In March 2020, when New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., I worked as a physician in a Covid-19 unit. As my fellow health care workers and I were working around the clock, we were shocked to hear that an Asian American doctor had been spat on her way to work. I remember shaking my head but thinking it had to be a one-off — until I was spat on twice over the next year.
The first time I was walking in Midtown Manhattan at night, not far from my family’s store. A man singled me out with a look of disdain, pulled down his mask, and spat on me. I was shocked. I ran home to wash myself and scrub off the stains on the bag I was carrying. The second time a man aimed at my feet as I was walking toward the subway. Both times, I was the only Asian person around.
I was born and raised in New York City, which is now home to nearly 1.2 million Asian Americans. I could feel anti-Asian sentiments changing my home into a city I could barely recognize. Since the pandemic began, the New York City Police Department has reported a nine-fold increase in hate crimes towards Asians. In Flushing, Queens, where I was born and happily played as a child, an Asian elder was brutally assaulted.
I started to feel unsafe leaving my home after dark. I heard more stories of aggression against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), including the face slashing of Noel Quintana on the subway and the stabbing of a 36-year-old man in Chinatown. Both assaults were unprovoked.
Covid-19 has magnified centuries of xenophobia and longstanding racism against Asian Americans. Escalating anti-China political rhetoric seemed to take root in the city and was fast becoming toxic. Never mind that the so-called Chinese virus was a global virus, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had become the new scapegoat for the social and economic strife wrought by the pandemic. And even though the term Asian encompasses more than 20 ethnicities and languages, all Asians were caught in the crossfire.
In February, a 26-year-old medical student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Natty Jumreornvong, was called “Chinese virus” before getting her hair pulled and physically assaulted on the way to work. Jumreornvong is of Thai descent. I called her immediately after I heard what happened. She brought the hate crime to the local newspaper’s attention, which declined to cover it.
These acts of aggression and lack of news coverage show that Asian Americans are still viewed as perpetual foreigners who are “not really from here.” When I woke up to the news of the shootings at three Asian spas in Atlanta, killing eight people, six of them Asian, something in me snapped. Each incomplete and biased report about these shootings awoke in me years of racial trauma, and I could not stop shaking.
It didn’t take a medical degree to call a hate crime a hate crime, but news sources hesitated to do this. Centuries of oversexualizing and fetishizing Asian women reared its ugly head in this racially motivated and misogynistic attack. The “model minority” myth that Asian Americans don’t truly experience racism had yet again become a deadly stumbling block.
I opened my laptop and for the next four days, barely eating or sleeping, organized more than 100 New York City health care workers to attend a rally. The unacceptability of the injustice fueled me through.
In what I see as ironic, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up a disproportionately large percentage of frontline health care workers. I contracted and cleared Covid-19 while treating fellow New Yorkers in an intensive care unit during the peak of the pandemic, yet I am associated with “yellow peril.” Here we were fighting the Covid-19 pandemic when racism and misogyny were rampant pandemics of their own.
The Sunday after the Atlanta shootings, I led more than 100 health care professionals from all over the metropolitan New York City area to form the first White Coat Frontline in support of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
Many of us had been part of the student-run White Coats for Blacks Lives group in medical school. Many people are coming to realize that fighting Asian hate also means fighting for all people of color. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” More than ever, minoritized groups need to stand in solidarity with each other.
The most empowering part of the rally was having the community support and uplift Natty Jumreornvong. More than 40 health care workers stood behind her on the stage as she recounted her story in front of more than 1,000 people. I held her as her body shook, her voice steadying by the end as she implored the crowd to support each other and come together at this critical time. I could feel the collective rage — and strength — of the community helping her regain her dignity and reclaim her narrative.
As I stood on stage, I saw signs with colorful, positive messages spread among the crowd. Feeling my community’s sorrow and empowerment melted my angst. I felt like I could breathe again. The simple act of coming together to acknowledge injustice and at least starting to address what we need to do as a community was freeing.
As physician and activist Calvin Sun recited the names of those killed in the Atlanta spa shootings, “We are Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yuan, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, and Paul Andre Michels,” he said we are also “Vincent Chin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.” I see those murdered women and men in myself and my community, and I will carry them forward with me for as long as I live.
Michelle Lee is a New York City-based writer and resident physician at New York Presbyterian-Cornell Hospital. The opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of her employer.