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After enduring racism in silence, Atlanta-area Asian Americans speak up

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SUWANEE, Ga. — The Korean American teenagers gathered in a suburban Atlanta church Friday night and took turns reflecting on the mass shooting at three nearby spas a few days earlier that ended the lives of eight, including six Asian women.

Those women reminded some members of the Atlanta Promise Church youth group of their own mothers and grandmothers, especially those who work long hours in nail salons, restaurants and other small businesses to provide their families with a comfortable, safe life in this stretch of a suburban county where the Asian American population has dramatically grown in recent years.

A 16-year-old, tears rolling down her face, said she felt gripped with fear as she considered her vulnerability as an Asian American and as a woman. Another teenager wondered whether he was now closer to understanding the racial targeting experienced by many of his Black and Latino peers. Another young man considered how close the shooting was to his home.

“As hate increases, it feels like the connections to the victims are getting closer and closer to me and the people around me,” said Matthew Yun, 16. “And eventually, it could one day be me, or be someone close to me. That just brings a lot of fear.”

Julie Mo, 16, added: “To see that happen to someone who could have been us makes me upset. . . . I already hate the baggage of being Asian, and being a woman makes it worse.”

While the Atlanta area has long been known for its Black and White racial dynamics, Asian Americans and immigrants have become Georgia’s fastest-growing demographic group. In some Atlanta suburbs, Asian Americans make up as many as one-fourth of the population. Pho and Korean barbecue joints are becoming just as common as Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s fast food restaurants in some areas, houses of worship with predominantly Asian congregations continue to pop up, and Asian Americans are slowly starting to run for political office and win.

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Even as Asian American cultural and political influence grows in Georgia, the shooting — along with a rise in reported anti-Asian hate crimes since the beginning of the pandemic — has shattered the sense of safety and belonging that drew so many immigrants to the area. It has spurred difficult conversations about when and how to speak up.

Though Asian Americans played a key, but often-overlooked, role in helping President Biden win Georgia last year, making him the first Democrat to do so since 1992, they are still underrepresented in positions of power. In nearby Duluth, the city council has four White members and one Latino — in a city where Asian and Black people make up nearly half the population.

Although authorities say the White suspected gunman denied a racial motivation, advocates and residents have said the deliberate targeting of three businesses known for employing Asian women cannot be ignored.

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Many Asian Americans across the Atlanta area say the shooting has emboldened them to raise their voices. Since the tragedy, they have been leading and organizing vigils, marches and fundraisers. A recent front page of Atlanta’s Korea Daily, a newspaper that is displayed in stands at popular Korean plazas here, featured a large photo with rows of Asian Americans holding up posters denouncing anti-Asian hate.

Often, calls for change in Atlanta’s Asian American communities are coming from a younger generation of activists who have been demanding fuller representation for years and say the spa shooting is the latest example of why Asian American concerns should not be dismissed.

They are tired of the expectation that Asian immigrants should keep their heads down and not complain. They are tired of a model minority myth that erases the struggles of immigrants trying to survive in low-wage work and the weight of bigotry on those who do find economic comfort. And they are tired of being viewed as foreigners in the place they call home.

Years of community building and political organizing allowed Korean American advocacy groups to quickly mobilize to respond to the shooting and support those reeling from the tragedy, said Michael Park of the Korean American Coalition of Metro Atlanta. Advocates want to keep up the momentum in the months and years ahead.

“We changed the course of this state and this country by speaking out and by using the power we have,” said Georgia state Rep. Sam Park (D), the only Korean American in the state legislature. “And I think we need to continue to do that, to ensure these sorts of horrific incidents don’t occur moving forward. . . . And I don’t necessarily want to make this political, but at the same time, it is. We have to use our political power — we have to use whatever power we have to protect our community.”

'Seoul of the South'

The Georgia that welcomed Sarah Park when she arrived more than 20 years ago from South Korea is almost unrecognizable. Back then, it was not uncommon for her to be one of the only Asian Americans, let alone Koreans, in a room.

Park — now 35 and the leader of the local Korean American Coalition — lives in Duluth, a suburb 30 miles northeast of Atlanta known for its growing, vibrant Korean presence. Duluth is home to one of the nation’s largest Korean American cultural centers and thousands of Koreans, including at least one of the spa victims, Hyun Jung Grant, called Duluth home.

Here, Park said, she can eat the Korean foods of her upbringing at local restaurants and buy the medicinal remedies her Korean grandmother used to give her at the local store. The complex surrounding the county shopping mall, which was once the city’s prime attraction, has turned into a booming strip of Korean restaurants, bakeries, markets and other businesses that tourism officials promote as the “Seoul of the South.”

She no longer has to explain her background or immigration story every time she meets someone, she said, because it’s not so uncommon anymore.

“Now I feel like I own this community. I’m Sarah Park. I’m not ‘this girl from Korea,’ ” Park said. “You see similar-looking people and you sit with them to hear their story. Yeah, people left Korea at different times. Yes, they come from different paths of life. But still, there is a sense of belonging that I didn’t have to earn or work for. It’s already there.”

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Duluth and surrounding communities offer the opportunity to pursue the American Dream without abandoning Korean culture. Chaemi Madden, 55, moved from Alabama to the suburb of Doraville six years ago. She has taken real estate classes with a Korean instructor, attended festivals celebrating Korean culture and owns a restaurant in a shopping plaza that includes a coffee store that sells Korean baked goods, such as red bean bread.

“It’s like Korea here,” she said, “but a unique form of Korea.”

About 71 percent of the Asians in Atlanta were not born in the United States, though about half of Asian households speak fluent English in addition to their native language, said William Frey, a national demographer for the Brookings Institution. Indian is the largest subgroup, followed by Chinese and Korean, Frey said. And more than 60 percent of Asians in Georgia have college degrees.

'People want to break that silence'

For Asian Americans who have fought for years to be recognized as community pillars in the Atlanta area instead of outsiders, the pandemic-related bigotry against Asians and the shooting have shaken their feeling of progress. While many said they have been heartened to see a diverse coalition of voices emerge to denounce the shooting, they hope that support will continue.

Joshua Kim, a 25-year-old employee at a Duluth barbecue restaurant, said Korean Americans of his generation are starting to rethink the assumption that racism is a relic of their parents’ past.

“I’ll be honest, even my folks at home, they are very scared to go out, just because of the hate crimes,” Kim said. “I haven’t experienced any hate from other people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I do experience it if I leave the area of Duluth and go to different city where there’s less Asians out there.”

Andy Kim, president of the Korean American Restaurant Association’s Atlanta-based southern chapter, said that since the shooting, members have seen a sharp decline in customers dining in, opting for to-go and delivery options for fear of being in public. The group set up a hotline for restaurant workers that offers interpretations and other resources, should they encounter troubling incidents.

The day after the rampage, two men entered a Duluth Korean restaurant, loudly asking if staff gave massages before walking out and laughing, he said.

“A lot of Asians, in our culture, they do not express their own feelings. We just keep it inside, suffer and are patient through it,” Kim said. “If we don’t speak out and keep it as it is, then more people will get hurt, and they will get killed.”

Tae Chin, a pastor in neighboring Norcross, said the shooting has left members of his mostly young Korean American congregation afraid.

One works at a dental office that is mulling security measures to limit entry. Two are considering obtaining permits to carry concealed firearms. He’s urging them to use their voice.

“When injustice happens, we don’t speak up, and we just work harder so we get out of the tragedy,” Chin said. “But I think people are kind of tired of that Asian experience, that Asian silence, and people want to break that silence.”

Raymond Tran — a 30-year-old lawyer whose parents fled Vietnam and Cambodia as refugees — said some older Asians are wary of contacting police or insurance companies if their business is robbed or vandalized.

“We’re not a monolith, but generally speaking, a lot of Asians come from backgrounds where there isn’t a lot of trust in law enforcement or government,” said Tran, who is secretary of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, which has been helping Asian-owned business apply for government grants tied to the pandemic.

He sees himself and other young Asian Americans as much more confident moving in American social and political circles.

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“For millennials who were born and raised here, we have the audacity to say that when people speak about equality, that means us, too,” he said. “I could sue you. I could grow up to become an Oprah or a Jay-Z. Someone 10 years older than me, who spent more time in another culture, may not think that way.

“When we see an issue, how we’d choose to solve it and the tools we have access to are very different than the generation before.”

Luke Cho, a 25-year-old activist who worked with the Atlanta mayor’s office on Asian American outreach, said the shooting compelled him to explain to his 63-year-old mother, who is not a native English speaker, how to request a police interpreter if she’s a victim of a hate crime. They live in Johns Creek, another suburb with a growing Asian American population.

“This part of metro Atlanta where we live is very fitting for people like my parents, who just want a safe, comfortable place to live,” Cho said. “She didn’t want me to worry about it and burden myself getting stressed out trying to make sure she’s okay.”

Others feel compelled to speak out, often in ways they haven’t before.

Eugene Lee, 55, joined a Friday vigil at Gold Spa, where three of the eight victims were killed.

The South Korean immigrant and resident of Suwanee recalled the indignities he faced in 24 years of living in a country that gave him a better life at a price: the time a person spit in his 4-year-old daughter’s eye at a swimming pool; the time he smiled and said nothing when a grocery store customer called him “Chinky”; the time he explained he’s Korean to a Home Depot customer who accused him of having the coronavirus because he’s “Chinese.”

“Asian people, we experience a lot, but we keep our mouths . . .” Lee imitated zipping his lips.

But not on Friday, when he joined other Korean Americans in holding up signs reading “Stop Asian Hate” while shouting “Stop!”

“I don’t think we’ve gained power, even if the numbers of us have gone up,” Lee said. “The number is big, and our tax revenue is big, but there is not fair treatment.”

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Peter Lim, who leads an English language church in Dunwoody that serves mostly Asian Americans, has also been thinking how to best speak up in the tragedy’s aftermath.

Lim, 48, relocated from Los Angeles to the Atlanta area in 2005 to fill the growing demand for English-language ministries that predominantly serve second- and third-generation Korean Americans.

The church he runs sits above an Old Navy and next to a Marshalls in a co-working space with an espresso machine and black-and-silver office rooms, not far from the Buford Highway strip that’s lined with Asian-owned businesses.

He notes that driving northeast on the highway provides a showcase of varying Asian nationalities on business signs. Farther north, the signs become increasingly Korean in number, representing the community’s gradual move toward formerly White suburbs known for their high-performing public schools. He has noticed over the years that an increase in the Asian American population is often accompanied by a departure of White residents.

Lim worries that Korean culture too highly values conformity and deference.

“We just try to fit in, try to blend in and not be seen as a threat. And I totally get that. But what it does is, we’re killing our own voices,” he said. “In doing that, we’re covering up our own ability to speak and be seen.”

He hopes that the tragedy and the heartbreak of the shooting leads to change.

“This is going to be a catalytic moment in the Asian American community,” Lim said. “It’s going to be a moment that won’t die out, but will be the genesis of a movement where we stand up for what we believe in and make our voices heard.”

Nirappil reported from Washington. Haisten Willis and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Atlanta contributed to this report.