Chinese students make up the largest number of international students in the US, but that number is dropping.
The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes fueled by the pandemic may be a contributing factor to this trend.
Lily Zhao, a Chinese student getting her PhD at a university in Atlanta, first heard about the mid-March shootings at local spas from news alerts on her phone.
Of the eight people killed in the shooting spree, six were women of Asian descent, putting Asian communities across the US on high alert. Families in China who are considering sending their children abroad are also paying close attention.
“It's my first time to, like, to be so close to a hate crime. ... I felt it is urgent for me to do something, just to voice out our concerns."
“It's my first time to be so close to a hate crime,” said Lily Zhao, who asked The World not to use her real name because she is worried about being identified by the Chinese government.
She said one of the spas that was targeted is just 10 minutes away from her apartment.
Zhao has been studying social media activism in the US, and when she heard about the shooting, she felt she needed to be part of the conversation.
“I felt it is urgent for me to do something, just to voice out our concerns,” she said.
From the time her phone started buzzing, Lily Zhao started gathering other Chinese students to sign petitions, write articles and post on WeChat, Twitter and Instagram. She was worried about attending the various demonstrations and protests that followed the shootings, though. Protesters across the country are calling for more protections for Asian Americans.
“After I saw my friends participate in those protests, then I felt like, OK, maybe I can try to go to these places first, and maybe observe for a moment and be part of it as well,” she said.
Authorities are still deliberating about whether to call the mass shooting in Atlanta a hate crime — most of the victims were of Korean or Chinese descent — but Zhao said it’s clear to her.
“We still have to justify this … discrimination, this is a hate crime. We are not part of the mainstream society; our image is marginalized from the everyday conversations and also in media discourse, as well,” she said.
Zhao said that she has never felt unsafe or experienced discrimination, but she remembers Americans shying away from her last year when she wore a mask in the early days of the pandemic before they were recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With US-China relations being the worst they’ve been in decades, Zhao said she finds herself erasing her Chinese identity to keep herself feeling safe.
“Sometimes, I prioritize my Asian identity before I say that I am Chinese out of the concern that they may have the Sinophobic sentiment because of [the] anti-China rhetoric,” she said.
That rhetoric, along with the recent violence, has Chinese families reconsidering whether to send their children abroad to study.
“They're scared now, they no longer believe that it can't happen to them. I mean, a lot of our families only have one child. And so, they're very, very concerned," said Tess Robinson, a study abroad counselor in Shanghai.
Robinson said those families are losing confidence in the United States as a place where their children can be safe.
“Whether or not they will continue to feel that way, will be determined in part by what the American reaction is, that it's not just Asians and Asian organizations standing up and saying, ‘stop the hate,’ but that everybody gathers around them, and, you know, demonstrates a solidarity so that they don't feel alone."
“Whether or not they will continue to feel that way will be determined, in part, by what the American reaction is, that it's not just Asians and Asian organizations standing up and saying, ‘Stop the hate,’ but that everybody gathers around them, and, you know, demonstrates a solidarity so that they don't feel alone,” she said.
Norman Wu, a computer science student at Clark University in Massachusetts, has been living in Hangzhou during the pandemic and taking classes online while he waits for travel restrictions to the US to be lifted. He said he wanted to post about these issues on Chinese social media, but didn’t know if other Chinese people would understand.
“Should I, you know, stand [up] for the so-called Asian Americans? Because, you know, I'm not American. So yeah, I'm struggling with that. It's like, you're your identity. Yeah, I'm finding my identity.”
“Should I post this thing?” he remembers asking himself. “Should I, you know, stand [up] for the so-called Asian Americans? Because, you know, I'm not American. So yeah, I'm struggling with that. It's like, you're your identity. Yeah, I'm finding my identity.”
Before he first went to the US, Wu said he always thought of himself as Chinese. But after going to the US, he started to take on a new identity based on how others see him. It was awkward.
“I will say, in this process, you have to destroy your own identity,” he said. “Like, now you're no longer a Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese. But you're Asian. You have to be, because [a] racist wouldn't think [of] you as Chinese, Korean or any other. [They’d] … just think of you as an Asian,” he said.
Taking on this Asian identity makes him feel helpless, but also powerfully connected to others in a fight against systemic discrimination.
“We can connect with other communities, like the Black community, the Latin community, and yeah, I think we can unite together,” he said.
Wu said he can’t wait to go back to school in the US.
“I don’t want to be a silent student or the no-name Chinese student anymore. Because if no one stands up or speaks up, then all of us just get hurt,” he said.
Wu said he wants to be part of the voices calling for change.