After experiencing the surge in attacks on Asian American elders firsthand this year, these families, and others like them, have found strength in their bonds. Pictured from left to right: the Sung family in North Carolina, the Chan family in California and the Kari family in New York.
Emanuel Hahn for TIME
Essay by Helen Zia | Interviews by Melissa Chan | Photographs by Emanuel Hahn for TIME
July 23, 2021 7:00 AM EDT

As the daughter of immigrants from China, growing up in New Jersey in the mid–20th century, I knew one element of Chinese culture to be nonnegotiable: children were expected to revere parents, teachers and other elders. In many Asian-American cultures, elders have a special status; they are valued and beloved for the wisdom of their years and all they have endured. My brothers and I knew never to challenge or disrespect adults.

After a lifetime spent absorbing these lessons, it is especially painful today to see cherished elders of any background become targets of the kind of assaults that Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people are now facing. Reports of hate incidents against our communities have skyrocketed, increasing by 74% from March 2020 to March 2021, with many of the most prominent instances targeting our senior citizens.

Plenty of us saw this crisis coming. In December 2019, we felt a familiar foreboding, one that comes with an understanding of how our country has treated people like us through history. With the discovery of the coronavirus in China, we braced ourselves. And sure enough, almost as fast as the news from Wuhan reached the U.S., Chinatowns began reporting intensified vandalism and harassment, while business plummeted. TV news stations aired pictures of Chinese Americans—in the U.S.—to accompany their reporting on China, underscoring white America’s entrenched patterns of ignorance and othering of Asian Americans. And in March 2020, Donald Trump’s White House unleashed incendiary rhetoric that was followed by a surge in anti-Asian hate incidents across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic and global economic crisis have inflicted terrible losses—of health, community and loved ones. Amid a toxic mix of misery, fear and racist innuendo, too many people have been ready to lash out. Social media has exploded with disturbing images of verbal and physical assaults on our elders. But to us, they are not the face-masked victims of grainy videos. They have names, faces, dignity. They are leaders; churchgoers; essential workers; shopkeepers; grandparents—beloved members of their families and communities. They want the world to know that they are survivors, not victims. That they are still standing, speaking out, fighting for their humanity.

'I'M A FIGHTER.' Growing up in San Francisco, Victoria Eng, 28, left, and her brother Andrew Eng, 31, top, pictured on June 15 in Pacifica, Calif., learned that respecting their elders was part of their Chinese culture. And they had frequent chances to express that value, as their grandparents picked them up from school nearly every day and cared for them while their parents worked. “They fed us, they made sure that we were home safe, and they were a huge part of our lives from the start,” says Victoria. When violence against Asian-American elders rose drastically during the pandemic, Victoria was appalled—and when her own grandmother was attacked, she felt helpless. On May 4, shortly after Chui Fong Eng, center, received her COVID-19 vaccination, the 84-year-old ventured into Chinatown for the first time in over a year to buy groceries. While waiting at a bus stop, she was stabbed through her right arm with a large blade that then entered her chest and punctured a lung. Another Asian-American senior at the bus stop was also stabbed. The Engs clung to one another as their matriarch underwent surgery. “I cried, and I cried, and I cried,” says Chui Fong’s daughter-in-law Linda Lim, right. “I couldn’t believe that she survived this.” Less surprised was Chui Fong, who, as the eldest of her seven siblings, has always been tough. After arriving in the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1963, she sewed clothes in a factory until she was able to sponsor her parents and siblings. “I’m a fighter,” she says. Linda, 56, says the attack brought the family closer, after years of distance following her divorce from Victoria and Andrew’s father. “It made us realize how important family is,” she says.
Photograph by Emanuel Hahn for TIME

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In the 1980s, during another economic crisis, Americans heard a constant drumbeat of blame as the U.S. declared financial war on Japan, with frequent allusions to Pearl Harbor. In that racialized climate, a young Chinese American named Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white autoworkers in Detroit who said, “It’s because of you motherf-ckers that we’re out of work,” and were sentenced only to probation and fines.

Chin’s tragic murder and the injustice of the case galvanized a national civil rights movement, one led by Asian Americans, with Detroit as its improbable epicenter. I had come to the city in the 1970s as a young activist and worked in a car factory before getting laid off during the recession. I saw firsthand how a frustrated populace could be persuaded to hate Japan for making competitive, fuel-efficient cars. Germany did too, but it’s easier to target a scapegoat who looks different. Because I understood that dynamic, I also knew that we had to speak up. I became a lead organizer and spokesperson for that movement, as we worked to get others to see that Chin and his family were as American as anyone.

‘WHAT MAKES AMERICA SO BEAUTIFUL.' Elizabeth Kari, 32, closes her eyes as she holds her mother Vilma Kari, 66, inside her lower-Manhattan apartment building on May 21. It’s a rare moment of rest for Elizabeth, who took a two-month leave from her fashion-industry job to be her mother’s caretaker after Vilma was brutally attacked. On March 29, while she was walking to church, a man kicked her to the ground, stomped on her face and shouted, “You don’t belong here!” Because Vilma suffered serious injuries including a fractured pelvis, Elizabeth, her only child, moved her mother into her home and had to help her with basic tasks like sitting up, using the bathroom, even slowly adjusting her legs, inch by inch, to find less painful positions. “The first week, every movement she made was with me,” says Elizabeth, who also assumed the role of her mother’s emotional bodyguard, initially shielding her from any news coverage of the high-profile attack, which Vilma is still processing. “This, I feel, is the scariest time for me to be an Asian,” says Vilma, who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines nearly 40 years ago. “I never felt that before.” In May, Elizabeth created a campaign called AAP(I belong) in her mother’s honor to allow people who have encountered anti-Asian hate to anonymously share their stories online—and to subvert the attacker’s racist phrase. “I don't think it’s anyone’s right to tell anyone they don’t belong in America. That’s the cornerstone of what America is,” Elizabeth says. “And that’s what makes America so beautiful.”
Emanuel Hahn for TIME

That intractable disconnect—being American yet perceived as something else—has long plagued our communities. Growing up, I often felt caught in a bizarre parallel universe. My teachers and neighbors would praise my brothers and me for being well-behaved, quiet Asian children even though we were so raucous, our parents had to insist on silence at the dinner table to keep us from yelling and fighting. There was the way we lived our lives, and then there was the way the world chose to see us.

Even Asians born here, like me, couldn’t be “real” Americans, not when wars against Japan, Korea and Vietnam and the continuing cold war with China conjured images of an enemy that looked like my family. We were acceptable only if we adhered to the newly invented construct of the uncomplaining “model minority,” and the people around us saw us through the filter of that stereotype.

AAPI invisibility is so deeply embedded in American culture that when I was a child, we were never seen on the news, in the movies or on TV, except as enemy intruders or obedient servants. We were completely missing from schoolbooks; this is still largely true, save for brief references to Chinese laborers building railroads or Japanese Americans being imprisoned en masse during World War II. When a recent survey asked people in the U.S. to name a prominent Asian American, the most frequent answer was “Don’t know.”

'HE ISN'T A VICTIM.' Carl Chan, center, sits with his daughters Crystal Chan, right, and Emerald Chan, left, and his wife Eleanore Tang, above, at home in Alameda, Calif., on May 18. As president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Carl, 62, has long made the protection of local elders a priority in his work. When attacks against Asian Americans started increasing in 2020, he ramped up his efforts, handing out whistles and air horns to anyone on the street who would take them. “We respect the elderly,” he says. “To me, to us, to our community, it is the worst when they are attacking our seniors.” Carl’s daughters worried about their father’s safety as he spent his time in areas where incidents of violence had taken place. “What he’s doing is so important,” Crystal, 28, remembers thinking. “While there is a risk, we just can’t keep thinking about that.” On April 29, when Carl was on his way to visit an older Asian man who had been assaulted on a bus, he also fell victim to an unprovoked attack. He remembers hearing a man screaming and yelling a racial slur. Then he describes “a quick punch to my head.” Crystal said the emotions overwhelmed her quickly; first shock, then anger and sadness. She and her sister, who live across the country in New York, flew home as soon as they could. “It’s not easy for our family, especially [when] the ones close to you become the victim,” Eleanore says. “It’s so hard. It’s so hard.” But Carl, scraped and bruised, emerged from the attack even more determined. On May 15, he walked side by side with his daughters and wife in a “Unity Against Hate” rally that he helped organize. “While he was physically assaulted, he isn’t a victim,” says Emerald, 24. “He’s showing that he’s strong.”
Emanuel Hahn for TIME

In college, I sought to educate myself about “my universe.” Until then, I hadn’t known that officials had systematically worked to rid the country of “Asiatics,” or how violence by white people had targeted our communities. Nor had I been taught about the invaluable contributions we’ve made to this American democracy. Birthright citizenship? Everyone born in the U.S. can thank Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese American, for that promise. Asian Americans have also played key roles in the civil rights movement; farmworker organizing; Title IX; marriage equality; hate-crimes legislation and more. Researching my first book, Asian American Dreams, I discovered how much of our Asian-American universe has been missing in mainstream tellings of my country’s history. This wall of enforced ignorance continues to divide our worlds.

The silence required of the “model minority” never bought acceptance. In my youth, I heard ugly slurs shouted at my family and watched, powerless, when my parents—the people I respected most—were subjected to prejudice and humiliation. In my elderhood, I can’t count how many times I’ve been told to “go back where you came from,” or asked where I’m “really from” when answering “New Jersey” is not enough.

'I STILL WISH FOR A BETTER LIFE.' Mun Sung, left, and Joyce Sung, center, stand with their 35-year-old son Mark Sung, right, in the family’s Charlotte, N.C., convenience store on May 29. The elder Sungs watched helplessly on March 30 as a man smashed through glass with a metal pole, ripped down racks and hurled racial slurs at them inside the store they’ve owned for two decades. Despite facing racism at work on a daily basis since the pandemic began—even growing hardened to the hatred month after month—Mun never expected his family would fall victim to such violence. “I feel so terribly bad,” the 65-year-old says, “because how can people do that to us?” Less than two months later, it happened again. On May 25, after being told he did not have enough money for cigarettes, a customer shouted racial slurs as he pummeled a sheet of plexiglass at the checkout counter until it shattered on Joyce, 63, bruising her forehead. “Knowing that we’re going to get cursed out every day while we’re getting ready for work,” she says, pausing to think, “we don’t know what words to use.” The family has few other options. The pandemic drove down sales at the store by about 45%—and all their employees quit over safety concerns—so the Sungs say they don’t have the luxury to stop working. Instead, they clock in 13-hour days, seven days a week, and have developed a routine for responding to hate: call the police, assess the damage, file an insurance claim, then go back to work. It’s not the life Mun imagined for himself or his family when he left South Korea for the U.S. in 1983. But he and Joyce keep going, in large part to have some money to leave for Mark’s two toddlers, their only grandchildren. “The first time I came to the United States, I had big dreams and high hopes,” Mun says. “I didn’t make it, but I still wish for a better life.”
Emanuel Hahn for TIME

Nearly 40 years after Chin’s murder, I am dismayed that so many have expressed surprise, even shock, at the existence of anti-Asian racism. Back then, discourse on race was framed as Black and white, and in this millennium, it’s much the same. Even as the most vulnerable and cherished members of our communities are under attack, we are still fighting to be seen—just as those who came before us fought for visibility and fairness in the 1800s and 1900s, and just as we sought justice for Chin. Today, with more than 23 million Asian Americans making up almost 7% of the U.S. population, our fellow citizens still know little to nothing about our shared history. After the mass killings of Asian Americans in Atlanta and Indianapolis this year, people seem more open to recognizing the reality of anti-Asian racism. But the challenge remains.

We can begin by recognizing the resilience of the AAPI elders who have been targeted in unacceptable, random acts of violent hate. In their faces, we see the long journeys of revered grand-parents, aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers who have struggled and sacrificed for future generations. By bringing our Asian-American universe into focus for all to see, we hope you—our neighbors, co-workers, members of all faiths and beloved communities—will see our elders as we see them, and as you see your own: the ones who made the foundation of our families, our homes and our country with their blood, sweat, tears and love. In knowing their stories, perhaps we can finally bring our parallel universes together.

'I'M PROUD OF WHAT HE DID.' Tommy Lau, 63, stands beside his older sister Maggie Wong inside his Brooklyn home on May 22. On March 23, Lau rushed to protect an elderly Asian couple who were being robbed of their groceries—a choice that Wong says reflects her brother’s typical boldness. But when Lau intervened, the man spat on his face, punched him on the side of his head and called him a racial slur. Lau has not been able to return to work as a New York City bus driver, because of neck and shoulder injuries he sustained during the attack. Wong, 66, says it’s been difficult to watch her brother continue to struggle months later. “I feel bad,” she says, adding that she supports Lau, emotionally and financially, whenever he needs it. “I’m proud of what he did.” Meanwhile, despite all that he’s endured, Lau doesn’t regret getting involved that day. Since immigrating to the U.S. from Hong Kong at age 3, he has long faced racism—his elementary-school classmates bullied him so often about his birth name, Kok Wah Lau, that his teacher changed it to Tommy—and he has had enough. “The lowest low of people does that, attacking the elderly,” he says. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Emanuel Hahn for TIME

Helen Zia is an author, journalist and activist.

—With reporting by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang and Simmone Shah

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