Tag Archives: Asian-American murders

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.

Starting Hard Conversations About Asian-American Lives

In the wake of last week’s murder of Asian-Americans in Atlanta, many of Sarin Cheung’s friends wanted to reach out to her.

But most had no idea what to say. Or how even to begin.

Some wrote texts, then waited a day or two before hitting “send.” Others called, and talked about a whole range of topics until they eventually said, “I don’t know how to ask this. But how are you?”

Sarin was grateful for the outreach. It was as difficult for her to talk about violence against Asian-Americans as it was for her friends to ask. But the conversations were necessary and important. Finally, the women talked.

Cheung is Thai and Chinese. She attended an American school in Taiwan, then headed to Boston University. After graduation, and some time back in Thailand, she spent a decade traveling the world with GE’s corporate audit group.

After working for GE in Stamford, then American Express in New York, in 2009 she and her husband — he’s with a hedge fund – moved to Westport. The child of Chinese immigrants, he grew up in the US.

Sarin Cheung and her family. The flags behind them on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge are flown on jUNe Day.

About 15 years ago, Sarin became an American citizen. It seemed a natural next step. She’d gone to an American school, come here for college, and had permanent resident status.

For many years, she did not think much about being an Asian-American. In Taiwan, she did not have much exposure to issues of race. Coming to the US at 18, she says, “I was probably super-naive. I probably couldn’t recognize any racism that was happening around me.”

Sarin and her husband moved to Westport for the schools. She did not think much about Asian in a predominantly white community.

But after the Atlanta murders, she reflected in her life in America. She recalled an incident at a restaurant: The hostess looked right past her and her husband, while seating other people.

“We just left,” she says. “That’s the way Asian-Americans dealt with that type of treatment.”

Yet as she talked with others recently, she realized the pain of situations like that. Racism in Westport can be subtle, she says. “It’s not violent shoving or vandalism. It’s the looks you get.”

As the pandemic began, she seldom left home. When she ventured into a grocery store, she was aware of stares. Was it because she wore a mask — when not everyone else did — or because she is Asian? She’s not sure.

Most prejudice against Asians in Westport is not overt.

The texts and calls from friends — when they eventually came — made an impact on Sarin. The conversations were meaningful. The questions — “What do you need? How can I help? Is there going to be a march?” — made her feel valued. Hearing “I’ll be there for you” was gratifying.

In return, Sarin called other friends who had not yet reached out. They were glad to hear from her.

It was a surprisingly public activity for Sarin, who says, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” A 2-year PTA president at Saugatuck Elementary, she is well-known in her school community. But she’d never spoken out about an issue like racism.

Sarin has asked her children — a 5th grader and 3rd grader — if they have experienced any prejudice. They said no. “But they’re young,” Sarin notes. “Would they be able to recognize it? I’m not sure.”

Sarin says, “Asian-American culture doesn’t verbalize feelings a lot. I don’t want to change that. But we have to be honest, and educate others.”

She and other Asian-Americans are waiting to hear a statement from town officials. 

She knows there are initiatives at Staples High School. At the elementary level, she says, “We need teachers to be empowered to talk about this.” [NOTE: Superintendent of Schools and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe released statements fabout the violence yesterday.]

The Asian population in Westport — estimated at 5 to 7%, Sarin says — is mostly affluent. But, she notes, many new immigrants live nearby. Not all are “model citizens.”

“I don’t feel, personally, that my life is in danger. I know who to call for safety,” Sarin says. “But we need to highlight and protect those new immigrants, and our friends’ elderly parents.

“It’s easy to be nice in Westport to Asian-American neighbors. But people of all sorts of demographics are here too. I think about them a lot.”

[UPDATE] Marpe, Scarice Speaks Out On Anti-Asian Violence

1st Selectman Jim Marpe says:

I am heartbroken by the recent surge in the despicable acts that are targeting members of the Asian American and Pacific Island community. An attack on any is an attack on all that we hold dear as a community that embraces inclusiveness in how we govern, and in how we interact with our neighbors. I wholeheartedly condemn such violence.

Town Hall flags fly at half staff, in memory of the victims of the Atlanta shooting. (Courtesy of Town of Westport/Facebook)

We celebrate diversity in this community, and we do all that we are able to insure everyone, residents and workforce alike, feels safe, secure, and welcome in Westport.

Together, we must support and encourage programs and policies that include frank discussions on race and inclusivity. By doing so, we will come to a better understanding and open acceptance of our unique personal qualities. We accept and honor every aspect of the human experience that makes us members of a civil society.

To that end, I will request that the Board of Selectmen approve a resolution condemning the hate and violence against Asian-Pacific Americans at its regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 24.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice says:

Like many of you, I felt great sorrow over the tragic events in Atlanta last week.  I made a prepared statement for the Board of Education meeting this evening.  However, after receiving a number of heartfelt emails over the weekend, I was moved to share my comments with the school community prior to the meeting.

The unspeakable act of violence in Atlanta last week was yet another reminder of the chasm between our world today, and the ideal of the world we envision.  The violent loss of life, of any life, is destructive to what we aspire to be as a nation, and to what we aim to build as neighbors.

The Westport Public Schools stands with all communities in denouncing all forms of violence, racism, and xenophobia. The commitment of our district is to embrace and respect all people, while creating inclusive school environments where all students and adults feel a strong sense of belonging, affiliation, and connection.

This work takes commitment from all levels of the school community. On behalf of the Board of Education, and the faculty and staff, I want to affirm that as we stand beside all members of our community, that we particularly show support for our brothers and sisters in the Asian American community, which has experienced a tragic increase in acts of violence and hatred.

Our district has made a strong commitment to ensuring that each and every student and adult is treated with dignity and feels an abiding sense of belonging.  We continue this work as we engage in an equity study, pushing us to confront our practices and to ensure that we are doing our part to make this a more equitable and peaceful world.

By collaborating with community groups, initiating school based equity teams, and working with our curriculum coordinators to incorporate the appropriate discussion of these topics in our classrooms, the Westport Public Schools can successfully make all those in our schools feel welcome, while preparing our students for the diversity of the modern world.

Although our flags fly at half mast in remembrance of those lost in an horrific act of violence, let us not forget that it is in the day to day work of our schools, the incremental steps we take, that we see the most profound change and progress over time.