A year after the Atlanta spa deaths, Asian American communities build stronger ties
Daniel Yoon remembers how he felt last March when he heard about the spa shootings in Atlanta. He was angry, confused, but above all, he was searching for fellow Asian Americans to grieve with. The problem was, Yoon didn't know where to look.
"I was sure I'd have to livestream to Chicago, San Francisco or New York," he says.
To his surprise, Yoon was wrong. Days after the attack, local Asian and immigrant-centered groups quickly joined forces to organize a vigil for the eight people who were shot and killed, including six women of Asian descent.
Yoon, who's lived in Nashville for 12 years, was stunned by the turnout. Hundreds of Asian Americans from all different backgrounds gathered downtown. It was the first time Yoon, a Korean adoptee, felt a sense of belonging in the city. Since then, the question has been how to make the feeling last.
Communities try to forge more visibility, representation and opportunities for Asian Americans to unite
"I think there's a growing attention and desire for the Asian American community to get together and feel supported," Yoon says. "I want to see it succeed, and I want it to succeed for all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, not just for a few of us."
From March 2020 to this December, nearly 11,000 attacks against Asian Americans were reported in the U.S., according to the group Stop AAPI Hate. The FBI has also found a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes since 2019.
The wave of violence against the Asian community has sparked a movement across the country, with "Stop AAPI Hate" as its rallying cry. In cities where the Asian population is a small minority, the past few years have triggered new and familiar woes of feeling overlooked and misunderstood.
In Nashville, where Asian Americans are 4% of the population, there's been an effort by the community to forge more visibility, representation and opportunities to come together.
It's not just Nashville. In cities across the country, Asian Americans are working to build the infrastructure and resources for their community to feel safe and supported.
Asian Americans recognize there's a cost to compartmentalizing their identity
In Milwaukee, where Asian Americans represent more than 4.3% advocates have been pushing for more Asian American history to be taught in schools.
"We started to think about the responsibility we have as a community, not just to ourselves but to those around us, our allies or our friends, who didn't know as much about our history and our culture," says Shary Tran, a member of the AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin.
In Indianapolis, where Asian Americans make up 3.4% of the city but are rapidly growing, organizers have been pressing elected officials to recognize and denounce anti-Asian racism.
"We had been activated on that front well before," says Melissa Borja, who leads Indiana's chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. "But Atlanta was critical for helping politicians say we got to pay attention."
Joseph Gutierrez, who helped organize the March vigil in Nashville, says he believes the pandemic has been a turning point for the city's Asian Americans.
"I think that for members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community in the South, there has been a need to compartmentalize their identity, shelving their history and culture," Gutierrez, who's Filipino-American, says. "But we're beginning to recognize that there is a real cost to that, so we're seeking out places to connect and belong."
A nonprofit aims at uplifting Asian Americans and working toward racial justice
While small, Nashville's Asian scene is vibrant. The city is home to the Japanese Consulate, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and pan-Asian grocery stores. Neighborhoods such as White Bridge and Antioch are studded with Korean, Vietnamese, Indian and Laotian restaurants.
Still, many people say they long for more than comfort food.
That's when Gutierrez and 14 others established API Middle Tennessee, a nonprofit aimed at uplifting Asian voices while working toward racial justice. This past year, the group has been hosting a monthly happy hour, promoting local Asian-owned businesses and helping community members register to vote.
"Asian American is a socio-political identity with power," Gutierrez says. "We have to come together around it. That's particularly meaningful here in the South when numbers are so small."
Part of the momentum stems from the fact that Nashville's Asian community is steadily growing. The rate is even faster in surrounding counties such as Williamson and Rutherford.
On the other hand, that's also part of the challenge. The Asian American population encompasses people from more than 20 different countries, and they vary in income bracket, immigration status, and political views. Local organizers are learning that multigenerational American families may not have the same concerns or demands as refugees or international college students.
Gutierrez adds, it's partly why his group dropped "American" from their name to be more inclusive of different degrees of citizenship.
Nashville Asian American advocates say there's much work to do, but they're encouraged by how other groups of color have mobilized
Asian-based organizations have long existed in Nashville, but this past year bore a newfound energy for coalition building, including bridging ethnic and class divides.
"We were an island within a city," Christine Lai, the president of the Greater Nashville Chinese Association, says.
The organization has been around for decades, but it was only recently that they began to mobilize with other groups to organize protests and workshops.
"We've evolved," Lai explains. "Now we're reaching out. We're proactive. And we're not shy to speak out or ask for respect to protect our community."
Part of that shift has been a response to anti-Chinese rhetoric made by state lawmakers during the pandemic.
Lai says their WeChat group has never been so active, as members track legislation and brainstorm ways the city can be more inclusive.
Nashville Asian American advocates admit there's a lot of work left to do, but they're encouraged by how other groups of color have mobilized. They look at the city's Latino and Muslim communities for inspiration.
For Yoon, all these discussions are happening while he's learning to embrace his Korean heritage and Asian American identity. But he says, one thing is already clear.
"I'm not going to be satisfied by an Asian American judge or CEO," Yoon says. "I want Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to join other people of color in this city and truly be powerful."
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