I’m Asian American in rural Minnesota and have felt the sting of pandemic-fueled racism

How a bigoted remark at the grocery store exposed how some in my community see me in the age of COVID-19

A woman holds a microphone in front of a bison.
MPR News reporter Hannah Yang records sound at Fischer's Sleepy Bison Acres in Sleepy Eye, Minn., earlier this year for a story about food and sustainability.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

These days, I’m afraid to cough or sneeze in public — mostly because I’m afraid of experiences like one that happened to me last week.

As an MPR News reporter based in southwest Minnesota, it’s my job to tell the stories of the region, and lately, that has meant reporting on how the coronavirus pandemic is disrupting every aspect of life in the corner of the state that I call home.

During a recent grocery run, I was searching for a jar of tomato sauce when I overheard whispers that made me nearly drop to my knees: “Trump should send them back,” I heard one man say, followed by, “She looks diseased.”

I felt my face flush with anger and resentment. I suddenly felt the urge to vomit, but all that could come out of me was shortness of breath. It took me several minutes to realize that my fingernails were digging into the palms of my hands after clenching them in a fist.

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I prayed that the voices weren’t referring to me. But sure enough, when I turned my head toward the direction of the whispers, I saw an older white couple who had their eyes on me with laser focus. They then began to go about their business like nothing had happened.

There was a part of me that hoped maybe someone heard them, too, and that they would run to my defense. Yet no one came. I looked around and saw everyone was too absorbed in grabbing their own essentials to care about one Asian woman standing in the aisle almost about to break.

I can’t say I’m a stranger to moments of microaggression and prejudice. I was born in Cleveland, and was raised by South Korean immigrant parents who came to the United States in the late 80s. My brother and I grew up living in a household where Korean traditions were taught, but conflicted and clashed with the societal norms we encountered outside our home. Kids made fun of the food I ate, customers told my parents to “go back to China,” and many years later, a group of girls in my college dorm hung a derogatory poster on my door.

But now, the discrimination feels somehow different — even dangerous. In my small, largely white community, I do worry that some see me as nothing more than an embodiment of COVID-19.

And others across the state, even in the more racially diverse Twin Cities metro area, have stories like mine.

Gao Fitch is a Hmong American woman who lives in Albertville, Minn., a mostly white town of 7,000 in Wright County. A couple weeks ago, she was shopping for her daughter’s birthday gift at the Rosedale Center.

While Fitch was on her way out of the Roseville mall, a woman “plugged her nose” when they were walking toward each other and then deliberately made her way to the other side of the hallway, she recalled. Fitch said she didn’t realize what was likely behind the woman’s strange behavior until moments later.

“I was slow about it at first ... thinking to myself that maybe that small area was smelly, but I couldn’t smell anything,” she recalled. “That’s when it hit me. When I got into my car, I cried a little. I said a little prayer and forgave her. I get it. Everyone is scared during this time.”

Meanwhile in Washington, President Trump has repeatedly called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” even going so far as to cross out “corona” with “Chinese” in his prepared notes from a recent speech.

In doing so, he’s gone against the advice of world health officials, his own advisers, Asian American community leaders and others who say attaching an ethnicity to the virus can be misleading and stoke xenophobia.

On Monday, though, a day after he used the “Chinese virus” term in a tweet, he did call on Americans to look after those of Asian descent whom he acknowledged had been subject to “nasty language.”

He may be right about that. Researchers at San Francisco State University saw a 50 percent increase in the number of news articles related to COVID-19 and anti-Asian discrimination, including verbal and physical assaults, between Feb. 9 and March 7, according to the New York Times.

The Times reported that researchers believe the number of incidents is much higher because only the most severe cases would likely be covered in news reports.

Those stories include the stabbing of a Korean Canadian in Montreal earlier this month, which caused community members to fear that the attack was racially motivated because of the coronavirus.

Even children are beginning to follow what they see happen. A 13-year-old teen was arrested after allegedly kicking an Asian man in the back in New York, shouting expletives about COVID-19. The teen was charged with aggravated harassment and assault as a hate crime.

Asian Americans are in a precarious situation, where bigotry doesn’t care to discern differences among nationalities or ethnicities: If you look Asian, the thinking goes, then you must be carrying the virus.

Lines are drawn in the sand when it comes to what people of color experience, and too often, Asians are left out of those ongoing conversations that involve racial relations and the need to speak out against the hate they endure.

We are painted as model minorities — people with high-paying occupations and are in positions of power — to justify the narrative that Asians don’t experience discrimination or harassment in this country.

Yet, placing all Asians under one umbrella is why we’re arguing for people to see our humanity. We’re simply asking for the dignity and respect that we deserve as fellow Americans and Minnesotans.

After the grocery shopping incident, for the first time, I was genuinely scared that I would be the next news story of an Asian being attacked out of fears of COVID-19.

I work alone in my region. I go to assignments believing that I will be going home that night to be with my husband and my dog. Safety was not always on the forefront of my planning, but these days, it’s the only thing I’ve been thinking about. My husband, who is white, has persuaded me to stay in the car when we go to the store so that I won’t be subjected to additional stares, bigotry or worse.

If you think I’m overreacting, please look at our nation’s history. Learn about the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two white men who blamed the loss of their manufacturing jobs at their local Chrysler plant on the Japanese. Chin was Chinese American.

Yet, despite what may happen to me, I fear more for the vulnerable in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. I fear for our elders, and I fear for those who are new to this country and are still navigating the throes of everyday life.

My heart aches for the parents of English learners who are still trying to figure out the new normal and learning about distance learning for the first time. My thoughts go to the children who are acting as teachers for their own parents in learning about how to navigate life in a new country.

I think about people like my grandmother, who sat alone in her apartment in South Korea as the virus spread in the neighborhood where she lives. I think about my mom, who lives in Ohio and is recovering from thyroid cancer and has a compromised immune system. She wears a face mask at times, and I’m scared someone may assault or harass her for wearing one.

My interactions with people in greater Minnesota have been mostly positive, and I am forever grateful for those who welcome me into their communities to share their stories with our audiences.

Fear and ignorance can continue to divide us. The way we choose to show compassion and dignity for our neighbors when they need it will define us. The choice is ours.

Are you a member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community who has experienced harassment, bullying or violence in Minnesota as a result of the fear stemming from COVID-19? Contact Hannah at hyang@mpr.org and let her know your experience.