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  • Mae Ouhr

Atlanta Sojourn: Why I had to to and see firsthand

Reposted from Korean Quarterly

Mid-February 2021, I had just lost a long-time friend. The third in three months. Preoccupied with grief, on March 16, the first words about the Atlanta spa murders only grazed my consciousness. My body connected to the upheaval before my mind did. Realization of what had happened there unfolded over time.

I read a few headlines late Tuesday. Not another shooting..., I thought. Wednesday, the rest of the information trickled in. A witness quoted in the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper heard the 21-year-old killer, Robert Long, scream: “I am going to kill all Asians” before shooting at one of the three spas he attacked that day. Atlanta Police Captain Jay Baker explained the killer’s motive to the nation sympathetically: “He was pretty much fed up, and kind of at [the] end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” From the police captain’s perspective, killing eight people (six of whom were Asian women) seemed like nothing more than a tough/bad decision. An accident. Our lives might just have to be sacrificed for a 21-year-old’s bad day. There were so many layers of rage and grief in reading the shooter’s declaration of hate. I am an adoptee. I grew up in a small town where I was the only minority in the entire school. I was no stranger to racial jokes and slurs, physical assault, discrimination; starting around age six. My white family’s good intentions did not understand, would/could not support my racial experience growing up. Before I learned to love my ethnicity, I had already spent four and a half decades internalizing racism that became self-hatred. Ideas about being Korean made me very uncomfortable and alienated. The closest thing that I had to Asian pride was acknowledgement of my race through self-deprecating jokes.

Growing up, I had conversations about race that included whitewashing, such as “Everyone is the same/We don’t see color.” I noted inaccurate perspectives of post-racial America: “We marched for civil rights back in the '60s, so racism isn’t a problem in America anymore.”

I also heard a lot of denial, because, for some, making a problem invisible is the next best thing to solving it: “Why do you have to bring that (racism you experienced) up? Are you trying to upset everyone?” “Can’t we just have a nice time? You ruin everything.” “Get over it.” “Forget about it, keep working, you will be fine.”

I also was subject to outright gaslighting: “Racism is probably just in your head.” “You don’t know if that (bad behavior doled out to the only minority in a group) was racism. Don’t be like that.” “You are handicapping yourself by thinking people are against you.” I was conditioned to never play the race card.

I’ve worked a myriad of customer service jobs. Dealing with microaggressions, blatant racism, and intrusive questions affected me and continued to shape my ideas about the way others saw me. The dreaded question “Where are you from?” sometimes included every ethnicity except Korean. I was asked if or [sic] routinely told that I looked Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian.

I knew there were many Asian countries, but in America, Asians are perceived as “all the same.” Remembering Vincent Chin, I knew this could be fatal to people with faces like mine. In 2018, decades after Hallyu, I returned to the Motherland. I learned to take pride in being Korean for the first time in my life. Early 2020, I was one of the people who initially did not think the coronavirus was a threat. I perceived the first threat to be the immediate rise in violence against Asian people. When people I knew referred to COVID-19 as the “virus from Wuhan,” called it “the China virus,” or spoke negatively about China’s government, I would get upset. This was not because of national politics, but because I already was starting to fear for our safety, the safety of Asian Americans.

Little pieces of information about mothers lost immediately broke me. I have been searching for family my whole life, and seeing a beloved 엄마 ripped from another person that looked like me…their loss was my loss. Photo credit: Mae Ouhr

In 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) amended guidelines, advising national authorities, science and medical communities to not name diseases with terms that include: “geographic locations, cultural or population references, or terms that incite undue fear” (WHO, 2015). A disease named after a location motivates backlash against people related to that place, and backlash includes violence and murder. Yet some “liberal” white friends still did/would not connect how calling COVID the “China virus” contributes to the threat of harm against all Asians, and my own safety.

Asian Americans were assaulted while grocery shopping with infants, taking out the garbage, walking their dogs, going to work, sitting on the bus. In seeing so many reports with “Asian attacked” or “Asian assaulted” in the headlines; the only commonality that I saw was an Asian face scapegoated. Over and over. I know what I saw. I recognized it. I recognized the denial by the media and law enforcement that these were “not hate crimes.” It was a very old and familiar frustration. Witnessing repeated acts of racism followed by public denials of prejudice in America. In a way, truth made public was finally validating, but it was the kind of validation that I never wanted. When Atlanta happened, my body physically reacted with shock, trauma, and grief beyond what my brain was able to comprehend. It’s impossible for me to discuss Atlanta without relating it to George Floyd, and most recently Daunte Wright. Injustice to one is injustice to all.

When I just turned 21, one of my Black friends explained to me why they would not tolerate anti-Asian/any racially hateful statements. He was one of the first persons to verbalize the idea: “I don’t tolerate anti-Asian talk, because the same people that call Asians ‘ch**ks’ use the N-word behind my back.” I felt I found my family. I started to learn about solidarity.

George Floyd was my age, we both worked in security around town. I felt connected to him. For that and other reasons, his public execution by police affected me. Deeply.

For about half of the summer of 2020, I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours. I was experiencing hypervigilance. Since I couldn’t sleep, I read, and learned quite a bit about trauma response and the sympathetic nervous system, as I tried to make sense of what was happening internally. Following the Atlanta mass murders, I recognized this reaction returning. For the first four days, I would cry every morning, and throughout the day. By end of the week, I would only cry once a day. Progress. I constantly was frustrated and angry. I felt isolated. Alone. Enraged at the police press release that sympathized with the murder; “news” and law-enforcement that still insisted: “there is no proof that the Atlanta shootings were hate crimes.”

Aromatherapy Spa, across the street from Gold Spa. Atlanta, Georgia, 2021. Photo credit: Mae Ouhr

One day, I offhandedly mentioned I felt like going down there. That thought, that verbalization, sparked the first alleviation of anxiety, stress, anger, and frustration that I was feeling. I mentioned this to a few more people. On a Korean adoptee page, somebody I didn’t know offered to let me stay with their family. The more I started to plan, the less despair I felt. I wanted to go and see for myself what was really going on. I wanted to show up in solidarity for my community. I wanted to connect with some organizations, and bring back knowledge to help people in my city. I wanted to see Koreatown in Atlanta. I wanted to eat Korean BBQ.

A few nights before I left, I participated in a Zoom meeting with AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) Korean adoptees from the West Coast, East Coast, southern USA, and Europe. It was such a relief to be able to talk about the tragedy without having to navigate any white fragility. It was no surprise that our reactions were almost identical. Though the group members were different ages, occupations, had different adopted family experiences, religious/political backgrounds; we all were crying, anxious, unable to sleep, frustrated, and exhausted. Even among those isolated from Asian communities, we felt the same, around the world.

I did not have many expectations. It was raining the day I left. It rained every day I was in Georgia. I visited my first H Mart (a Korean-specific supermarket) in Atlanta, then we went to Gold Spa and the Aromatherapy Spa. Approaching Gold Spa, my mind went momentarily blank. My shock melted into sadness, seeing the gigantic word “L O V E” arranged in the parking lot, constructed with tree branches and flowers. So many flowers. Signs. Messages. Memorial offerings. I read notes about each person lost. That was the most difficult. The pain of their families was my pain. The loss of their community was loss of my community. It was the loss of our family, our community. 우리 (uri, or “our” in Korean) grief had rippled around the world. People could try to deny or ignore it, but our bereavement did not care, and did not rest.

The Korean American Coalition—Metro Atlanta’s candlelight vigil. Uplifting to hear speakers/prayers/poetry/music from supporting communities; reassuring to see solidarity. Photo credit: Mae Ouhr

I also attended a conference at the Korean American Coalition (KAC) in Atlanta. Researching different Asian organizations in Georgia, I noticed KAC did not list an address on their website. I assumed it was for protection of the building and Koreans who were there. KAC also held a vigil, which was grounding. There were prayers from Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian denominations. Black and Jewish community leaders represented unification, spoke, offered solidarity. There was music and poetry. There was healing strength in unity. My takeaways: It is important to reach out to like-minded people, and that positive activity, even a validating conversation, can decrease negative rumination, depression, anxiety, anger. I found like minds in the Minnesota Asian Safety Squad. The MN Asian Safety Squad is a volunteer group that does community security walks around the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, in a popular Asian American shopping district. They also offer free rides to elderly/differently abled people in need. Walking together for this shared purpose of solidarity has been very meaningful to me.

In all of our struggles, we are all interconnected—like it or not. As individuals, our struggles may be different, but there are important intersectionalities. We have more in common with each other than we do with our oppressors. Now is a time for change.

The old ways of avoiding racism as Asian Americans: “Put your head down, let it go/get over injustice, and keep working,” are not the path to safety that we were once led to believe. Not anymore. At this point, upholding silence and endorsing Asian invisibility has gotten us hunted and murdered. We (Asian communities and all marginalized people) need to continue to connect, adapt, and evolve. We need to be seen, heard, recognized, respected. We need to lose the “divide and conquer” mentality.

Today, I had three work meetings discussing diversity, equity, inclusivity. I experienced the healing power of connecting, and gained strength in discussing our truths. Lived experience is real. People, both Asians and non-Asians, are learning about anti-Asian discrimination. Asians are coming to grips with the racism they have battled and navigated their entire lives.

Atlanta has been an awakening for many people. Now is a time for world change. We have a chance to redefine ourselves, and fight for our right to exist in peace. Unity is the only way. Solidarity for the win.

Lastly, demanding accountability for crime and wrongdoing is part of that. Police, politicians, and our own communities all need to be held accountable. The status quo model of how we treat marginalized communities and what we will put up with as minorities is not working. What is the definition of insanity? Repeating the same methods, expecting different results. We need to demolish and reconstruct. The disaster of COVID has left some benefits in its wake, including the opportunity to rebuild something for our future. Let’s build.

"Inside the chaos, Build a temple of Love." Rune Lazuli

Mae Ouhr (they/them) is a food-obsessed data systems manager, voter, dog parent, consumer of visual arts, social justice warrior, occasional gym rat. Born in South Korea, they were adopted and raised in Minnesota. They value life learning, are hopefully done with college loans and wonder what’s up with those campaign promises, President Biden? This article was previously published in Korean Quarterly, under the title: “Visiting the Gold Spa Parking Lot.”

Cover photo credit: Mae Ouhr


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