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To the old woman on the 12: A personal essay

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JOE SISON | STAFF

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MARCH 12, 2022

Content warning: Discussion of murder, shootings and hate crimes

Last April, I found myself riding the SFMTA’s 12 bus as it rolled through San Francisco. I’d spent the afternoon exploring the city with friends and watching the colonies of sea lions at Pier 39, and I was exhausted but content when we boarded the bus to begin our journey home. We’d only been seated for a matter of minutes before the bus came to a stop in Chinatown, and an old Asian woman carrying a handful of plastic bags came on board. Her hands were shaking as she set them down. When she looked up, I was struck by the sense that I knew her. I had seen that face before.

In reality, the woman was a stranger. Yet, I was trapped in the feeling that we were somehow connected. I felt a strange, unforeseen urge to protect this person I didn’t know. As that instinct grew, my heart started to beat faster; my palms grew sweaty. Unanswerable questions began racing through my mind: Where was she going? Had she been grocery shopping? Why wasn’t she accompanied by anyone? Who had allowed her to go alone? Would someone be there to meet her when she arrived at home? I found myself struggling to hold back tears as I stared at the elderly woman, a person who should have been completely unfamiliar.

She disembarked the bus before I did. When she rose out of her seat, she looked over at me and smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling. My face trembling, I forced myself to smile back. As I watched her carefully descend the metal steps, I sent out a silent prayer into the universe. Please let this woman be okay. Please make sure that she gets back safely. Only after the 12 had driven off did I realize where this feeling of responsibility had come from.

On March 16, 2021, six Asian American women were murdered in a series of shootings that targeted spa workers and patrons in Atlanta, Georgia. This was a part of a long history of hate crimes directed at the Asian American community, which became significantly more common since the emergence of COVID-19 infections in the United States. The murders in Atlanta exemplified the grave impacts of sexualization and fetishization of Asian American women across the nation. That day is permanently etched into my mind, and it is something that I reflect upon often as I consider the prevalence of racialized and gendered violence in society.

Before this, I didn’t understand what it was like to grieve so profoundly and deeply for individuals who I didn’t know on a personal level. The Atlanta shootings left me with a sense of loss and pain that I couldn’t fully comprehend. I spent the following week in a state of emotional despair. I cried constantly, and seldom left my room. For hours, I pored over photos of the women who had been lost in the massacre, learning their names and their stories. Hyun Jung Grant. Xiaojie Tan. Soon Chung Park. Suncha Kim. Daoyou Feng. Yong Ae Yue. These were individuals who had immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities, working longer and harder hours than I could ever imagine. Instead of finding prosperity in this country, they had their lives stripped from them in a matter of seconds. Many of them will never be remembered by America for the struggles that they endured. This, to me, was indescribably devastating.

I am a second-generation Asian American. My grandparents came to this nation in hopes of providing their children with better upbringings than their own. In many ways, they prospered, my grandfather finding a successful career as a physician and affording my mother and uncles with a level of socioeconomic privilege that he had never experienced. Still, my grandparents were never viewed by society as fully American. Growing up in Tennessee, just across the border from where these shootings took place, I had spent my childhood watching people disrespect my grandparents’ very existences. Their accents were mocked; their accomplishments were undermined; their faces were jeered at. Even despite these experiences, however, they were luckier than most. The magnitude of the violence that many members of the Asian American community experience, particularly working class women, is incalculable. It represents just how far this country still has to go.

The magnitude of the violence that many members of the Asian American community experience, particularly working class women, is incalculable.

Throughout the spring, my grief grew so large that I was nearly unable to carry it. I sent endless messages to my sister, my mother and my grandparents, warning them not to walk anywhere alone. I admonished acquaintances who had not reached out to check in. One night, a group of my friends decided to watch “Minari,” a movie about a Korean American family living in Arkansas. After the film ended, I locked myself in the bathroom, unable to stop crying. By the time I encountered the old woman on the 12 line, I was on the verge of a complete breakdown. I didn’t understand why I cared so much or why I was so incapable of separating myself from her.

In August, I began working as an intern with UC Berkeley’s Asian Pacific American Student Development office, or APASD. There, I learned the importance of community healing. As I built close relationships with my fellow interns and our supervisors, I began to understand that my grief wasn’t isolated. I was surrounded by individuals whose lives had changed radically due to anti-Asian violence. By hearing them share their experiences not only with marginalization and intergenerational trauma, but also with cultivating love for their cultures and communities, I felt myself beginning to heal. At our most recent team meeting, we were asked to reflect on the role of community in working toward collective liberation. As a friend of mine shared with me, communities ensure that your pain is not endured alone. They mourn alongside you, they listen critically to your feelings, and by doing so, they take some of the weight off your shoulders. As we grieve in the wake of earth-shattering events such as the shootings in Atlanta, the presence of community is invaluable.

I used to believe that my community was composed of the individuals I knew. Recently, however, I have come to believe that community extends to those living alongside us, who face experiences recognizable in our own lives, even if we may not know them. We love these people not because we have spoken to them or because we have grown up with them, but because we see them and we stand with them. Now, when I think about community, I don’t think only of my family. I think about all of the individuals who lost their lives in Atlanta last march. I think about Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go, young women who were brutally murdered in the first weeks of 2022. I think of the loved ones who mourn them, their lives forever changed. I think of the woman who brings me sikhye on Sunday afternoons at Kimchi Garden, and of the little girls walking to Korean school down the road in Oakland. I think about my peers at APASD, and how my pain is reflected in their own. I think of the elderly woman who sat beside me on the bus last April, with her shaking hands and crinkling eyes.

I have come to believe that community extends to those living alongside us, who face experiences recognizable in our own lives, even if we may not know them.

This Wednesday marks the first anniversary of the murders in Atlanta. While this date is filled with heaviness for so many in my community, I have begun to find a lasting sense of hope. Alone, we don’t have the tools necessary to reshape society and prevent all instances such as these from occurring as we go forward. In community, however, we find love deep enough to accomplish the unimaginable. The journey toward progress will be grueling. It will be wrought with grief, anxiety, exhaustion and hardship. And yet I find that there is reason to carry on, knowing that my endeavors will be supported by those who share this dedication to imagining a future of resistance, and later, of liberation.

I want to send my love to the old woman on the 12. I want to send my love to everyone continuing to live and learn within our community. I want to send my love to the individuals who have been laid to rest, and to those who were taken from us far too soon. Our struggle will continue, but the work will not be done alone. May we continue to mourn, to fight and to heal. May we continue to create a world where freedom is tangible. Above all else, may we continue to share our love with one another.

Contact Olivia Rhee at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

MARCH 12, 2022


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