The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Recent killings of Asian American women force Asians abroad to rethink their relationship with the U.S.

A rally in New York's Chinatown neighborhood on Feb. 14 in response to the killing of Christina Yuna Lee. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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Eric Wu is like many other second-generation Asian Americans — he was born and raised in Seattle to Chinese immigrant parents seeking a better life for themselves and their children.

But the recent increase in anti-Asian hate incidents in the United States has prompted him to invert part of his family’s quintessential American immigrant story. Wu, 20, has decided to seek a better life for himself elsewhere, over safety concerns that have been elevated following headlines of gruesome killings of Asian Americans in New York.

“Every single week, you see a new attack in the news,” Wu said in a phone interview from London, where he attends college. “It angers me because you can see your grandparents, your parents or aunts or uncles or cousins or brothers or sisters” in the people who were killed, he said.

On Sunday, Christina Yuna Lee, a 35-year-old Korean American woman, was found stabbed to death in her New York City apartment. The man suspected of killing Lee had followed her into the apartment building from the street, according to surveillance video. And last month in New York, Michelle Alyssa Go, 40, was killed after being pushed onto the subway tracks.

The authorities in both cases have not said the killings were hate crimes or motivated by race, but the episodes have put Asian Americans across the country on high alert, amid an increase in anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic. The San Francisco Police Department said last month that it had seen a 567 percent increase in anti-Asian hate-crime reports in 2021. Nationally, there was a 73 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 over the previous year, according to FBI data.

The United States is no stranger to anti-Asian racism. As early as 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigration for 10 years. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Christina Yuna Lee’s killing ‘hits so close to home’ for Asian American women in NYC

The uptick has accentuated the reckoning among Asians and Asian Americans outside the country over their relationships with the United States, which for some were already fraught with concerns over political and societal issues like gun violence.

Wu attends King’s College London and had planned on returning to the United States after graduating. But “with how things are shaping out, moving back has been thrown out the window,” he said.

Erin Wen Ai Chew, a 39-year-old Asian Australian woman in Sydney, often spends time in Southern California, where her husband is from. Chew said she would often be cautious in the United States — for example when walking the streets of Los Angeles alone — but “that vigilance and that safeguard will definitely go up a lot more now” with the increased concern over hate crimes.

“Being Asian, looking Asian, having a Chinese background,” Chew said, “all of these things do not play in our favor at the moment.”

Elderly Asian Americans have been the victims of attacks throughout the pandemic, and last week, a South Korean diplomat was punched in the face in New York City in an unprovoked attack, police said. In March, eight people — mostly Asian women — were killed in a shooting rampage across spas in the Atlanta area. Authorities in the case were initially hesitant to label the attack as racially motivated, though prosecutors later said they would pursue hate-crime charges against the White man, Robert Aaron Long, accused in the killings.

To be sure, the United States is still a desired landing point for Asian immigrants. Among recent immigrants to the United States, Asians are the second-largest ethnic group and are projected by the Pew Research Center to be the largest by 2055. Asians who live in other rich countries have the luxury of declining economic opportunities in the United States that those in less wealthy nations may yearn for.

Chew, founder of the Asian Australian Alliance advocacy group, said that while the recent killings in the United States may not have been categorized as hate crimes, stereotypes of Asian women in Western societies should be taken into account.

“The negative stereotypes that Hollywood has been putting out over a number of decades has really impacted how people view Asians as being weak, vulnerable and those that will not fight back,” she said. “And that really puts a target on how Asian Americans are seen.”

Wu, the college student, said he “wasn’t really worried” about hate crimes before the pandemic, but the Atlanta shootings and the recent killings in New York “terrified me.”

Ji-Yeon Yuh, a professor of Asian American studies at Northwestern University, said that while the United States has a long history of anti-Asian sentiment, young Asian Americans are generally less aware of it because they are too young to remember waves of violence and many schools don’t teach such history.

“The anti-Asian violence and the overall increase in blatant racism in the United States has probably pushed [some Asian Americans] to take offers [abroad] that they might not have otherwise, or extend their stay” if they are already living outside of the country, she said.

“For a lot of people who have lived here for a while, you get used to living without that,” Jane Jeong Trenka, who was born in South Korea and raised in the United States before moving back permanently in 2005, said of the tension in the United States. She recalled an incident when she last visited, in 2013, in which a man pounded on her car window, “telling us to go back to our own country.”

“You don’t even realize how comfortable you are,” Trenka said, “until one day you kind of think about having to go back to the United States, and you’re like, ‘Hell, no. Why would I put up with that every day again?’ ”

“Sometimes I feel a little bit lost,” Wu, who had not previously lived in Britain and has no family in Europe, said of his decision not to return to the United States.

“I feel like I’ve chosen a hard path,” he added. “But it’s not one that’s unfamiliar. Because this is what my parents did.”

Read more:

Christina Yuna Lee’s killing ‘hits so close to home’ for Asian American women in NYC

Covid fueled anti-Asian racism. Now elderly Asian Americans are being attacked.

San Francisco police mark 567% increase in anti-Asian hate-crime reports in 2021

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