To the old woman of 12: A personal essay

Content Warning: Discussion of Murders, Shootings and Hate Crimes

ILast April, I found myself aboard the SFMTA 12 bus as it passed through San Francisco. I had spent the afternoon exploring the city with friends and watching the colonies of sea lions at Pier 39, and I was exhausted but happy when we boarded the bus to begin our journey home. We were only seated a few minutes before the bus stopped in Chinatown, and an old Asian woman carrying a handful of plastic bags boarded. Her hands were shaking as she put them down. When she looked up, I was struck by the feeling that I knew her. I had seen that face before.

In reality, the woman was an unknown. Yet I was trapped in the feeling that we were somehow connected. I felt a strange and unforeseen need to protect this person I didn’t know. As this instinct grew, my heart began to beat faster; my palms became sweaty. Unanswered questions started running through my mind: where was she going? Did she do the shopping? Why wasn’t she accompanied by anyone? Who had allowed her to go alone? Would someone be there to meet her when she got home? I had a hard time holding back my tears as I looked at the elderly woman, a person who should have been completely unknown.

She got off the bus before me. When she got up from her seat, she looked at me and smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling. Face trembling, I forced myself to smile back. As I watched her carefully descend the metal steps, I sent a silent prayer out into the universe. Please let this woman be okay. Make sure she comes back safely. It was only after the departure of the 12 that I understood where this feeling of responsibility came from.

On March 16, 2021, six Asian American women were murdered in a series of shootings that targeted employees and patrons of a spa in Atlanta, Georgia. It was part of a long history of hate crimes directed at the Asian American community, which have become much more common since the emergence of COVID-19 infections in the United States. The Atlanta murders illustrated the serious consequences of the sexualization and fetishization of Asian American women across the country. This day is forever etched in my mind, and it is something I often reflect on when considering the prevalence of racial and gender-based violence in society.

Before that, I didn’t understand what it was like to cry so deeply and deeply for people I didn’t know personally. The Atlanta shooting left me with a sense of loss and pain that I couldn’t fully comprehend. I spent the next week in a state of emotional despair. I cried constantly and rarely left my room. For hours I pored over the photos of the women who had been lost in the massacre, learning their names and stories. Hyun Jung Grant. Xiaoji Tan. Soon Chung Park. Suncha Kim. Daoyou Feng. Yong Ae Yue. These were people who had immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities, working longer and harder hours than I could ever imagine. Instead of finding prosperity in this country, they had their lives taken away from them in seconds. America will never remember many of them for the struggles they endured. This, to me, was indescribably devastating.

I am a second generation Asian American. My grandparents came to this country hoping to give their children a better education than theirs. In many ways they prospered, with my grandfather finding a successful career as a doctor and providing my mother and uncles with a level of socio-economic privilege he had never experienced. Yet my grandparents were never seen by society as fully American. Growing up in Tennessee, just across the border from where these shootings took place, I spent my childhood watching people disrespect my grandparents’ very existence. Their accents were mocked; their achievements have been undermined; their faces were mocked. Even despite these experiences, however, they were luckier than most. The extent of the violence experienced by many members of the Asian American community, especially working class women, is incalculable. It represents how far this country still has to go.

The extent of the violence experienced by many members of the Asian American community, especially working class women, is incalculable.

Throughout the spring, my grief grew so great that I was almost unable to bear it. I sent endless messages to my sister, my mother and my grandparents, warning them not to walk anywhere alone. I notified acquaintances who had not reached out to check in. One night a group of my friends decided to watch “Minari”, a movie about a Korean-American family living in Arkansas. After the movie ended, I locked myself in the bathroom, unable to stop crying. By the time I met the old woman on line 12, I was about to completely break down. I didn’t understand why I cared so much for her or why I was so unable to separate myself from her.

In August, I started working as an intern at UC Berkeley’s Asian-Pacific American Student Development Office, or APASD. There I learned the importance of community healing. As I built close relationships with my fellow interns and our supervisors, I began to understand that my grief was not isolated. I was surrounded by individuals whose lives had changed drastically due to anti-Asian violence. Hearing them share their experiences not only of marginalization and intergenerational trauma, but also of cultivating love for their cultures and communities, I felt like I was beginning to heal. At our last team meeting, we were asked to reflect on the role of community in working towards collective liberation. As a friend of mine told me, communities ensure that your pain is not endured alone. They cry by your side, they listen critically to your feelings, and in doing so, they take some of the weight off your shoulders. As we mourn heartbreaking events such as the shooting in Atlanta, the presence of the community is invaluable.

Before, I thought my community was made up of people I knew. Recently, however, I have come to believe that community extends to those who live alongside us, who face recognizable experiences in our own lives, even though we may not know them. We love these people not because we talked to them or because we grew up with them, but because we see them and stand with them. Now when I think of the community, I don’t just think of my family. I think of all the people who lost their lives in Atlanta last March. I think of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go, young women who were brutally murdered in the first weeks of 2022. I think of the loved ones who mourn them, their lives changed forever. I think of the woman who brings me a Sikhye on Sunday afternoons to Kimchi Garden, and the little girls who go to the Korean school down the street in Oakland. I think of my peers at APASD and how my pain is reflected in theirs. I think of the elderly woman who sat next to me on the bus last April, with her shaking hands and narrowed eyes.

I have come to believe that community extends to those who live alongside us, who face recognizable experiences in our own lives, even though we may not know them.

This Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta murders. Although this date is filled with heaviness for so many in my community, I have begun to find a lasting sense of hope. Alone, we don’t have the tools to reshape society and prevent such cases from happening as we move forward. In community, however, we find the love deep enough to accomplish the unimaginable. The journey to progress will be exhausting. It will be forged by grief, anxiety, exhaustion and difficulties. And yet, I find there is reason to continue, knowing that my efforts will be supported by those who share this dedication to imagining a future of resistance, and later, liberation.

I want to send my love to the 12 old woman. I want to send my love to everyone who continues to live and learn in our community. I want to send my love to the people who were buried and to those who were taken from us far too soon. Our struggle will continue, but the work will not be done alone. May we continue to mourn, to struggle and to heal. May we continue to create a world where freedom is tangible. Above all, may we continue to share our love with each other.

Contact Olivia Rhee at [email protected].

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