ATLANTA — They came, one by one and in groups, to lay down bouquets of flowers and notes to the dead, handwritten in Korean. They came to kneel and bow heads, to show respect. They came despite being afraid, despite wondering if they might be next. They brought their sorrow and their anger.
To be Asian in America is to know that there will be times when you will be told that your home is not your home, that you should go back to where you came from, even though where you came from is here. It is to know that there is an ever-increasing chance you will get punched in the face or slit with a box cutter while walking home or sitting on a train — or going to protest anti-Asian violence.
And to be Asian in Atlanta right now, or an Asian woman anywhere, is to know that six members of your community, who look like you, who loved their families like you, went to work and never came home. And the person charged is a 21-year-old White man.
There is a word in Korean, han, for this kind of sorrow mixed with rage and confusion and pain. “Han means a collective feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered — a sense of helplessness — and it’s very deep within the Korean psyche,” says photographer Hannah Yoon. A word associated with Japan’s colonization of Korea, it has gained new currency after the March 16 killings.
“I felt that word,” says Yoon. She spent four days and five nights in Atlanta on assignment for The Washington Post to create a visual exploration of what some people in the community are feeling.
Yoon was at home in Philadelphia when she heard about the bloody attacks at three spas in the Atlanta area. Her first instinct was to dissociate, she says. Raised in Waterloo, Ontario, where her parents immigrated from Seoul, she has spent the past four years exploring Korean Canadian and Korean American identity in her work, but in documentary portraiture, always at a remove. This was different.
In the red glow of lights from Aromatherapy Spa, three Korean American friends in their early 20s gathered Saturday to pay their respects. They all were raised just outside Atlanta.
Christa Lee stood stoic in her mask, looking around the block. A college student, she was really glad she had come, says Yoon, “because it helped her accept the reality of what happened. She really felt the pain” of the place. The weight of the horrific week struck her sister, Aeri Lee, all at once, and she started to weep. Their friend Yoo Jeong Lee dropped to her knees.
The gatherings have been similar to ancestor worship in the Korean culture, when family members will sweep gravesites or offer food to their departed loved ones. Outside the spas or at vigils, Yoon noticed, the Asian people were the ones kneeling and bowing.
All but one news crew had left when Yoon first arrived in Atlanta. It was now Friday night, and the parking lot outside of Gold Spa glowed purple as a sole mourner dropped off a bouquet of flowers. People were walking by without pausing. On the same block as the two city spas the killer targeted three days before, two clubs were now jam-packed, as if pandemic and tragedy both had vanished. “I was like, ‘Oh, life really does go on,’ ” says Yoon.
That is one experience of being Asian in America for many: holding onto your han, in invisibility, as the world passes you by. Aeri Lee stood with her hands clasped in front of Gold Spa; its entryway was strewn with flowers.
Outside Aromatherapy Spa, a sign with hand-drawn hearts and Korean script reads, “Rest peacefully in heaven.” Being able to read it and knowing that others could not made the experience that much more personal, says Yoon. It is a message by the Korean community, for the Korean community. “That’s what’s been powerful,” she says. “It’s like the act of taking up space without having to do it for the White person’s gaze.”
The crime that left eight people dead feels inextricably linked to the fetishization of Asian women. Parents are considering how to talk to their girls about how some may see them and treat them as they grow up. And children are worrying about their parents.
Singer-songwriter Jennifer Chung, looking out her window, was first worried about her own mother’s safety, far away in San Jose. She’s stayed away from visiting the shooting sites, not far from her home. She’s become increasingly involved in activism online. “We don’t want to come off like we’re vulnerable. We’re not going to let people feel like they can take advantage of us,” she says. “But at the same time, we need to mourn. I don’t want people in my community to think they have to be strong all the time.”
On Buford Highway, the strip where everyone in Atlanta knows to go for bubble tea and acupuncture, figures of Buddha and Jesus mingle in the window of a Vietnamese gift shop. Someone stands, still invisible, on the other side of the plastic fringe in the doorway of an abandoned Asian grocery store. Fear permeates the atmosphere. When Yoon took a photo of two selfie-taking Asian girls running up the stairs to the pedestrian overpass, one of them shot her a suspicious look. They relaxed once Yoon explained her project. They’ve all had to start paying more attention to their surroundings.
A shop owner holds her hands in front of her. She did not want to be photographed at first, and certainly did not want to say her name. She thought her hands were too ugly. But they are the hands of hard work, and that is what she said she’d come to America to do — work hard. So many immigrants have relied on their hands to provide for their families, as did the women who were killed.
Now the store owner is closing earlier to avoid being out late. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” she wonders, “so why are people doing this?”
In the midst of so much loss, there can still be hope and longing. A shop owner reaches out to stroke one of the money trees she sells, which are supposed to bring good fortune. Yoon already has one, a gift from her father when she moved into her new house. At a Chinese shop, though, the owner pressed upon her just the right charm for hanging above a rearview mirror. It reads, “Safe and Sound.”
Amid the shock, there is solidarity. “There’s a sense of closeness and connection,” says Yoon, a bonding through food, music and shared upbringings. “It is palpable.”
Bright red lanterns from Lunar New Year still hang in many stores, a reminder of a celebration only last month. Now, grocery stores aisles are empty. Customers are afraid to go in person; the shops are too small to fulfill requests for home delivery. A pharmacist stands in the doorway of her workplace. When she heard the news, she told Yoon, in Korean, “Hearing that eight people died, I opened the door to look at the sky and saw that nothing was different. Because the daily rhythm of life was unaffected, I was very sad.”
At church, long a source of strength for the Korean community, Joo Young Kim plays with his daughter, Karis. He hopes the story of Asians in this country will be taught with more depth by the time she goes to school. “We are a fabric of society and of America,” he says. “I hope this brings more light to the immigrant story and the story of being human.”
Others carry their han with them to rallies, where people of all races come to show unity. Yoon was surprised and heartened to see so many elders there, people who were raised to keep their heads down. They have been frequent targets in this wave of violence across the country. They are standing up now, but language is still often an obstacle.
So the young people are there, shoulder to shoulder, to be their voices, and to tell their stories.