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For Asians Living in the Shadow of the Atlanta Killings, Anger and ‘Just This Constant Fear’

15 minute read

Jingbo Shan, 32, was working.

Shan is almost always working, taking calls from customers wanting to book the neck and back or foot massage combo, or the Ponce Feet spa’s $120 couple’s massage. He makes sure the massage rooms are clean and stocked, that the right calming soundtrack of woodwinds and nature sounds is playing softly, and he handles the taxes, the schedules and just about anything else needed. But on Tuesday evening, not long after 5 p.m., Shan’s mother was on the phone with an order, not a request.

Lock the door. Lock the door right now, she said, an unexpected command at a business trying to recover the 30 to 40 percent of sales lost during the pandemic. There had been a shooting, she explained, at an Asian-owned spa outside Atlanta. The gunman was on the loose.

As the evening wore on, the calls from friends and employees started. Was Shan OK? Should workers on the schedule for tomorrow come in? Was it safe? That and news coverage are how Shan learned that more spas—two that are just a nine-minute drive from Ponce and not far from the family’s second spa—had also been attacked and a total of eight people killed. Six of the dead were, like Shan, Asian.

In Atlanta, a massive metroplex where little beyond the traffic report draws the attention of everyone, there is fear, frustration and anger about a white gunman’s decision to enter three Asian-owned spas and open fire. The alleged gunman is in custody, but the sense that the danger remains and that the public and even the law enforcement response to it has been less than robust is not hard to find. Instead, what Asian Americans living in the area described in the immediate aftermath of the murders is a sense that the growing anti-Asian hate crime around the country has not suddenly visited Atlanta but has become so violent and come so close as to be personal, and terrifying. There’s a sense among many that it’s hunting season, and they are the prey.

Read more: The Atlanta Shootings Fit Into a Long Legacy of Anti-Asian Violence in America

“I don’t really know [them],” Shan tells me of the people working at the two Atlanta spas, Gold and Aromatherapy, that were attacked shortly after Young’s Asian Massage spa was targeted outside of the city. The Atlanta stores were owned and staffed by Koreans, Shan says matter-of-factly before what sounds like sadness sets in. “I feel sorry for their families. It’s just their American dream just gone, you know, just shot.”

I wasn’t sure if Shan was speaking metaphorically about destroyed dreams or actual gun shots. Then he mentions the state of U.S. gun control. A woman working as a massage therapist for Shan had already told him that a customer brought a loaded gun into one of the massage rooms not long ago. The woman had no idea the man was armed until the man decided to check the gun in his bag after his massage.

As Shan and I talk, customers arrive and customers go. Some stop at the front desk to pay before leaving. A Black woman in white clogs is meeting a friend and wants the sugar foot scrub. Another Black woman in a red sweater and black ballet slippers needs to pay and thanks Shan. She’s feeling so relaxed after her massage, her smile is almost detectable behind a black and white cloth mask. Later, a white man in jeans, a long sleeved-button down shirt and flip flops arrives for a massage appointment.

No one, not even the white woman who arrives later looking for security camera footage that may have captured an accident outside the store involving her teenage son, mentions the shootings. It’s as if this immaculately clean lobby with modern stuffed brown chairs and the faint scent of vanilla in the air is another world, separate from the one outside.

I feel sorry for their families. It's just their American dream just gone, you know, just shot.

But for Shan, the sense of surrounding danger and growing risk here is real. In fact, when Shan told his mother, 64, he would be speaking with me Thursday morning, she had a revelation of her own, something she’d kept to herself for some time.

Last year, she was standing in a long line at a local Bank of America, she told Shan. The man in front of her had been speaking loudly on his cell phone for so long that she tapped him on the arm and motioned for him to please lower his voice. It was a request. The man turned and verbally pounced. “‘Go back to China, you guys are virus, go away.’”

Shan recounts the worst bits and pieces from the experience he’d only learned about that morning. It’s all part of a pattern, things happening around the country and even in his own family that have contributed to Shan’s feeling that something in has changed, shifted in recent years from mostly nice to often nasty.

Maybe it’s the pandemic, Shan says. Maybe it’s the politics.

Read more: ‘I Will Not Stand Silent.’ Asian-Americans Reflect on Racism During the Pandemic

When Shan first arrived in Georgia at 16, he was joining his parents, who had come to the United States from China five years earlier and who had initially settled in South Dakota. There in the icy midwest, Shan’s mother, a public health worker in China, had an opportunity to get a master’s degree. Shan stayed behind and lived with grandparents until his mother completed her program and his parents moved to Atlanta. Shan’s father, a surgeon in China, learned from a friend about the spa business and decided to open one with his wife. It’s one of the types of businesses, along with restaurants, that Asian immigrants in the U.S. often have the level of connections and resources necessary to open, Shan tells me.

Back then, there were lots of changes, things for Shan to get used to. His classmates and most of the people Shan encountered were nice. He graduated from Georgia State University with a double major in computer science and biology. Some of his American classmates moved to San Francisco and founded small tech firms when they graduated, but Shan stayed behind.

His parents were aging and his father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Shan ultimately started working in the family business. And this week, even in the midst of so much that was awful, there were glimpses of the Georgia he’d first known. On Wednesday, a customer sent Shan flowers and a hand written thank you card to say how sorry she was about the shootings, how much Shan and the spa’s workers had been in her thoughts.

March In Solidarity With Asian Community Held In Atlanta, After Tuesday Night's Massage Parlor Killings
A woman kneels at a memorial outside the Gold Spa in Atlanta on March 18, one of three spas attacked by a gunman who killed eight the previous dayMegan Varner—Getty Images

“I was lucky,” Shan says about the time when he arrived in the United States. He still feels that way now, when he thinks about some of his nicer customers.

A Sense of Growing Anger at Asians

But there’s also a sense that more people are rude, they are angry, particularly at Asians, Shan explains. So many things have happened to Asians in other cities—older Asian people pushed over, punched and killed—growing levels of what Shan considers hate speech and now, the incident with his mom in the bank and the shootings.

Dong Whi Yoo didn’t know anybody working at Gold Spa or Aromatherapy Spa either, but he’s also come to pay his respects.

Yoo steps out of his white Acura SUV and lifts the door of the back cargo hold, revealing a brown paper Whole Foods bag toppled on its side and filled with flowers. Yoo, dressed in all black, removes a fresh bunch and walks to the make-shift memorial growing against the crumbling white brick wall in front of Gold Spa. He places the flowers among others and stands for a few moments, head down, in silence, hands clasped in front of his body.

Others have come here before him and left behind the objects and signs of memorial too. On the path leading to the building’s front door, someone has arranged alternating pairs of small votive candles and veladoras—taller candles in glass jars with images of Jesus on their sides. The building has the feel of a place where all human activity ceased so quickly you can almost sense something or someone is missing.

Yoo snaps a picture of the memorial.

“I’d like to believe this is the U.S.,” Yoo tells me, motioning to the memorial and the empathetic messages left at it, some by strangers and others by people whose notes imply they were customers or knew the victims. “This picture that I took today is the memory that I would like to bring to my home country.”

Yoo is a South Korean earning his PhD at Georgia Tech in human-centered computing, a branch of computer science concerned less with the mechanical performance of computers than making technology responsive, ethical and useful to human beings. That blend of social and technical thinking shows up when he speaks.

A Tragedy Not Completely Surprising

Yoo explains he’s here because what happened is beyond awful, but also not completely surprising. He’s here because the people who own the shop and work here were and are South Koreans. He’s here because his wife also wanted to come and pay her respects, but Yoo felt the need to make sure the area was safe before bringing her. He’s decided things seem calm enough that they will visit together on Friday.

Yoo’s precaution may seem extreme for two adults who will arrive by car. But Yoo is part of a group chat that he shows me on his phone, in which people post stories and incidents every day of Asians who have been attacked or harmed somewhere in the United States. The woman punched in the face in San Francisco the previous day is the subject of the most recent message.

At the university, he’s heard friends, most of them women, recount stories of strangers yelling at them to “go back to their country,” spitting on them or physically menacing them in the last year or two. Yoo hasn’t experienced any of this himself, but he hears about it often enough that he’s on alert, watching his surroundings and discussing safety measures with friends and relatives.

Read More: ‘We Are Always Waiting Our Turn to be Important.’ A Love Letter to Asian Americans

“It, unfortunately, ranges from harassment to physical threats and contact,” Yoo says. “You can’t help but feel that it’s encroaching and then, this happened, right here.” On Tuesday after the shooting, if you looked at a Google map of the area, it carried a red marker and Google warning: “Atlanta shooting,” Yoo notes.

Many of the graduate students working in the same lab as Yoo at the university are also Asian, and they’ve heard that police asked or advised Asian-owned spas to close down for a day or two for their safety and to prevent copycat attacks.

“We thought that’s unfair because that put the burden, the economic burdens, on those owners who are actually innocent and who were already victims,” Yoo says. “We think the Atlanta police department should put more police around here and make sure this is a safe place.”

And, Yoo says, other businesses and residents need to band together as they did over the summer to support Black-owned restaurants and businesses in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, when Black Lives Matter protesters filled city streets across the country. For a time, at least, that activism seemed to alert previously oblivious people to the inequalities and indignities experienced daily by Black people in the U.S., and to the gaps in pandemic relief and lending practices that contributed to large numbers of Black businesses going under last year.

“We need to promote that,” Yoo says of the outpouring of support.

Before Yoo moves across the street to lay a second bunch of flowers at the door of the Aromatherapy Spa, he translates for me the only sign at the makeshift memorial, written in Korean among the bouquets, posters and images. The sign is small, about 6 inches by 12 inches, with black lettering and a single heart written on brown cardboard. It reads, “You are [a] precious person,” Yoo says. Or, depending on your word preferences, “You are [a] valuable person.”

Yoo waits to cross the busy street, one that the local news described Wednesday as part of Atlanta’s “unofficial red light district” and that also features antique shops and a new condo development where properties have sold for $500,000.

‘It’s Scapegoating.’ A Fixation on Sex Work

Like a lot of broad, curving and climbing Atlanta streets, there’s some of everything here. The businesses near Gold and Aromatherapy spas include a wedding venue, a contemporary furniture store, a church thrift shop, a Mexican restaurant that serves enchiladas 24 hours a day and a strip club where two men stand at the door, monitoring the busy parking lot. They identify themselves as off-duty police officers moonlighting as guards here, and they watch as valet attendants tend to a parking lot so busy that self-parking doesn’t look like an option for dancers and their customers. Just down the road, there’s a shopping center with a HomeGoods store, a Marshalls and a T.J. Maxx.

But there seems to be one story being whispered about, implied or outright assumed or described as true because the suspect reportedly said it: inside these spas, there was sex work. Even some Asians are saying that, says Woojin Kang, 27, the director of young adult ministries at The Nett Church, a multicultural congregation in suburban Gwinnett County. That frustrates and disappoints him.

“It’s scapegoating,” Kang says with so much force his black surgical mask slips beneath his nose before he pulls it back into its proper place. “They are trying to find a way out, trying to find something to not look at it as a freaking Asian hate crime. That’s what it is, period point blank. But we are trying to find excuses. That’s what we are fed up with. Stop trying to put a different name on it, saying the guy was just sex- driven.”

They are trying to find a way out, trying to find something to not look at it as a freaking Asian hate crime.

Just look at the locations the alleged gunman has confessed to attacking, Kang continues. Look at who was killed. What we know for sure is they were Asian-owned spas. The majority of those killed were Asian women.

“You may call it assumption,” Kang says about the hate crime label that he and many in Atlanta are using even though police are not. “But I feel like this is an attack on our community.”

Kang lives less than two miles away from the scene of the Atlanta shootings. But he’s following the broader national uptick in anti-Asian hate crime too.

“We have seen too much of Asian hate in the last days and weeks and months,” Kang says. Kang is Korean-American, born and raised in Cincinnati and moved to Atlanta five years ago. “After the first few Asian attacks in San Francisco where the man was pushed down and murdered, you would think that things would get better. Only thing that we see is it’s getting worse and it’s coming close to home. So we have this sense of fear…It’s just this constant fear.”

On Thursday, Kang and his friend, Pastor Minwoo Nam, 27, who is also Korean-American and a children’s ministry leader at the Korean Church of Atlanta, a United Methodist Congregation, hold signs in the faces of people driving by Gold Spa. Some drivers slow down to gawk at the memorial; others pull into the parking lot to pay wordless respects or to leave objects behind at the memorial.

“Asian Women[‘s] Bodies Have Been Slayed #StopAsian Hate,” reads the neon yellow sign that Kang hoists above his head.

“There are so many different terms like ‘Asian fever’ or, oh, ‘I want an oriental woman’,” Kang explains. “The bodies of Asian women have been objectified. They have been seen as property. They are seen as items of sexual pleasure and that is exactly what we are trying to speak against. We are human beings. Asian women , my mom, his mom, out aunts, our grandmas, sisters they are women. And they are human beings.”

Nam’s sign, a blazing neon orange, is more prescriptive, a baptismal vow used in Kang’s church: “RESIST EVIL OPPRESSION AND INJUSTICE IN WHATEVER FORM THEY MAY PRESENT THEMSELVES! #STOPASIAN HATE.”


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