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Tampa Bay Asian Americans process national rise in hate and violence

Hate crimes have not increased in Tampa Bay, but anti-Asian incidents, and the fear they sow, are familiar.
Staff members from "Sparks," a student run magazine covering Asian American affairs at the University of South Florida, meets virtually on March 19, 2021 to discuss their reactions to the shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta.
Staff members from "Sparks," a student run magazine covering Asian American affairs at the University of South Florida, meets virtually on March 19, 2021 to discuss their reactions to the shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta. [ Courtesy of Sparks ]
Published Mar. 24
Updated Mar. 25

Three days after a senseless rampage killed eight people in Georgia, eight staffers from Sparks, a student-run magazine at the University of South Florida, met virtually to try to make sense of it.

They did not discuss the upcoming issue of their magazine giving voice to the Asian American community — that was the night before. They met to process feelings about the slayings, which included six women of Asian descent, and happened just as new reports described a rise in anti-Asian hate.

They needed to talk it out with other people who, they knew, would simply get it.

“They don’t see us as humans, they see us as temptations,” said editor-in-chief Amy Nguyen, 20, speaking about the so-called sexual addiction that may have motivated the killer. “The temptations were Asian women simply existing.”

She remembered times when non-Asian men had asked her if she had any specifically Asian friends they could date.

“These people are the ones who are silent now,” she said. “You liked Asian women and appreciated us then, but now you’re silent.” The group agreed that change would require Asians and non-Asians speaking up.

“It highlights how we’re seen as objects,” Dencie Devora, 21, said. She spoke of Japanese characters on T-shirts and tattoos, and how everyone seems to love Chinese food. “There’s appreciation for the culture, but no respect.”

Amy Pham, 18, noted how close several of the victims were to her mother’s age, and how long it took to get that information.

“There just wasn’t much emphasis on them,” she said.

Prakash Vasanthakumar, 19, called the shooting “domestic terrorism.”

They discussed racist jokes they’d let slide at their high schools, their gratitude for finding each other and assumptions people made. Someone at USF had recently asked Nguyen, who grew up in Pasco County, if she was an international student.

“That happened to me today!,” Pham said, laughing.

Clearly it wasn’t their Asian-ness that united the diverse group, which included students of Vietnamese, Indian and Filipino descent. It was the rest of the world’s reaction to it.

Hate crimes vs. racist incidents

The Tampa Bay area has not seen the violence against Asians, especially women and the elderly, that has shaken communities in larger cities like Los Angeles and New York. But locals are highly aware of it.

“It’s so scary,” said Winnie Tang, the vice president of the Asian American Federation of Florida. “It’s getting worse. The hurt keeps getting deeper.”

“We have friends and family in all those cities,” said Man Le, founder of Tampa Chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, and an administrator for the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority. “If it affects someone in Atlanta, it affects someone here.”

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University released a study this month showing reported hate crimes against Asian Americans rose 149 percent between 2019 and 2020. That was as hate crimes overall declined.

Another group called Stop AAPI Hate — AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander — tallied 3,800 hateful incidents nationwide during the first year of the pandemic.

In a national survey by the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University, over 30 percent of Asian respondents indicated they changed their behavior to avoid the possibility of harassment by avoiding specific locations, being more aware of their surroundings, paying attention to how they speak, being careful about their appearance and mentally preparing for insults before they come.

“You don’t have to be a direct victim of a hate crime to be affected by what’s going on right now,” said Brendan Lantz, director of the FSU institute. The impact, particularly on mental health, “extends so much further beyond being a victim.”

Law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area have not reported an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans. In Florida, it’s called “evidencing prejudice,” an add-on charge that increases penalties for crimes committed against minority groups.

Nationally, a little less than half of Asian respondents to the FSU survey indicated they knew someone personally who had been a victim of a hate crime.

The most common type of discrimination faced was verbal insults. Those incidents often go untracked since there isn’t a crime to report, and Stop AAPI Hate does not have statistics for Tampa Bay specifically. But some locals have stories about the past year.

A man stepped out of the shadows and blocked the sidewalk in front of two Asian American women walking near St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront in February. Video shows him shouting a racial slur at the women, over and over, even after they’d crossed the street in fear.

“I’m 32, and this is the first time I’d experienced anything like that before in my life,” said Amy, a Pinellas County native who requested her last name be withheld, out of fear she could be harassed online. “St. Pete is pretty open, liberal and friendly. ... When that happened, it felt like it was spreading here.”

A Chinese American real estate agent in Tampa said her car was keyed. An Asian American networking group discussed over Zoom how people now made an effort to not stand near them in the supermarket, even if it meant waiting in a longer line.

A Greek restaurant on St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue apologized publicly after a “misogynistic and racist” incident where outdoor diners threw food at a group of Filipino American women in September.

While the pandemic kept him physically distant from the community, Steve Yang, assistant principal at Tampa Bay Chinese School, saw Tampa friends post videos of racist street harassment. Then his wife, Angela Ren, came home and said a stranger at Costco in Brandon told her to “go back to China.”

“It’s really upsetting. We’ve been in the U.S. 30 years,” said Yang, 58, whose children were born and raised in Florida. One starts college in the fall, the other is finishing medical school.

Around the same time the USF students from Sparks honored the victims of the Georgia shootings by reading their names aloud, Yang and his wife were attending an online vigil over Zoom with thousands of others from around the country. Yang said that while socially his family connects more with other Chinese Americans, who share a language and culture, times like this call for solidarity amongst Asian Americans, as well as non-Asian minorities, and hopefully, he said, white allies.

He and his wife attended their first Black Lives Matter event last year.

“I like what Martin Luther King said, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Yang said.

Lantz believes fear is behind the uptick in hate nationwide, stoked in part by the uncertainty of the pandemic and by political leaders using racist language such as “China Virus” and “Kung Flu.”

“When a person is more fearful,” Lantz said, “they tend to identify targets for their fear.”

Who is Tampa Bay’s ‘Asian American community’?

The fastest-growing ethnic group in Florida is Asian Americans.

People of Asian descent are an estimated 4.4, 3.6 and 2.8 percent of the population in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, respectively, and many suspect those numbers will be higher when the U.S. Census is released in April.

But Tampa Bay’s “Asian American community” is better described as communities, comprised of more than a dozen ethnicities. The largest groups across Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, are Indians, followed by Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese and Koreans.

The geography of Tampa Bay’s Asian community is less defined and more diffuse than in many large cities, but there are pockets. The Tampa Korean United Methodist Church in Wesley Chapel grew its congregation into the hundreds in recent years, and there are multiple Korean-language newspapers available in Tampa Bay.

Lealman and Pinellas Park have the highest percentage of residents of Vietnamese ancestry in the state.

The Lealman Asian Neighborhood Family Center offers services in English, Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotian and Spanish, “and we have a friend who will come in and do Chinese if we need Chinese,” said executive director Donna McGill. “Pretty much any services that they don’t know how to access, we help them. ... Sometimes they just need to use the phone, or a computer.”

Youth worker, Nhu Nguyen, left, sits with Dylan Morales, right, and William Nguyen, while working on an art project after school at The Lealman Asian Neighborhood Family Center, Tuesday, March 23, 2021 in Lealman.
Youth worker, Nhu Nguyen, left, sits with Dylan Morales, right, and William Nguyen, while working on an art project after school at The Lealman Asian Neighborhood Family Center, Tuesday, March 23, 2021 in Lealman. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The center offers help with job applications, citizenship and an after-school literacy program for children. Three people who came through the center became U.S. citizens in a recent week, McGill said.

“In the past, our Asian families had not utilized our food pantry,” McGill said, “but the pandemic changed that. ... If you owned a restaurant, or a nail salon, as many of our families do, it’s been hard.”

She’s now working on making the center a vaccination site, and partnering with the nearby Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Parish Catholic church, where for the past two years, Mass has been primarily given in Vietnamese.

Loc Nguyen, a board member at the Lealman family center, arrived in Pinellas County over 40 years ago as a refugee after the Vietnam War. There were a small handful of Vietnamese, he said, “but now I think we have over 10,000 in Pinellas.”

Nguyen, 66, recently helped organize the installation of a permanent monument honoring Vietnamese and Americans lost in the war, which now sits at Little Saigon Plaza, a collection of Vietnamese and Korean businesses off U.S. 19 in Clearwater.

Several dozen Filipino Americans gathered at Tampa’s Philippine Enrichment Complex on Sunday to dance in the short film My APA Vision. The director, S. Roy Saringo, is a member of the new Florida nonprofit Asian Pacific American Scene, Inc., formed to help cultivate Asian American Artists.

“If you see a Filipino in Tampa Bay, you probably know them or will see them again,” said Arnell Biglete, speaking Tampa’s relatively smaller Filipino community.

He experienced racism when he lived in bigger cities, like Los Angeles, Biglete said, but not in Tampa Bay. Today, he believes, “there’s enough exposure to different cultures.”

But Brandy Jones-Breth, who grew up in Tampa Bay and who’s half Black and half Filipino, worried about her family after the rise in hate.

“The first thing I thought about was my mother,” said Jones-Breth, 42.

James Jamo, 77, a founding member of Pilipino American Association of Tampa, hams it up with fellow dancers of the Philippine Performing Arts Company while filming a performance of Singkil, a folk dance of the Maranao people, March 21, 2021 at the Philippine Cultural Enrichment Complex in Tampa.
James Jamo, 77, a founding member of Pilipino American Association of Tampa, hams it up with fellow dancers of the Philippine Performing Arts Company while filming a performance of Singkil, a folk dance of the Maranao people, March 21, 2021 at the Philippine Cultural Enrichment Complex in Tampa. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

The disconnect between popular culture recently, and what’s happening in the news now, feels “head spinning,” said Debbie Crockett, director of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s Tampa Bay chapter.

“It’s really cool to be Korean right now, K-pop, K-dramas, everyone wants to eat kimchi and learn Korean and watch Parasite,” she said. “It’s amazing, and it makes me proud. ... Then you’re bombarded with news about our elders being pushed and shoved in the street. It’s weird to me.”

A significant number of Asians are leaving large cities over safety concerns and seeking Florida sunshine, said Realtor Sunny Duann, who works with many such clients in Tampa. The most popular area for Chinese American home buyers right now, she said, is New Tampa.

“I appreciate so far no such crimes have happened here,” said Duann, who is also president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Tampa Bay, but with a growing population comes concerns over growing attention and exposure.

Enrollment at Tampa Bay Chinese School, which teaches language and culture to younger generations of Chinese Americans, and anyone else who wants to learn, has skyrocketed in the past decade, said Yang, the assistant principal.

If there is a trait that some Asian American groups have shared historically, Yang said, it’s a tendency to quietly focus on their own affairs and avoid making waves.

“It’s changing now,” he said, “because everyone is learning that silence is not going to work. If you don’t raise your voice to recognize racism, nothing changes.”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.