The first time he encountered racial violence, Nelson Ng was 13 years old. He had recently come to the U.S. from Hong Kong, and it was his first day in ninth grade at Encinal High School in Alameda.
"The first time in the hall, a Caucasian student came up to me and slapped me on both sides of my face and ran away. I didn't even speak English. I didn't know what to think," Ng said.
Ng, now 58 and a computer software scientist, is standing up against racial hatred, particularly against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. For Ng and more than 100 people who took part in a demonstration at the corner of El Camino Real and Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto on Sunday, the recent attacks on Asian elders in the Bay Area and the mass shooting at spas near Atlanta, Georgia, are the last straw in a long list of injustices they have largely borne silently. But no more, Ng and others said.
"We can no longer suffer in silence," he said. "This is not acceptable to have violence against any race. We need to build together to solve these problems. A lot of people are very angry with this. This is the problem with this society. They pick on the weakest. We are in this together. We cannot let people be mistreated across any race."
Kimberley Wong, Ng's wife, said as soon as she saw a post about Sunday's demonstration, she began spreading the word on various social media apps. Wong's family history in Palo Alto goes back to the early 1900s. Three generations of her family graduated from Palo Alto High School. But recently, she was targeted as a "foreigner" in her own town while putting up flyers downtown for an art exhibit in late January for three Asian artists at the Pacific Art League.
She said a man approached her and asked, "Why are you showing art here? Why don't you go back where you came from?"
The remark, she said, surprised her: both that anyone would make the assumption she is an immigrant and that they would be so hateful.
Other native-born residents have had similar experiences. Adrienne Lee said that shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, her husband and daughter were taking a walk. When they passed a church that helps homeless people, a man standing nearby hollered, "You get away from me," and spat at them, she said.
There's been enough of a history of racism against Asian Americans and enough bad rhetoric since the pandemic began to sow seeds of fear and doubt, she said.
Lee said she has been quietly donating to groups that help families who are victims of racial hatred against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Coming out to demonstrate is a departure for her, but perhaps it's the next step, she said.
"I'm trying to get away from the doom scrolling," she said of being absorbed by news stories and social media posts about hate and violence. "It's sad and we need to elevate our voices to be heard."
Black and white people also came in support of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. As drivers in passing cars honked their horns in solidarity, a video of the demonstration captured the failure of some Americans to grasp the seriousness of racism against Asian Americans.
A Caucasian man in a mask heckled a group of young women, demanding to know how they were personally harmed by racism.
"Give me an example," the man could be heard saying.
"What?" a woman asked.
The man again demanded an example of a hurt that had been done to the women.
"You just believe what CNN tells you to believe," he said before walking away.
Moments later, a young woman responded: "What you're doing right now."
Sydney Ling, a ninth grader at Harker School, said she's felt lucky to live in the Bay Area, which has a large Asian population. Although she hasn't experienced violence and hatred, she has experienced bias.
"I feel like it's an almost classic experience to have your food made fun of," she said.
In fifth grade, a classmate said her moon cakes, a pastry filled with sweet bean, lychee or other flavors, "tasted disgusting." Another student one year made disparaging remarks about her noodle lunch.
Some educators also fail to recognize the ongoing racism and xenophobia that Asian Americans face, she said.
"In seventh grade when we were learning about civil rights, one of the units was about Japanese-American internment. The teacher said 'Asian Americans no longer face racism and prejudice today,'" Ling said.
"We are seen as a model minority — almost white," she said.
Many students are missing Pacific Islander and Asian American role models at school. "We need to have more representation," she said.
Ling is hopeful that events over this past year are helping people to recognize the racist and implicit biases experienced by Asians in America, she said.
"We are not your model minority. We are not your virus. We are not your fetish. We are not your wedge. We are not your sidekick. We are not your scapegoat," Ling said.
People speaking out gives her hope. "I do believe if we start being together in fighting hate, we'll be able to create a better world where Asian Americans will also be seen as Americans," she said.
Kalee Whitehouse, a Juana Briones Elementary School PTA member, has struggled with the rise in violence.
"It's all very, very fresh. It's hard to process. I think for me, growing up mixed race in the U.S., I was saddened to see the hatred expand. Our grandmothers and grandfathers are being killed on the streets. It is beyond imaginable.
"Having a New England, old, white family, I was insulated by a lot. My parents could buy a house. The reality is when you are a person of color — and I'm a Daughter of the American Revolution — you're not seen as American," she said.
"It's time to put our feet down and say: 'That's enough. It just can't be acceptable.'"
Last June, Whitehouse organized a Black Lives Matter march for elementary school children called "The Littlest March." She's now working to organize a similar march for Saturday, March 27, on Ramona Street to University Avenue that would end with a rally at City Hall. The time has not yet been approved by the police department, she said.
City Council members Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou also attended Sunday's rally. Last March as the pandemic took hold, Tanaka was riding his bicycle on Middlefield Road when he stopped for a light. A car with four young white males pulled up beside him and they jeered, "Hey — did you bring the virus here?" he recalled.
"I hadn't felt threatened like that in some time," said Tanaka, who grew up in Los Angeles and said he faced a rough time because he is of Asian descent. He knew from past experience not to respond when he was outnumbered.
"I couldn't wait for that light to change," he said.
For Tanaka, the current violence is just an escalation of a long history of abuses leveled at Asian Americans. As a youth in Los Angeles, he used to complain to his father about how bad the racism was at school, but he was met with the response, "You haven't seen anything yet," he said.
Tanaka's paternal grandfather died of tuberculosis in a World War II Japanese internment camp. After the war, there was "incredible Japanese discrimination. If you were Japanese living in California, it was bad news. Everyone knew someone who died in the Pacific," he said.
His father dropped out of high school due to the strong anti-Asian sentiment, he said.
Racism against the Asian community has also contributed to the reticence to speak out among many Asians, he said.
Tanaka's role as a public figure in politics was met with disapproval when he told his father he was running for Palo Alto City Council.
"I don't think so. We're kind of like guests in this country," he recalled his father said.
That perspective was eye-opening and baffling.
"Gee. How can we be guests? My grandparents had been in this country since 1880," Tanaka said. But he understands where it comes from and how that perspective has led some people to think it's acceptable to attack Asians.
"I think Asians have been kind of the quiet minority — almost like a punching bag. We kind of keep our heads down, and keep our mouths shut," he said.
Despite being subjected to bias, implicit or overt, many Asians "just don't make a ruckus" about it, he said.
Steven Lee, a former Palo Alto human relations commissioner, said by phone that there hasn't always been consensus in the Asian-American community about what is racism, racist rhetoric or racist actions.
"And usually you see that more among minority groups or minority individuals who have a bit more privilege and who don't encounter it (racism) or encounter it in a way that is not as overt or as pervasive as other minority groups," Lee said. "It's interesting to see sort of how, you know, with the pandemic ... it really bubble(d) up in this very overt and very violent way. Whereas, I would say, prior to COVID-19 it was probably more subtle and not as pervasive and not as serious, if that makes sense. Just the kinds of discrimination or stereotypes you face, it wasn't as bad as what other minority groups might face, especially on a day-to-day basis," he said.
Lee said there are interesting cultural challenges that have influenced the Asian community's reluctance to speak out.
"Certainly, you know, when I was growing up, my parents really wanted me to focus on academics, getting into a really good school and getting a really good job. Now that I'm older, it's all about my career and starting a family. And part of that cultural focus also includes sort of just a reticence to be just generally engaged. … It's one of the reasons why we don't see enough Asian Americans elected to office or in different leadership positions. There's just a reticence to put oneself out there, especially when it's something that's not focused or beneficial. … There's a reticence to focus on anything that might come at a cost — at a personal cost," he said.
Lee used an employer-employee analogy to explain the dynamic from a racial perspective.
"There's a huge power asymmetry, and so, as an employee, even if you know that your employer is doing something wrong or illegal, even if the facts are on your side, the employer has just so much more power than the employee," he said. "People are not willing to speak up due to economic pressure. They want to keep their job and support their family."
The same thing happens with race, when one race is dominant and another fears that speaking out could lead to negative, caustic consequences, he said.
Lee said that Asians haven't felt the continual deadly consequences of other racial and ethnic groups until now because they are largely not seen as a threat by police the way Blacks and Latinos have been.
But he and Kou said while Asians Americans as a demographic group enjoy a greater measure of economic privilege than other racial minorities, they must also guard against complacency.
"My biggest message is don't let the racist oppressors divide us," Kou said. "This is an opportunity to speak up to power."
"I think it helps the Asian/Pacific Islander community to stand up and call out these things when we have allies who are willing to do the same. And we're willing to do so first, to both say something, but also do things about it," he said.
The United States is "defined by our differences and by our diversity. And so, everyone in this community, everyone in this country, we are all equally Americans, regardless of whether we're an immigrant or whether we were born here," he said. "We need to start seeing that and each other as opposed to seeing folks as being different or un-American.
"The Asian American/Pacific Islander community is struggling right now with this violence and phobia, and I've been so encouraged by all of the allies who have stood up … and I hope that we continue to refine and implement our solutions to address these issues.
"There's like two competing forces right now," he said. "There's people who say 'Enough is enough' and 'We don't want to do this anymore. We don't want to see this done anymore.' And then there's the other side, (with) this hardcore idea of what an American is, and they won't accept anything else."
Kou said there is no excuse for attacking people, particularly the elderly. "These people are cowards," she said.