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For Asian Americans, thrill of Oscars offset by rising anti-Asian hate

The historic success of ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ comes at a particularly fraught moment in the Asian American experience

Demonstrators march in Atlanta on March 20, 2021, after a mass killing by a White gunman at three spas in the area left six people of Asian descent dead. (Dustin Chambers for The Washington Post)
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Gina Kim, a documentary film producer in New York, felt the same pride as so many other Asian Americans when “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” with a largely Asian cast, received seven Academy Awards.

But for Kim, the feeling of triumph was tinged with sorrow on Sunday and the days that followed.

She produced “Rising Against Asian Hate: One Day in March” last year about the mass killing by a White gunman at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16, 2021, that left eight people dead, including six of Asian descent. She and director Titi Yu in recent days participated in a commemoration in that city.

“I was just watching Asian excellence at the Oscars. It was an extraordinary moment,” Kim said. “But at the same time, the hate-crimes numbers coming out show attacks against Asian Americans are at the highest level ever … It’s a very complicated moment. We want to celebrate, but at the same time, we have to recognize that much more needs to be done.”

The emotional outpouring among Asian Americans across the country at the sight of Asian faces clutching golden trophies as part of Hollywood’s celebration of movies reflected a feeling that their community had, at long last, been validated at the highest levels of U.S. popular culture.

At the same time, the historic achievement came at a particularly fraught moment in the Asian American experience.

On Monday, the FBI released hate-crime statistics for 2021 that cited 746 attacks targeting people of Asian descent across the country, up from 249 a year earlier and the most in three decades. Asians make up about 6 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau.

Hate crimes in U.S. rose to highest level in 2021, FBI says

On Tuesday, President Biden visited Monterey Park, Calif. — just 15 miles from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, where the Academy Awards were held — to meet with the families of victims of the shooting in January that left 11 dead during a Lunar New Year festival at a dance studio in a largely Asian immigrant community. The alleged assailant is also of Asian descent.

That massacre, along with the mass killing in Atlanta, illustrated how Asian communities, often relegated to the margins of American society, can be subjected to random or targeted danger like so many others.

“Just this week, a film about resilience and power of the Asian American immigrant family made history at the Oscars, echoing the heart of so many in this community,” Biden told a crowd of local officials and victims’ families at a Monterey Park community center, where he urged Congress to act on gun control. “But we also hear a message we’ve heard too often, including two years ago this week, after the spa shooting in the Atlanta area: Enough. Do something.”

During his remarks, Biden also cited the heroism of Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the Monterey Park gunman and was a guest at the president’s State of the Union address last month.

To Jeff Yang, an author and columnist who writes on Asian American culture, the contrast between Oscars night and Biden’s event was jarring. Yang joined hundreds of family members and friends of the cast of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” for a raucous Academy Awards viewing party in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, and he was in the audience two days later for the president’s somber remarks in Monterey Park.

“When I think about where we are now … there’s a feeling of over-stimulus and two parallel universes crammed into a single brain,” said Yang, who last year published “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the Nineties to Now” with co-authors Phil Yu and Philip Wang.

Amid national attention on bias crimes, Asian American leaders struggle over where to take their movement

Some Asian Americans say they still feel an acute sense of being seen as foreigners and untrustworthy, reflecting long-standing public fears that manifested in the incarceration of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II and the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s that banned laborers from China.

Civil rights leaders have cited anti-Chinese sentiment over the outbreak of the coronavirus, which scientists said originated in 2019 in Wuhan, China, and tense incidents such as the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the United States six weeks ago, as contributing to the spike in anti-Asian hate.

Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based group that began tracking hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders amid the pandemic, has tallied more than 11,000 complaints of experiences allegedly involving hate since 2020, including assaults, racial slurs and acts of discrimination and prejudice, via a public reporting hotline. Those reports are largely anecdotal, and many are not considered criminal acts, but activists say the numbers reflect the climate of hostility.

Last month, Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.) questioned Rep. Judy Chu’s loyalty to the United States and suggested the Democrat from California should not have an intelligence clearance, citing her support for Dominic Ng, Biden’s appointment to lead U.S. trade interests in Asia. Republicans have accused Ng of having ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

Chu, a Chinese American whose father served in the U.S. military during World War II, published an op-ed on MSNBC’s website in which she said she and Ng are “easy targets for the toxic far right because of our Chinese descent in a newfangled McCarthyism that combines ‘red scare’ tactics, racism, and xenophobia.”

John Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, said the Oscars offered a momentary respite for the community to delight in its achievements. His group is focused on pressing public officials to speak responsibly about the escalating geopolitical tensions, but he demurred when asked if he has seen progress on that front.

“It’s hard to say whether we’re making progress in part because this an ever-changing landscape, whether because of the spy balloon or other events that happen on the world stage that we can’t control,” he said. “It’s going to unfortunately be very difficult on members of Congress like Judy Chu and others who care about these issues.”

Jeff Yang, whose son Hudson starred from 2015 to 2020 in the pioneering ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” about an immigrant family from Taiwan, said Asian Americans are still growing used to being at the center of attention in mainstream society, for better or worse.

“We’ve seen that operating particularly potently over the last three years: From the pandemic — and feeling like we were at the epicenter, being blamed as the source of the plague — to the rise in anti-Asian hate, to this bizarre realization that gun violence is something that is very much not an outsider to our community, with us as both victims and perpetrators,” Jeff Yang said.

“What happens when you have a community with the breadth and diversity ours represents, when the world is waking up to the fact that we are so much more visibly rich, colorful and diverse than anyone might have expected?” he said. “That’s not even something we as Asian Americans are used to. We are used to being invisible.”

Onstage at the Academy Awards, some of the winners from “Everything Everywhere All At Once” used their prime-time platform to speak emotionally about the struggles of the Asian community.

Ke Huy Quan celebrated his best supporting actor award by paying homage to his family’s immigration to the United States. Quan is ethnically Chinese, but he was born in Saigon and his family fled Vietnam during the war. He arrived in the United States as a refugee and grew up in Los Angeles, a story that echoed the experiences of many of the Asian immigrants in Monterey Park.

“They say stories like this only happen in the movies,” Quan said. “I cannot believe it’s happening to me. This is the American Dream.”