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Adam Vu, a freshman at DSST: College View High School, studies in his bedroom on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Adam, 14, lives in Denver with his family. His parents are from Vietnam. He is committed to taking action against racism targeted at Asian Americans and raising his voice louder than previous generations have. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

In the early days of the pandemic, before social distancing was even a thing, Kelly Hoang noticed people avoided sitting by her on the bus ride home from school.

They were unsettled by her, said Kelly, the 16-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants. Across the nation, people — including the former president of the United States — were calling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

Kelly tried to focus on the positive and joke her way through her isolation. She was worried about being around other people anyway.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

“It’s what racism does for me rather than what racism does to me,” Kelly, 16, remembers telling herself. Making jokes about acts of discrimination has become her go-to coping mechanism.

“I don’t really know what else to do,” she said.

Kelly, a junior at DSST: College View High School in Denver, and other Asian American students in Colorado have long been the target of racism. They’ve been mocked for the shape of their eyes. They’ve been bullied about their skin color. They’ve been asked if they eat dogs. They’ve been verbally abused, called “chink” and “Jap.” They’ve been told they smell like curry.

And it has intensified in the last year. At the outset of the pandemic, Kaila Nghiem, a junior at Overland High School in Aurora, was roaming the aisles of a grocery store when another shopper coughed the phrase “bat eater” as she walked by. Her father told her to keep quiet because he didn’t want anything worse happening.

But as hate crimes against Asian Americans have escalated alongside the pandemic, Kelly and Kaila and other Asian American teenagers in Colorado are no longer willing to stay silent. As they’ve grown older, they’ve realized that the casual comments about their looks and traditions were outright racist and harmful. And their tolerance of discrimination has been replaced by anger and fear of what the future could hold.

Those feelings reached a boiling point for students on March 16, when a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

That crime is part of a recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes that has rattled communities during the pandemic. The nonprofit Stop AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) Hate reported close to 3,800 incidents of racism against Asian Americans between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28. The organization reported nearly 350 incidents among youth in the same timespan, though it’s likely more happened as more school districts reopened after the data collection. 

The prevalence of hate crimes is keeping more Asian American students learning remotely. About 70% of Asian American students in grades K-12 were sticking to online classes as of February, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey.

The Colorado Sun interviewed five Asian American students who live in Colorado about the racism they’ve experienced growing up and how the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes is affecting their sense of safety and belonging.

“Just seen as this vermin”

Kelly, of DSST: College View High School, was particularly traumatized by the gun violence in Atlanta. She was especially disheartened to hear authorities talk about how the shooter committed the crimes, in part, because he was having a “bad day.”

“It genuinely shattered me because those were lives that were taken because someone had a ‘bad day,’” said Kelly, whose parents were born in China.

She also was outraged with references to the gunman being a sex addict, which she said contributed to the fetishization of Asian women and disregard for Asian lives. It’s a dehumanizing problem that Kelly has both witnessed and experienced, with people befriending her or wanting to date her only because she is Asian.

“It’s like an award for them,” she said. She said it feels like the value of Asian Americans swings a lot, from outcast to objectified, depending on what’s at the center of mainstream media.

Kelly has been exhausted and losing hope since the shooting in Atlanta.

Kelly Hoang, a junior at DSST: College View High School in Denver, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and has grown up facing microaggressions and more blatant acts of racism. Kelly, 16, was devastated after the mass shooting in Atlanta in March that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent. She has also personally experienced racism in the past year as hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have become more prevalent amid the pandemic. (Handout)

“I genuinely gave up hope for, like, weeks and couldn’t recharge from that,” she said. “I couldn’t come back from it because it was just so shocking. Everything happening is just so shocking.”

But to a degree, she had almost come to expect hate against Asian Americans to continue mounting. The first time she heard about Asian Americans being attacked, near the end of February 2020, she thought about her grandparents and cried, grieving for elderly victims of hate crimes.

Even her own suffering on the public bus wasn’t a complete surprise, particularly as people, including then President Donald Trump, referred to the coronavirus as “the kung flu,” “the Chinese virus” and “the China virus” as the disease gained traction in the U.S.

“It felt horrible,” Kelly said. “It’s almost as if I knew that it was going to get worse, that it was going to happen a lot more often and that it would go from being avoided to being attacked to being screamed at to being just seen as this vermin in certain people’s eyes.”

Kelly, who was born in Longmont, said she’s learned to appreciate her culture, but it’s taken time.

“I remember hating my own language and my own culture and my own food growing up because of the bullying and the harassment that I got from my peers,” she said.

“The twig in me snapped”

The mass shooting in Atlanta certainly wasn’t the first attack against Asian Americans that sparked a deeper concern in Adam Vu, a freshman at DSST: College View High School. The 14 year old sometimes helps his parents manage the restaurant they’ve owned in downtown Denver since September 2019. Adam said he heard of anti-Asian hate crimes escalating as soon as the pandemic started — crimes he didn’t see reported by media outlets. His list of worries stretched from the restaurant’s welfare to the safety of his family and customers.

Ever since the shooting in Atlanta, Adam said, “the twig in me snapped.”

“It was a very powerful and devastating event that brought a bunch of light to reality in what we’re living in,” said Adam, who was born in Denver and whose parents are from a city near Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

It also ignited a fight-or-flight response in him. The “fight,” Adam said, rose from the anger and resentment building within him after hearing about anti-Asian hate crimes for so long and standing helpless. The “flight” stemmed from beliefs often held by an older generation of Asian Americans, who have focused on avoiding attention and conflict to ultimately be able to stay in the United States.

The generations are divided on how discrimination plays out against their community, Adam said, with older people seeming to keep their heads down to keep the peace.

Adam said his own parents deny that Asian Americans face discrimination.

Adam Vu, 14, a freshman at DSST: College View High School, sits outside his Denver home on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Adam’s parents are from Vietnam and have owned a restaurant in downtown Denver since September 2019. As anti-Asian hate crimes have escalated during the pandemic, Adam has worried about the restaurant’s wellbeing and the safety of his family and customers. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“They wanted to keep quiet because they wanted to stay in this country peacefully and didn’t want to get into any fights,” he said.

Adam said he and his peers must help family and community members understand that racism is a serious part of their lives “and we have to have an action step in order to make it better.” 

For Adam, action has involved pushing beyond his emotions as he helped create a video to raise awareness of what’s happening to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that students have watched in their homerooms. The video also included mental health resources for Asian American students and aimed to continue the conversation about anti-Asian hate crimes in his school. Adam helped pitch the idea of the video to school staff, who encouraged him and other students working on the video to push forward with it. 

“I do have a lot of anger, frustration and deep sadness in our community and in our country,” Adam said, “but I know those emotions aren’t necessarily going to do anything by themselves.”

The need to be actively anti-racist — beyond social media

Emotions have also swelled for Kaila, of Overland High School, as she has watched Asian Americans become the victims of more extreme hate crimes.

“I think more than anything, it makes me angry and it makes me almost embarrassed,” Kaila, 17, said. “It’s as though I live in a world that literally was created for me to not succeed.”

And as a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community in addition to being a minority, she said she faces even more barriers to success and to creating systemic change.

Kaila was born in Tucson. Her father was born in Vietnam, while her mother was born in Illinois and her maternal grandmother is from the Philippines. 

Her father now owns a boba tea shop in Denver and, in the past year, has been called “a Jap” and “a chink” by racist customers, who have also screamed at him. She said she is “incredibly scared” every day when he goes to his shop. Anti-Asian hate crimes have become so normalized that she worries he could be targeted and physically harmed.

Kaila Nghiem, a junior at Overland High School in Aurora, stands outside her school on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Kaila, whose father was born in Vietnam and whose mother’s side is from the Philippines, has experienced racism throughout her childhood. At the start of the pandemic, the 17-year-old was called “bat eater” at a grocery store. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Kaila wants damaging Asian stereotypes to no longer be normalized. That’s what it will take to ensure“every Asian member of any community feels safe to just exist.”

She noted that allies are a helpful part of combating racism and emphasized that people have to be actively fighting racism to make a real difference — beyond social media posts.

Clicking on the repost button on Instagram is not enough, Kaila said, and prompts “little to no actual change.”

People need to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations, recognize their privilege and then use it to help those who don’t have it, she added.

Kaila said one of her friends who she considers an ally checked up on her to see how recent high-profile crimes against Asian Americans were affecting her mentally. She appreciated his sensitive approach as he also assured her that he understood if she didn’t want to talk about it.

She cautions those who want to be a helpful ear to their Asian American friends to listen and watch their words, noting it’s not acceptable to try to minimize their feelings and the actions of others.  

“I wanted to be white”

Even before the mass shooting in Atlanta, Lucy ThuyNhi Van’s parents warned her and her younger brother to avoid upsetting anyone because of recent hate crimes and attacks on elderly Asians.

“I feel like my whole family is just super fearful when it comes to this stuff nowadays,” said Lucy, 17, a junior at DSST: College View High School. 

She doesn’t necessarily worry about her own life or the lives of her family members being at risk, but the pandemic-fueled racism that she’s witnessed has weighed on her family and made her question their safety.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she said, “we were afraid of going out and getting weird looks,” said Lucy, who was born in Colorado and whose parents immigrated from Vietnam. Her family now lives in Littleton.

But Lucy is used to being scrutinized. While growing up and attending schools with predominantly Hispanic students, she suffered acts of racism ranging from kids pulling their eyes back to making jokes about her eating dogs to commenting on her weight and proportions as an Asian girl. Students weren’t reprimanded or told those jabs were offensive, she said.

Lucy ThuyNhi Van, a junior at DSST: College View High School, sits outside her school on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Lucy’s parents immigrated from Vietnam, and the 17-year-old has questioned her family’s safety as anti-Asian racism has increased during the pandemic and she wants people to educate themselves about the hardships Asian Americans are experiencing. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“I felt like I didn’t fit in a lot of the time,” Lucy said. “I found myself thinking sometimes that I wanted to be white or I wanted to suppress my culture.”

She has also struggled with the model minority myth that often holds Asian Americans up as “particularly successful” and more likely to excel other racial groups.

Some Asian American students note that the myth creates privilege — but privilege that stems from racism. It also adds to expectations placed on them, pushing them toward impossible standards.

The myth wrongly puts down people from other minority groups and creates a divide among people of color, Lucy said. It also feeds into white superiority as it holds Asian Americans to a status closer to white people because of their perceived success, she said, and it downplays the struggles that Asian Americans endure.

Throughout history, a lot of issues that Asian Americans have faced have been brushed off and forgotten, she said, and Lucy wants people to acknowledge the hardships her community is experiencing and do more to educate themselves and talk about it. She also emphasizes that every group within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has its own experiences and thoughts and that each group deserves support.

“I just want people to be educated more,” Lucy said, “and know that the little microaggressions that many people probably think are harmless add up over the years.”

Empathy over sympathy

Anoushka Sarma’s childhood has been punctuated by many moments of racism — though only recently has the 18-year-old Fossil Ridge High School senior reckoned with the magnitude of discrimination she has experienced.

Her peers have called her “curry” and asked her boyfriend if she tastes like curry when he kisses her.

She didn’t realize how many microaggressions like these she faced daily while growing up in Fort Collins. 

Sarma, who was born in Fort Collins and whose parents are from Assam, in northeastern India, remembers a period in her childhood when she was surrounded by white people and really wanted to fit the beauty and social standard of those around her. Only within the past year has she started to realize that she’s different — and began embracing it.

Sarma went through an identity crisis her freshman year, when who she was at home clashed with who she was trying to be to fit in at school. Her parents have encouraged her to take pride in both Indian and American culture, but she struggled to appreciate the values her parents taught her that didn’t translate to her life at school. 

In the past year, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, Sarma has tried to educate herself about the systemic racism that is still prevalent and has realized that she has been targeted with racism, often laughing it off in the moment. She now sees how detrimental it’s been to her whole identity.

Jokes, she said, “made it really hard for me to accept who I am and appreciate my differences and appreciate my cultural values.”

Anoushka Sarma, a senior at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, is recking with how much racism she endured throughout her childhood. Sarma, 18, was born in Fort Collins to parents who immigrated from India. She sees education as a key component in overcoming racism — both on the part of schools and individuals. (Handout)

She’s still confronted by racism in her community. Sarma worked with five Fossil Ridge peers to organize a rally last July after racist social media posts circulated among students. One of them featured a video of a white high school student saying the n-word after pretending to choke a friend.

As hate crimes against Asian Americans have worsened during the pandemic, Sarma has become more concerned about her safety, particularly as she looks ahead to college next year. She also worries about her 6-year-old brother, who is scared of police.

She sees education as a key part of overcoming racism. Much of history is told from a white point of view, Sarma said, though she’s optimistic that schools are trying to include other narratives in the classroom. She also emphasizes the need for schools to reach out and support students of color. She said she has felt unheard and marginalized by her own school when trying to speak up about her experiences, including this past summer after the racist social media posts.

But she also holds individual people responsible for educating themselves, reading about others’ experiences and researching how they can help.

“Ignorance is really easy, but these conversations are super important because if everyone wants America to get better, then you have to have these conversations and you have to show active change,” Sarma said.

Within those conversations, white people must recognize their own limitations in being able to relate to Asian Americans’ experiences.

“Empathy is important,” Sarma said. “Sympathy is a little much.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin