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Longtime Asian American residents in Palo Alto reflect on spike in hate incidents

Ingrid Lai in the garden at Stevenson House in Palo Alto on May 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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.

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"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.

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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.

Yosh Kumagai, far right, with his siblings in front of their Palo Alto home on Dec. 7, 1941. Courtesy Yosh Kumagai.

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.

Ingrid Lai checks in a client at the senior meals program La Comida at Stevenson House in Palo Alto on May 3, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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.

Yoriko Kishimoto, a former mayor of Palo Alto, currently serves on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District board of directors. Courtesy Yoriko Kishimoto.

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."

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Longtime Asian American residents in Palo Alto reflect on spike in hate incidents

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, May 7, 2021, 7:00 am

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."

Comments

Rhodoreae
Registered user
Ventura
on May 7, 2021 at 6:03 pm
Rhodoreae, Ventura
Registered user
on May 7, 2021 at 6:03 pm

I am so grateful for the diverse members of our community and am saddened to hear about increasing attacks.

May we all stand together to call out acts of racism and violence and offer support to those who are now afraid to leave their homes.

Let's reach out to our neighbors and friends to see if anyone needs some companionship when leaving home for a walk or to run errands.


felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2021 at 11:59 pm
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 7, 2021 at 11:59 pm

Quite the understatement to refer to the racist detention of Mr Kumagai at the notorious Tule Lake prison camp as him simply “living” there.

And I agree with former Mayor Kishimoto. Fred Yamamoto was a Paly High student also imprisoned with his family because of their ethnicity, yet he volunteered to fight for a country that had lost any right to ask him to do so. He died as a result.

Yet a small group found him undeserving because he shared a common name with a stranger and our school board didn’t have even an ounce of the courage he had.

It is time to honor the forever young Fred Yamamoto, and not with a trifle.


Lt.Col (ret.) Robert Taylor/US Army
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2021 at 7:28 am
Lt.Col (ret.) Robert Taylor/US Army , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 8, 2021 at 7:28 am

- "a small group found him undeserving because he shared a common name with a stranger and our school board didn’t have even an ounce of the courage he had."

In retrospect, didn't this issue have something to do with the renaming of a PAUSD junior high school?

Fred Yamamoto (a Nisei and Palo Alto High School graduate) was killed in battle fighting for the United States during World War Two and as I vaguely recall, a group of Mandarin parents in Palo Alto (along with a former PAUSD board member) objected to his name being used because he had the same last name as Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese Imperial Navy (architect of the Pearl Harbor attack).

The combined ignorance on the part of this small group, school board supporter, and the school district itself speaks volumes.

Of note is that many Chinese-Americans (of Cantonese descent) and Japanese-Americans have served in the U.S. armed forces while relatively few of the recently-arrived Mandarins from the PRC have ever enlisted to serve on the behalf their newly adopted country.

This also speaks volumes.


Not So Fast
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 8, 2021 at 10:24 am
Not So Fast, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 8, 2021 at 10:24 am

It is unfortunate that so many Asians regardless of their ethnic backgrounds and American citizenry are being lumped together in these recent hate crimes by an onslaught of ignorant and violent people.


Squidsie
Registered user
another community
on May 8, 2021 at 2:27 pm
Squidsie, another community
Registered user
on May 8, 2021 at 2:27 pm

As to the incident that Ms. Lei describes, perhaps she is reading too much into it. The elderly man in a subsidized lunch program probably had dementia. Some people with dementia get mean, and the contents of their ranting shouldn't be taken too seriously, or be assigned social importance.


JB
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on May 9, 2021 at 10:33 am
JB, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on May 9, 2021 at 10:33 am

Thanks so much for writing this story about Asian Americans who have lived in Palo Alto many years. The story of Ms. Lai being told to go back to China is just sad, especially since she was volunteering at La Comida. It's also sad to hear about Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps. However, several of the older residents interviewed have had pretty good experiences of living here in Palo Alto for many years, so yay for that! I'm wondering if there is a dark website that is promoting the attacks on Asian Americans now. Does anybody know about this?
I'm trying to imagine Japanese farms at the corner of Page Mill and El Camino and hay fields where Ming's Restaurant was located. Wow. This article was a great way to learn some local history and meet some of our neighbors. I hope you continue to interview other residents of Palo Alto, so that we can learn more about them and the history of Palo Alto.


End All Hate Crimes
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 9, 2021 at 11:20 am
End All Hate Crimes, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 9, 2021 at 11:20 am
Dr. Science
Registered user
Professorville
on May 9, 2021 at 4:55 pm
Dr. Science, Professorville
Registered user
on May 9, 2021 at 4:55 pm

Though Behavioral Science is both a misnomer and oxymoron, the human existence is predicated on tribalism, territorialism, competition for food and natural resources, and the elimination of perceived threats.

This is the history of mankind and an inherent element of our perpetual mindsets.


YP
Registered user
Crescent Park
on May 9, 2021 at 6:03 pm
YP, Crescent Park
Registered user
on May 9, 2021 at 6:03 pm

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