Asian Americans Find Comfort and Success in Community This Lunar New Year Amid Rise in Anti-Asian Hate
Some Lunar New Year celebrations have been lowkey as a year of anti-Asian violence has left many afraid. But the tides where mental health, success and representation are concerned have begun to turn, and Asian Americans have each other to thank.
For the last two years, Americans have grown accustomed to adapting holiday traditions in the face of travel restrictions, gathering size regulations and self-isolation guidelines in “the new normal,” but Asian Americans are grappling with something completely unique as Lunar New Year celebrations are underway. Many have muted, downplayed or cancelled their own festivities, as a defensive measure against anti-Asian hate.
“Growing up, I learned that the bigger and louder, the better the luck is going to be for the new year,” New York-based psychotherapist William Chum told Inside Edition Digital. “This year, that visibility is something that is very anxiety-producing, and so people are peeling it down. I’m hearing from a lot of my patients that they’re letting go of some of the traditions this year entirely, not wanting to be visible.”
And following a year that saw Asian Americans suffer violently – beginning with the Atlanta spa shootings and culminating with the tragic subway shoving of Michelle Go – and the ensuing psychological trauma many have suffered in the wake of such tragedies, it’s no wonder.
Even so, Chum and others in the community believe Asian Americans are, in some ways, doing better than ever – and they have each other to thank.
“Yes, we've been through trauma, we've been through bad things,” said Toronto-based podcaster and author Sheena Yap Chan. “[But] I don’t think people understand how resilient our community is.”
Among Asian Americans, 30% reported an increase in discrimination during the pandemic – and more than 40% reported an increase in anxiety, symptoms of depression and loss of sleep as a result, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
"[For] Asian Americans, mental health isn’t a topic that’s regularly talked about,” Chum said.
Chum specializes in the mental health of people of color. The majority of his clients are from Queens, New York, and Honolulu, Hawaii – two places that, while far apart geographically, are both home to major populations of Asian Americans.
To address cultural differences in the face of the mental health conversation, he takes “specifically Asian American approaches, Asian approaches, and not necessarily the traditional, conventional western psychology approaches” when working with Asian American patients.
“Ever since the pandemic, the inquiries from Asian American patients have just drastically increased,” Chum said. “All of these stresses … have led to a lot of my new patients, who are Asian American, to seek therapy for the first time, coming to me to address a lot of the anxiety that has been underlying. It has been happening all their lives but now, it’s finally at the forefront. Now it’s something that can’t be ignored.”
Chum explained that the influx of Asian Americans seeking therapy is in itself a silver lining.
“It is a really important shift,” Chum said. “A lot of these conversations wouldn’t have happened a decade ago. We are recognizing that the conversation about racial stress is no longer in the dichotomy of Black and white, that Asian Americans are such a unique group in ourselves and we don’t fit into that conversation. And so we have to be really specific about our own racial stress … and how it’s a very unique set of stress that I think a lot to the world is starting to understand.”
“If we don’t talk about it, we’re not going to be able to process it in a healthy way.”
More tangibly, what seemed like racially-motivated attack after racially-motivated attack – from the hate crimes experienced by elderly people in San Francisco and New York, to a deadly string of Atlanta shootings leading to the murders of primarily spa workers of Asian descent and their clients – led to a year of acknowledgement, change and progress on the national stage.
In May 2021, the White House passed new legislation to specifically combat the rise of anti-Asian hate incidents. The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which was widely supported by both Democrats and Republicans, aimed to make reporting hate crimes more accessible by increasing public outreach and making sure reporting resources are available in multiple languages.
It also aimed to bolster hate crime tracking with specific directions to the Department of Justice, provide grants to local and state governments to set up reporting hotlines, and offers additional training to law enforcement on hate crime response.
"My message to all of those who are hurting is: We see you and the Congress has said, we see you. And we are committed to stop the hatred and the bias,” President Joe Biden said in a speech, during which he called hatred and racism, “the ugly poison that has long haunted and plagued our nation.”
The government emphasis on reporting and tracking anti-Asian hate comes in addition to grassroots initiatives that emerged at the height of the violence. Stop AAPI Hate, a joint-initiative by existing advocacy groups, is a straightforward platform available in multiple languages that allows victims, witnesses and loved ones to report hate incidents in an effort to analyze and accurately document possible attacks, especially in cases where someone might be reluctant to come forward through official channels.
“No one should have to fear that their elderly parents, while they're taking their daily walks, might be attacked,” co-founder Cynthia Choi told Inside Edition Digital. “We can come together as a community to stem the tide of anti-Asian racism.”
Some in the community, however, pushed back on the federal legislation, saying that increased policing does not lead to more safety among people of color and instead called for more resources and education to address the cause of anti-Asian bias.
Around the same time, Congress introduced the Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act, which called for grants to be doled out by the Secretary of Education to support the educational programs that include the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, including their settlement in the country and past discriminatory laws that impacted their livelihoods for years to come. The bill is still in the first stage of the legislation process.
The call for increased education, instead, was answered at a state level, first in Illinois in July 2021, when Governor J.B. Pritzker became the first to sign a new law that required the teaching of Asian American history in public schools.
Last month, New Jersey became the second state to require Asian American history taught in public schools. Make Us Visible NJ, an advocacy group of students, teachers, parents and legislators that largely efforted the law, called the move “a concrete way to prevent anti-Asian hate and support the mental health of Asian American children.”
Following Vice President Kamala Harris being elevated to the highest level of office ever presided over by a woman of Asian descent, 2021 saw an onslaught of Asian Americans running for office – many who saw historic wins.
During the November 2021 mayoral races, voters elected former City Councilor Michelle Wu in Boston, Aftab Pureval in Cincinnati and Bruce Harrell in Seattle.
Wu, whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants, became the first person of color to serve as the city’s mayor, just as she was the city’s first Asian American city councilor. Pureval, of Indian and Tibetan descent, became the first Asian American to hold the city’s mayoral post, and Harrell, who has an African American father and a Japanese American mother, became the city’s first Asian American mayor and second Black mayor.
New York City saw five new Asian Americans elected to city council in November 2021, including the first Muslim woman, the first Korean Americans and the first South Asian Americans. Four out of the five, who are all Democrats, were elected to represent their home districts in Queens, which is home to the city’s largest and most diverse Asian population.
This year also saw director Chloé Zhao, who hails from Beijing, became the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for best director. At the postponed 2020 Olympics that took place over the summer, Suni Lee of St. Paul, Minnesota, became the first Hmong American to compete at the Olympics – and ended up taking home the gold medal at the all-around gymnastics event, making her the first Asian American to earn that spot on the podium.
Months later, Lee reported being pepper-sprayed after she and some friends were told to “go back to where they came from,” she told PopSugar. In December, she disabled comments on an Instagram post of her and her boyfriend, who is Black, after receiving “so much hate” due to their interracial relationship.
“A lot of things happened during the pandemic that woke us up to the reality of race relations in the country and the world,” said Genevieve Wong, a Los Angeles-based producer and author. “A good day for me is, well for any woman, is not getting assaulted. That’s where my bar is.”
Wong told Inside Edition Digital that she has been working in the television industry for nearly two decades, landing her first job as a late night writer in her 20s. She felt she was hired as not only the token Asian in the room, but also the token woman.
“They just wanted [to hire me] to feel better,” she said. “The people I worked with were not interested in forming any sort of friendship with me, nor were they interested in improving my craft as a writer or producer. Now when I look back, as an older and more seasoned professional, I realize that many of my superiors, not all of them, were just trying to fill a quota.”
Today, Wong said she is much prouder of where the industry is from a diversity point of view. “Asians and Asian Americans are being accepted on a level that I’ve never seen before,” she explained. “Last year, I was able to cast my first lead Asian American actress in one of my TV shows. I was not able to do that before last year.”
Wong also co-authored a cook book with her mom, Rose Cheung, “Healing Herbal Soups,” that details traditional and medicinal Chinese recipes with ingredients not typically found in western dishes like fish maw, hawthorn and red dates.
“Ten years ago, if we had written this book and tried to do media, traditional Chinese medicine would have been treated very disrespectfully,” Wong said. “Now it’s considered a holistic approach. Oftentimes our readers will message me with a picture of the soups that they’ve made from our book … they’re not embarrassed.”
Hardship among Asian Americans is nothing new – and every Asian American family has their story of hardship to tell.
“If you ever spoke to your grandmothers or grand uncles, like the stories [about] what they’ve gone through,” Yap Chan told Inside Edition Digital. “My great-grandfather was a POW. My grandmother raised 11 siblings, only had a sixth grade education … even though she went through so much trauma, she can always wake up with a smile on her face and say, ‘Today is a good day.’”
Yap Chan’s life’s work focuses on helping Asian and Asian American woman find their confidence. “We’re still going through all these negative stereotypes – we’re still seen as quiet, submissive and obedient. I really want Asian women to realize that you’re not that, you’re more than that. You are powerful, you are strong, you are brave,” she said.
And she believes the conversation surrounding anti-Asian hate being brought to the forefront is a reflection of Asian American society also finding the strength to speak up.
“Due to our upbringing, when something bad happens to us, we’re not supposed to talk about it, we’re just supposed to keep it in,” she explained. “We’re seeing more people fighting back, stepping up, speaking up for our community. There’s more support out there, now more than before."
Her biggest hope this Lunar New Year, which she is celebrating away from her huge family in the Philippines, is that the community continues to support each other through the good times and the bad, and that it is through traditional ideals of family and collectivism that turns the page on the difficult past year.
“Our community is totally hurting,” Yap Chan said. “But we can learn that there’s better things out there and it’s up to us to make that positive change. It’s not just for ourselves, it’s for our community and our future generations too, to live a better life.”
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