Opinion: A Thai reflection on the rise in Asian-American hate crimes

Last May, Thai-American actor James Tang tweeted, “My mom said we should speak Thai in public so we don’t get targeted for speaking Mandarin.”

Oh, such motherly innocence!

“I think it’s so sweet that she’s nice enough to believe that these stupid f***king racists can differentiate between Asian languages,” Tang added. 

A year later, however, and the tweet is even more unsettling than before. It was the death of a Thai man earlier this year, after all, which helped highlight the rise in Asian-American hate crimes. Vicha Ratanapakdee was walking in San Francisco when he was violently shoved to the ground — a fatal attack that his family believes was racially motivated. 

When I was a student in the United States, I never felt like I was discriminated against because I was Asian. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the UC Berkeley campus, where I studied, is 40 percent Asian-American, and feeling out of place was simply not something I ever experienced.

Perhaps it had something to do with the city as well, with its small signs of home. The Thai student population itself is tiny, but you wouldn’t have guessed from the abundance of Thai restaurants on every major street. There was even the presence of the local Thai temple, a lovely little place that served a delicious brunch every Sunday morning. Nothing screams ‘Thailand’ more than kathin ceremonies and kanom krok. It was hard not to feel at home, after all, in such a city. 

And so it was with a feeling of surprise — and disgust — to read about Vicha’s death in neighboring San Francisco. And it was with even greater dismay as the news continued to flow in about more hate crimes directed against Asian-Americans occurring throughout the country. 

It probably shouldn’t have been too hard to guess — nothing else could have came out of a certain former president’s labelling of the coronavirus as “the China virus” or “Kung Flu” — but it was disappointing, and terrifying, all the same.

Discrimination? I hadn’t felt it. Yet it is just as likely that I could perhaps have simply been unaware, and had just failed to notice. 

Of course, no longer living stateside, it’s hard to grasp how it feels over there. Now, however, even Thai-American friends who call the United States home say they feel more on guard than usual. And in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings, which killed eight people including six Asian women, however, I called a friend finishing up her final semester there

“It’s terrifying,” she told me. “It’s definitely too close to comfort.” She even told that this was something that would make her consider another destination to pursue her graduate studies. 

All of this is enough to make me wonder whether the spike in Asian hate crimes will have a long-term impact on the US as a destination for international study. 

To start with, the US is already becoming less popular as a place to pursue higher education. The number of Thai students studying in the US has declined consistently over the past 20 years, from a little over 11,000 in the 2000-2001 academic year to just 6,154 in the 2019-20 academic year.

The reasons for this are myriad. Other countries are becoming more attractive, such as the UK, where in England undergraduate programs take only three years to complete, or the increasing number of international programs offered by institutions closer to home such as Japan and South Korea. And in recent years, the Trump presidency and its chronic mismanagement of the pandemic response has hardly uplifted the country’s image as a paragon of competence and vitality. 

Yet it would not be surprising to see this trend accelerated even further by the news of the Asian-American hate crimes. Images of racists punching elderly Asian grandmothers, after all, are hardly appealing to prospective students. 

All of this is, to me, a shame. 

The United States that I knew as a student is a vibrant society defined by an open-minded respect of diversity and tolerance, where communities did their best to make sure people from other countries felt welcome, where people went a greater extra mile than I had ever seen anywhere else to be inclusive of people of all nationalities, races and faiths. 

One of the first events I attended on campus as a freshman was a talk by John Chiang, who was then serving as California’s state treasurer and running to be California governor. It was a good talk — policy-heavy and finance-focused, as you would expect from the state’s top accountant — but what struck me more was an ad that his campaign later released.

It was called “Underdog.” In it, Chiang recounts the abuse his family of Taiwanese immigrants suffered. “We were the first Asian-American family on our block. We were taunted. Ridiculed,” he said. “They threw rocks at our windows. Spray-painted our garage. And started fights with us on the playground.”

Chiang didn’t ultimately win the election. But it did strike me that someone who had experienced such discrimination in his early years could, in his adulthood, run a credible campaign to fulfill his aspirations of governing the world’s fifth largest economy. And this, after all, is the same country that elected Tammy Duckworth as the first Thai-American in Congress and that just elected Kamala Harris as its first Asian-American vice president. That, to me, is America: a country defined by resilience. By possibilities. And by hope.

Watching the country be consumed by a renewed wave of xenophobia and anti-Asian hate is undoubtedly sad. It’s also the side of America that will be presented to the international news media, and upon which millions of people, including Thais, will cast judgement.

But it’s my hope that the other side of America that I got to see will win out in the end. 

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