As Haijun Si and his family celebrated the Lunar New Year earlier this month, the festivities were abruptly cut short when several teenagers shouted racial slurs, hurled rocks at the house and repeatedly pounded on the front door of their home in Orange County, Calif.
“They yell, punch the door and windows, and ring the bell day and night,” said Si, 48.
He has called the Orange County Sheriff’s Department several times, and police have opened an investigation, but the harassment has persisted, he said.
“I installed a camera and a fence, but they kept coming back,” said Si, who has two children, ages 5 and 8. “They are scaring my kids at night. They are afraid to go in their room themselves, so we have to move them to our room for almost five months now.”
Violence targeting Asian Americans has surged since the start of the pandemic. Advocates say the dramatic rise in anti-Asian sentiment stems in part from former president Donald Trump’s incendiary remarks about the coronavirus. President Biden last month signed an executive action banning the federal government from employing the sort of “inflammatory and xenophobic” language Trump used to describe the virus — such as “China plague” and “kung flu.”
After the incident on Lunar New Year, Si decided to reach out to a neighbor for support. He called Layla Parks, who lives down the street and has always been kind to his family, he said.
Parks knew teenagers would occasionally play “ding dong ditch” in the neighborhood as a prank, but until then, “I did not understand the extent of the harassment and how often it was occurring,” she said. “I was outraged, and I wanted to take action right away. But I knew I needed to do it carefully.”
Parks, 30, promptly came up with a plan to help protect the Si family, which required enlisting several volunteers. In a neighborhood Facebook group, she posted video footage of a recent attack, which Si provided, and asked if anyone would be willing to stand guard outside the family’s home at night.
She wanted to ensure the house was surveilled from 6 p.m. until at least 12 a.m., and asked people to sign up for an hour-long shift.
Her primary mission: “For this family to have some peace again,” Parks said.
The sign-up spreadsheet immediately flooded with names. Neighbors were horrified by the teenagers’ actions, and people were eager to help.
“It was more support than I had ever imagined or anticipated, and it is incredibly heartwarming,” Parks said. “The community has really stepped up.”
The first evening watch was on Feb. 13, and since then, neighbors have stood guard outside Si’s home every night. They pull on sweaters and jackets — temperatures dip into the 40s at night — and set up foldable chairs on the front lawn.
Some will guard from their cars, while others will pace around the block, flashlights in hand.
So far, about 50 people have volunteered for at least one shift.
Emily Lippincott, 40, has covered two shifts. The targeting the Si family has faced, she said, “is completely unacceptable.”
“This family was terrorized,” she continued, adding that protecting them and showing support is “very important to me.”
Seeing neighbors guarding the Si home night after night “is a really positive and hopeful sign for our community,” Lippincott said. “It’s been incredible to meet other like-minded people that really care.”
Si and his wife come outside to thank volunteers and show their deep appreciation. They often bring cookies.
“The neighbors keep watching, and I am very grateful,” Si said. “Now we have some peace.”
Still, Si added, “I don’t want to make any trouble. I don’t want to take their time.”
The Si family moved from Zhengzhou, China, to California four years ago, and in September, they relocated from Riverside County to Orange County. The harassment started when they moved to Ladera Ranch — a wealthy planned community of about 30,000 residents, around 10 percent of whom are Asian.
Before the neighbors stepped in to help, Si and his wife would take turns guarding the house each night, hoping their presence would shoo away the teenagers. It rarely did.
“The sheriff has come many times,” Si said, but they never caught the teens in action.
Carrie Braun, director of public affairs for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said her department has opened an investigation into the incidents.
“The family has provided photos and videos to the sheriff’s department, and we have two investigators who are working to identify the juvenile individuals,” Braun said.
“It is vital that communities come together to be aware and keep each other safe,” she continued, but emphasized that when “criminal violations of law occur, it’s critical that law enforcement is contacted.”
Since volunteers have been standing guard, incidents of harassment have dwindled, but have not disappeared entirely.
“Kids were throwing rocks at the homeowners and volunteers from the hillside,” said Lippincott, adding that she also has heard them “yelling profanities.”
The group of offenders consists of the same 20 teenagers, Parks estimated, and typically, they show up a few at a time.
“We’ve seen many of the same teens come through, and some newer faces,” she said. “It’s bizarre. It’s almost like they take shifts or it’s a ritual.”
Priscilla Huang, co-founder of Asian Americans in Action — an Orange County-based volunteer organization that advocates for Asian Americans — said the Si family’s experience is not uncommon, particularly in recent months.
“There’s been escalating harassment and rhetoric, and now there’s violence at another scale affecting the Asian American community,” said Huang, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan.
When Huang heard about what was happening to the Si family and how the neighborhood mobilized to support them, it gave her an idea for a community event.
The Lantern Festival — which marks the final day of Lunar New Year celebrations — falls on Feb. 26, and “I thought it would be a nice way to show community support and solidarity,” she said.
Alongside members of the Ladera Ranch Social Justice Committee and other local organizations, Huang and a group of volunteers have been planning an event called, “Lantern Festival of Hope,” which will be held Friday at a parking lot on the same block as the Si home. There will be food trucks and speeches, and traditional lanterns will be distributed to residents to honor the holiday.
“We wanted to show Mr. Si and his family, as well as all other Asian families, that we are banding together to give them support and make them feel at home,” said Stephanie Hu, 17, one of the four co-founders of CUSD Against Racism, a student-led organization centered on combating racism in the local school district. The group is helping to facilitate Friday’s event.
“We spoke with Mr. Si, and he really wants to focus on helping to educate these kids [who are harassing his family] and teach them that harassment is wrong,” said Olivia Fu, 21, another CUSD Against Racism co-founder.
Residents in Ladera Ranch intend to continue taking shifts standing guard outside the Si family’s home “until they feel safe,” Parks said.
“After hearing about the situation, my fear for humanity was at all-time high,” Parks continued. “But after the response of the community, I feel my faith in humanity has returned.”
Si agreed — despite what he has endured.
“I love my neighbors,” he said. “I love my community, and I love my country.”
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