Beyond statements: Four reflections on anti-Asian racism and healing in Pittsburgh

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From left to right: Samantha Huynh, Karen Enomoto, Tyler Phan and Lena Chen. (Photos by Jay Manning/PublicSource and submitted)

After the statements of solidarity are put out and calls for justice ring in the air, the feelings of grief and pain linger. 

Earlier this year, the public turned to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community after a tragic mass shooting in Atlanta and a noted increase in anti-Asian violence. 

But for this diverse community, which spans many cultures and nations, violence and racism in a time of hateful rhetoric is not new. Being stared at on a bus or feeling a personal connection to the stories of victims is an all too common experience.

At Pittsburgh’s universities, students and instructors responded with activism to call for justice and create a safe space to heal. Their work is both community-oriented and deeply personal. Here are four of their stories. 

Samantha Huynh: The experience of normalized racism

Samantha Huynh, a student leader at the University of Pittsburgh, began to see shifting behaviors toward Asian Americans as the country navigates the pandemic. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The shift was small but noticeable. 

When Samantha Huynh, a 20-year-old Cambodian American, returned to the University of Pittsburgh campus at the start of 2020, she heard people talking about the coronavirus — and always connecting it to China.

People called it a China virus. A China disease. 

“People didn’t see it being used harmfully at all,” she said. “At first, we weren’t looking at it through a racial lens, but now — how could we not?”

As the pandemic took root, so did the discomfort. Her Asian friends mentioned getting double glances or seeing people readjusting their masks near them. Huynh started getting looks when she rode the bus. 

In group chats, her friends talked about weird interactions bundled with the realization that feeling like an “other” is almost normalized and expected for marginalized people. 

“We don’t even recognize when they happen, or we just don’t feel like talking about it because we feel like it's not worth it,” she said. 

Now, more than a year into the pandemic, the country has seen an increased number of racist and biased incidents against Asian Americans. 

A national organization, Stop AAPI Hate, tracked the amount of violence and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, documenting nearly 3,800 instances in the past year. 

Weeks after the report was published, a white man in Atlanta killed eight people, including six Asian women, on March 16. The incident galvanized protests as the Asian community grieved for their loss and spoke out about the harms of prejudice they see every day.

Confronting racism, like after hearing about the violent attacks in Atlanta and especially the news of targeted violence against elderly Asian Americans, left Huynh feeling detached. 

“I don’t want to engage with it anymore, even though it is heartbreaking,” she said.

To get through the day as a student, she said she tried to avoid thinking about the attacks. When she did, she felt the hurt and sadness.

“Processing for me really happens when someone asks me to explain something, and I kind of shut down about that. And I get teary eyed about it,” Huynh said, adding that it is important to both process and confront the attacks and racism.

Huynh has found a space with the campus AQUARIUS club, one that empowers the queer Asian community. She has helped build connections with others who have similar lived experiences.

“I’ll take it upon myself to create a space with me and whoever needs it,” she said.

Lena Chen: Complicated labor of love

Lena Chen, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, has spoken up about connecting historical exclusion of Chinese immigrants to the current climate. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

When Lena Chen heard about the Atlanta shootings, it felt like everything collapsed. She had been coping with the high expectations of graduate school — the intense pace it required. But then, for days after hearing the news, she canceled meetings. She emailed her professors to say she could not go to class. 

She hung out with a friend, who is Korean, and together they ate Korean food. Chen made a Chinese dish. And they sat on her back patio, talked and journaled. 

She sees so many parallels between her story, her mother’s story and the stories of the victims in Atlanta. 

“I'm a sex worker. I’m Asian American. I'm the daughter of immigrants. I’m a trauma survivor. What happened in Atlanta touches upon various aspects of my identity,” she said. 

Some immigrants are working in dangerous environments with fear of arrest or deportation all while trying to support their families, Chen said.

Chen’s mother went to graduate school for environmental science in China, but when she moved to the United States, she took up different kinds of jobs like working in restaurants, laundromats and hotels. 

Chen is an artist with work that touches on gender, sexuality, technology and labor — though it doesn’t solely pay the bills. 

Her mother helped her pay rent and for other basic necessities, though Chen did not want to rely on her mother as she pursue's her master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

“When I came back to the states, I did start stripping, partly because I didn’t want to rely on my mother supporting me through graduate school,” she said.

Lena Chen at "Rest: A Day of Healing & Art," an event she helped put on with Sex Workers Outreach and AAPI Women of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Before the pandemic, Chen said, she could make the same amount of money stripping in one weekend compared to a month's worth of art. The connection between the labor she puts in and the sacrifices her mother made so Chen could be an artist is one she does not take for granted. 

“She could have stayed in China and become, like, an environmental scientist,” Chen said. “That's what she studied, but she chose to leave China and because she chose to leave China, I can go to school and be an artist and study gender and sexuality and make crazy art.”

When people discuss violence against Asian women, Chen said it is important to see the connection between labor and the history of violent racism in the United States. She points to the exploitation of Chinese labor in the 19th century because the workforce was considered cheap and useful, until it was not.

And she points to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit by white men who, despite Chin being Chinese, blamed Japan for the loss of American auto jobs.

“It’s a repetition of stuff that has already happened in history, like a million times. So it's not new,” she said.

To help the community heal and recover after the Atlanta shooting, Chen helped put on an event with Sex Workers Outreach and other AAPI artists called “Rest: A Day of Healing & Art.”

“It was a good opportunity for a lot of people to be in a setting where they were with community,” she said, emphasizing that there is time for protest and time to heal with activities like yoga.

“It’s important to have a balance. Sometimes the rallies, there is a lot of anger and activity, which is super necessary. But you have to also have a balance with something more calm and more soothing.”  

Tyler Phan: A family legacy

Tyler Phan and his son Ashoka in front of their home near Squirrel Hill. Phan has advocated for an Asian American studies program at Pitt. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The tension toward Asian Americans is nothing new — after all, the Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1943. But Tyler Phan felt it had heightened during the rise of Trumpism. 

In 2018, Phan was driving to drop off his son at daycare in the North Side. After waiting for a bit at a green light, he honked his horn to alert the driver in front of him to turn. 

A white man got out of his car and started punching Phan’s car window and yelling racial slurs. 

“Then the next thing I knew when I was looking forward, he aimed his pistol at me, and he was about to shoot me,” Phan said. His son, sitting in the backseat, began to flail, and the man — seeing the young boy in the back — ran back to his car and drove off. 

From small microaggressions — like white men explaining religions that Phan has extensively studied and personally lived by — to the physical threat to his safety, the 35-year-old is well aware of how he is seen. 

“The white gaze of how they perceive Asian-American men have always been subservient. We're always below white men,” Phan said. 

Phan, who is a visiting anthropology lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, speaks openly about his own experiences dealing with oppressive issues like white supremacy, racism and classism. 

Pittsburgh has several ethnic Asian communities, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai. They each navigate racism from others all while dealing with being stripped of their identities and lumped into one category — Asian. At the same time, the many universities and colleges in the city do not have a dedicated Asian American studies program, something Phan advocates for at Pitt. 

Tyler Phan and his son Ashoka at a protest against Asian hate. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Phan has had students come up and talk about how it felt to have a professor discuss code switching. In his Asian medical systems class, it is common for students to talk about how parents recommend traditional herbs. 

In March, Phan spoke up at one of the anti-Asian hate rallies in Oakland, partly as an example for his 6-year-old son, Ashoka. 

“My son has to see me stick up for his future,” Phan said. 

Advocating for change began back when Phan was 16, he said. His father, a union steward at General Electric, used to take him to union rallies. He also shared Buddhism with Phan by gifting him with a statue.

And part of the religion to stick up for others stayed with Phan. 

“You have an obligation being born into this world to help and protect others,” he said. 

And now with his son, Phan is open and honest about inequalities and being marginalized. He reckons that sugarcoating a different reality for Ashoka would be a lie. 

“I’d rather prepare him now, and he has the tools and knows how to deal with those situations now than when he's grown up and not knowing how to navigate any of these things.” 

And part of that reality is acknowledging the cross sections of his identities and his own family history. It means responding to the intergenerational trauma and asking the question: How can we actually heal? 

“I'm going to be 36 years old. I'm a single dad. I'm a professor. I come from a working class family of Vietnamese immigrants who came to this country with $1,” he said.

“I know the realities of living in this country as an Asian American.” 

Karen Enomoto: Rooted issues of anti-Asian racism

Karen Enomoto, a first-generation Asian American, has participated in advocacy work since her freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. 

As a pre-law junior, she commonly talks about making policy and politics more personal and inclusive, in and out of her classes. Part of her motivation comes from wanting to make the Asian community better informed on social causes and the root causes of discrimination.

Karen Enomoto, a junior at University of Pittsburgh, found a place in advocating for politics and personal experiences to help dismantle white supremacy. (Submitted photo)

“If we have oppression running within our circles, there can be no collective action against the bigger problems of heteropatriarchy and white supremacy,” Enomoto said, referring to issues like anti-Blackness and homophobia within Asian communities. “A lot of my work has been focused on making sure that our community is a safer place and a place that can be more productive.”

At Pitt, Enomoto helped put together workshops and panels that get at the heart of issues of xenophobia, racism and anti-Asian violence, now serving as advocacy chair of the Asian Student Alliance.

With the increased attention on hate crimes against Asian Americans, Enomoto said it is crucial that people understand how anti-Asian violence is connected to larger problems of white supremacy, classism and misogyny. But she feels the media, universities and politicians often miss those connections. 

For example, Enomoto underscores the connection between oppressive acts against the Asian American community and the history of legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted immigration from China. 

The “model minority” stereotype is also harmful because it creates a misleading image of the Asian Americans by focusing on the most well-off communities, at the expense of other minority groups.

“It ignores all the refugees that had to come here because of American imperialism and interventionism,” Enomoto said. 

It is also important to see why people have rallied together and attended protests with signs in support of the Asian community — an opportunity to hear from many different perspectives. 

Though the work can be rewarding, she sometimes has to take a step back and take time to heal. In a recent online workshop, Enomoto had a chance to decompress from the dire news about elderly Asian Americans being attacked by focusing on her own emotions. 

“I think that, for me, having that space was really good,” she said. “Allowing myself to be able to step back and kind of talk about myself in a more vulnerable way than just strictly talking policy.” 

Clarification (4/20/2021): This story has been updated to clarify Lena Chen's living expenses and the organizers she worked with for A Day of Healing and Art.

This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent.

Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at naomi@publicsource.org. 

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