In recent weeks especially, the Rev. Sam Park said he has had a number of congregants approach him with their thoughts, feelings and questions in tow.
All three have tended to revolve around the topic of hateful rhetoric against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, which according to reports, has escalated notably in the past year and has come to a head in the last month with violent attacks and a mass shooting dominating national news. Park, founder of the ReNew United Methodist Church on Monterey Road, said it hasn’t been so much guidance that he offers his congregation, which Park estimates is about 60% Asian American.
“More than anything, I have just been listening,” Park said. “They are incredibly hurt. Some of them are afraid. I have someone who said for the first time in a long time she’s glad that people are wearing masks, because when she walks her dog, she can put on sunglasses and no one will know she’s an Asian American, which is very sad.”
That sentiment, unfortunately, is not limited to South Pasadena, where the 30.5% of the population identifies as Asian and another 6% identifies as two or more races, according to a 2019 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, there is an enduring conversation about the multilayered racism levied against Asian American and Pacific Islanders — commonly abbreviated at AAPI — throughout their history of living in the United States.
In 2020, reports of anti-Asian hate incidents surged 145% in American’s largest cities, according to a preliminary report from the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at San Bernardino. In contrast, the overall number of hate crimes reported to police departments dropped 6% that same year.
The nonprofit coalition Stop AAPI Hate also said it received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents against Asian Americans since the pandemic took hold. About 68% of those incidents involved verbal harassment, while 11% involved physical assault. The nonprofit also said that women report hate incidents 2.3 times more often than men.
“This has become almost a daily tragedy and has had a chilling effect on our community,” Congresswoman Judy Chu said in a hearing on anti-Asian hate last month.
Additionally, Chu, a Monterey Park Democrat whose district includes South Pasadena, said hostile anti-Asian comments increased in Twitter by 900% since last year. The hearing was being held days after a white gunman shot and killed eight people — six of whom were Asian women —at three massage spas in the Atlanta area.
Last year’s spread of the coronavirus — which is believed to have originated in China — is seen as a signature eve nt in precipitating the increase of anti-Asian hate throughout the United States. In particular, then-President Donald Trump’s frequent use of phrases like “China virus” and “kung flu” were frequently decried as dog whistles that lent credence to prejudicial behavior.
“What started out last January as dirty looks and verbal assaults has escalated to physical attacks and violence against innocent Asian Americans, and these attacks are getting more deadly,” Chu said.
Park, whose family immigrated to Boston from South Korea when he was young, said that words and rhetoric have a harsher effect on immigrants and their families than other people likely understand, and can often linger longer on someone’s psyche.
“It’s telling, first of all, of the person who’s speaking it. ‘Out of a person’s heart, the person speaks. It is from the overflow of the heart that a person speaks,’” he explained, citing the Biblical passage. “Words create worlds. They are much more powerful than most people give them credit for. I’ve been in fistfights and I’ve recovered and I sometimes laugh at those instances. But people have said things to me and I remember them 40 years later. It’s very difficult to remove and extricate, especially when heard at a very early age.”
Yuki Cutcheon, president of the South Pasadena Chinese American Club, said since the Atlanta tragedy, most of the influential organizations in town have reached out to her group to offer support and solidarity. Having lived in South Pasadena since 2000, she said this was not terribly surprising for her.
“We have a lot of diversity here in South Pasadena,” she said. “Me or my kids or anyone that I’ve heard personally have never experienced direct racism or prejudice, nothing really overt. If you don’t like diversity, you’re probably not going to stay in South Pasadena very long. You can’t go to the grocery store or church and see only white people.”
That being said, raising children in a relatively insulated community can mean those kids don’t necessarily recognize the insidiousness of indirect prejudice, or know how to respond when confronted with it, she noted. Cutcheon, who was raised in Canada, is Japanese and white, and her Chinese husband, John Au, was born and raised in Hong Kong. Their daughter, Charis, graduated from South Pasadena High School last year, while their son, Akirin, attends the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
“I think our kids, to some extent, are less aware of racism because they don’t experience it,” Cutcheon observed, “and when they do, it’s covert, so they don’t realize it’s racism or prejudice and kind of shrug it off. Things happen that are a little more hidden.”
Relatedly, Park said he posed a thought experiment to congregants. Consider, he said, walking into a coffee shop and seeing both an American-born Asian woman and a Swedish student there: which would they immediately assume is the immigrant?
“It’s the concept of ‘forever foreign,’” Park said. “We are perpetual immigrants, in the eyes of mainstream America.”
While a junior at SPHS, Charis helped form a school chapter of the Chinese American Club, which sent its members on a trip to China in its inaugural year.
“I feel like this whole year there’s been a lot of things going on that are hard to see,” she said. “There are some things that happen in South Pasadena, but I feel like we have a really strong community here of Asian Americans. It’s not really scary going outside and being around other people, but in talking with some of my friends in other states, it can be very scary for them.”
Charis said she and her brother, however, were fearful of an upcoming work trip their father is taking to Texas, where she suspects harassment is more frequent and direct.
“I can’t imagine living in places where that’s something I experience day to day,” she said. “The few times I’ve experienced it have been very, very uncomfortable. I was kind of laughing about it at the time with my friends because it was so abnormal. If it was happening somewhere else where I was a minority, I would feel alienated. It’s hard to feel confident about yourself when you feel so alone.”
Park said he is planning what he hopes will be a three-part program of forums and celebration for the spring and summer, where he can bring leaders to the table to talk about how to confront the sources of prejudice and unify the broader community. In assembling this coalition, he said that he will include one voice he doesn’t often see at these programs: the police.
Park has been the department chaplain for the South Pasadena Police Department since January 2020. He lauded interim Police Chief Brian Solinsky in the aftermath of the Atlanta shootings for dispatching patrol units throughout town to check in on and show support to Asian residents and business owners.
“Clearly, there has been a rise in violence — outright crime — against our Asian American members of society. How do we help and how do we prevent? Well, this is a criminal act,” he explained. “There are law enforcement agencies. It seems to me that if you’re having a lot of car problems, you consult mechanics. When you have a rise in crime, you have to get police involved in some capacity, and the thing is, they want to be.”
Cutcheon said confidence in speaking out has helped sustain the current movement, alluding to the cultural norm of older Asian immigrants being more reserved when targeted with harassment or prejudice.
“We talk about those things within our own small groups so that our children understand historically what their ancestors had to go through to be here,” she said, “but we don’t talk about that with the broader community.”
Still, she fondly recalled the mark her Japanese mother made upon her when she was in 3rd grade, and her teacher decided it would be funny to mispronounce her name as “yucky.”
“I remember my mom, the next morning, she marched into the school right and told the teacher off in front of the principal,” Cutcheon said. “That made me feel empowered. I, as an adult, always feel empowered to standup for my race and culture and religion because of what my mom did. The story isn’t hurtful for me, because my takeaway isn’t what my teacher did, but how my mom responded to it.”
Christian Leonard contributed to this report.