I follow a couple of online media outlets to keep up with Asian American-specific news. This year, I noticed a strange pattern. At the very beginning of 2017, I was surprised to see violence against an 83-year-old Asian woman on my newsfeed. Strange that anyone would hurt an elderly woman, and an Asian/Asian American one at that. Let’s be real, it’s the ultimate combination of some of the most harmless social identities a person could have. Still, I waved it off as a one-time incident because whether it was racially motivated or not, this was still an elderly person. I doubted it would happen again.
But then just within a couple of days, I saw news of a 60-year-old Asian grandfather shot to death while playing Pokemon Go. As an Asian American Studies minor, I’m no stranger to hate crimes and violence against Asians in the United States. But two elderly Asian people in one week? Bizarre. Coincidences happen, I brushed it off again.
Several months passed and today I scroll down my newsfeed to see the United Airlines incident, also with an Asian American elder, and this time, something specific stopped me. After being injured and dragged off the plane, he still said repeatedly: “I have to go home.” I recognized something in this situation and it hurt. The man adamantly refused to leave the plane because he was a doctor and had to be at the hospital the next day for his patients. That’s when it hit me: this is the same type of work ethic my mother has, that I have. Perhaps from the outside looking in, to people who grew up with a different cultural background, this may seem a little extreme. But it makes perfect sense to me why he refused to leave the plane and miss work.
I’ve seen my mother go to work while trying to out-strength her minor illnesses. One time, her coworkers had to convince her to go home to get some rest because she was having a really bad cold. For some people, it’s common sense to just stay at home, but I know my mother and I know the immigrant work ethic. No cold is going to keep her in bed.
And then I thought of myself, how I blacked out momentarily my first year of college and had to be walked to the on-campus clinic by a kind classmate. After they took my vitals, I sat on that crinkly doctor’s-office-paper waiting for the physician to come back and explain stuff to me, anxious. I was going to be late for class. I even told him- that I felt fine and it’s no big deal and I needed to go before I miss too much of class. And then he told me I was anemic. I don’t know what was going through my mind, but I asked, “Are you sure?” And he responded with: “Yep. You’re not just anemic, you’re super anemic.” So I stayed.
I could relate to the man because I know what it’s like to be in that place- regardless of the situation, if I have a duty, that’s the only thing on my mind. I’m blinded to everything else. I could only imagine he wasn’t taking the time to consider how unsympathetic airport security can be sometimes, or that it was ultimately safer for him just to comply; all he could think of was going home and being there at the hospital the next day.
Taking into consideration the other two incidents, I was hit with a new understanding: this pattern of violence against elderly Asian Americans isn’t random, it’s structural.
I remembered all the times I’d heard stories about other people in the Asian American community (I’m just gonna say Asian American because regardless of how Asian people identify, we are still in America and this is context specific) being robbed, threatened, or assaulted. Rarely did they report it to the authorities. There are a number of reasons for this, but a particularly important one is: first-generation Asian immigrants fear interacting with the police because of the language barrier. For them, it’s less trouble to just drop the issue than figure out how to navigate law, protocol, paperwork, etc. all in English. There’s also a fear that attempting to get involved in all that would end up in miscommunication and even more trouble.
It’s been a while since I’ve had to think about this, but my family was always much more afraid of police than comforted by their presence. But in a different way than other people of color fear them.
A while ago, I saw some discourse on the dangers of playing Pokemon Go while Black (as well as other marginalized identities stereotyped as “suspicious” or “dangerous”), but didn’t think much about Asian Americans being affected by this. Because when I picture Asian Americans, I picture young people. Young, 2nd+ generation Asian Americans.
All the while, forgetting how difficult it still is for my mother to navigate certain spaces, regardless of the fact that we’ve been citizens for almost two decades now. Which brings me back to authority. Whether it’s at the DMV or the airport, I get anxious for my mother because I know that there’s certain jargon she won’t pick up on. Or maybe she’ll mishear something. The point is, it’s not always a smooth experience. My mother can navigate by herself, don’t get me wrong, she’s been doing it for years. But that flittering panic always rises in me when I can hear something lost in translation (before I rush in and mediate).
Why the panic? Because I’ve seen what happens when people are impatient with Asian immigrants.
While all immigrants face a significant amount of disadvantage in the United States, Asian immigrants’ experiences are further shaped by the perpetual foreigner stereotype. As in, we are constantly viewed as “the other.” Not necessarily dangerous, but unfamiliar enough to make people uncomfortable. Along with the perception that Asian people are “mysterious” and “nobody knows how they work,” is the stereotype of the bumbling foreigner, always confused and out of their element. So how does this relate back to violence?
I’ve seen first-hand lots of people getting aggravated at Asian immigrants for not knowing American customs, not getting stuff right away, not being assimilated enough. Only usually we don’t fight back/challenge authority (for good reason). But what happens when we do? What happens when nationalist sentiments or ethnocentric views are challenged? This is where I fear it can get dangerous for a lot of 1st gen Asian Americans. In the same way that some people respond to non-English speakers by talking louder and more aggressively or patronizingly, they can also respond to unexpected resistance from the bumbling foreigners who “just can’t seem to get it” with fear or anger-driven violence. Those xenophobic feelings are intensified, and so are the spiteful responses whether via cruel words or actions. This is what I meant by structural and not just random incidents.
Now when I think back to Pokemon Go and who’s at risk of harm while playing it, I never thought I’d have to, but right next to young Black and Brown people, I might have to add the image of an Asian grandfather with limited English, one who only wanted to bond with his grandchildren through the game.
I’ve also been reflecting on my mother, my grandparents, and other relatives who may not have the strongest grasp on American language and life. When I think about the way they have (or have not) interacted with authority, it doesn’t feel too good. Outside of their protective immigrant bubbles, they’re still subject to racism, ageism, xenophobia, and the like.
For the first time, I’m beginning to see how a lack of cultural competency can be dangerous. And I’m not talking about on the part of the man who was hurt and dragged by airport security. It is not he who has the power, and it is not he who has the responsibility to become more culturally competent while wielding that power.
Let’s put this into another context. I don’t know how many people know this, but a large number of Black people killed by police also have mental illnesses. I can’t find a source that links the two specifically yet, but if you just scroll through this brief document one of my friends created and graciously let me use, you’d be surprised how many times descriptions of mental illness/disability* come up for the victims.
*There’s a statistical correlation between schizophrenia and homelessness, so that’s another layer to consider
Here are two more sources for anyone who wants to delve deeper:
- From Ferguson to Baton Rouge: Deaths of black men and women at the hands of police
- Here’s A Timeline Of Unarmed Black People Killed By Police Over Past Year (2015)
When the police (or other authority figures with physical power over people) don’t know how to respond to mentally ill people, especially if they’re having an episode, they could kill them. And as we’ve seen over and over again, they do.
Through this lens of authority figures being ill-equipped to interact with populations they don’t know well enough, I’m beginning to explore the idea that cultural incompetency could be harmful, too. Personally, I count not knowing how to respond to people with mental illnesses as cultural incompetency, but the point is it stems from a lack of knowledge. Ignorance is dangerous. Ignorance is behind the racism that takes Black lives, the transphobia that takes Trans lives, and a whole host of other acts of violence against numerous marginalized groups of people.
Although each group faces their own unique challenges, harm is harm.*
Whether it’s an inability to properly care for/respond to people with mental illnesses or an inability/lack of willingness to understand older or first-generation Asian American immigrants, being in a position of power, combined with not knowing how to respond to a particular group of people, makes life harder if not more dangerous for a lot of marginalized groups.
Though it’s only been a couple of incidents and too early to really say anything concrete, I’ll be watching out for this, in hopes that I am wrong about this pattern of violence against older Asian American immigrants.