Walking their dog after dinner has always been a favorite daily activity of Tho Pham and his wife, a Vietnamese couple who live with their 39-year-old son in Garden Grove City, California.
But not in the last few months as the wave of anti-Asian violence and harassment has terrified him.
“I do not dare go out without my children because I am afraid someone will knock me to the ground or stab me to death just because I am Asian,” he laments, adding that the hate crimes have disrupted his daily life.
Many other Vietnamese share his apprehension, especially older people.
Wally Ng, a member of the Guardian Angels, patrols with other members in Chinatown in New York City, New York, U.S., May 16, 2020. Photo by Reuters.
Violence and hatred directed at Asian Americans, which also includes mugging, have surged across California since the beginning of the Covis-19 pandemic as Asians are blamed for its origin in Wuhan, China.
Videos of an Asian woman being punched in the face on a subway platform and a Thai man being pushed to the ground in San Francisco have sparked fears, and the Vietnamese community is traumatized.
Hoai Nguyen, a housewife in San Jose, home to the largest Vietnamese population in America, says: “It is annoying and scary when you go out and have to keep looking behind your back to see if you are being followed by someone suspicious.”
She has been called “coronavirus” several times while walking and shopping, but she had not expected the discrimination and hatred to turn violent and even murderous.
Last month the Vietnamese community in San Jose was shocked after a 64-year-old woman was robbed in front of Dai Thanh Supermarket during the Lunar New Year holidays.
Nguyen says with a sigh: “I cannot do that (go out) on my own because they may kill me. How weak I am and how cold-hearted those people are.”
Since older people are targeted, no one is comfortable letting their parents or grandparents go out alone though the first month of the lunar new year is typically filled with activities like meeting relatives and going to pagodas.
This year most had a subdued New Year also because of the pandemic.
Hong Nguyen, who is always accompanied by her children on the streets in Oakland these days, says: “It should be a time for celebration, we should meet our families and friends instead of being targeted or attacked.”
The potential threats have brought the Vietnamese diaspora together.
On Facebook groups, they post videos of Asians being assaulted or robbed to warn others about the growing threat in places like California and New York, home to many Vietnamese-Americans.
“Please help if you see anyone being verbally or physically attacked,” one person wrote in a group for people living in West Hills, California.
Some people give a helping hand to elders in their Vietnamese and Asian communities. In Oakland, for instance, there have been community initiatives including patrols by volunteers who escort seniors around the city.
“From our Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese elders to our youth, our Asian-American communities are traumatized, afraid and outraged during a time when we are also experiencing disproportionate impacts of the pandemic,” according to a joint agreement by Asian-American organizations in the Bay Area said, calling for non-police safety measures like volunteer neighborhood patrols.
Hong Nguyen’s sons and daughter, who are in their 20s, have joined many other Asians to protect elders in public places.
“Someone threw rocks at my sister’s house twice last week, and so five of us stand in front of her house in the evenings to see if those thugs come around again,” Hong Nguyen says, adding solidarity is their recourse now.
A 91-year-old Asian man is shoved to the ground from behind by a suspect in Chinatown in Oakland, California, January 31, 2021. Photo courtesy of Reutters.
Some people have taken a further step, gun ownership.
“I decided to buy a handgun this spring after seeing a series of mugging of Asians,” Nguyen Duc Phuc, 45, says. Owning a gun gives him and his wife peace of mind amid the senseless violence, he says.
“When I was in line waiting to buy the gun, two white guys called me ‘chin*’ and made fun of me because I wore a mask.”
The New York Times quoted David Liu, owner of Arcadia Firearm and Safety in the predominantly Asian city of Arcadia in California, as saying there is an uptick in Asian-Americans buying firearms though admittedly interest has been skyrocketing among “basically everybody.”
In a survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation last year gun retailers estimated there was a nearly 43 percent increase in sales to Asian customers in the first half of 2020, the Times added.
But people like Pham, Phuc and Nguyen know that violence is never the correct response to violence.
On February 26 senior officials of the U.S. Justice Department claimed that the recent surge in violence and hate incidents against Asian-Americans is unacceptable, and promised to investigate those cases and other hate crimes.
These “horrific attacks on Asian-Americans across the country” have “no place in our society,” Deputy Attorney General John Carlin said while speaking about domestic terrorism, adding that the Justice Department is “committed to putting a stop to it.”
Agents and prosecutors at the department would “look at recent footage from New York and California to see those horrific attacks directed at Asian Americans, to realize how dire the threats are,” he said.
But in the meantime, Pham knows he needs his children with him if he wants to venture outside home.
“I just want to feel safe and not fear for my life when going out without disturbing my children.”