Solidarity Through Unfriendly Times: The Asian-American Student Association

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Photo courtesy of Reuters

Protesters gather in Seattle to rally against anti-AAPI hate crimes after the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16.

Thomas Rice, Staff Writer

As the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the globe, it has coincided with a drastic rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. Therefore, a group of Chamblee students began the Asian-American Student Association.

“Since COVID started, there’s been a pretty big rise in Asian hate crimes, and it’s only really being publicized now on mainstream media, but it’s been a pretty prevalent issue in the Asian community since probably a year ago from now,” said AASA vice president Nic Yen (‘21). “And so, because of that, we felt that it was important for us to create a club where Asian students can have a platform and we can talk about this stuff, or they can have a place where their culture is accepted at school.”

AASA president Henry Diep (‘21) talked about the benefits of the group for its members. 

“For me personally, I’ve had a lot of trouble feeling that I belong, seeing the lack of Asian-Americans at our school,” he said. “And so creating this club just provided a little safe space and community at our school. […]It’s just a place that you can talk to people like you. People like you know what you’re going through, your struggles.”

Many of the group’s meetings focus on current issues facing the Asian-American community.

“Some of our meetings are more informative-based, so sometimes we talk about more prevalent issues affecting Asian-Americans, like [at] the last meeting, we talked about the recent rise in Asian hate crimes, […] we’ve talked about like, microaggressions, and people’s experiences,” said AASA communications officer Max Kim (‘21). “And then sometimes we also have an open floor discussion type of meeting, where we let people share their experiences and be able to reflect or talk about things affecting them in the moment.”

Some meetings are meant to educate members on various topics.

“We do meetings that [are] more informative, it’s not really as much a discussion as much as us teaching, maybe like the backstory of something. So, for example, when Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, was around, we had a meeting, and we talked about the various traditions that different ethnic ethnic groups will do for Lunar New Year, like the traditional clothes that they’ll wear,” said Yen. “And then we also […] talked about in a meeting, there’s a coup happening in Myanmar right now. And so we talked about that and what’s going on there.”

AASA secretary Charles D’Souza (‘21) recalled a specific discussion that impacted him.

“When we talked about microaggressions, that really felt special to me, because I realized I wasn’t the only one person that was experiencing these kinds of things at Chamblee, and there were a whole bunch of students that came out and talked about their experiences,” he said.

Yen spoke more specifically about the microaggressions he had seen and experienced.

“It’s like getting called a stereotypical name from your ethnic background, like if you’re Asian, then you’ll get called like Jackie Chan, even if you’re not Chinese, or you don’t look anything like him, or you have no relation to him at all,” he said. “Or like a teacher will mix you up […] with another student of a similar ethnic background, it’s something that’s seemingly very small, but that can build up.”

Diep mentioned a specific instance of a microaggression he remembered.

“This happened a lot at the middle school, […] where a lot of these microaggressions were used against [a teacher], where kids would make fun of her accent, and stuff like that, and that it just would go unnoticed because it was normalized,” he said. “And that’s also another reason why I felt like having the Asian-American Student Association would be a good idea, because sometimes anti-Asian sentiment is really normalized.”

COVID-19 has heightened much of this racist sentiment, however, culminating in the recent string of murders in Atlanta, which left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent.

“Well, for me personally, my parents are both nail technicians, they both work in the beauty industry of massage parlors, nail salons, stuff like that. And so I’m really worried about my parents because that specific industry or business is being targeted because it’s predominated by Asian-Americans,” said Diep. “That easily could have been my mother or my father who got shot up there. So, it just impacts me on a personal level, because I don’t know how safe my parents are gonna be one day going to work, or when they’ll come home, and stuff like that.”

Yen also talked about his concern for his mother’s well-being, as well as that of his grandmother, who normally would have traveled to the US from China, where she lives.

“My mom works at the airport, so she works with Delta, and so her job is something that she can’t really do from home, so she has to go to the airport. And so I’m just worried that if there’s a racist customer or something, or just a racist person at the airport, now I’m worried that she might get assaulted or something,” he said. “Something that’s more disappointing for me is my grandma, who lives in China, she usually comes to the US for a few months a year. And so she wanted to come in February, so she could […] see me graduate,” he said. “And we had to tell her, ‘It’s not really safe for you to come right now’, not even just because of COVID, but also because we don’t want her to get hurt or anything, so we just told her she had to stay in China.”

Yen also talked about the shift in perception towards Asian-Americans that he felt since COVID-19 started to spread.

“[Around the beginning of the pandemic,] you could kind of tell that Asian-Americans were becoming even more outsiders than we already felt, like I’d go grocery shopping with my mom or something, and then we’d get weird looks or whatever. Just seeing those weird looks and stuff, you just kind of realize, like, ‘Okay, I gotta watch what I’m doing’, like, you might get something caught in your throat and you’re like, ‘Okay, I can’t cough, I just gotta hold it until maybe I can go to the bathroom, or maybe get back to my car and cough there,’ because I don’t want people to give me dirty looks or whatever,” he said. “It’s just like, people started to look at you differently, and then like there’s more of a judgmental kind of stare you get whenever you go out.”

Kim echoed this sentiment.

“I think, above the actual assaults and attacks that have been happening, the next problem right now is […] almost all Asians right now are having to watch very closely where they’re going and what they’re doing, and they’re quite worried just going about their daily routines,” he said. “So, the problem is kind of coming up to where it’s also becoming a mental thing, where a lot of people are, you know, afraid to just do their day to day tasks, and so I feel like that’s one of the big problems, that […] we don’t have that peace of mind right now that I can go to the grocery store and get what I need without possibly being assaulted by somebody. So I think that that fear or that kind of anxiety in the back of [the] mind is also prevalent for a lot of Asians right now.”