BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. - Yena Choe, 16, was at Times Square on Saturday with six friends to film a video for the Korean-American Association of New Jersey's "Samiljeol" event, a remembrance of Korean resistance to Japanese rule.
As they walked with Korean flags, an unmasked, middle-aged woman glared at the teens and told them, "Get away from me. Stay far away from me," while waving her hands, Choe said.
"We did nothing to provoke this woman," said the Leonia High School sophomore, who said she and her friends were all wearing double face masks. "Yet based on our appearance, and quite possibly even based on the flags flying in our hands, we were treated as if we were a contagious disease.
"For the rest of the day, I was afraid," she said. "I was afraid that something like that could happen again, that next time it could be worse than a glare and a rude remark."
Days later in the city's Chinatown, Salman Muflihi was arrested after allegedly stabbing a 36-year-old Asian man, police said. Muflihi is facing charges of attempted murder as a hate crime, assault as a hate crime, forgery and criminal possession of a weapon, according to New York Police Department statements to USA TODAY on Friday.
The incident is a part of a series of recent violent crimes against Asians and Asian Americans in New York and across the country.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the commander of the police department's Asian Hate Crime Task Force spoke at a news conference Tuesday about what the city is doing to prevent anti-Asian hate crimes.
"An attack on Asian New Yorkers is an attack on all of us," de Blasio said.
Last year, there were 28 incidents of COVID-19 related hate crimes against Asians in New York and two so far in 2021, according to Deputy Inspector of the city's Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Task Force Stewart Loo.
A string of high-profile attacks on Asian Americans are surfacing from coast to coast a year into the pandemic. In January, an 84-year-old San Francisco immigrant from Thailand died after he was shoved to the ground on his morning walk. In February, a Vietnamese woman was assaulted and robbed of $1,000 in San Jose and a Filipino man was slashed with a box cutter on the subway in New York City.
The head of Oakland's Chinatown Chamber of Commerce has collected more than 20 incident reports and videos of small businesses getting robbed and owners and customers assaulted, he told San Francisco's KGO-TV.
Attacks like these have continued despite President Biden's executive order banning the federal government from using racist language to discuss the pandemic, a turnaround from months of his predecessor mocking the "China virus" and "kung flu."
Around the world, as coronavirus has devastated the economy, Asians have become targeted for the pandemic that started in Wuhan, China. They have been yelled at, spat on and beaten up, according to media reports across the globe.
In Wyckoff, New Jersey, last June, a Chinese restaurant was vandalized with the words "coronavirus" and "go home" spray-painted on the windows and sidewalk.
North Jersey is home to one of the state's largest populations of Asian Americans with 17% of Bergen County identifying as Asian. In towns such as Leonia and Fort Lee, Asian Americans make up about 40% of the community.
There were 47 race-based incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in New Jersey from March 19 through Dec. 31, the eighth most of any state, according to the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate. Of the cases, 64% were verbal attacks while 13% were physical assaults. In New York City, 259 incidents were recorded against Asian Americans in the same period with 81% being verbal and 12% physical.
Burdened by the model minority myth, Asians are easy targets in times of downturn, said Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and professor at San Francisco State University. Despite their deep roots in the U.S. Asian Americans will forever be considered foreigners by some people, he said, a stereotype that has persisted since the first immigration of Asians in the 19th century to help build the Transcontinental Railroad.
"Since we don't belong, we can be spat on," Jeung said.
U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, who represents New Jersey's Third District, says the hate crimes seen over the past weeks are reprehensible.
"Seeing our elders targeted and attacked has been hard to watch and difficult to explain to my two boys," said Kim, whose sons are 3 and 5. "New Jersey has been a place where generations of Asian immigrants have found open arms and incredible opportunities.
"We cannot put an end to this hate until we see tangible results at all levels of government and society," Kim said. He called for executive actions from the administration and legislation from Congress.
Asian community activists in New Jersey are aware of the rise in hate crimes. While they are vigilant and cautious, they feel the Garden State is a welcoming place for immigrants.
"We are in a much better situation than in New York City," said Michelle Song, executive vice president of the Korean-American Association, who lives in Somerset. New Jersey values diversity, said Song, who emigrated from South Korea in 1995. It's also a suburban environment where automobiles are the main mode of transportation, she said, leaving fewer chances for random encounters that can flare into harassment.
"We hardly walk here, we don't see people face to face," added Kirby Tan, a Chinese community group organizer who lives in Tenafly.
Tan has lived in New Jersey for 35 years. After arriving from Malaysia to study in San Diego at a time when there were few Asians, he recalls developing a buddy system for safety when he went outside. His neighborhood in Tenafly is populated with many Asian American families and there is a sense of community, Tan said.
A history of outcasts
As businesses have shut down, Asians have become a convenient scapegoat for troubles. It has happened before: Consider the 1982 case of Chinese American Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two autoworkers who were frustrated at losing jobs because of competition from Japanese car manufacturers. Following a plea bargain, the men received no jail time. “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail,” wrote Michigan Judge Charles Kaufman.
This month, Congress' Asian Pacific American Caucus held a day of remembrance on the 79th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordering more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II, another dark period in this country’s history.
Meanwhile, the young American-born sons of Japanese immigrants – known as Nisei –were eager to show their patriotism and shed racist stereotypes. They volunteered to serve in the military during the war. But again, the government distrusted them, so they weren’t allowed to serve in the Pacific. The estimated 33,000 Japanese American soldiers were sent to serve in Europe to fight for the U.S., even as many of their families were held in internment camps.
The Nisei soldiers became known for their bravery. The 100th/442nd Infantry Regiment was comprised almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans, and they became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history.
Choe is well aware that while born in this country, she is still sometimes perceived as an outsider.
"As angry as I was, I was hesitant to respond," she said of the Times Square incident. "The videos and images of violent anti-Asian hate crimes that I had seen on the news and on social media rushed through my head, making me feel almost embarrassed, almost scared to hold the flag of my own ancestors."
Choe blames social media and comments from elected officials, including former President Donald Trump, who seemed to direct responsibility for the global pandemic toward Asians.
"Looking back, I wish I would have said something," Choe said. "I wish I didn't have to feel scared about standing up for myself. But this is the sad reality of the injustices that continuously face Asian Americans in our society."
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Man stabbed, teen harassed in New York amid attacks on Asian Americans