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Penelope Wong, chef-owner of Yuan Wonton food truck. Photo courtesy of Yuan Wonton
Eat and Drink

Why Now Is Not the Time to Stop Talking About Anti-Asian Hate

Yuan Wonton’s Penelope Wong speaks out about the importance of continuing the conversation about the hateful rhetoric and violence directed at individuals of Asian descent.

As an Asian-American woman who was raised by Thai and Chinese immigrants, the increase in the attacks against my Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in 2021 are a nightmare that have become a reality. The anxiety and the fear they triggered became so overwhelming that it even started to impact our services on the Yuan Wonton food truck, a business I launched in 2019 after a 20-year career as an executive chef at a private country club. It reached a certain climactic breaking point last spring, when I was actually scared to go out to serve food because I feared the dumpling truck was a giant target for an attack.

From a liquor store posting a sign that read “Thanks China” with a reference to a white supremacist slogan on the Front Range, to the assault of a 28-year-old gay man in Atlanta and the beating of a 68-year-old man in San Francisco, attacks against members of the Asian-American community have occurred in cities across the nation since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Between March 2020 and March 2021, more than 6,000 incidents of violence, harassment, discrimination, and other hateful rhetoric against persons of Asian descent were reported, according to Stop AAPI Hate. Even more staggering, in March of 2021 alone, nearly 3,000 related incidents were reported—encompassing more than 40 percent of all episodes reported during that month. As of September 30, 2021, more than 10,000 hate incidents against members of the AAPI community had been reported.

Penelope Wong’s cult-favorite Yuan Wonton food truck serves fare inspired by her Thai and Chinese roots. Photo courtesy of Penelope Wong

The topic of Asian hate crimes didn’t receive much mainstream media coverage until March 2021, when eight people were murdered in a series of Atlanta spa shootings, including six Asian women. That event—and the many other occurrences—led me to look back on the ridicule, mockery, and the bullying that carried on throughout most of my life and into adulthood—and even into the early days of my career as a chef. Throughout the pandemic, as crimes against the Asian community became increasingly more violent, it became difficult for me to go out to run simple errands. I found myself wearing a hat, sunglasses, and my mask throughout the entirety of a grocery trip to hide my identity as an Asian American. Knowing that hate was enough to provoke people to physically hurt others who look like me was terrifying. I became fearful for my family and for my daughter. I started becoming more aware and even protective of elderly strangers while shopping at the international food markets.

To my surprise, I found the silver lining to all of this. With bravery, trepidation, and complete will to do so, I chose to use my platform as a chef to support my AAPI community. Blessed with a large following on our social media accounts, I shared the horrendous headlines via Instagram and Facebook, knowing I was helping spread awareness provided a sense of comfort. Almost immediately, others began reaching out. So many Asian Americans—strangers to me—were willing to open up and share stories of the racism they experienced as both children and adults, which connected us. Throughout the many conversations, connections were made with the common ground of fear. It became cathartic to reach out to individuals for weekly check-ins to ask how they were doing and handling their fears. For the first time in my life, a true community connection developed between me and other Asian Americans.

Growing up as an Asian American in the Denver area, like so many others in my generation, I sought out friends and social circles that were more Americanized than diverse to feel like I fit in. In short, and regretfully, I wanted to feel more American. I didn’t want to be identified as Asian. My childhood was riddled with name calling, kids slanting their eyes while making fun of me, mocking my last name and using it in puns. Lunchtime in the school cafeteria was the worst. I begged my mother to make me “American” lunches so that the other kids wouldn’t poke fun at whatever Asian dish she packed for me. Looking back, on the days when she actually entertained my request, I usually didn’t even eat the American lunch because I didn’t care for it.

I remember feeling embarrassed when I invited my friends over after school, and my grandmother would be lighting incense and praying to our ancestors while offering a platter of fruit onto the red and gold shrine posted at every entry point in our house. When my friends inquired about the meaning behind the ritual, I would stupidly reply, “I don’t know, it’s dumb.” I don’t have regrets about the decisions I made in my adult life that led me to where I am today. But I live with immense regret and remorse for not fully embracing my family’s culture and traditions as a child. I live with anger at myself for succumbing to the racism and bullying by trying to be more American.

At the risk of imposing a blanket statement, I say fairly confidently that many Asian Americans have these kinds of stories to share. My hope is that my experiences inspire you to continue the conversations surrounding this issue. My hope is that other Asian Americans can find new connections with each other by sharing stories, because I can guarantee that you’ll find someone out there who is feeling the exact same way you are. My hope is that non-Asian Americans will continue reaching out to their Asian-American friends to check in and ask how they’re feeling. A small gesture like this can truly make a big impact.

It was a simple question of “How are you doing, really?” from close friends Carolyn Nugent of Poulette Bakeshop and Caroline Glover of Annette that led to the birth of Colorado for AAPI, a fundraiser we launched in May. Over the course of 24 days during AAPI Heritage Month, we raised $25,638 in donations from the Colorado community. We gave the funds to various organizations providing resources for those directly impacted by violent attacks, as well as groups making an impact on a legislative level, implementing new policies for hate crimes and even educational reform to start including Asian-American history in school curriculum.

My hope is that when you hear phrases like “Stop AAPI hate,” “Anti-Asian hate,” and “Protect our elderly Asians,” you don’t immediately think of the cause that was making headlines a few months ago, because the attacks haven’t stopped. In fact, one in five Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. have experienced a hate incident in the past year. It is important to keep sharing with others the horrendous headlines that we are still not always seeing on mainstream media. A rise in awareness has led to an increase in willingness to report these crimes. There has been significant impact made by raising awareness—and awareness needs to continue through conversation at the very least. We have the opportunity to change the experiences of our next generation.

Finally, my hope is that, as a collective, we can continue supporting the various organizations that are making change. Groups that you can follow and donate to include the Asian American Foundation, Stop AAPI Hate, Send Chinatown Love, and Heart of Dinner, Local organizations to support include Asian Pacific Development Center and Colorado Asian Pacific United.

Culturally, asking for help is not the Asian way—many of us have grown up to believe we shouldn’t talk back, speak up, or make a scene. Generationally, I think we’ve had enough of that belief, and it’s time to do the exact opposite. I remain hopeful that change can happen. With awareness and with organizations like these in place, Asian Americans can finally be hopeful, Asian Americans can make a scene, and we can finally ask for help.

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