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Community leaders say harassment of people of Asian heritage also rising in Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., March 18, 2021

After dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby S., right, stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Youngs Asian Massage parlor where four people were killed, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga. A white gunman was charged Wednesday with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlors in an attack on Tuesday that sent terror through the Asian American community that’s increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic.  (Curtis Compton)
After dropping off flowers Jesus Estrella, left, and Shelby S., right, stand in support of the Asian and Hispanic community outside Youngs Asian Massage parlor where four people were killed, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Acworth, Ga. A white gunman was charged Wednesday with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlors in an attack on Tuesday that sent terror through the Asian American community that’s increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic. (Curtis Compton)

On Wednesday morning, the usually chipper and welcoming college instructor and community leader, Ping Ping, answered the phone with a big sigh.

“I’m hanging in there,” Ping said.

It was the morning after a series of shootings at three Atlanta-area spas left eight people dead, most of them women of Asian descent.

Police arrested a white 21-year-old Georgia man who told them race was not his motivation in the shooting, rather a “sex addiction” that caused him to lash out at what he saw as sources of temptation.

Regardless of the shooter’s motivations, the attack sparked international dialogue on the increase in hate crimes and incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals.

Pui-Yan Lam, a sociology professor at Eastern Washington University who is also co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition in Spokane, said even if the shooter’s stated motivations weren’t racist, the targeting of Asian-American women continued a trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“I think there is a lot of sadness among the AAPI communities,” Lam said. “We are also outraged by this senseless violence.”

Researchers and activist groups out of San Francisco launched the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center in March 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, and have since received 3,795 reports of hate incidents.

Verbal Harassment made up 68% of the discrimination, along with shunning, 20%, and physical assaults, 11%, according to a recently released report. Washington state was the third-highest state to have hate incidents reported, with 4.16% of the total reports.

The Spokane Police Department did not receive any reports of hate crimes against Asian or Pacific Islander Spokanites in 2020 or in 2021 as of last week, said Julie Humphreys, a department spokesperson.

Lam said the number is likely underreported, given that many groups making up the AAPI population may feel that law enforcement either can’t or won’t do anything about these incidents.

“They may not meet the legal definition of hate crimes, but they still have a traumatic impact on our communities,” she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee acknowledged the “increasing and escalating” violence and prejudice against Asians and Asian-Americans in a statement earlier this month.

“We saw this ugly trend surge a year ago, when COVID-19 first emerged in our state. One year later, we have a vaccine for the virus – but racism is still running rampant,” Inslee wrote. “Victims deserve support and justice.”

Inslee encouraged victims to report these incidents to local law enforcement.

As a college instructor and community leader and member of the Washingotn State Comission for Asian Pacific American Affairs, Ping is often the person students and community members go to for support, advice or just a listening ear.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been an increase in people coming to Ping to share stories of “horrible harassment” right here in Spokane.

International students of Asian descent are being shunned, Ping said.

One student was sitting on the bus headed to SFCC last March when a passenger sitting nearby asked her where she’s from, Ping recounted.

When the student said she was from China, the woman immediately moved away from her and said “Oh, I don’t want to get closer to the virus,” Ping said.

A few months later, another student was riding the elevator in his apartment building when a neighbor started a friendly conversation before asking the student where he’s from.

When the student said China, his neighbor told him aggressively to go back to his country, Ping said.

Gonzaga University basketball players Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong said in a joint statement sent to The Spokesman-Review from the bubble in San Antonio that they are “disturbed by the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes that has infected our nation.”

“Our families immigrated here in the hopes of living in a nation where we are welcomed and accepted no matter what background we are from,” the students wrote. “We implore all to please stand up and speak out against any and all racism.”

While Ping believes that former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about COVID-19 being the “Chinese virus” heavily contributed to this new wave of hate against the AAPI community, there has always been a problem, she said.

“If we don’t know the history, we think this is something new,” Ping said.

From Internment camps that held thousands of Japanese people in the United States during World War II to the 1980s, with two laid-off Detroit auto workers brutally killing Vincent Chin, likely due to the Japanese auto boom, the United States has continued to see attacks on Asian people.

Ping said she feels like Asians are becoming the “scapegoat” for the COVID-19 crisis.

“People are just eager to put the blame on China,” Ping said.

Locally, d’bali Asian Bistro had a window broken at their restaurant in January, KREM-2 reported. And The Oval Office, a Post Falls Restaurant, put up a sign using racist language to reference the COVID-19 virus. They later took down the sign, KREM-2 reported, after speaking with local advocacy groups.

“I think it’s something that we need to look at honestly,” said Lam, referring to issues of Asian-American and other discrimination locally. “I think Spokane needs to look at it honestly, and also not wait for incidents and hate crimes to happen, and then we act.”

Local business owner Sam Song said he feels the “America first” mentality propagated by Trump over the last six years is a big part of the problem.

Song took over Kumon Math and Reading of Spokane in 2019 after years as a public servant working for the city of Spokane, moving through the ranks in Riverfront Park, eventually service as acting director.

“I was a teacher in China,” Song said. “I always wanted to come back to the field.”

Over the last two decades living in Spokane, Song would often wear clothing with Chinese symbols. Now, he doesn’t feel so comfortable.

“You can tell how people look at you is different from six years ago,” Song said. “At that time, I did not have any concern whatsoever about my ethnic background.”

While Song considers himself lucky to not have been attacked or harassed, he still feels the shift in the world around him. Since Trump came on the political scene, Song said he has been concerned about the direction of America.

“For me, I think the ‘American first’ idea is also very selfish too, because we all live in one world,” he said. “It almost brings out the most selfish feeling of individualism. I don’t mind being individuals, but being selfish is different.”

Politics have become entertainment, Song said, and political name calling has turned into real-life harassment.

“I’m tired of reading all the name-calling on the internet, that’s not good for people, that’s not good for kids,” Song said. “What about being friendly to your neighbors?”

Bringing people together has been Charity Bagatsing-Boyle’s goal over the last year, as her community has struggled with the hate and vitriol directed their way.

Throughout history, many AAPI people have taken the approach of being a “model minority” in not standing up against hate or harassment, Bagatsing-Boyle said.

“We have a saying (in the Philippines) called bahala na, meaning, ‘Leave it up to God,’ ” she said. “It’s a passive way of just saying, ‘I don’t have to deal with it.’ ”

There are also unique challenges to uniting the AAPI community because, unlike the Black or Hispanic communities that are united by language, the AAPI community is divided by language and faith, Bagatsing-Boyle said.

The AAPI community encompasses people from China, Japan, Korea, Palau, Hawaii and so many other places and cultures that historically were often at odds with each other, she said.

Bagatsing-Boyle said it’s time to put aside their differences and “come together as one.”

Over the last year, Bagatsing-Boyle, along with Ping and other community leaders, have been using the Spokane’s United We Stand Facebook page to virtually bring everyone together. Earlier this month, they hosted a virtual meeting about anti-Asian racism.

While the pandemic has made it impossible to meet in person, the hope is to continue virtual events and then shift to in-person when possible.

Bagatsing-Boyle said right now it’s important for the Spokane community “when someone speaks up about it or says something, to pay attention – not to belittle their experience, but to encourage them to speak out.”

Lam, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, acknowledged the emotional toll of addressing racial animosity. Despite studying and teaching about discrimination, processing six dead women after a year of increased animosity is difficult.

“I can intellectualize, but this many lives being lost to senseless violence, none of my academic training can help to process this emotionally,” Lam said.

Staff writers Kip Hill and Maggie Quinlan contributed to this report.

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