Kevin Duong in front of his parents' nail salon

Kevin Duong's parents run a nail salon in Mexico, Missouri. Duong organized a vigil with fellow MU students in Speakers Circle in March 2021, and spoke of his fears for his family. "I couldn't help but stress that maybe I couldn't protect them because it's out of my power, and all I can do is sit and watch as these people suffer," he said at the vigil.

This story was put together by women of Asian descent. Cela Migan is the internal vice president for MU’s Asian American Association. Amy Schaffer, the photographer, helped organize the 2021 Speakers Circle vigil. Moy Zhong pitched this story.

Amid signs of spring in 2021, a March chill settled over all who gathered for a vigil to remember the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16, six of whom were Asian: Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie (Emily) Tan and Daoyou Feng.

At Speakers Circle on the MU campus, attendees placed flowers and held signs to create a memorial for the victims. Close to 100 people held candles as speakers opened up about their experiences.

“It was very chilly, but I think that I was overcome with the feeling of heart warmth,” says Kevin Duong, an MU sophomore and organizer of the vigil. “I don’t know how to describe that, but it was like an internal warmth. I saw a lot of, not just people, but kind souls.”

Duong and friends realized there would be no formal communication or acknowledgment from the university administration about the shootings, so they organized a vigil, and news spread on social media and through word of mouth.

The energy was palpable, with individuals stepping up to share their stories and experiences as Asian Americans. For a vigil that lasted nearly three hours, time seemed suspended within the heartfelt intention and dedication of the attendees.

Kevin Duong on March 19, 2021, speaking at a vigil for the Atlanta spa shooting victims in Speakers Circle.

The spa shootings were the catalyst for smaller communities across the country to raise their voices and take action against the racism that had been building.

With the emergence of COVID-19 also came a rise in xenophobia on a national scale. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by more than 73% in 2020, according to FBI data.

Candace Osborn and her great-grandmother

Candace Osborn revisits Rock Bridge High School. When the Atlanta spa shootings happened, she was reminded of her great-grandmother Maria Gotangco, a Filipino immigrant who died in October 2020. "I'm so heartbroken that she's not here anymore, but I'm so glad that she doesn't have to read or see any of these things in the news," she said in 2021.

Organizations like Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate work to address the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes by providing information on what is happening now and a place to report incidents of hate anonymously online.

Candace Osborn was a senior at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the shootings and attended the vigil. Her reaction to the news of the shootings manifested itself physically.

“I felt really sick,” Osborn says. “I felt queasy; my stomach hurt when I read it because I had seen so many things previously with attacks on Asian Americans after the pandemic got really bad. When I saw that, I felt really unsettled because it could have been one of my family members.”

A second vigil

Across town on the night of the student’s vigil, candles also burned in front of Columbia’s City Hall at a different vigil. Organizers of the two events were unaware of each other.

“Many people have good ideas and good hearts and are saddened by such actions as occurred in the Atlanta area, so it’s heartening to see that people are taking their own actions,” says Jeff Stack, coordinator for Mid-MO Fellowship of Reconciliation and one of the organizers for the vigil at City Hall. “I’m not surprised the students pulled together.”

Many people, including the Rev. Hanjoo Park of the Korean First Presbyterian Church, came forward to share their stories at the City Hall vigil.

“We had some people sharing their experiences, folks of Asian heritage talking about what life is like in mid-Missouri, the bigotry they encounter,” Stack says. “That was really eye-opening, hearing about (their) first-hand experiences.”

What are mere stories for some vigil attendees are lived experiences for others. When reflecting on the anniversary of the shootings and the persistence of anti-Asian violence, life looks different for students, including Duong.

“I’ve been a lot more conscious of social problems,” Duong says. “Before college, I was like, ‘I think I can get by without being involved.’ Now after experiencing that and seeing how it actually affects people on a big scale, I can’t just sit around and not know anything.”

Jane Elliston in Speakers Circle

Jane Elliston visits Speakers Circle, the site of a 2021 vigil. Elliston is the president of MU's Asian American Association, which led the vigil.

Asian experience in Missouri

As many Asian Americans saw headlines confirming the rise in anti-Asian violence in 2020 and 2021, the media’s mishandling of the Atlanta shootings coverage felt like further disrespect and dismissal of the hate crime. This included failure to correctly spell or pronounce the names of the victims.

“I guess it wasn’t shocking, and that was the painful part about it — the fact that I was numb to what had happened,” says Jane Elliston, president of MU’s Asian American Association.

In the face of violence, discrimination and blatant racism against Asians and Asian Americans, MU students had to make calculated decisions about how to juggle this knowledge and continue with their everyday lives.

In sharing her experiences as an Asian American and being one-quarter Filipino, Osborn talked about the silence from her white peers, as well as the microaggressions and flat-out aggressions she faced at school.

“I felt silenced in a way because I didn’t hear any of my teachers talking about it,” Osborn says. “Nobody at Rock Bridge said anything about it … at least in my classes, which made me feel like I couldn’t talk about it.”

Candace Osborn on March 19, 2021, speaking at a vigil for the Victims of the Atlanta spa shootings in Speakers Circle.

Osborn’s Filipino immigrant great-grandmother died in October 2020, and she says she is glad her great-grandmother wasn’t around to witness the Atlanta spa shooting.

For Faith Carter, an MU sophomore, the shootings prompted a conversation with her parents about the reality of being Asian in America. Carter, who was adopted by a white couple, says they didn’t realize how visible their daughter’s race had become.

“I had to explain that when this happened, I felt very seen since the pandemic started,” Carter says. “Things are going on, but my parents were like, ‘It’s not that big of a deal.’ Then it became a big deal, and we had to talk about that.”

Other students had different experiences with their parents when discussing what was happening.

“I don’t think I ever talked to my parents about it,” says Wenxi Yang, an MU Ph.D. student and Chinese international student. “That’s the first piece because I am an international student here by myself,” Yang says. “My parents are back in China, and I think they probably have read that news. I think they were probably very worried about me, but they never asked me about that news … because they don’t want me to feel more unsafe.”

Such events that live in the nightmares of parents and friends are happening, evident by the rise in hate crimes since 2020. For Asian Americans, this is happening to people who look like them.

While fear runs through minds, anger and exhaustion curdle in stomachs.

“There is anxiety that comes with knowing about (the shootings),” Elliston says. “It’s like terrorism against our racial group, and that comes with fear. I think a lot of anger came from our community, our side. And from the administration side, there was lack of empathy and lack of acknowledgment.”

For the Asian American community on campus, the radio silence from the MU administration felt like abandonment. When the administration did take action and release information, it was directed toward international students, Yang says.

The International Center held wellness workshops talking about discrimination, health during the pandemic and other related issues. However, the string of follow-ups and emails was difficult to keep track of. Eventually Yang stopped keeping up with the emails.

Faith Carter in Columbia suburbs

Faith Carter stands in a Columbia neighborhood similar to her St. Louis-area home. When her white parents adopted her from China, she felt like her parents saw her as white like the rest of their family. After the Atlanta spa shootings, she opened up to them about her experience as an Asian American.

#VeryAsian

In the wake of the pandemic, anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, Asian Americans must confront a reckoning with their identities and how they choose to portray themselves and share their culture.

“Before the pandemic, there (was) definitely discrimination based on what I look like,” Yang says. “But I never felt the need to reflect on my personal identity. After the pandemic, it took a toll on me. I really started to think about ‘What does it mean? What does it mean to me, being an international student in the U.S., and what does it mean to be an Asian American in the U.S.?’ ”

Asian American communities are rallying support and offers an influx of love, such as with the hashtag #VeryAsian.

To be “very Asian” in a country that seems very anti-Asian can feel alienating. However, embracing one’s identity and culture can be a source of great strength.

“It has given me more of a willingness to say when I feel like things aren’t OK, when I feel like people are saying things to me that are inappropriate,” Osborn says. “It’s not necessarily the people around me changing, but it’s the part of myself that’s changing, and I think that I can appreciate that now.”

As these unprecedented instances of anti-Asian hate have become the unfortunate new normal, many Asian Americans are re-evaluating their identities and adapting to a world where anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise.

It’s been one year since the Atlanta spa shootings. In the time since, countless instances of racism, hate crimes and violence have terrorized members of the Asian American community. Many of them are reevaluating their identities and adapting to a new world. One year from now, it’s hard to say what change will have been made and what events will have transpired. Will we be remembering yet another tragedy? 

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