Ingrid Lai was at a loss for words when a man began yelling at her to "go back to China."
It was early in the pandemic and Lai, a longtime Palo Alto resident, was working her regular volunteer post at the check-in table of Palo Alto's La Comida hot lunch program for seniors. The man — a client of the lunch program — was standing on the other side of the table.
"I wanted to say something back to him, but I was lost (for) words," Lai said. "I probably looked scared. He walked away finally."
Reports of anti-Asian harassment are disturbing, but not surprising, according to longtime Asian-American residents of Palo Alto who spoke to the Palo Alto Weekly about the recent spike in local and national anti-Asian hate incidents.
"Going through history, all the way back to when the Chinese came (here) in the gold (rush) days, it's been sort of a very common pattern," said Allan Seid, a community activist and retired physician who lives with his wife, Mary, at Channing House.
"When things get rough — economic recession, war or other things that might cause fear, such as the pandemic — it's easily turned into hatred," Seid said. "It's kind of built in, at least for those who are familiar with Asian American history."
Even before the pandemic, Seid said he and his wife expected "things would become rough again for Chinese Americans" after several Chinese American professors in the United States were accused of spying for China and, later, when then-President Donald Trump began attacking China's trade policies. Trump's subsequent blaming of China for the global pandemic sparked further backlash.
Like other non-white ethnic groups, Asian Americans have "always been seen as perpetual foreigners, no matter how many generations we've been here" said the San Francisco-born Seid, a fourth-generation Californian. Mary Seid, from Stockton, is a third-generation Californian.
In spite of some negative aspects, Palo Alto has been a good place to live, said Seid, who moved to the area in 1962 for his medical residency at Stanford.
"By and large, it has provided Mary and I opportunities to grow and learn and to be accepted," he said.
Other longtime — or lifelong — Asian American residents of Palo Alto echoed that view.
"I have never, during all my years in Palo Alto, run across any prejudice against me personally," said 84-year-old Yosh Kumagai, who grew up on a 30-acre pear orchard at the corner of Embarcadero Road and Old Bayshore Highway, which his grandfather had purchased in 1927.
Under the California Alien Land Law in effect at that time, the elder Kumagai — born in Japan — could not own property, so the land was held in the names of his American-born sons.
Growing up in Palo Alto — except for two years when he lived in the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp with his family beginning at the age of 6 — Kumagai remembers playing in haystacks near Embarcadero, where Ming's restaurant later opened. He also remembers Japanese-owned farms at the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, as well as in the location of what is now the Goodwill Store on El Camino Way.
He recalls socializing and playing sports with Black and white classmates at Palo Alto High School. (Kumagai also graduated from Walter Hays Elementary and Jordan Junior High schools.)
Kumagai does not recall facing any racial career barriers or housing discrimination, though another family member did encounter deed restrictions enacted in the mid-1950s that barred Asians and other racial minorities from buying property in Palo Alto.
"I tend to think on the brighter side, and I thank my parents and grandparents for having lived here — I couldn't find a better place to live," said Kumagai, who mentioned that his granddaughters played sports at Palo Alto High just as he did.
Other Asian Americans described generally positive experiences of their decades in Palo Alto, though several said their children had been targets of racial bullying in elementary school because of their facial features or the presumed contents of their lunch boxes.
When Andrew Chang's daughters reported racial bullying at school, the Palo Alto resident recalls being upset.
"I actually told them that if it happens again to just hit them back," said Chang, a retired engineering manager who came to Palo Alto in the 1970s after graduating from University of California, Berkeley.
"They said no, they'd get in trouble if they hit them back. I also remember I said I'd support them all the way, going to the principal or the school board if necessary," Chang said.
Lai said she was proud that her son, Anthony Shu, now in his 20s and working in multimedia production and writing, overcame the bullying and turned the experience into something good for the next generation by creating Lunchbox Moments, a new not-for-profit publication encouraging Asian American and Pacific Islander artists and writers to explore relationships with food and cultural identity.
Early on in their children's schooling, the Seids switched their kids from their neighborhood elementary school, Green Gables (now Duveneck), to a now-closed elementary school in the Ventura neighborhood, which they preferred because of its greater economic and racial diversity.
At the almost all-white Green Gables, Seid recalled, "The teacher in first or second grade would put up a beautiful collage of different racial groups, and some of the racial groups would wear different garbs. The lesson was, 'Who are the Americans?' The kids picked the blond, blue-eyed Caucasians. At that age, kids don't dispute — they just accept it. But in our mind, these things were devastating for a minority child."
Though Seid said his children had a "very good academic experience" in general, he expressed frustration that the 1980s Palo Alto curriculum conveyed a severely limited view of China.
"My kids grew up, despite (our) parenting, with a really negative impression of China and Chinese people — poor, backward, uneducated, essentially starving," Seid said. The three eventually gained a more sophisticated understanding through summer study trips to China.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto — now an elected board member of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District — first came to Palo Alto in 1977 to study at the Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.
Kishimoto, whose two daughters went through local K-12 schools, was most troubled by the Palo Alto school board's 2018 decision to reject a recommendation to rename a middle school after Palo Altan Fred Yamamoto, a hero who fought and died in World War II, because of concerns of the possible confusion between his name and that of Japanese admiral and Pearl Harbor attack mastermind Isoroku Yamamoto.
"Since Yamamoto is a common last name, it was as if a person named Smith did something negative and all people named Smith are blamed for it," Kishimoto wrote in an email.
"It was shocking that the school board acquiesced and chose a different person to name the school for. This wasn't a racial attack in the school, but at the school board," she said.
James Wong, 95, who has lived in Palo Alto since 1962, described a long Silicon Valley career in which he thrived, working with high-speed digital computers and communications systems to test satellites. He said he felt no disadvantage as a Chinese American.
Since retiring in 1986, Wong said he's enjoyed spending time with family and friends and even getting to know people with views different than his own.
"We all need an attitude adjustment to really believe in helping people, respecting people, even if we don't agree with them," he said.
Of the recent spike in anti-Asian attacks, Wong said, "I thought we'd gone past that. ... We have a big problem with discrimination."
Wong said he's counting on younger generations to find solutions.
Kumagai called the people perpetuating anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment "cowardly thugs."
"I look at anybody who might be discriminatory and think, 'It's probably a reflection of their own life. They're deprived and their life might be really pathetic, so they take it out on people who look different.'"
Kishimoto referred to "The Third Century," a book she co-authored in 1988 about the political and economic culture of the United States.
"We talked about the U.S. being a 'world nation,' predicated on democracy and the rule of law and not on any one race," she said. "We predicted that California and the U.S. would become majority minority, where no one race or ethnic group would hold a majority position. ... That obviously came true for California and the Bay Area.
"Diversity is our strength, as is our democracy, education, rule of law. It all takes constant work and reinvention in every generation."