Heavy, hot air blew through the subway platform as I stood waiting for the train to take me into the city to meet my family for dinner in May. Five hours earlier, I had graduated from college and was still in the white dress I wore to graduation that morning. I saw a man jump the turnstiles but did not think much of it as it happened quite frequently in West Philadelphia.
I heard his footsteps grow louder and looked up just in time to see him grab the man standing next to me, shove him against the wall and throw him to the ground. No one interfered. He then targeted another man several yards away and pushed him to the ground and hit him. In that moment of horror, I realized two things: Both victims were Asian, and I was the only other Asian on the platform.
I turned my back on the attacks and swiftly walked away. I thought to myself, “Just keep your head down and focus on yourself,” something my mom had told me ever since I was little and what some call the Asian “keep your head down” mentality.
Why did I act as if the attacks never happened?
No one would expect a 100-pound girl to step in and save two men from an attack, but after the adrenaline of graduation subsided, questions began to circulate in my mind: Why did I walk away and do nothing? Why did I not report the incident? Why did I act as if the attacks never happened?
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I felt selfish for choosing to ignore the attacks and not tell my family or friends what had happened in fear of ruining a day that was supposed to be all smiles and hugs. I felt disappointed in myself for letting fear overtake any rational thinking to call the police. And most of all, I felt guilty for being quick to condemn anti-Asian crimes like the Atlanta spa shootings but not doing anything about the attack I had witnessed right before my eyes.
After allowing myself to shift through these emotions, I decided to speak with community experts to better understand my reaction and what I could have done differently, particularly as an Asian bystander at the scene of an anti-Asian crime.
“There’s a whole range of emotions (when witnessing harassment or an attack) and it’s happening in that split second and sometimes we freeze, and that’s OK,” said Dax Valdes, who leads bystander intervention trainings for Right to Be in collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). “But you have to know yourself in that moment and what is available to you.” Assess and look for other opportunities to help.
Model minority myth is not just a myth for some
The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism reported a 339% increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans in 2021 compared with 2020, prompting organizations like Right to Be and AAJC to hold bystander intervention trainings for members of the Asian American community and allies.
Asian Americans are among the least likely of minority groups to say they are “very comfortable” reporting a hate crime, according to an AAPI Data 2021 survey: 45% of Black Americans and 42% of Latino Americans said they are “very comfortable” reporting a hate crime, while only 30% of Asian Americans and 36% of Pacific Islanders responded the same.
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The part of the model minority myth that all Asians keep their heads down, work hard and stay silent is not just a myth for some, particularly for immigrants faced with economic hardships and racial discrimination. More than 90% of the Asian American community are immigrants or children of immigrants, many of whom face barriers when reporting an incident, Marita Etcubañez, AAJC’s senior director of strategic initiatives and bystander intervention trainer, pointed out.
“Especially for our first-generation immigrants, they don’t know the system here. They might come from countries where you don’t trust the government to do anything to protect you. There are language barriers,” she said. “Or sadly, I think a lot of people tend to think their experiences are not important enough to merit being reported.”
While I never considered myself to be quiet, passive, or someone who turned a blind eye to an issue, particularly as a journalist, I did see value in the “keep your head down” mentality I saw my mom follow as a first-generation immigrant. I avoided being the center of attention and inserting myself into situations that increased my risk of getting in trouble. Comfort and security are highly valued in Asian cultures and were similarly preached in my household.
Even when the pandemic began and news of heightened anti-Asian hate crimes flooded my social media, I never seriously thought I would need to equip myself with the appropriate knowledge or game plan for the possibility of being a target or bystander. I thought these incidents I read on the news were still relatively rare, as I did not hear about my Asian American friends or family members being harassed on a normal basis. Sure, I have had people call me “that Chinese girl” or greet me in Chinese when I am in fact not Chinese (I am Korean), but all those encounters were avoidable if I kept my head down and ignored them.
This can’t be the new normal for Asian Americans
Now I regret my ignorance in thinking that the world needed to change but that I didn’t.
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If we want to prevent more attacks on the Asian American community, the culture surrounding “don’t make waves” and “keep your head down” needs to change, Valdes said.
“We are not conditioned to express emotion or need,” he said. “We pretend like everything is fine on the surface, but if we’re not bringing awareness to all these things that are happening, how do we prevent that from happening to other people?”
I was one of those people who pretended like everything was fine on the surface. But I now realize it is not fine that I have to make sure someone is not standing behind me while I wait for the subway in fear of being pushed onto the tracks. It is not fine that I have to carry pepper spray in fear of being harassed, not only as a woman but as an Asian American woman. And it is not fine that this is the new normal for Asian Americans.
Change starts with me
The “keep your head down” mentality no longer works in this period of rising anti-Asian hate crimes. Staying quiet and invisible will actively work against our fight for equality and continue to allow for more attacks on our community. Trainings like the ones held by Right to Be and AAJC have helped me and can certainly help others learn how to respond in these situations and raise awareness.
It is normal to worry that the attacker will turn on you if you were to directly intervene, Valdes tole me, particularly in this case when you share the same identity as the person who was attacked. But we can still do something about it.
“In those incidents, we can ask for help. Delegate,” he said. “This is where we document, so taking a photo or video of what’s going on and you’re still keeping yourself safe, at least 6 feet away.”
If you don’t feel comfortable documenting or delegating, Etcubañez added, you can still ask the person who was harassed or attacked if they are OK after the incident. Anti-Asian harassment and attacks can be very traumatic for people and even just asking if they are OK or offering to accompany them to their next destination can make a difference.
Valdes feels confident the next generations of Asian Americans are gradually moving away from the “keep your head down” mentality with the help of bystander intervention trainings and platforms to speak out on social media.
I now realize that this movement needs all the young voices it can amass, including my own.
That final day in Philadelphia on the subway platform was an essential wake-up call as I transition into life after college: Ignoring, avoiding and getting by is not enough. Not by a long shot.
If I am to expect the world to change around me, I need to change with it.
Ashley Ahn is an opinion intern for USA TODAY. She previously covered the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for CNN’s health and medical unit and the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers for CNN’s Atlanta News Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @ashleyahn88