encouraged by her voting. She did that because she wanted to make a difference,” Chow said. “I really hope that she realizes that she has a voice, too.”
They were supposed to feel safe among themselves, in places run by Asians, serving primarily Asians: the market, the boba tea spot, the church, the spa.
One night in Georgia shattered that belief for Laura Sirikul’s family.
“We aren’t safe anywhere,” Sirikul’s mother told her when she heard about the attacks.
Her family had already been on edge for weeks before the shootings. A Thai American researcher and writer, Sirikul said that the February killing of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai man who was shoved violently to the ground during his morning walk in San Francisco, had stunned her friends and family.
WhatsApp chats with relatives overseas lit up her cellphone with news of that attack, and the ones that followed.
Sirikul could map the heartbreak in her mother’s voice, in her expressions, as she responded to killings of six Asian women in the Atlanta area. She refrained from sharing details about the slain women’s families. Sirikul feared it would be too much; that her mom, like her, would feel broken thinking about the children who would never see their mothers again.
Growing up, Sirikul said, her mom — “the most gentle person you’ll ever know” — talked about racism like it was just a fact of American life.
“Everybody’s racist,” her mom would say, as a way to shrug off the comments thrown at her and Sirikul’s father. They ignored it and urged her to do the same. The important thing, they told her, was to keep working hard, to be successful, to help your family.
Her mom appeared bewildered by the microaggressions Sirikul experienced, she says. Like the passerby who called out “Konichiwa!” to her on the sidewalk, or the man who bluntly asked her, “What are you?”
Sirikul said her mom would advise her: “Just tell them you’re Thai, you’re proud.”
Sirikul hasn’t shared the worst of the harassment she’s experienced — the lewd, misogynistic and racist comments men would make toward her.
She wants to feel normal again. She wants her group texts to stop pinging with video clips and news articles of the latest anti-Asian attack. She wants her mom to be able to enjoy her walks around the neighborhood and feel comfortable leaving her home again.
Her mom has never explicitly said that she fears for herself. She instead expresses concern for her children, the victims of the attacks and her grandson, just a year and a half old.
“You have a son now,” Sirikul’s mom tells her. She must be there to protect him.
It’s clear to Sirikul why her parents shrugged off the injustices they experienced. They still believed in the good of this country; they believed their work ethic could protect them. Most of all, they wanted to protect their children, Sirikul says.
Sirikul tries to conceal her rage around her son, even though she can feel it “eating inside me.”
“He doesn’t understand what’s going on, but he does understand when mommy cries,” she said. “I have to hold it all in.”