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Teenage Asian-Americans from New York on a field trip run by non-profit Apex for Youth, which mentors them and teaches them how to respond to harassment, racism and bullying.

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.

Jason has since discovered that the video was filmed three years ago in Palau, Micronesia – not in China.
Cases of harassment and bullying of Asian-Americans have surged in the United States since the coronavirus began spreading there, months after the first cluster of Covid-19 cases was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December. This new wave of racism has inspired non-profit organisation Apex for Youth to take a stand.
Apex for Youth encourages young Asian-Americans to point out that the coronavirus pandemic has nothing to do with ethnicity. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The group organises workshops and mentoring for school-age Asian-Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds in New York.

Even before the pandemic broke out, more than half of Asian-American students in the US said they had been bullied at school – which is more than any other ethnic group, says Jiyoon Mary Chung, interim executive director of Apex.
The harassment and bullying of Asian-Americans has surged in the US. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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.

“They hear things like, Chinese people are dirty or disgusting, or their own president calling the virus a ‘Chinese virus’,” Chung says. “When this happens, what do you say back? Or is the person worth your time? We encourage the students to stay connected with their mentors to talk about their feelings and get practical suggestions on what to do.”

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.

Apex also encourages young people to point out that the coronavirus pandemic has nothing to do with ethnicity, or, if they know the person, engage in a conversation, says Chung. They are also encouraged to take care of themselves by exercising regularly, meditating, or finding a creative outlet through which to channel their emotions.
Students at Apex take part in a game.

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.”

Elvin Yuen and his mentee Jason Chen (right).

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.

Students at Apex are encouraged to take part in workshops 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, chair of the Apex board, plays basketball with children.

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.

Jiyoon Mary Chung (left), interim executive director of Apex for Youth, with a former mentee.

“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.”

Andrew Yang, a contender for the US Democratic Party presidential nomination until he bowed out in favour of Joe Biden, is a long-time Apex supporter. Like actress Gemma Chan, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of fashion label Opening Ceremony, and singer-songwriter Jhené Aiko, he has been honoured with an award from the organisation.

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.

Former contender for the US Democratic presidential nomination Andrew Yang is a long-time Apex supporter.
Gemma Chan has been honoured with an award from Apex.

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

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Get up, stand up