After six Asian women were killed in March, Nathalie Espinol was afraid to go places known for attracting Asian American crowds.
The 34-year-old avoided Asian grocery stores, restaurants, karaoke bars — anywhere that would make her feel “exposed” as a Filipina woman.
Though Espinol has since resumed trips to these spaces, her anxiety remains. Just last month, while shopping at the Duluth MegaMart, she said she felt a “wave of fear” as she realized how easily that location could be the subject of another attack.
“It reminded me that the pain we’re carrying with us is always there, and it’s hard to predict the triggers that will initiate that fear,” Espinol said. “I don’t want to have to be fearful everywhere I go, and I don’t want to have to deprive myself of going to spaces with other Asian Americans because I’m scared.”
It’s been more than three months since deadly shootings at three Atlanta-area businesses put a spotlight on Asian Americans across the country. As a year’s worth of increased hate crimes came to a head and Asian Americans of all generations and ethnicities mobilized, politicians and corporations issued statements promising not to let violence go unnoticed.
Over three months later, many East and Southeast Asian Americans in metro Atlanta remain afraid of verbal or physical attacks. Some have grown exhausted from coping with that heightened fear while attempting to educate others on their community’s struggles through a slowed #StopAAPIHate movement. Many are skeptical that any substantial improvements occurred.
“I don’t think anything has changed since the spa shootings,” said Angela Jiang, a Singaporean-Taiwanese woman who grew up in Duluth and now lives in Buckhead. “Nothing was really won besides a lot of resolutions and statements in support of the Asian American community that actually hasn’t resulted in any material changes.”
President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into effect on May 20. This legislation, introduced by two Asian lawmakers, intended to make reporting “COVID-19 hate crimes” easier and tasked the Department of Justice with expediting hate crime reviews.
“We are committed to stop the hatred and the bias,” Biden said as he signed the bill that acknowledged hate crimes as a “serious national problem.”
Determining how to prevent incidents before they happen, however, has largely been left to Asian Americans themselves, as national efforts to promote visibility and prevent violence reduced outside Asian American communities.
The sites of these tragedies reflect this diminished public interest: Aromatherapy and Gold Spas, two of the shooting locations, now appear closed, with no indication of reopening. Where memorial flowers and signs once lined the entrances to those businesses, traffic cones now block the parking lot entrances amid scattered pieces of trash.
Some Asian Americans fear that it will take more headlines and news reports of anti-Asian violence for substantive change to happen. Agnes Scott College student Connie Tran, whose Vietnamese parents run a nail salon in Columbus, said he believes simply condemning hate crimes and increasing investment in law enforcement are surface-level approaches that won’t reduce discrimination.
“I’m a little wary because my mom and the other folks who run Asian-majority businesses feel like sitting ducks, waiting for the next instance to happen,” Tran said. “It feels like we’re just walking around in a loop and not understanding the root cause of all this violence.”
A May 2021 report from Asian advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate found that Asian Americans are still “experiencing unprecedented and growing health inequity issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-AAPI hate.”
While the pandemic worsened mental health for many in this country, researchers said Asian Americans who also encountered anti-Asian racism showed “elevated symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and physical symptoms.”
“It’s a responsibility for all of us in the community to be aware of what’s happening and talk about it and educate people,” Espinol said. “But this burden is falling on top of us having to process this pain happening in our community, and it just feels so overwhelming.”
Groups like the Asian American Resource Center (AARC), located in Duluth, expanded their mental health programs to field more requests for help. Handling that increased interest, however, takes resources that have slowed in the months since the shootings, said AARC Managing Director Xavier Kim.
Many like Espinol subsequently became more vigilant in how they proceeded about everyday life, particularly in groups of Asian Americans. For some, that meant staying home more or enrolling in self-defense courses. Others, however, took more drastic measures.
“We are just scared, so that is the climate right now, it’s everybody [being] afraid,” said Daniel Fu, a 70-year old Indonesian man who purchased a gun after the shootings.
President of the Korean Restaurant Association Southeast Andy Kim noted that many Asian-owned restaurants have hired security personnel or installed CCTV monitors to deter potential aggressors.
Keun Soo Lee, who has operated Korean barbecue restaurant Honey Pig since 2007, said it was robbed for the first time after the shootings. Though he has since installed cameras and trained staff on handling anti-Asian violence, Lee worries that disregard for Asian Americans could intensify.
“As a restaurant owner, the fear of that kind of hatred has increased,” he said.
Veterinarian Jamie Cho said that even using her Korean surname is a potential risk. As Cho has opened a new practice, she explained she is more cautious when hiring workers and considered whether to tint the windows.
“I’m more aware of the decisions I make because I know that just saying nothing and keeping quiet does not mean that I’m safe,” Cho said. “I’ve feared and wondered, could my picture or name affect my success?”
Despite slowed momentum and heightened fears, Asian American advocates new and old said they’re focused on educating others and maintaining the coalitions that formed in the wake of the shootings.
A rising battleground to increase Asian American visibility and reduce hate in the long term is K-12 schools, where a group of community members aim to implement Asian American history curriculum. Georgia Korean Chamber of Commerce Vice President of External Affairs Michelle Kang explained that fighting ignorance with education is a first step towards preventing hate.
“Asian Americans have been here since the 1850s, more than 170 years, but we’re still considered as foreigners,” Kang said. “It’s not right … It’s not just white people’s history.”
Allison Wang, a Chinese nurse who helped plan rallies after the shootings, said as hosting in-person events grew “exhausting,” making change in schools has become a new source of hope. Having grown up in Tucker without a single course that discussed Asian American experiences, Wang wants to make sure her daughter learns about her heritage.
“I am American, I’ve been naturalized to become an American citizen, but I’m also Chinese,” Wang said. “I would like to have more people … who appreciate the fact that I am Asian.
Kang is hopeful increased awareness will help Asian communities — from Lebanon to Vietnam — move forward.
“We are more vigilant about what’s going on outside of the Korean American community,” Kang said. “We are watching out for each other.”
Anjali Huynh, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution