The PEN Pod: Looking to the Past to Imagine a Better Future with Helen Zia
Today, we at PEN America are working with our friends at the Asian American Writers Workshop to present “United Against Hate,” a day of solidarity featuring a schedule of virtual events designed to celebrate and engage a wide range of Asian and Asian American voices. And today on The PEN Pod, we are joined by Chinese American author, journalist, and archivist Helen Zia, who will also be joining us for today’s webinar on counter-speech. Helen’s latest book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution, was a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography (and was featured in our recent Asian American Voices reading list), and she was recently profiled in the new PBS documentary series, Asian Americans. We spoke with Helen about the history of anti-Asian racism in America, what the pandemic means for immigrants and migrants now, and what lessons we can learn from history.
You were one of the first voices to publicly sound the alarm about how the pandemic might impact Asian Americans, and in particular, inflame anti-Asian hatred. How have you seen that hostility play out?
Just as really anybody who was paying attention to the coronavirus as it was unfolding in China, just as those people could see that that was going to be global and it was going to hit us in the United States, those of us in the Asian American community—and really anybody who deals with racist hate crimes—could see that this was going to unfold badly as a pandemic of racism. It had already been primed. The anti-China bashing that had been going on for years already, and intensified with the current president, was already leading to a lot of problems: surveillance—not just hate crimes and hate activity, but also state violence—and the use of arms and weapons of the state to target people of Asian ancestry.
Then, when the crisis was happening in China, everybody of Asian ancestry, in places like Chinatowns, were already seeing vandalism, racist taunting, terrible graffiti, and a loss of business. Many businesses reported that they had lost 70 percent of their business. Restaurants, grocery stores, and shops were suddenly shutting their doors, and this is before the virus actually came to North America. Then, when the lockdowns, layoffs, and unemployment began, it was very clear that the hostility was ramping up tremendously. People were saying to each other that they were afraid to go out. They were afraid to go to the grocery store or take their children to the park.
“We know what this is. We’ve seen it before. Unfortunately, I have to say that every Asian American in the United States and people with Asian faces all over the world are experiencing this global pandemic of racism and hatred.”
Some of the nonprofits and the advocacy groups within the Asian American community started setting up reporting websites. One of the most active websites found out that, in mid-March, when they posted #StopAAPIHate, within that first week, they got 700 reports. These are self-reports that people make, and we know that that’s an undercount. People were reporting that they were spit on, coughed at, slapped, kicked. People reported that children were getting beaten up outside if they ventured outside, essential workers who were at a bus stop were getting kicked in the head, and elderly people were getting knocked down. Children who were with their family at a Sam’s Club in Texas actually were stabbed by a man who said outright, “I want to kill all of you Chinese because of the virus.” So he stabbed the two-year-old, the four-year-old, the parents. And these children—who by the way, were not Chinese American—will have these scars on their faces for life. There have been a number of incidents like that. In fact, after two months, that same reporting site has had more than 1,800 reports.
We have seen this before, in the case of Vincent Chin, who was a Chinese American who was about to be married in 1982, when there was another depression in the Midwest. He was killed because he looked Japanese. In those days, the enemy that was echoed across the media and the halls of Congress was Japan. They were literally the enemy, and members of Congress said that we should send the Enola Gay—the plane that carried the atomic bomb to Japan—that we should send that back and basically destroy Japan.
We saw a spate of hate crimes, starting with Vincent Chin, who was killed for looking Japanese. We saw it after 9/11 with the Islamophobia that happened that also swept up anybody who “looked Muslim.” That included many Asian Americans—South Asian Americans. There were mass shootings that happened at temples after 9/11. We know what this is. We’ve seen it before. Unfortunately, I have to say that every Asian American in the United States and people with Asian faces all over the world are experiencing this global pandemic of racism and hatred.
The hostility, I’m afraid to say, I think is going to intensify. The situation, economically, is getting worse. The death count and infections are rising, and people who are suffering and miserable sometimes are looking for somebody to blame. Our very top leadership in the world, in the White House—or as I say, the White Supremacy House—are saying it’s all China’s fault. As we head into this presidential election, the GOP playbook has already said, “Let’s make China take the blame for everything.” Unfortunately, the Democratic campaign is probably going to sink to that lowest level as well.
But I do have to say, I think history also teaches us that, as in the case of Vincent Chin and after 9/11, people can actually come together to fight hatred, to fight the virus of COVID as well as the virus of racism and intolerance. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to solve any of these things. We have to do it together.
“I think history also teaches us that, as in the case of Vincent Chin and after 9/11, people can actually come together to fight hatred, to fight the virus of COVID as well as the virus of racism and intolerance. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to solve any of these things. We have to do it together.”
You’re featured in the new PBS documentary Asian Americans. I wonder how you view that film and how you view attempts to reframe the role that people of Asian descent have played in U.S. history and culture, in a way that might make for perhaps a more positive outcome.
I think the documentary series Asian Americans is really terrific. It’s a five-part, five-hour series, and it really is a landmark presentation. There have been other documentaries about Chinese Americans, for example, or Japanese Americans or other different ethnicities, but this is about Asian Americans, and it is being released at a time when all of these attacks and outright, intense racism are ballooning. It couldn’t come at a better time. I can only hope that people will watch it and try to get some understanding that people of Asian descent have been in the United States for a long time and have been contributing and been part of the fabric of this country, for better and worse, at different times. The very notion, for example, that people who are born in America have a birthright to be American citizens—that was because of a Chinese American in the 1800s, who fought for that right all the way to the Supreme Court. This documentary shows that, as well as the variety and diversity among Asian Americans at different points in our history.
I wish it had been longer. You asked me about the anti-Asian hatred and violence that is going on now. 9/11 certainly sparked that, with attacks against Muslim Americans, South Asian Americans—who are also Asian Americans—and Arab Americans. We saw mass shootings that happened after 9/11 at temples and churches. That was not really covered. I think we could learn a lot from that time in our recent history, but I do hope people watch this, because it really is a landmark view, with incredible archival footage, photographs, and stories. As somebody who has written about the Asian American community, I learned new stories in there and new ways of looking at old stories. I think it’s a very important documentary piece of media to come out at this time.
“What happened to these exiles, migrants, and refugees in 1949 has a very parallel story today. I think the chief question that I hope people think about is, ‘What does it take to make somebody flee?’ The fact is, nobody leaves their home, their extended family, their communities, and everything they know and cherish, unless things are going very badly.”
In your book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai, which is now out in paperback, you write about those who fled the city after the 1949 Communist Revolution. In our current moment, when borders are closed and hostilities are high, are there parallels to our current moment, in terms of the movement of people in migration and uncertainty?
Oh, absolutely. In looking at that period of time in 1949—which was, of course, the Chinese Communist Revolution—there was incredible anxiety regarding what that revolution was going to bring. That anxiety took place at a time when society had broken down, over a period of more than a decade. Seeing what it is that causes people to flee when they have to make that decision is like watching a trainwreck coming and not knowing what that’s going to bring.
We are today, even with this pandemic, at a time of the greatest human migration; in terms of numbers that have taken place, some historians say it’s the largest in human history. There are more than 70 million official refugees counted in the world, and we know that there are many, many more migrants. The story of immigration and the anti-immigrant policies and activities that were going on before that pandemic are still going on, in very cruel and terrible ways. The children that have been separated from their parents and put in cages—those cages still exist and now are becoming hotbeds of the virus. We just don’t hear about them.
What happened to these exiles, migrants, and refugees in 1949 has a very parallel story today. I think the chief question that I hope people think about is, “What does it take to make somebody flee?” The fact is, nobody leaves their home, their extended family, their communities, and everything they know and cherish, unless things are going very badly. That was true for the people who were on the Mayflower, and that was true for every wave of immigrants to the U.S. That’s also true for families who put their children on a rubber raft in the Mediterranean, knowing that their children can’t swim and neither can they. Or families who walk a thousand miles with their babies in their arms to come to the U.S. border, only to get firehosed and tear gassed. The only reason they’ll do that is because they know their children won’t survive childhood if they stay.
That was also part of what was told in my book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai. If people read that and can find some connection or empathy with those people, then they must also make that connection to the immigrants, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, detainees that we have at our U.S. borders today. There’s a lot we can learn about that and how we can actually make the world better, better than before. We really have to learn from history.
Can you share a bit about what you’re reading right now?
I am very fortunate that I have friends who send me things that they’ve written. I just received a memoir by Dori Jones Yang, who is writing about her experience as a foreign correspondent in China when the doors opened. Then the story of a woman who was quite an activist, and still is, who was part of the exodus I wrote about—Ying Lee, who actually was a congressional aide for many years to people like Congressman Ron Dellums and was part of the Civil Rights Movement. For fun, I finished reading The Resisters by Gish Jen, her most recent novel, which is just incredible. I think it also has a tremendous connection to what we’re going through today, as well as hope and inspiration. I hope this time of sheltering gives people a lot more time to read books and to imagine a time beyond where we are today, and how we can actually have a vision of a better world than where we were when it started.
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