Missing jade heirlooms. Broken drawers. Stolen safes. Two families, forever changed.
This is what 23-year-olds Grace So and Grand Cheung each came home to earlier this year, on separate occasions.
On February 10, So’s father called her while she was working at Sushi Nine in Raleigh. Her childhood home of 12 years in High Point, North Carolina, had been broken into — and her parents’ safety had been compromised. Her heart shattered like the plexiglass sliding door to her backyard.
“I was just shocked,” So said. “I had to go into the break room and take a moment to let everything sink in…I was just like, I have to pull myself together.”
Cheung’s home had been broken into approximately a week before. So and Cheung attended Southwest Guilford High School together and are of Korean-Chinese and Chinese descent, respectively. So’s mother works in a nail salon and at a flea market in Winston-Salem while Cheung’s parents are restaurant owners. Their parents are often not at home for vast portions of the day.
“During Lunar New Year, Asian American families are known to withdraw a bunch of money to exchange or give gifts for kids,” Cheung said. “I don’t know if this was more of a hate crime or more of an opportunity to commit this crime.”
But hate crimes are on the rise.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 150 percent in major cities, specifically New York and Los Angeles. According to a report from Stop AAPI Hate, the organization received 3,795 reports of hate incidents between March 19, 2020, and February 18, 2021
From the Japanese internment camps during World War II to the shooting of six Asian female spa workers in Atlanta, this is not a novel phenomenon. Racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of America’s founding, and racist fear-mongering directly harms marginalized communities. While bicoastal communities and major cities are often the focus, Asian Americans in the South are no strangers to the systemic and individual racism that puts them in peril.
Combatting Interpersonal & Internalized Racism
At the beginning of the pandemic, So was sitting in a lecture hall at North Carolina State University, listening to a cluster of white female classmates gossiping behind her. The comments escalated.
“They were talking about COVID-19 and how it came from China,” So said. “They’re like, ‘You know what? Just nuke the whole country.’ I was so shocked that they would even joke about something like that. I turned around and I was just like, ‘Are you guys joking right now?’”
With a Chinese father and Korean mother, So grew up in Boone, North Carolina, where the Asian population is approximately 1 percent. She never felt a sense of belonging; she was the perpetual foreigner. The whispers she heard from the girls behind her were all too similar to her experiences growing up, as she was teased for the food she brought to school and her customs.
“I’m pretty sure I was the only Asian person in the entire elementary school,” So said. “I never really felt it until people started commenting on how I said things. When I was young I had a very strong accent. In elementary or middle school, I was just like, ‘Why can’t I be with more Asian people or people that can understand me?’”
Cheung had similar experiences navigating education in late elementary school.
Cheung recalled how he was enrolled in English as a Second Language classes, an experience he didn’t like because he was pulled out of lessons and singled out from his peers. After leaving that class, Cheung said he couldn’t see himself the same as anyone else and remembered how much he wished he grew up around more Asians.
“When I was in elementary school, I went to my parents and asked, ‘Hey, why can’t I be white?’” Cheung said. “This was during the time I thought, can I change my birthday? Or why can’t I change my skin color? I kind of wanted to fit in, not so much be cool, but just be able to communicate with all these other people. I definitely wish I had a sense of community instead of being like I was the odd one out.”
Growing up, he was frequently met with racist taunts, such as white male classmates daring him to show off a martial arts move. Classmates told him that Asian Americans were coming to the U.S. to steal jobs. He pleaded with his peers to understand that migration occurs for different reasons; families move primarily to support their children and offer them a better life.
Standing Up Against Structural and Institutional Inequity
For Nicole Montegrico, who is Filipino-American, nursing is what brought her parents to the United States. From Tuguegarao City, her family emigrated to Winston-Salem when she was 4 years old. Dating to the colonization of the Philippines in the late 19th century, Filipinos make up the largest share of migrant nurses in the United States.
After World War II and the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the pipeline for Filipinos and Filipino Americans to enter the nursing workforce solidified. But since COVID-19 struck, Filipino nurses have been dying at disproportionate rates. They make up 4 percent of the workforce and approximately 30 percent of all COVID-19 hospital deaths.
However, this didn’t faze 22-year-old Montegrico. The 2020 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate works in the medical intensive care unit at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Though she pursued her dream of entering healthcare and wants to become a nurse anesthetist, her educational journey was fraught with inequity.
“(The UNC School of Nursing) accepts 104 students every year,” Montegrico said. “In my cohort, there were literally 88 or 90 white people. Nicole Ward and I, because she’s one of my really close friends, actually counted the minorities in our cohort one day, and there were 15.”
With that came the onus of constantly educating white classmates; challenging white professors was a daily task. Now working as a registered nurse, she has witnessed her preceptors making disparaging, racist comments about Black and Latino patients and particularly on election night, how one nurse lauded Trump’s handling of the “China virus.”
“It was my last night with her as I preceptor and I was like, ‘I don’t want to get into this,’” Montegrico said. “This is how she is as a person…and I’m a baby nurse. This is a nurse with 20 years of experience. She could make my night a living hell.”
Despite being typically outspoken in the classroom at Carolina, she had to pick and choose her battles for the sake of focusing on patient care. Upon reflecting on her experiences, Montegrico said that a lot of Asian Americans are still not even aware of the model minority myth, and have accepted the notion.
“A lot of Asian Americans don’t want to speak up against or even stand up for themselves in front of white people,” she said. “They think that they’ve been so accepted by white people that they don’t want to piss off that standard of ‘Asian Americans are the good kind’ because of the implications society has put on us. Do great things for yourself, but not because the white man expects you to do it to please him.”
She stated that this was especially evident after the brutal police killing of George Floyd during the summer of 2020 and the protests that followed, as Montegrico fostered conversations with her Asian American peers about the necessity of racial solidarity.
The Nuance & Importance of Asian American Community
Raised in Fayetteville, Nicole Ward, a UNC nursing 2020 graduate, works in Duke Hospital. She grew up idolizing two professions—medicine and teaching—and would assign her stuffed animals 50 chapters of reading for homework nightly.
When Ward became older, she sought to marry her love for teaching and science by pursuing nursing. Ward, who is Black and Filipina, met Montegrico through the Minority Nursing Student Association at Carolina, and they were fast friends. She received a full-ride to UNC as a Covenant Scholar.
“When I got my scholarship to UNC, it was an Asian girl who told me that she wished she was half Black so that she could also get a scholarship to UNC,” Ward said. “I grew up with a pretty heavy Filipino influence, just because of how big and connected our community in Fayetteville is.”
Ward said that she was fortunate enough to not experience anti-Asian rhetoric from Black family members, but distinctly remembers anti-Black remarks from Asian relatives and peers. Like many countries, the Philippines is still grappling with the effects of colonization, from indigenous language loss to cultural genocide and notably, colorism.
“It’s a beautiful blend of two cultures, but it was confusing as a kid,” Ward said. “Filipinos already have a complex identity because we are Pacific Islanders, but we’re also Asian, but we were also colonized by the Spanish and by America. I had pressures to use lightening creams all throughout my childhood that I never used, thankfully, and was bullied for my hair and my skin color.”
Though she internalized a lot of self-hatred of her Blackness due to such pressures to conform, the 23-year-old has grown to love her identity. In her workplace, Duke University Hospital, she’s received comments shrouded beneath a layer of Southern hospitality or looks of awe when she shares that she’s also an Asian woman. Strangers still can’t identify “what she is.”
“When a lot of people look at me, they don’t know where to place me. So they just say some racist things to me. Recently, someone said to me they’re just so frustrated because all these Asian nurses kept being hired who can’t speak English. It’s hard to know what to do because we have to work as a team and nursing is not something that you can do solo,” said Ward.
In day-to-day interactions, since she was a child, she’s been fetishized by countless people who approach to say that “Blasian babies are the most beautiful” or show pictures of their Blasian cousins. Despite their obsession, Ward knew that beauty is fleeting in the face of anti-Asian propaganda and racism.
In dismantling racism, she said people need to understand that Black-Asian solidarity is imperative, from the Rainbow Coalition to protesting against the Vietnam War, Yuri Kochiyama’s work with Malcolm X, and more.
“I feared a spike in hate crimes against Asians because I know the racist history of this country,” Ward said. “I think people…are neglecting a significant history of unity of Black people showing up for Asian rights and Asians showing up for our rights and equality across the board.”
Despite these occurrences, Ward remains grounded by ardently advocating for patients from marginalized backgrounds in the manner she wishes she could advocate for herself in those situations. Ward, along with Cheung and So, leans on the necessity of community.
Raising more than $8,000 combined via GoFundMe, So and Cheung have been able to replenish some of the material items their families are lacking. However, the loss of their sense of safety and precious family heirlooms cannot be recovered.
As anti-Asian violence rears its head again in American history, Cheung wants people to understand that they should lend their voice to amplify the issue.
Cheung said, “If you know what’s happening, spread that awareness. If you know about or have seen it, just don’t ignore it. This like this is real. This isn’t going to go away anytime soon. You can only help and not make things worse.”
UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.