In a Role Reversal, Asian-Americans Aim to Protect Their Parents From Hate

Author / VANESSA HUA 2021/4/20 16:25:30 Source:The New York Times

Earlier in the pandemic, Ellen Lee offered to bring her parents groceries, to protect them from catching the coronavirus while shopping. They refused. Now when she asks, it’s because she’s worried they might get assaulted when they’re out running errands.

“They want to be independent,” said Ms. Lee, 44, a Chinese-American journalist and mother of three. “The way they see it, they are the parent, and their job is to take care of me.”

Her parents, who are in their mid-70s, told her they’re taking precautions, going to satellite Chinatowns in San Francisco rather than the main one, and popping in and out to fetch delicacies such as egg tarts and roast duck. “They’ll turn it around on me, and say, ‘You’re the one who should be scared,’” she said, after they pointed out that her neighborhood might be unsafe because an elderly Chinese-American man was robbed and killed a few miles away from her Oakland hills home.

In the wake of recent shootings in Atlanta by a white gunman that left eight dead — six of them of Korean or Chinese descent — and surging attacks against Asian-Americans across the country, families have grappled with how to talk to their elders about protecting themselves.

Of the more than 18 million Asian-Americans in the United States, roughly three-quarters of adults were born abroad, according to William H. Frey, a demographer who is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of Michigan who analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. That’s because of both historical immigration policy and recent immigration trends.

Generational and cultural gaps make conversations about race and violence difficult with their American-born and raised children and grandchildren, who may not fluently speak the native language of their elders.

Be candid and direct, said Anni Chung, chief executive of Self-Help for the Elderly, a service provider in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “You can say: ‘I worry about you. If you have to run to the bank, will you let me know? I’ll take time off. If you go to the grocery, let me accompany you,’” she said. “Offer to help. They might not accept it, but the care and attention will please them.”

Asian-American adults may be looking out for their elders while struggling with the recent attacks themselves. Emily Chi, a 31-year-old Korean-American in Fremont, Calif., noted how quickly Asian-Americans came together after the Atlanta shootings, with online fund-raising, critical historical analysis and other efforts. But she’s also grieving. She planned to attend a vigil in Oakland focused on the victims. “Let’s make sure they aren’t erased,” Ms. Chi said. “Let’s not forget them, before we skip to action.”

In her conversations with her grandmother, aunt and mother, they all imagined a victim’s final worry: “‘What about my babies? Who will take care of them?’” Ms. Chi said. “We see their names, we see their faces, and you feel like it could be you,” she said of the Asian-Americans killed. “It could be your grandmother.”

Small-business owners may have already suffered vandalism and other crimes firsthand. “Honor the first generation’s experience with violence — if you ignore it, the conversation will end,” said June Lee, executive director of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay.

But at the same time, give them context for understanding hate crimes, especially if they’ve come from racially homogeneous countries, she said. Explain the systemic issues behind what might seem like a random killing. “They also need to know their rights,” she said. “Asians are known for their silences, but silence isn’t a virtue in this situation. We have to speak up.”

Such conversations are a fraught yet tender rite of passage that reverses the traditional parent-child dynamic; parents who want to remain independent may brush off their children’s concerns for their safety.

If the elders are hierarchical in their thinking, and prefer advice from someone they consider their equal or in a position of higher standing, adult children could consider enlisting their doctor, pastor, or someone else in the community they trust, said Lia Huynh, a San Jose therapist who specializes in Asian-American issues.

“Asian-Americans have always been told, ‘Don’t make waves; don’t speak up,’” she explained. “Now things are coming to the surface, the feelings we had to stuff down for many years. People can feel alone, wondering, ‘Am I the only one dealing with this?’”

But they are not alone. About 42 percent of Asian-Americans say that Asian people in this country face “a lot” of discrimination, according to a recent Pew survey conducted before the killings in Atlanta.

The organization Stop AAPI Hate — which began tracking violence and harassment against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States in 2020 — received reports of 3,292 cases that year; in 2021, until the Atlanta shootings, 503 cases had been reported.

In November, while out walking her dog early one morning in Oakland, Calif., Deanne Chen, a 31-year-old Taiwanese-American, was mugged at gunpoint. Her assailant, who was Black, bear-hugged her from behind, shoved her to the ground, and flashed his gun at her. After she handed over her phone, he and his accomplice drove off. In the weeks that followed, the Oakland Police Department noted an uptick in violent robberies, with suspects targeting Asian and Latino communities.

When she told her parents what happened, she emphasized that she did not want Black people to be racially profiled. “I had to explain that one bad individual doesn’t represent an entire community. I asked them, ‘Holistically, what do you think creates crime?’” Ms. Chen said.

With the latest — and continuing — attacks against Asian-Americans, she added, “I don’t want this to be an opportunity for Blacks and Asians to get pitted against each other.”

She’s shared practical safety tips with her parents, telling them to remain vigilant when getting in and out of their car or unloading groceries. They’ll mention how their friends say they should watch out for each other and how their friends say they’re scared to go shopping. Her parents “don’t talk about their feelings, but will talk about everyone else’s. Which is a very Asian thing,” Ms. Chen said. “I know the fear is there.”

And yet, her mother also surprised her, calling the police in Atlanta “incompetent” and stating that their “racial bias” made everything worse for the victims. “I didn’t realize my mom was so woke!” Ms. Chen said with a laugh.

However, her parents would never admit that she might have influenced their opinion. “The trick is making them think it was their idea,” she said. “If you have the conversation in small, different ways, over time they start to read the news through the lens you provide them, and they come to their own conclusion.”

Ask a lot of questions, suggests Ener Chiu, of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation. “Ask them how they feel, and what we can do to help them feel safe.”

As more seniors get vaccinated, he encourages them to gather in groups again, whether in parks, recreation centers, or elsewhere, and in time, become “actively engaged” in their community. “People won’t feel so isolated, carrying their pepper spray, ‘you against the world,’” Mr. Chiu said.

Recent events have galvanized some older Asian-Americans such as Ms. Lee’s parents, the ones who insisted on going grocery shopping.

Usually, her father texts her photos of wild turkeys and deer wandering the streets of their retirement community in the suburbs east of San Francisco. The other day, though, he sent a picture from a neighborhood protest, with her mother holding up a cardboard sign, “Stop Asian Hate.”

“Up until now, my parents have not felt heard except in ethnic media,” Ms. Lee said. “They complain, but they wonder who is listening. Now there’s a groundswell of energy, not only from other Asian-Americans, but allies, too.”