Asian-American Life In Westport: Another Perspective

This morning, Sarin Cheung — who is part Thai, part Chinese — gave one perspective on life as an Asian-American in Westport. Here’s another, from Injae Choe.

Thank you for this opportunity for someone like me (of Korean and Chinese descent) to speak up at this particular time as a Westport resident.

I am a sole proprietor professional making a comfortable living, but I certainly am not immune to both overt and covert forms of racism. I own and operate a mindbody acupressure practice both in New York City and here in Connecticut, so the recent gun shootings targeting mostly Asian massage therapists that took place in Atlanta did indeed hit home.

Since the birth of our daughter 9 years ago, my family eagerly moved to Westport from Brooklyn. Ever since, we have felt very much welcomed and well integrated into this community, except for the following couple of incidents.

At the start of the pandemic last year inside a local store, one customer (white male in his late 50s-60s) went on a long, vocal, racially charged rant against the “China virus” and the inconveniences of mask wearing. He then shouted out an expletive-filled fantasy to round up the Ch**ks to personally machine-gun them down. Within the small confines of the shop, it was clear that I was the lone token Asian person toward whom he was directing his tirade.

Totally shocked, and choosing not to engage, I simply retreated to a far corner of the store, put on my headphones and just waited it out, until that disgruntled racist man eventually completed his purchase and left the store.

And in recent months, in the streets of New York, on separate occasions, I’ve been berated — unprovoked — in broad daylight by a couple of cowardly individuals who only dared hurl their hackneyed racial slurs at my back once I had walked past them a fair distance.

Injae Choe

Still ugly. Still disheartening for me to witness in fellow human beings. And once when I was chased through a scaffolding tunnel, I felt the full impact of being what I’d call “race-objectified,” being reduced to a mere representation of one entire race, so that I’m no longer a person, but merely a convenient target.

Another racist incident was something that my wife, though white, had experienced firsthand, by virtue of being the mother of a biracial child. At another (much bigger) store here in Westport, it was this time a store employee (Latina) who asked my wife point-blank in a racist or at minimum racially insensitive manner about the shape of our daughter’s eyes.

She did so not in a complimentary, curious manner, but rather in a demeaning and mocking way, with the pulling of the eye corners, etc. Fortunately, this happened just as our daughter had briefly wandered off to the next aisle of merchandise and so she didn’t catch wind of what was being said about her. My wife, similar to me in the other instance described earlier, simply chose not to engage or confront.

One consolation from this episode was that my wife subsequently felt compelled to share the whole experience with an online local moms’ group and received nothing but the warmest responses and shows of support. We also discovered from the other posts that such incidents weren’t that uncommon in our town.

One major takeaway from these episodes is that such ugly incidents seemingly operate on racial lines only, affecting minority group members and their spouses and parents even if they happen to be white. Socioeconomic status and other demographic factors seem to matter little, though some of the most sensational recent Asian hate crimes have clearly singled out the especially vulnerable elderly. And it’s with horror that my wife and I feel obligated to eventually address these issues with our little one and to find ways to protect her.

From a psycho-biological (rather than political) perspective, certain impulsive, aggressive thoughts and actions on the part of highly stressed individuals feeling an exaggerated and/or imagined foreign threat are understandable, though these are of course not to be condoned. But when the acting out of such thoughts and behaviors don’t merely offend but lead to the harming and literal killing of unwitting innocent human beings targeted solely on the basis of their race and ethnicity, we need to move beyond just reprimand or criminal punishment. We need to delve deeper into the origins of such aggressions, to learn how we could prevent such atrocities if we want to progress as a harmonious, civilized society.

I believe a good place to start is in our school curriculums. The phenomenon of what psychologists call “dehumanization” needs to be studied in depth. Dehumanization is what enables racists, bigots, chauvinists to inflict harm without remorse on fellow human beings whom they’ve conveniently deemed to belong to a reprehensible other, known as the “out group.” As long as such psychological dynamics to varying degrees aren’t exposed and kept in check, racism — ranging from personal to institutional — will persist.

To have a chance at stamping out rampant racism, we need to not only inhibit racially insensitive or offensive behavior, but also to foster compassion toward fellow members of society, ideally from an early age, so that dehumanization tendencies can never take root in any person’s psyche.

13 responses to “Asian-American Life In Westport: Another Perspective

  1. It saddens me that this cruel behavior still exists even in our town of Westport. Education and Community support is the way to empower everyone in our community. My recommendation is for the school to reach out to organizations that education against all forms of racism .Please keep me posted if that town organizes a march for Asian lives matter.

  2. Nicole Klein

    It haunts me that this blatant racist behavior still exists, thank you for sharing with the Westport community Injae. We stand with you and your beautiful family.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences Injae. Hopefully everyone who reads it will do their part to root out this behavior and make our community more welcoming.

  4. Eric Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I find it ironic and all too typical that Westport’s leaders are so quick to extrapolate a psychopathic killer and impose his behavior on Westport’s residents. Is cutting in line Anti-Asian or simply rude, self-entitled behavior such as double parking at Starbucks? I don’t think any person is safe from that in Westport. There’s a difference between systemic rudeness and a psycho with a gun.

  5. Jeff Mitchell

    We talk often these days about diversity. That’s great, and we should, but as Injae points out, the root cause is actually dehumanization. You can just as easily dehumanize someone who *does* “look like you” because of where they live, what they do, etc just as easily as someone who does not look like you. Yes, easier said than done, but if we keep focusing on the manifestations (racism, ageism, sexism, etc) and not the root cause, it will never get done.

  6. It’s so unfortunate that his family has had these experiences. I agree with the author’s point of view on educational enhancements that can be made in the schools to address some of the root cause of these social ills. But this emphasis must also be reinforced by parents in their daily lives to be more effective.

  7. Ruth Steinkraus Cohen initiated a program which our family joined in the l970s. On June Day when flags from the world were flying on what is now the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, families from the United Nations were invited to spend a weekend in the homes of those who wanted to extend hospitality. When we moved from New York, we did not want our children to only be surrounded by kids like themselves and for a few years,we had weekends with people form China, Japan, India and other non caucasian countries stay with us. Her program provided the information for our children that the world is not all Westport, We have remained friends with some of tbefmailies, and our children are , we think, totally non prejudicial towards citizens from other countries, and their lives are richer and better infomrmed from this experience,

    Since Ruth died, does anyone know if such a program still exists here, and if so I would urge Westporters to participate. .

  8. At what point does this disgusting behavior become a “hate crime?”
    Does somebody need to get physically touched as opposed to verbally harassed?

    Also, if things like this happen in a store of some kind and the store owners or employees witness it yet don’t tell the offending person to leave the store immediately, then they too are part of the problem.

    People behave in despicable ways so often because they have observed and/or heard that behavior from their parents or other adults at some point during their lives. Hate is everywhere and while it won’t be eradicated, it needs to be lessened whenever, and wherever, possible!

    Westport doesn’t have the market cornered on “scum”, but if people think that “affluence” means understanding and tolerance, you are sadly mistaken.

    Step up everybody, and teach your kids to speak up too, if/when they see or hear others being targeted. If you aren’t willing to, then you are basically saying, “it’s not my problem.” That’s a sorry ass position to take.

  9. Nancy Gerard Yates

    Couldn’t have said it better!

  10. Wendy Schaefer

    So unfortunate to hear inflammatory comments being said about someone based on their looks and/or racial background. As a society, we need to teach this in the school as well as in the home. Share with your children the beauty of being exposed to and sharing different cultures, including multi-cultural cuisines, friends of different multi-cultural backgrounds, books, movies, museums to broaden their understanding, appreciation,& acceptance of diverse backgrounds. Let’s try to eradicate hateful behavior.

  11. Was that incident “in a local store” reported to the Police? As that type of behavior rises to the level of criminality. Was there a report filed? Was an arrest made?

  12. Anti-Asian discrimination is rising to the surface now in compassionate and beautiful, yet painful descriptions, but it has always been here locally. Sometimes my wife, whose father was Korean and mother is Japanese, has known the type of bigotry against Koreans in Japan where she was born and raised. Her parents sent her to international schools in Japan to avoid these confrontations, especially because she carried her father’s last name. As a result, she speaks English with native fluency and has been a bicultural consultant to international corporations and organizations for many years. Yet, when she goes to pay for her purchases at a supermarket, sometimes the cashier asks in quite stuttering language: May … I … help … you? Once she was shadowed in a local store by an employee. Sometimes there are hesitant looks by passersby, as there were a couple of days ago when she was walking the short trail around the library alone. Sometimes she doesn’t tell me, especially if I am nearby, because, well … I’m from Brooklyn, old Brooklyn.

    Having lived and taught English in Tokyo and Seoul quite a while ago, I’ve seen bigotry and racism in different forms, but here? No surprise at all. This country is racist to the core. I can go on with many more examples from the establishment of the Japanese school in Greenwich, to how incoming Japanese students were being perceived many years ago. To understand more clearly, we must look at the school curricula. For example, in the Greenwich school system, where there were many Japanese students but fewer today, Japanese language was never taught for non-Japanese to learn in spite of how popular Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics) are, and how many American students had Japanese friends. Yet Greenwich library has an outstanding selection of Japanese books and magazines, as well as a Japanese librarian and a budget to match. It is not enough to have a Japanese day with all the moms preparing Japanese food and demonstrations of classical dance, music, and martial arts. It is an important way to share culture and it is enriching. But locally, at least, we must overcome Euro-centric/western emphasis/obsession in education. There is just so much more of history, culture and life of Asia and Asian-Americans to share with our students and young people.

    I agree that we need constant reinforcement in the community, so this expression of support for the Asian-American community and call for more awareness is heartfelt and cannot be overstated. But I won’t go into the city with my wife at this time, in the middle of a class and culture war where anyone who looks different is subject to abuse or worse. And we are aware of it locally.

  13. Leslie Petersen

    All of this endlessly ugly, racist behavior , in my opinion, is not going to go away. Its roots are too deep.But all of our voices can and will continue to be heard, in this town and in this divided country. I stand by my Pan-Asian friends in our community. If I see or hear racist behavior, I will not pass by in silence. Peace.