Asian-American students in New York respond to racist abuse with help of mentors and advice from non-profit
- Racial harassment of Asian-Americans has risen in the US amid the coronavirus pandemic; a 16-year-old in a New York school is among its victims
- The teen is one of many in the city being mentored by non-profit Apex for Youth and shown how to respond. ‘Our generation should speak up,’ he says
Earlier this year, Jason Chen Weiping was left speechless when an older student at school in New York taunted him with a video of a Chinese woman eating bat soup.
“He said that Asians were freaks, that they caused the coronavirus. I didn’t know how to respond. I felt he was justified for what he was saying because he had the video,” recalls the 16-year-old, who was born in Taishan, in Guangdong province, southern China, and immigrated to the US with his mother when he was a baby.
The group organises workshops and mentoring for school-age Asian-Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds in New York.
Apex recently surveyed 100 students on the social effects of the pandemic. Half the respondents expressed concern or anxiety about anti-Asian discrimination, and 15 per cent said they had directly experienced racism. In addition, 50 per cent of respondents reported that their families had been affected financially by the virus outbreak.
If bullying is conducted online, for example, Apex suggests young people should unfollow and report the bully or speak out. If someone is being taunted in person, a bystander could stand beside them for moral support or help the victim leave the scene. If they feel comfortable, they could speak out – but focus on the idea or behaviour, not the instigator of the attack.
The organisation has worked with thousands of students of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and South Asian descent since it was founded in New York in 1992 by dentist Alex Tsui and four of his Asian-American friends. Their aim was to help families from similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds to theirs.
Apex mentors are carefully chosen in a rigorous process that includes several interviews; Jason’s mentor, 28-year-old Elvin Yuen, says it took at least six months for him to be accepted. All mentors are trained and then matched with young people with similar backgrounds, interests and goals.
Yuen, a banker who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Manhattan, says Jason was upset by the bat soup video incident, which happened before the city was locked down. “He fell silent because he didn’t know what to say about the woman eating bat soup,” Yuen says. “These things are happening, but we have to stay educated and try to defuse the situation.”
Jason, who says he has experienced racism from an early age, later suggested that Apex run workshops to specifically address bullying fuelled by the pandemic.
“I grew up in Spanish Harlem, where there are different minorities. People would make slitty eyes or say ‘Ching Chong’ at me,” Jason recalls. “When I went into kindergarten, I only knew like three words in English, and so when I said something in Chinese everyone looked at me weird.”
By the time he was 10, Jason’s reaction to xenophobic taunts got him into fights. Two years later, he learned about Apex from his mother’s social worker. He initially thought it was a place where studious Asians did their homework after school, but quickly discovered it was more about being able to talk to an adult who could relate to him, attend workshops on issues such as Asian identity and bullying, and go on trips.
Jason plans to become a paediatrician “because the salary is more appealing than being a teacher”. Yuen says the teenager is becoming more studious, and is practising for the SAT exams to get into university and then medical school.
The mentoring experience has been “very rewarding”, Yuen says. “Jason is focused on his schoolwork and his goals of where he wants to end up. I gave him a heads-up about working with kids and suggested he apply to be a summer camp counsellor.”
Asked if he feels more Chinese or American, Jason thinks for a minute and replies in Cantonese, jook sing, or “overseas Chinese”.
“I feel Chinese, but when I’m in China my Chinese is so bad,” he says. “But I like being Chinese.”
Preeti Sriratana, 43, chairman of the Apex board, was also troubled as a child. He was born in Chicago and raised by Thai immigrant parents in Normal, Illinois, where he was bullied and struggled at school. Encouraged by his grandmother and teachers, though, Sriratana pursued his studies and graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. He is now a partner and managing director of a New York-based architectural firm.
“The mentoring gives children an opportunity to ask questions they can’t ask their parents, or if their parents don’t know the system. This relationship is so important,” he says.
In 2001, he mentored a 12-year-old boy who grew up in New York’s Chinatown and had never been to Central Park. Another boy he mentored almost dropped out of school, but eventually became an architect like him. The boy’s best friend – also helped by Apex – has become a nurse and is now working on the Covid-19 front line.
“We don’t push them to be doctors and lawyers. We want to instil in them the three Cs: Confidence, College-readiness and Community-mindedness,” Sriratana explains. “It’s not just about schooling, but being well-rounded. We want to see more Asian-Americans in leadership positions across different sectors.”
Apex’s annual fundraising gala has been postponed to September, when the organisation plans to honour actress Lana Condor, who starred in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix, and Amanda Nguyen, CEO and founder of Rise, a non-profit organisation that fights for the civil rights of victims of sexual violence.
Jason was one of the speakers at last year’s gala, and Chung says the teenager spent a long time working on his speech. He talked about the racism he faced growing up, and recalled an incident at a railway station when a stranger shouted a racist slur at him and his mother.
“I asked my mum why she didn’t say anything,” Jason recalls. “Our generation should speak up. Our parents came here to provide a better opportunity for us, so they never think to speak up. But we should defend ourselves.”
Jason’s mother was in the audience, and at the end of the speech he thanked her for the sacrifices she made to bring him to the US. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
Learn more about Apex at apexforyouth.org