TRAVERSE CITY — Amy Yee said the first time she noticed a shift in the feeling of Traverse City as a safe place was when she tried to hail a ride home from the hospital.
Discharged after a bad bout of bacterial pneumonia, she called a transport company, she said. The car’s tracking dot inched closer on her smartphone screen, then she spotted the vehicle in the driveway. But when she waved to the driver, he darted off.
“And it’s kind of funny, because I thought, you know, I really can’t blame him,” she said. “Here I am, I’m an Asian woman outside of a hospital wearing a mask. But it was pretty disheartening.”
Yee, whose father is Chinese-American and whose mother was of Japanese descent, watched with growing frustration during the past year as reports grew of attacks against Asian-Americans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was particularly angry to hear of assaults on older people because they’re especially vulnerable.
“And I thought, you know, that’s a very cowardly thing to do, and I really didn’t understand it,” she said.
Now, she and others are speaking out after a gunman attacked massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, killing eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
The victims’ families and friends are starting to share their story as police investigate. A suspect is in custody and reportedly confessed, and many are rejecting his claim that the killings weren’t racially motivated.
As a licensed massage therapist, Yee said she’s no stranger to the stigma surrounding Asian massage parlors and the sexualization of Asian women. Despite taking pains to steer away from that image, she still occasionally received calls from people expecting something other than massage.
Still, Yee has come to see Traverse City as a fairly safe place in the 30 years since her family moved to the area from Warren. She also has watched the northern Michigan town become more diverse. But the past year was an eye-opener with the pandemic and more anti-Asian racism.
The moment it occurred that she was a target because she’s Asian came not long after the occurrence at the hospital, she said. Yee was in line at a store she frequents and watched as two employees helped other customers — except for her, even as she stood next in line. Eventually, one of them reluctantly rung up her purchase.
“I was a target for shame that didn’t belong to me … and that’s when things had changed, and I actually started to feel a lot of paranoia at that time,” she said.
The feeling was enough that Yee was glad that pandemic orders kept her business shuttered for three months. It meant she didn’t have to face what she considered “an invisible paranoia for Asians,” she said.
Yee briefly considered moving, even contacted some real estate agents about a place in the Pacific Northwest where the population is more diverse, she said. But she changed her mind because she still considers Traverse City to be a safe area.
Soon Hagerty, Vietnamese-American owner of The Good Bowl in downtown Traverse City, said she feels the community largely embraced her family and restaurant. But she shares Yee’s anxieties.
“The recent murders in Atlanta for the first time in my life creates fear for me, my family in TC and my family in California,” Hagerty said. “I thought twice about leaving my house and am cognizant of where my daughter is in light of what happened.”
Sakura Takano said Traverse City, where she works in the nonprofit and community development sector, has been home for her and her multiracial children for a decade.
After the shootings in Atlanta, she posted Nicole Cardozo’s essay for AntiRacism Daily criticizing the reporting around the confessed shooter. Cardozo pointed to how narratives focused on his personality, faith and family sought to portray him as harmless, as white perpetrators of violence often are. News coverage also tended to shift the blame to mental health while shying away from the role white supremacy plays in violent acts.
“As a first-generation, Japanese-Taiwanese-American woman, and working-mother, these racist and misogynistic crimes were particularly concerning,” Takano said in an email. “The way we talk about hate crimes is important. That is why I shared Nicole Cardozo’s comments on social media.”
Yee said she was also disgusted by the reporting, both by Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jay Baker’s remark that the suspect had a “really bad day,” and relaying the suspect’s denial that the shootings were racially motivated.
“I think it just seems like more gaslighting,” she said.
Takano pointed to recent efforts to make Traverse City a more inclusive place, but said there’s a lot of work to do, both locally and nationwide in the wake of another tragedy.
Henry Lan, who has owned the China Fair restaurant in Traverse City with his wife, Helen, since 2000, feels the community has been welcoming and friendly to him.
He regularly hosts Chinese international students who come to study in the area. He says he hasn’t heard any hateful comments in the last 25 years he’s lived here.
But he’s still nervous seeing so much violence directed at Asian-Americans.
“Of course when I see the news, of course when I go to the market, I’m always thinking about it,” Lan said. “It made me worry.”
Craig Hadley, executive director and chief curator of Northwestern Michigan College’s Dennos Museum Center, said Traverse City is far from perfect on issues of race, but is far better than some of the many Midwestern towns where he grew up. He’s biracial and his mother’s family is from Japan, and he viewed the recent shootings and pandemic-related hostility in light of their experience.
His grandfather and his siblings worked 12-hour days in the pineapple and sugarcane plantations of Hawaii in the 1920s and ‘30s after their parents sent them from Japan, Hadley said.
Three of Hadley’s family fought in World War II in the segregated 442nd Infantry Battalion, in Europe where they helped liberate concentration camps. Two more relatives served in military intelligence. Meanwhile, their families were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps.
“This is not new racism and violence, but this is part of a larger structural or systemic problem that we have,” he said. “It’s just been amplified by recent events like coronavirus, and social media and all of these other things that just kind of have fed the monster, and you know, it’s always been in the background, it just now it’s more visible.”
The trauma of the internment camps caused those who experienced it, particularly first-generation immigrants, to stay quiet about their experience, Hadley said. Elements of Japanese culture that emphasize perseverance and accepting situations that can’t be helped also played a role — called “gaman” and “shikata ga nai,” respectively.
Some of that attitude has carried on today, Hadley said — Yee also thinks Asians in the U.S. stay silent about their experience because they’re seen as “quiet,” she said.
Yee spoke out after struggling with the fear over how she’s perceived, and realizing that she can only be herself in the hope that she can help, she said.
Both Hadley and Takano said they had to speak out about the violence and racism, too, because staying silent implied acceptance.
“And I can’t live with myself without saying something,” Hadley said.
“This is not new racism and violence, but this is part of a larger structural or systemic problem that we have.” Craig Hadley, NMC Dennos Museum Center executive director