He immigrated to the United States because his hometown was no longer safe for him. He left Asia seeking success, security and safety.
That’s part of the reason Ardahbek Amantur made the decision to stay in the U.S. as a graduate student in IU’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies. Here, where immigrants seek better opportunities, he thought he would be safe. Here in Bloomington, he thought he would be safe from discrimination.
But standing outside of a strip mall near College Mall on Feb. 27, with the palms of his hands bleeding and his glasses shattered on the concrete in front of him, he didn’t feel safe.
Amantur, 29, who works as an Uber driver, said the incident started with an Uber ride, where five people tried to get into his car. He told them only four people could legally ride in his car and canceled the ride. Then, he said the man in the passenger seat refused to leave his car and asked him repeatedly, “Do you eat bats?”
Amantur dialed 911 and asked the passenger to wait for police officers to arrive. Amantur said when he told the man the police were on the way, the man got out of the car and tried to tackle him. While avoiding the blow, Amantur fell on the concrete, scraping up his hands. The man took Amantur’s glasses, which had fallen to the ground, and smashed them, Amantur said.
The police report of this event, obtained by the Indiana Daily Student, matches Amantur’s account. Amantur’s call to the police reported the incident as an assault, but since he avoided the blow, the case is being investigated as vandalism for the broken glasses.
Amantur said he believes the statement about bats was accusing him of bringing COVID-19 to the U.S., where he has lived since 2016. Like many immigrants, Amantur said he came to the U.S. to live what he had hoped would be a normal, safe life.
Waiting for police officers to arrive, wet from the rain and his vision blurry without his glasses, all he could think was, “Why? What did I do wrong?”
Reported incidents of racism and violence against Asian and Asian-American people in the U.S. rose 150% in 2020, according to a study from California State University, San Bernardino. More than 3,800 hate incidents were reported to Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and Feb. 2021. Stop AAPI Hate is an organization devoted to tracking incidents of hate, xenophobia and discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. The FBI tracks hate crimes, which are more narrowly defined and do not include people yelling racial slurs or racist crimes that are not charged as hate crimes.
Shootings at three massage parlors and spas March 16 in Atlanta left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent, according to the New York Times.
In Indiana, Asian and Asian-Americans have faced hate crimes. According to a petition by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, or NAPAWF, hate crimes against Asian people were reported in Plymouth, Chesterton, Mooresville and Martinsville, Indiana, in 2020.
Bloomington is no exception to anti-Asian racism, despite being in Monroe County, which is progressive compared to surrounding areas.
In 1999, Won-Joon Yoon, an IU graduate student from South Korea, was killed outside of the Korean United Methodist Church in Bloomington by a white supremacist during a three-day shooting spree in Indiana and Illnois that targeted Black, Jewish and Asian people. A year prior, the shooter spread white supremacist literature in Bloomington and on IU’s campus.
Ellen Wu, the director of the Asian American Studies Program at IU, said she believes progressive towns have hardly addressed the fact that racism against the Asian community exists.
Across the country, anti-Asian violence has manifested as assault and murder. This violence has had serious effects on survivors of these crimes, who are left with trauma.
Wu said there is a clear connection between the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in anti-Asian violence. She said she believes rhetoric used by certain politicians, such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu,” has normalized racist language and behavior. Former President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers used these terms, despite protest from health officials.
The would-be passenger’s question to Amantur, “Do you eat bats?” was rooted in a history of xenophobia in the U.S. which dates back to the 19th century, Wu said. During the economic instability of the 1860s and ‘70s, American workers blamed Chinese workers for taking their jobs, Wu said. She said American workers would make jokes that Chinese workers could get by on less hearty food by eating rats and rice.
This racism persisted into the 20th century, Wu said, where U.S.-led wars against Asian countries encouraged rhetoric accusing Asian people of having subhuman cultures and practices.
“That was really part of American culture in a lot of ways and really operated to dehumanize these Asian enemies in these wars,” Wu said.
She said xenophobia in the U.S. has historically taken many forms. She said one way was through a suspicion and fear that Asian people were unclean and carrying diseases. Since the pandemic began, this history of xenophobia has contributed to the racist idea that Asian people are primarily responsible for carrying and spreading COVID-19, she said.
Racist violence against the Asian community has created a general fearfulness of going out in public and worrying that something bad may happen, Wu said.
Jason Nguyen, a sophomore at IU from Fishers, Indiana, said he was at an IU C-store on March 3 with friends. A group of workers at the cash register debating whether they’d vote for one of the workers if he ran for president, Nguyen said.
“I’d vote for you,” Nguyen recalled saying, trying to make small talk.
Nguyen said one worker said, “Oh no, no, no you wouldn’t vote for him, because people of your kind...” before trailing off.
Nguyen said he laughed out of shock and removed himself from the situation but wished he had stood up for himself. He also wished his white friends had stood up for him, he said.
But part of the reason he didn’t defend himself was also because he was afraid of the situation escalating. He said he’s seen the news about violence against the Asian community, and it makes him fearful.
“I didn’t want to be the next person,” he said. “I will admit it was really mild. But I'm afraid that that mild thing, if I confronted it, would turn into something even worse.”
Nguyen said he kept repeating the comment in his head. He said he’s thought about the incident a lot and is doubtful that anyone would stand up for him if a similar situation were to happen again.
He’s hesitant to go back to the C-store and doesn’t frequent it every day like he used to.
While Nguyen said his experience was mild, there is always a fear that microaggressions could escalate, Wu said.
“At the core of all of this is still this ongoing assumption that no matter how Americanized we are, if you scratched off the surface, deep within, is this core of alien, foreign culture,” Wu said.
Even less blatantly racist rhetoric, such as microaggressions, can still negatively affect people of color. Microaggressions are defined as everyday, subtle interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told NPR.
Wu is part of NAPAWF, a petition group asking Gov. Eric Holcomb to take statewide action and condemn anti-Asian hate. The petition is also asking for a statewide advisory committee of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders that would create a direct line of communication to the governor’s office. This would help give the AAPI community more political representation, she said. She said she believes it is important for state and local governments to acknowledge anti-Asian racism and work with the community to find the best ways to address it.
It is important to have a reliable and accessible way to track incidents of verbal and physical harassment against the Asian community, Wu said. She stressed the fact that this is not a call for more policing, which can put communities of color at risk.
Asian and Asian-American women experience different dangers because of the way Asian women are fetishized and sexualized, IU sophomore Karen Cheng said.
After the killings in Atlanta, where the suspect told police he had a “sexual addiction,” a Cherokee County sheriff said an investigation is ongoing but the attacks may not be racially motivated. The FBI director told NPR that the shootings did not appear to be linked to race. Asian-American advocates across the country called for the shootings to be investigated as a hate crime.
The oversexualization and fetishization of Asian women can also be traced back in U.S. history, Cynthia Wu, an IU associate professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies, said in an email.
In 1875, the U.S. passed the Page Act, which restricted the immigration of laborers from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country,” and specifically of “women for the purposes of prostitution.”
The Page Act was created because it was perceived that Chinese women were especially likely to work in the sex industries, corrupt white men and boys and infect them with sexually transmitted diseases, Cynthia Wu said.
White men who believe their masculinity is threatened may fetishize Asian women based on the stereotypes that Asian women are submissive as a way to reassert the patriarchy, she said. Anti-Asian stereotypes and violence are not specific to Atlanta and can be seen across the country, Cynthia Wu said.
Cheng said she has had men tell her “Asian girls are hot” or that “Asian girls are pretty.” While those comments may seem like a compliment, she said they are generalizations that made her feel like she was being groomed and objectified for her race.
Growing up, Cheng said she had always known that fetishization of Asian women was a problem but always thought the consequences would only ever be microaggressions or verbal racism. After the Atlanta shootings , she knows fetishization of Asian women could lead to violence, she said.
Beyond that, Cheng said constantly seeing videos of violence against Asian people on social media has taken a toll on her mental health. She said she was grateful to her friends who reached out to check on her after the Atlanta shootings but disappointed by others who stayed silent.
“It just made me sad because after seeing something that impacts your community on the news, it can be really traumatizing and emotional,” Cheng said.
Amantur said he has thought about the night of Feb. 27 many times since it happened. Amantur had to return to driving for Uber after taking a week off because he financially supports himself.
This wasn’t the first racist experience Amantur has had in Bloomington. Like Nguyen, Cheng and countless others, he has experienced microaggressions. While working Uber, he said someone pulled the corners of their eyelids back at him, a racist act that plays on the stereotype that Asian people have slanted eyes.
But the incident on Feb. 27, Amantur said, hit the right spot. And it wasn’t the broken glasses or his bleeding palms that hurt the most.
Since that night, he said he’s felt vulnerable. Amantur doesn’t consider himself an emotional person and said it’s usually not easy for him to cry. But in the days following the incident, he said he cried multiple times, sometimes when he wasn’t even expecting it.
Amantur doesn’t believe this instance of racism was an outlier, even if it was the first time racist comments against him have escalated into physical violence.
“I’m sure I will experience this again,” he said.
Editor’s note: Karen Cheng previously worked for the Indiana Daily Student.