Opinion

Opinion: My Tito, New York, and the Rise of Asian Hate

This can’t be the new normal.
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The world witnessed how the events of September 11, 2001 brought probably the greatest city in the world to its knees. It erased two 110-story towers and the thousands of lives within and beneath them. More than just altering the city’s skyline forever, 9/11 changed New York City and pretty much every New Yorker, for better or worse whether they liked it or not.

What eventually proved greater than the terror and ensuing loss was the city’s indomitable spirit that brought most everyone together to lift each other up, rebuild, and rise again stronger than ever before. New York strong. We’ve all heard the stories. First responders. NYPD. NYFD. New Yorkers are heroes. Most everyone at least.

The best and the worst 

Mark Twain once said, “All generalizations are false, including this one.” As much as we saw how the aftermath of September 11 brought out the best in people, it also unraveled the worst in some. Immigrant and multiracial Americans became the target of hate crimes and harassment. Muslim Americans and Americans of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent were subjected to racial profiling, bigotry, and discrimination in the workplace, if they even got as far as finding employment.

All this because they looked different, dressed a certain way, or had more or less melanin than the majority. What happened on 9/11 was not just an attack on the people of New York or on America as a nation. It violated humanity as a collective. We all stood up to condemn an unequivocal evil. It’s ironic how some turned to racism to deal with tragedy when that’s what caused it in the first place. Nobody should ever have to live in fear because of the color of their skin. 

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It’s been almost 20 years and New York has changed remarkably since then. We’ve seen gentrification, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s fall from grace, and the New Jersey Nets play in Brooklyn now. For three straight years before Covid-19 happened, I would take a break from work and spend about a month there each year. No matter how many movies I’ve seen where it was always a bad idea to walk alone at night, I would always end up exploring New York by subway and on foot until I get tired or it gets too damn cold for anyone to be out that late in the middle of winter. It just felt safe enough to get lost in the city with just Google Maps on my phone to guide me and the only thing to worry about back then was slipping on unsalted icy pavement as I walked home.

Fine, there would be the occasional intoxicated, overbearing homeless person asking for change but people were generally decent and I would always make it home to my uncle’s place across the water from Manhattan in one piece. I got back to Manila from my last visit in January of last year, just a few weeks before the pandemic.  

Surge in hate crimes 

If surviving Covid-19 wasn’t hard enough, what’s more upsetting is the alarming surge of hate crimes against Asian-Americans we’ve seen since the virus struck. The New York Times reports that after a decline in overall hate crimes in 2019, violence against Asians in particular had gone up last year from seven to 15 in the city of Los Angeles and by more than 830 percent in New York, from three to 28.

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This year, the NYPD has already recorded at least 35 hate crimes against Asians as of mid-April. We can't discount how much the previous administration contributed to the increase in numbers, particularly with the former President's attempts to place the blame for the pandemic squarely on China. Who can forget how he referred to Covid-19 as the China virus, going as far as using the pejorative ‘Kung Flu' on more than one occasion, despite repeated criticism regarding his choice of words and warnings of how it could result in xenophobia. Alternative facts and more nicknames further stoked hate against a minority to distract from growing disapproval of his administration’s mis-handling of the pandemic amid a re-election campaign, which he would eventually lose in just a few months.

Not since post-9/11 have we seen so much hate directed at a particular ethnicity for something they themselves have to contend with just as much as everyone.

Close to home

We all were horrified after watching the video of Vilma Kari, a 65-year old Filipino-American who was punched, kicked, stomped on, and told “you don’t belong here.” She was on her way to church when she was brutally attacked by a man, almost half her age, out on parole for the murder of his own mother.

Vilma Kari is around the same age as my uncle and his wife. They immigrated to the U.S. back in the 80s. They have a lovely apartment in Jersey City right by the water with a breathtaking view of Manhattan’s skyline to the left and a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty on the right. Lady Liberty, who used to be the first to welcome immigrants on board ships arriving in the harbor in the late-1800s until the 1920s, a symbol of hope for all who seek shelter and a new life in the land of the free.

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I fortunately have never personally experienced racism. On the contrary, people in New York seemed to be the total opposite of the stereotypical rude and abrasive New Yorker in pop culture. They generally keep to themselves most especially in the subway so when you go up to someone to ask for directions, they always seem jumpy and on guard. Probably still an after-effect of 9/11 but when they see someone evidently lost who genuinely needs assistance, like a clueless Filipino tourist for example, they’re always ready to offer help and tell you where you need to go. 

Genuine cause for worry

It’s sad to think how much the past year has negatively changed the world and how people treat each other. Seeing these attacks on helpless, most of the time elderly, innocent Asian-Americans is sickening. Having people just watch these injustices happen and not do the altruistic thing and help is even more disappointing. What Asian-Americans are experiencing today is not that far removed from what American Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent had to go through back then and you would think people would know better 20 years later.   

I worry about my NYC-based Pinoy friends who are just as much American as the next New Yorker. I’m concerned about the safety of some of them who have to get on the subway and walk city blocks every day to get to work and earn an honest living, far away from the safety and comfort back here in the Philippines. I have to check up on my uncle, more often now than I normally do, to remind him to be extra careful whenever he goes to the city. He’s lived there over 40 years but he’s still got that tito accent and he looks undeniably Asian which causes me immense anxiety. This cannot be the new normal.

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Mikko Abello
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