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Racism, fear of violence part of daily life, say members of Maryland’s Asian American community after Atlanta shootings

As an Asian American business owner, Jennifer Qiu braces for encounters like the one Sunday night in her Ellicott City restaurant.

A man accosted one of her Asian customers, cursing and shouting that her customer had the coronavirus, she recalled Wednesday. The man became so hostile, police arrived. Officers charged him with disorderly conduct.

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The encounter left Qiu troubled by yet another glimpse of what she considers the anti-Asian sentiment burning through America. Two days later, things got worse.

Six Asian American women were gunned down at spas in Atlanta. Though authorities say the women might have been targeted for their jobs, not race, that’s no comfort to Asian American families across Maryland who heard slurs of “Kung Flu” all the way from the White House.

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Rey Eugenio, owner and head chef of Heritage Kitchen in Whitehall Market, is planning a fundraiser to thwart anti-Asian hate. Eugenio, a Pigtown resident, is Filipino.
Rey Eugenio, owner and head chef of Heritage Kitchen in Whitehall Market, is planning a fundraiser to thwart anti-Asian hate. Eugenio, a Pigtown resident, is Filipino. (Kim Hairston)

“Any time anything like this happens, that’s the first thought that comes to my mind: the safety of my family,” said Rey Eugenio, of Pigtown, the owner of the Filipino restaurant Heritage Kitchen. “It’s getting crazier and crazier. … It has been in the news a lot — attacks on Asian people.”

In Howard County, burglars struck six businesses — four of them Asian-owned restaurants — on the Lunar New Year in February. A police spokesman said investigators have no evidence that the burglars targeted the restaurants because of the owners’ race. Still, one Chinese restaurant owner, a man who declined to be identified for fear of being targeted, took his staff to a shooting range. He applied to keep a handgun in his restaurant.

The diverse county is home to one of the state’s largest populations of Asian American residents. Asian American people account for 18% of Howard County’s population and nearly 7% of the total state population. Maryland, in particular, has a history of the mistreatment of Asian Americans. During World War II, Japanese-American families, along with Germans and Italians, were held in stark living conditions at internment camps on Fort George G. Meade.

Howard County police are increasing their checks on Asian American businesses and religious centers, a spokesman said. Police Chief Lisa Myers plans to meet with Asian American community leaders next week.

“We feel it personally with my daughter, who sort of is sometimes afraid to come visit us, with people who had best friends that were being harassed at the grocery store, or being called names, and people yelling about the China virus, even though they’re from Korea and born in America,” he said on CNN Sunday.

Such slurs have been condemned by President Joe Biden. Upon taking office, he issued a memorandum to denounce harassment, bullying and hate crimes against Asian Americans. Worse yet, such acts of intolerance are increasing, according to the president.

The San Francisco nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate, for Asian American and Pacific Islander, received reports of nearly 3,300 incidents — harassment, assaults, workplace discrimination, internet trolling, shunning — against Asian Americans last year. People reported being coughed and spat on and told “You and your people are the reason why we have corona,” according to a report issued by the nonprofit.

In the report, workers at a supermarket in Astoria, New York told of finding the store vandalized with the graffiti “China Off My Face.” Meanwhile, the basketball player Jeremy Lin took to Facebook last month to tell his fans “Being a 9 year NBA veteran doesn’t protect me from being called ‘coronavirus’ on the court.” And last July, the owner of the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team drew sharp criticism when he offered $20 T-shirts with a red outline of China crossed out.

Then Tuesday evening, a gunman opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area, killing seven women — six of them Asian American — and one man. Police said they are not ruling out the possibility the women were targeted because of their race. Police arrested Robert Aaron Long, of the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock, and charged him with the murders. The 21-year-old confessed to the shootings, Cherokee County Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Jay Baker said.

“He does claim that it was not racially motivated. He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate. It’s still early on, but those were comments that he made,” Baker said.

Maryland state senators adjourned Wednesday in respect for the victims. Sen. Susan Lee, who chaired the General Assembly’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, said the past year has worried Asian Americans in Maryland and across the nation. President Donald’s Trump’s incendiary remarks of “Kung Flu” and the “China virus” — remarks that drew laughter and wild cheers at his rallies — have emboldened those who would harass Asian Americans, the senator said.

Cellphone video circulated last May of a man confronting a woman during a road rage encounter in Bethesda, shouting, “We’re going to drop a bomb on Hiroshima. We’re going to annihilate Japan and you, too.”

“Unfortunately, the past toxic political rhetoric, disparaging statements against immigrants, Asian Americans, people of color, women and people of all backgrounds have contributed to this violence,” said Lee, a Democrat from Montgomery County.

At Johns Hopkins University, where students of Asian heritage represent about one-third of the class of 2020, some felt a heavy sense of dread when they learned of the Atlanta killings.

The Inter-Asian Council of students spent a year calling on university officials to condemn attacks on Asian Americans over the COVID-19 disease. The university published statements condemning anti-Asian rhetoric in May 2020 and February and March of this year; its open letter last week acknowledged the long shadow the pandemic has cast on Asian students, and condemned xenophobia and racism against all people of color.

Last March, as student Alisha Chen and her parents were driving home to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, another driver rolled down his window, she recalled, shouting at her family that the pandemic was their fault and they should “go back to where [they] came from!”

The experience was jarring.

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“I’m very fearful as an Asian woman, and it makes me very fearful for my elderly parents and grandmother,” she said.

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Baltimore police did not immediately respond to questions about whether they are seeing rising crimes against Asian Americans or any actions the department is taking to address the issue.

Clarissa Chen, a 23-year-old Taiwanese-American from Baltimore, said news of the Georgia attacks hit her personally; the victims were Asian women like herself. American culture has vilified and isolated Asian Americans, she said, particularly the women. Stereotypes of Asian women as submissive have made them fetish objects, she said.

“Those identities make them a very easy group to take out violence on,” Chen said.

The reminders of danger are everywhere on social media, said Mario Chang, president of Kagro of Maryland, a nonprofit that helps Korean-Americans and their retail businesses. Chang owns a corner store near Mondawmin Mall and says he worries about becoming the victim of a hate crime. He hoped police would step up security around Asian business in the city.

“It could happen to anybody,” he said. “People look to take advantage of any situation. People are going to take advantage. Race is one of those things that people use for gain.”

Meanwhile, Eugenio, owner of Heritage Kitchen in Whitehall Mill, was working Wednesday to organize support for Asian American families to fight hate. He hopes to hold a fundraiser in May, the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. Asian artists and craftsmen will be invited to sell their work in the market, and he wants to throw a Sunday supper in honor of his mother and all matriarchs of Asian homes.

Still, he worries the harassment and violence won’t stop, and he’s keeping close his wife and three young sons.

”I don’t understand what is going on and motivating people,” Eugenio said. “There are enough problems day to day. I don’t have the answers. I don’t think anyone has.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Pam Wood, Lillian Reed and Phil Davis and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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