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Asian American teens navigate being themselves as their communities are targeted

Christopher C., 17 in Chinatown, Manhattan.
Christopher C., 17 in Chinatown, Manhattan.

Editor's note: We are only using the teenagers' first names for fear of retribution against minors.

When the world reached a year into the pandemic, hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders were on the rise.

Photographer Eric Lee has long examined his own identity as an Asian American, especially one from a diverse city like New York. For him, the confusion began when he was a teenager (as if that time wasn't already complex). Reflecting on Lee's own experiences, he became curious of how teenagers today were navigating and comprehending a pandemic that has blamed, killed, and ridiculed their communities.

To gain an understanding, Lee spoke with and photographed 14 Asian American teenagers throughout New York City. For some, the pandemic prompted them to explore their identities in ways they hadn't before. For others, it caused them to examine issues and experiences that were resurfacing.

Vicki Z., 17, in Chinatown, Manhattan.
/ Eric Lee
Vicki Z., 17, in Chinatown, Manhattan.

Vicki Z.

Vicki Z., 17, was walking home with her friends in the Lower East Side when a man came up to her and said, "Corona-free NYC!" She was shocked that someone would do something like that and worried the man would continue harassing. As a young, Asian American woman, Vicki now wears a cap and headphones as a protective disguise whenever she walks alone. The hat covers her face so she doesn't have to make eye contact with people on the street and the headphones block out the comments.

She ended up not reporting it because she didn't have evidence of the verbal assault. Who would believe her? For Vicki, the pandemic changed how she thinks the world will see Asian Americans.

"I think when I started to realize more about my identity, I realized that it can cause different things to happen, not just because of COVID-19, but even before," Vicki Z. said. "For example, just being on the subway and someone saying something to you. It's walking down the street and someone saying something to you."

"I think that's when I realized that being an Asian American means that, especially because of COVID, things are not going to be the same. Like people are going to treat you differently. People are going to hold you to different standards."

Christopher C.

Christopher C., 17, is used to being the token Asian kid in his friend group. He tries to fit in and brushes the jokes aside. He doesn't want to make a scene or seem like he's "freaking out." But now that Asian elderly community members have experienced many violent attacks, Chris is angry.

"I'm afraid that something like that might happen," Christopher C. said. "I would say that after the pandemic, what changes is that I'm just really angry about stuff like this."

"I mean, like I have been passionate before, but just seeing these things happen frequently, like seeing a pattern, seeing a trend specifically in the elderly Asian community, just that just drives me crazy."

Naomi R., 16, in Flushing, Queens.
/ Eric Lee
Naomi R., 16, in Flushing, Queens.

Naomi R.

As a young woman, Naomi R., 16, was always afraid to walk home late at night or take the subway alone. But as hate crimes against Asians began to rise, her fears worsened. Then the shooting in Atlanta happened.

"Of course, I'm afraid because of my identity, but I think it's actually made my connection with it stronger because I think that's what we need," Naomi said. "We need to stay strong. We can't just, like, hide from it."

Zach Whitfield, 18, in Washington Heights, Manhattan.
/ Eric Lee
Zach Whitfield, 18, in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Zach Whitfield

Reflecting on 2020, Zach Whitfield, 18, remembers the pain of the Black Lives Matter protests. As a mixed-race, half-African-American, and half Korean teenager, identity is a continued struggle for him. He is still recovering from the traumas and conversations of last year and again feels neglected by the world.

One night last year, Whitfield was walking home. He recognized a neighbor in front of him. But as he got closer, she began walking faster, eventually entering their apartment lobby. Whitfield entered after and passed the neighbor, sensing her discomfort. For Whitfield, this made him realize that no matter where he was, even in his own neighborhood, his own home, he wasn't accepted.

"It's kind of awkward which side you take, because especially with the whole Black Lives Matter movement last year," Whitfield said. "I mean, it's like one side of me was just hurting. And that's always been a thing though. African-American people have been just systematically put under the line and forced to the bottom of the system. It's routine."

"My Asian side being attacked, literally, it kind of brings it all home... And it's kind of difficult to figure out where I am now, just seeing neither side of me in the eyes of society."

Emma L., 15, in Bailey Playground, The Bronx.
/ Eric Lee
Emma L., 15, in Bailey Playground, The Bronx.

Emma L.

Emma L., 15, grew up in China and moved to New York City when she was 4-years-old. This was her first experience living around people who didn't look like her. She says she's always felt a little alienated "from other people because obviously first was appearance, then there was language and then culture."

As Emma read comments on videos and read articles of Asian people being assaulted online, she wondered why authorities were always so hesitant to label them as hate crimes when they occurred. To her, it was so clearly visible, especially when so many were happening at once. This makes Emma think that law enforcement isn't taking the attacks seriously, leading her to lose trust in them.

"I want things to change," Emma said. "I definitely wish things would change for the better, but with American history, it's hard to change that fundamental base that this country was built on."

"It doesn't really matter whether or not there are laws put in place to say that there's racial equality, because if the people don't actually follow it, if the people don't actually enforce it, there's no point."

Josh N., 16, and Gabe N., 14 in Downtown Brooklyn.
/ Eric Lee
Josh N., 16, and Gabe N., 14 in Downtown Brooklyn.

Josh N. and Gabe N.

Brothers Josh N., 16, and Gabe N., 14, sheltered in place since the pandemic began. Not knowing how the virus could affect their family worried them. But reading the news of attacks on the Asian community frightened them. They used to walk to school or take the train with their friends, but now will only be chaperoned by their parents.

"With this whole thing now, I feel like maybe I should be with people who aren't Asian, like white people," Josh said. "Because if I associate myself with white people who understand me... then maybe that could lessen some of my fears."

"It still doesn't feel good to think about it. What would have happened if it were someone in my family?" Gabe said.

Kaden, 13, and Maya, 15, in Chinatown, Manhattan.
/ Eric Lee
Kaden, 13, and Maya, 15, in Chinatown, Manhattan.

Kaden and Maya

Kaden, 13, and Maya, 15 were on their way to visit their grandmother in Manhattan's Chinatown. Kaden began to get worried about the attacks since his mom was going back to work, sister was going back to school, and grandma walking around alone. He learned about the Atlanta spa shooting from seeing the news on his mom's phone before our interview.

"I'm getting kind of half angry, half sad since it's not like their fault," said Kaden. "They can't do anything about Corona[virus]. Not every Asian person is part of the Corona[virus]."

Aden H., 17, and Adele H., 15, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
/ Eric Lee
Aden H., 17, and Adele H., 15, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

Aden H. and Adele H.

When brother and sister, Aden H., 17, and Adele H., 15, went hiking during the pandemic in Upstate New York, one thought kept haunting Aden. After parking, the family crossed a highway to get to the trailhead, but all he could think of was a car would deliberately run them over. He only thought of it because of the recent wave of attacks. The wave of anti-Asian hate has left Aden looking for solutions, any solution, to fix the systemic disparity.

"I think the biggest thing is empathy," Aden said . "But I feel the first step to achieving that empathy would be through conversation. And I'd say listening, more importantly, than speaking; just giving the space for Asian Americans to share their thoughts, their feelings, regarding not just their upbringing, but how they're feeling amidst everything that's happening now."

For his sister, Adele, it was a moment of awakening.

"I don't think my identity changed," she said. "I think I just became more aware about my identity as an Asian American with everything that's going on."

Emma Tang, 19, in Union Square, Manhattan.
/ Eric Lee
Emma Tang, 19, in Union Square, Manhattan.

Emma Tang

Emma Tang, 19, is an activist running an Instagram account that explores the intersections of topics like police brutality, reproductive rights, Asian America, and identity.

One day in 2020, Tang was sitting at a table with friends in Union Square, a man hit her over the head with a dirtied sheet and stared at her, waiting for a response. But Tang was stunned and silent. She looked at her friends who all had the same thought, "this was a hate crime." The man walked away as if nothing had happened. Since then, Tang wondered if the attack could have been worse.

"[since the shooting in Atlanta] I've become more proud of my own identity," Tang said. "I guess it's become more of a part of me, if that makes sense. I think I've realized really over the past year, that Asian people are never going to be seen as white. White people threw us under the bus for COVID so quickly."

"Any minority can do as much as it wants to try and attain some sort of proximity to 'whiteness,' but until we dismantle white supremacy and until minorities show solidarity with one another, things like this are just going to keep happening and we are never going to achieve equity and equality."

Alena P., 15, in Battery Park City, Manhattan.
/ Eric Lee
Alena P., 15, in Battery Park City, Manhattan.

Alena P.

Alena P., 15, faces challenges most high school juniors encounter: the beginning of college applications. However, Alena is almost two years younger than most juniors, something she is struggling with as she strives to fit into her school community. She's struggled with opening up to her friends, especially about being biracial.

During the pandemic, her mother and sister both were stopped by men and asked where they are from. When they replied "America," the men were perplexed and challenged them by saying that they "look Asian," insinuating they were born elsewhere. She has always felt a sense of discomfort with not belonging, even before the pandemic.

"I've struggled with [identity] a long time, especially because, you know, I'm half white, so I'm mixed," Alena P. said. "And a lot of the time, like New York City or in other parts of the United States, you feel like you're too Asian, like too much of a person of color. But then at the same time, like a lot of the times, every year I go back to Taiwan. I still feel like I'm a foreigner there, so it's worse.

"So, there's not really a place where you feel like you can, I guess, like be surrounded by people who are similar to you, because no matter where you go, you're always going to be looked at differently."

Robert L., 16, in Midtown Manhattan.
/ Eric Lee
Robert L., 16, in Midtown Manhattan.

Robert L.

Robert L., 16, moved to Australia from China when he was 7-years-old. He remembers not being able to speak English and feeling lost without being able to communicate with his peers. They began to get mad at him. Now, he lives in the United States, attending high school in New York City. He doesn't have that many close friends and looks to the internet to have conversations, because he can truly be himself online. He doubted his identity as Chinese.

"I think I am a Chinese migrant and that's because I've found myself in various different cultures, so it will be difficult to call myself a Chinese American or Chinese Australian or just Chinese in general," Robert L. said.

With the pandemic, his struggles only continued:

"I guess it just does spur some thoughts about, you know, the part of you that kind of collides with the Asian identity of everyone else. 'How Asian are you?' It feels like a very dividing line, but it is kind of like a thought, you know, like how much in this culture, how much in this nation, how much in this population are you?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.