Becky Chen decided it was finally time to talk to her mother about racism.
A gunman had just killed eight people, including six of Asian origin, in the Atlanta area. It was the latest in a series of attacks on Asians in the United States since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chen, a student at Arcadia High, was so nervous that she framed the conversation as an interview for an essay she was writing.
In addition to anti-Asian racism, she wanted to address her mother’s attitudes toward blacks and Latinos.
Her mother’s responses during the April 2021 conversation were surprising. For the first time, she shared the discrimination she faced at immigration centers as a newcomer from Korea.
She said she moved to Arcadia, with its large Asian population, so her daughters wouldn’t feel like a minority. And she condemned the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
“For the first time, I felt like I was connecting with my mother about her immigrant experience,” said Chen, 18, president of the Arcadia Civic Youth Council, which campaigns against the homelessness, mental health and other issues.
Rising anti-Asian hatred, fueled by misconceptions about the origins of the pandemic, has exposed generational divides in how Asian Americans view racism.
First-generation Asian immigrants, like Chen’s mother, often focus on building a stable life in their adopted country. Some have experienced war in their home country, so a few ugly words or even a physical assault seem insignificant compared to what they saw.
Their children and grandchildren, born in the United States, are more likely to feel completely American and not tolerate any insinuations that they are foreign.
Today, the Atlanta shooting and other attacks on Asian Americans have prompted some to have difficult conversations with their elders about something that was always too painful to discuss.
Some, like Chen, speak of their elders’ racism towards other groups.
A recent survey of Asian American residents in the San Gabriel Valley found that first-generation immigrants were less likely to report a change in the way they feel or behave when they leave home after death. rise in anti-Asian hatred, compared to other generations.
This leaves some young Asian Americans deeply concerned for the safety of their elders while frustrated by their apparent nonchalance.
“These old people just said it didn’t happen or ‘we didn’t pay attention to the discrimination,'” said Manjusha Kulkarni, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate. “That there’s no discrimination, because ‘we’ve been pretty good at owning a house, a pool, and a two-car garage’.”
Mary Forrest, a 50-year-old Glendale resident, bristles when someone calls the coronavirus “the Chinese virus”.
But his mother, 73, an immigrant from China, takes no offense, preferring to view the remarks as coming from a place of ignorance, not bigotry, Forrest said.
“I asked her: I wondered if this person was dismissive or disrespectful, because she’s Chinese,” Forrest said of his mother. “It doesn’t even occur to him. I can’t think of a single incident where she told me someone was being racist towards her.
For decades in the United States, Forrest’s mother largely made her way without being part of a large Asian community.
“There is a certain self-determination to immigrate to another country. This self-determination seems to create this resilience in Asian immigrants,” Forrest said of his mother. “They are not looking for ways to do not fit in.
Forrest is sensitive to the fact that his mother does not like to be seen as a victim.
“I also see so much of her worldview as what makes her see herself as a strong, independent, self-sufficient person,” Forrest said. “Generationally and culturally, my parents take personal responsibility for themselves and see things that happen to them as not the product of a pattern or something that happens in the culture.”
Hong Lee said her parents wanted her to be quiet about a 2020 incident in which a man insulted her and told her to ‘go back to Asia’ while she was waiting for tacos at a restaurant Pico Union.
“My parents were really scared. People would find out who I am, and something bad would happen to us, because we talk about it in the media,” said Lee, 36, the daughter of immigrants from Vietnam.
In Vietnamese culture, Lee said, “we don’t put our dirty laundry in view of people.”
But Lee decided to speak out, not just for herself, but for other members of the community.
When another victim of the same man contacted Lee, his parents began to understand his decision.
Together they researched the history of discrimination against Asian Americans, including the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by two white men who misidentified as Japanese and blamed him for the decline of the American auto industry. .
“They were shocked… They didn’t hear about it,” she said of her parents. “They can [now] see some of our history and how we are treated differently.
Lee is now president and co-founder of Seniors Fight Back, which runs martial arts classes for Asian American seniors so they can defend themselves against attack.
Some activists and community leaders are trying to bridge the gap by linking recent events in the United States to what happened to elderly immigrants in Asia.
When Bo Thao-Urabe, senior program strategist at the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, spoke with Hmong elders after Floyd’s death, they couldn’t understand why people were protesting or why businesses were being burned down.
Then she asked, in Hmong: What did you do when your government at home didn’t support you?
By alluding to their resistance against the communist government in Laos, Thao-Urabe led the elders to see a connection between their own experiences and the George Floyd protests.
For Asian immigrants, experiencing racism themselves can be a red flag, with the added benefit of helping them communicate better with younger family members.
Joung Kim came to the United States from South Korea when she was in her twenties.
Now 68 and living in the Leisure World retirement community in Seal Beach, she had rarely thought much about racism. For her, America was the land of plenty.
Decades ago, in La Crescenta-Montrose, her eldest daughter came home from elementary school upset at being called an “Indian doll.”
Kim replied: You look like an Indian doll.
But in March 2021, when a Korean American friend received a letter saying to “pack your bags and go back to your country where you belong,” Kim began to reflect on how anti-Asian hatred has affected her, her and her family.
“They had to go through a tough time too,” Kim said of her family members.
For the first time, she asked if her teenage granddaughter had ever experienced discrimination at school.
“Of course, Grandma,” Kim recalled, remembering her granddaughter telling her.
The letter deeply traumatized Kim. She is afraid to go out.
Kim’s youngest daughter, Christine Kim, remembers being made fun of at school, with other children calling her Chinese and making faces at her.
His mother’s solution: you tell them you’re not Chinese. You are Korean.
“It doesn’t help me,” recalls Christine Kim, now 45. “They don’t know what Korean is, and that doesn’t help me at all.”
Christine Kim is saddened by the change in her mother, who is now warning her against going to crowded places, fearing a racist attack.
But she feels that they understand each other better.
“There was a disconnect – my mom is not going to understand me, because she grew up in Korea and she just had a different upbringing,” Christine Kim said. “But she understands.”