One year later, 7 Asian American community members reflect on the Atlanta spa shootings

In the wake of last year’s spa shootings, Atlanta’s Asian Americans mobilized like never before. Here, seven community members share why this tragedy has implications for all of us.

Atlanta Asian Spa Shooting One Year Anniversary

Photograph by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux

Edited by Christina Lee (이크리스티나) and Betsy Riley. Consultation by Helen Kim (김혜련).

This month, the hate-crime law Georgia passed amid outrage over Ahmaud Arbery’s death gets its first test in the Fulton County murder trial of Robert Aaron Long, who shot and killed eight people last March at Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth and Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa in Atlanta. Legal experts have said that proving Long’s case to be a hate crime on the basis of gender would be “the stronger argument” than proving it on race, since the shooter claims to have a sex addiction.

However, when we asked seven Atlanta residents—all of Asian descent, including one victim’s husband and another victim’s son—to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, their readings were a lot more nuanced. They noted that the murders came as Asian Americans have been increasingly scapegoated and targeted during the coronavirus pandemic, adding to a legacy of racism and oppression spanning America’s history that is rarely taught in the nation’s history classes. In fact, this fall, Illinois and New Jersey will become the first states to require that Asian American history be included in school curriculums.

I initially declined to share how the spa shootings affected me personally. As a music and culture writer, I figured I wasn’t nearly as affected as the activists, politicians, scholars, and survivors featured here, who are asking tough questions, fostering community, and seeking justice. It felt much more urgent to share their perspectives, even though I am a Korean Vietnamese American. Frankly, I still feel that way.

As the anniversary approached, a woman whose first and last name I share—Christina Yuna Lee, who, at 35, was also my age—was killed in her apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Between that news, and these reflections urging us to reconsider the larger implications of last year’s events, I was forced to reckon with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” —Christina Lee

Michelle Au

Photograph by by Melissa Alexander

Intent Matters

Dr. Michelle Au
Anesthesiologist and Georgia State Senator, District 48, Johns Creek

On March 16, a gunman shot and killed eight people in a barbaric rampage near Atlanta: Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, and Yong Ae Yue. Of those killed, six were Asian women.

Afterwards, the gunman insisted the murders were “not racially motivated” but instead driven by his own “sexual addiction,” and that his actions were carried out in an effort to “eliminate the temptation” he felt the victims posed to his spiritual virtue. Law enforcement officials in Cherokee County were all too happy to parrot this narrative and accept his motivations as stated.

The message from the outset, carried by seemingly authoritative voices, was clear. While the shootings may have been directed against women in particular, by the murderer’s own assessment, his animus was not influenced by their race. His motive could be driven by one but not the other . . . and certainly not both.

As though most of the victims themselves had a choice of being seen either as Asian or as women, but not as both. As though the fact of being an Asian woman isn’t a package deal, a chimerical social tangle where no one aspect can be teased apart from the other.

As Asian women, we carry a set of stereotypes where culture, sexuality, intent, and effect are impossible to delineate. We are “China dolls,” “dragon ladies,” “geisha girls,” and “lotus blossoms,” alternately seen as docile, servile ornaments or as lascivious temptresses, exotic and fetishized and essentially fungible.

Most Asian women have long internalized that to be Asian in this country is to be unavoidably objectified and sexualized, interaction after interaction, day after day, so much so that the mere suggestion that our Asian-ness and our femininity could be considered in exclusion is laughable. To be seen as a woman but not as an Asian woman, with all the presumptions that entails? It’s like expecting people to hold that iconic curvy glass bottle in hand and think generally of soda rather than immediately of Coca-Cola.

Further, when we talk about discrimination and violence against Asian Americans, that intersectional identity inevitably contributes. A September 2021 report from Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate showed that, nationally, 62 percent of reported hate incidents were perpetrated against Asian women. What’s more, this data is almost certainly an undercount, as it relies on self-reporting from victims or bystanders, in a world where the idea that Asian Americans even face discrimination or violence is generally minimized, if not outright dismissed.

History has shown that it is easier to hurt others whom we objectify or see as less than human. We also know that the hypersexualization and objectification of women and girls leads them to increased risk of violence. Asian women often find themselves at the nexus of this social psychology, and, in examining the events of March 16 and its inciting factors, we cannot turn away from the interplay of racism and sexism, and its deadly effect.

This is why the importance of education cannot be overstated.

Education is an empathy machine. Education uses the past to shape the future for the better. And only in teaching our children early about different cultures, the varied history of these cultures in the Americas, and the legacy of how otherization and exoticization of these groups has enabled violence to be too easily dismissed, can we hope to instill the understanding and perspective necessary to prevent another March 16.

Soon Mee Kim

Photograph by by Melissa Alexander

Hitting Close to Home

Soon Mee Kim
Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer, the Omnicom Public Relations Group

Stop Asian Hate. Not Your Asian Fetish. Stronger Together. These are some of the slogans my family and I wrote in big bold letters on posters as we prepared to attend the rally against Asian hate at the state capitol a year ago, following the Atlanta spa shootings.

Like many Asian Americans, the shootings hit me hard. Two of the victims even shared the first names of my older sisters. But this tragedy, while shocking, was not surprising. In the United States, between March 19, 2020, and September 30, 2021, 10,370 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander people were reported to Stop AAPI Hate. A survey sponsored by SAH estimates that about one in five Asian Americans experienced hate incidents last year.

It feels like open season everywhere, including Georgia, which ranks among the 10 states with the most reports, according to SAH. And these aren’t distant statistics. My own friends have been assaulted on the way to work, spat at, and shunned. In SAH’s Georgia report, one person reported being sprayed with Lysol by a woman at a pharmacy, while the attacker yelled, “You’re the infection! Go home! We don’t want you here!” In another incident, a 14-year-old girl was laughed at and called “Chinese virus” by two young white men.

Two years into this most recent rash of Asian hate, I’m different now. When I’m at my Korean hair salon, I survey my surroundings for where I might escape in the event of a shooting. I say extra prayers for safe travel when family members drive long distances. I avoid the subway or plant myself where I can’t be easily pushed onto the train tracks or into oncoming traffic. I make sure not to place my hands in my coat pockets, so I can brace my fall if shoved. I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, including sudden noises and ominous looks. I even gifted keychain alarms as Christmas stocking stuffers.

These actions shouldn’t be normal, but the hate around us has become increasingly normalized. There are precautions I share with my daughters because they are young women—concerns that are heightened because they are Asian American women. Given U.S. history and media portrayals, I can’t ignore the fact that stereotypes may fetishize, exoticize, and objectify them. And that’s the other reminder from the Atlanta killings: Our race and our gender are intertwined.

Though I’ve lived in the Atlanta area most of my life, this wave of Asian hate has demonstrated how, for people who look like me, who wear our race on our face, our belonging is conditional. To some, I am, at best, a guest in this country where I was born. A guest is expected to be on their best behavior, to be mindful of whose home you are in and whose rules you must follow. A guest is expected to be ever grateful, to know your place. When guests are no longer useful, entertaining, or convenient, they are asked to leave. I suppose that’s why it is instinctive for some to tell us to go back to where we came from, not recognizing that might be Brookhaven, Roswell, or Stone Mountain.

I’ve never felt as under attack for my Asian American identity as I have in recent years. But I’ve also never claimed my Asian American identity as strongly. Thinking back on that rally last year, I loved seeing young Asian American families with strollers; South Asians, Southeast Asians, East Asians, biracial and multicultural families at Liberty Plaza; the solidarity across allies of all hues as we listened to affirmations and outrage from community leaders and elected officials; and the tremendous support of the Georgia NAACP, the Black community, and other organizations. While I’m no stranger to exercising my right to assemble peaceably, this was one of the few times I’d attended a large-scale gathering specifically supporting Asian Americans in a broad, multicultural setting. One year later, I’m holding on to that experience of unity, remembering what happened and believing it can happen again.

Conquering hate requires the hard work of learning and understanding, of recognizing our common humanity, and of claiming our collective belonging to one another. I try to remain optimistic, but today, I’m struggling. As I was finishing this essay, Christina Yuna Lee was stabbed to death in her New York home. This time, I realize she and my younger daughter share the same middle name. And I’m reminded: This could happen to anyone.

Loss Upon Loss

Gwangho Lee
Husband of Soon Chung Park, who was shot and killed on March 16, 2021

Gwangho Lee (이광호)’s late wife, Soon Chung Park (박순정), was a day manager and cook at Gold Spa. They had married in 2018. The aftermath of her violent death severed his already fraught relationship with her family. In vulnerable communities, one tragedy often leads to another. As told to Christina Lee. Interpreted by Sarah Park, president of the Metro Atlanta chapter of the Korean American Coalition.

I wish I had told my wife not to go to work that day. The final thing I said to her was: “Hey, have a good day at work.” The last time I heard her voice was when she called me to come pick her up at work. Then, her coworker called me. She told me my wife fainted onto the ground, so I didn’t know she was dead. When I got there, I saw a SWAT team move in with big guns. She was lying on the ground. There was blood around her, but her body was still warm. I checked her mouth and tried to resuscitate her because she was not breathing. People said, Why did you do that? At that moment, I didn’t know my wife’s physical state.

[Later,] an article in the Korea Times Atlanta said that the family of Ms. Park was very angry at [me]. The last paragraph implies that this Korean reporter had reached out to Ms. Park’s husband, who, when asked his marriage status, said, “I don’t want to respond. I have a designated person, so you can communicate through them.” But [I felt] the reporter framed that as: I didn’t say anything to him because it wasn’t a legal husband-wife relationship. My intention was: I didn’t want to discuss personal matters with this reporter. He literally used that response to imply I have something to hide from the community.

I was told on a Friday night [by her family, who held her funeral in New York and told the Korea Times Lee had promised to attend] that the funeral was going to be on Monday. Yes, I should have gone. I knew I had enough time to get ready and catch a plane. But would you want your mom to go through this tragedy, invite family and relatives and community members in New York, and have this very young person show up as her husband, whom no one else knew about? I’m younger than all of her children. Do they want me to just sit in the back at her funeral? I’m sure they didn’t want me to come as her husband. I kind of sensed it. But it’s so hard for me to bear. I was never told where [her grave] is.

I’m the one who lived with my wife. [The Korea Times interview implied] I was there to get my green card. What about photos that I took with family members? What about all the voicemails, dating as far back as 2018? If you read the [text] messages, this is a conversation between husband and wife. We were just a normal couple. I’m not speaking out because [I want] money.

People think that, once you have a family member or loved one that’s wrongfully lost their life to senseless gun violence, the family of victims will somehow be taken care of. In my case, that’s not the case. I’m dealing with all this aftermath.

The April trial [for shooter Robert Aaron Long] feels foreign to me. Yes, I’ll be upset, but he’s already caught. Whether that’s a lifelong sentence or him being executed, he’ll have to face consequences. Honestly, it doesn’t matter much to me, because that’s not going to bring back my wife.

What Comes Next

Robert Peterson
Son of Yong Ae Yue, who was shot and killed on March 16, 2021

Yong Ae Yue (유영애) cooked, cleaned, and monitored the security cameras at Aromatherapy Spa. Prior to her death, Yue’s youngest son Robert, whose father is Black, had participated in Black Lives Matter protests. But today, as he’s being invited to speak for the likes of Rep. Judy Chu (D-California) and at a one-year anniversary event held by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, his commitments to activism feel more personal than ever before. As told to Christina Lee.

It’s taken us longer to grieve than I anticipated. It’s just been a rough year for my family as a whole: We lost my nephew to gun violence two years ago this coming April. My uncle passed away from a heart attack after my mother’s death. And then to have my mother taken in a violent way as well, it hurts.

As universal as grief is, this is different. [The shootings] garnered national attention. It has other conversations about race, sexuality, and gender embedded in it. And regardless of if I wanted to grieve privately or not, others are grieving with me. That was my message on Saturday[‘s AAAJ event]. Although I do feel alone in my grieving process, I’m grieving with the larger community, because this is about more than my mother or those victims.

I remind people that my mother was supposed to come home with me that day. She left her toothpaste out. She left her hair barrette out. She was coming back to finish washing the dishes. When I had to come back to her house and remind myself that somebody took that away from us, it made me more angry and hurt. But I have to control myself. She wouldn’t want me to be angry. She wouldn’t want me to be severely depressed or curled up in the corner. She’d want me to move forward and make her proud. I just haven’t figured out what that looks like. I’ve struggled with that pressure.

I’m inspired by other high-profile cases that I see. Mostly mothers, Black mothers and families fighting for justice for their children, Black men being shot. How they changed their lives to devote them to activism and fighting for justice. But sometimes I feel self-deprecating. Maybe that is what I should be doing. Why haven’t I done this, to the degree that some people have? But it takes a lot to do that. I do want to do that, and I have a little bit. But I recognize the strength it does take to not only relive this trauma by talking about it, but to continue to see it play out in front of me daily.

Am I optimistic about [the spa shootings] being treated as a hate crime? I’m not. The data shows it’s hard to get charged with a hate crime, right? [While] the state of Georgia is charging [shooter Robert Long] with a hate crime, the FBI said they found no evidence on the basis of gender and/or race; that was disheartening. Cherokee County[‘s district attorney Shannon Wallace] suggested that [Long] take the plea. If he had not taken the plea, then they were going to go for the gender-based hate crime, which again, I find questionable. I don’t understand how you can separate gender from race. [Long] did not feel that white women were a temptation or that Black women were a temptation. He wasn’t tempted by men. It was Asian women. The intersection of who they were allowed him to feel this way about them.

I point to—without trying to draw comparisons—the Ahmaud Arbery case. First of all, this Georgia hate crime law was implemented after the Arbery case. Second, the Arbery case would not have turned out the way it did without the support and fight of the community, particularly his family. His family had to fight tooth and nail at every turn. Now that it’s all over, we do see that there was racial motivation. We see it documented in text messages and video. But early on, we [only] had video and public opinion.

I don’t care that it’s difficult. What crime laws do is they help to create a boundary of what we find acceptable and what we don’t. It is symbolic in nature. [Long] has already gone to jail for life without parole, so some may say, why spend the money for a hate crime [trial]? It’s to show that this racial hatred towards a group of people is not tolerable in our society. That if you harbored these sentiments and thoughts, we won’t accept it.

We’ve gotten conditioned to look for a manifesto. We’re conditioned to look for association with certain extremist groups or symbols—nooses, knots, or swastikas. We have to widen our understanding of how we see [hate crimes] in the context of what happened and why it happened. He targeted these places because of what he perceived [Asian women] to be—weak and submissive. His depravity was described as their fault. For me, that understanding is more important in the death penalty is to show that, yes, you see my mother. She was a Korean American woman. She was an immigrant woman. She married a Black soldier and had lovely children who contributed to society. She contributed to society. Don’t ask me for mercy when it comes to him, because he didn’t show her that.

Michelle Kang

Photograph by by Melissa Alexander

From Invisible to Visible

Michelle Kang
Secretary-General, the Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have become louder during the pandemic in response to the rise of Asian hate. We were furious and frustrated over attacks in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and other cities across the country. But we became especially angered after the March 16 killings of defenseless elderly and young members of our AAPI community.

The day afterward, first-generation Korean Americans formed the Atlanta Korean American Committee Against Asian Hate to demand protection from local, state, and federal governments. On March 20, Asian community leaders organized a march and rally with Black, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim, immigrants, and people of color at Liberty Plaza near the Capitol. On March 25, for the first time in our community’s history, we organized a vigil where all people could gather to grieve, heal, and support each other. And on March 16, 2022, the community gathered to commemorate the first anniversary of the shootings.

Last May, we also organized a public discussion, “Why We Need to Include Asian American History in K-12 Curriculum,” at the Korean American Center in Norcross. Asian Americans are not foreigners. We have a long history of immigration into the U.S. But there is also a long history of discrimination, with extreme cases such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major federal law to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality, and the Japanese internment camps during World War II. We are working to ensure that Asian, Black, brown, Hispanic, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans are not forgotten in American history classes. All students have a right to see themselves—through both accomplishments and struggles—in their school’s curriculum.

Throughout the pandemic, we have prioritized access to equitable and inclusive government programs and policies. We have demanded greater language equity in government documents and programs for immigrants and other nonnative English speakers. In 2022, Gwinnett County will provide sample ballots and election materials in Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Spanish. DeKalb County has provided ballots in Spanish and Korean.

Recently, AAPIs worked hard to elect representatives who would push for solidarity, helping eradicate hate crimes and promote inclusion and racial equity. AAPIs volunteered to write postcards, make phone calls, and canvass neighborhoods for political campaigns. And statistics showed a dramatic increase in the rates of voter registration and absentee ballot usage among our community. This year, both Democratic and Republican parties are reaching out to us. Here in Georgia, 12 progressive Asian American candidates are ready to represent all Americans, from the Gwinnett County Commission and General Assembly level to the Secretary of State’s office. AAPIs have transitioned from invisible to visible.

Monica Khant

Photograph by by Melissa Alexander

Driving Out Hate

Monica Khant
Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence

As a human-rights attorney and nonprofit leader who has spent more than two decades advocating for survivors of violence, I should have been prepared for the pain and desolation I felt after the shootings on March 16, 2021. Just the previous day, I had started my new role as executive director at the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence (API-GBV), a national resource center. I was excited to be at an organization that aligned with my passion for advocating against gender-based violence in the AAPI community. In fact, I had gone to law school to dedicate my life to this cause and had represented hundreds of victims whose stories I will always remember.

However, seeing the news unfold minute by minute, in my own backyard, and hearing the cavalier response by law enforcement amplified the challenges of my new role. Law enforcement’s refusal to recognize that this crime was not a chance shooting hit me with grief. My own past came rushing back to the surface, history that I forcibly buried for decades in order to do the work. While I am not a survivor of violence, as a South Asian, I remember being bullied in elementary school, being told I was “smelly” and being told to go back home even though I had been born in Queens, New York. Knowing what hate felt like and why these microaggressions were hurtful to people who looked like me felt like a knife in my gut.

The shootings in Atlanta and all hate crimes, recent and past, have rocked AAPI communities. During the pandemic, hate incidents have not slowed. Of the 10,370 reported between March 19, 2020, and September 30, 2021, 4,599 (44 percent) occurred in 2020, and 5,771 (56 percent) occurred in 2021. But, let’s be honest, racism has been happening against AAPI communities for centuries. This crime in Atlanta, fueled by racialized and gender-based hate, was the latest in a long history of violence. Working closely with victims of violence in the AAPI community, we know that misogyny and racism are deeply connected. And that is a point that typically gets lost.

Asian women have long been hypersexualized, objectified, and fetishized as being “exotic.” To the shooter, spas were a symbol of the perceived submissiveness of Asian women, a stereotype perpetuated by the media, history, and immigration laws. What happened on March 16 was violence against Asian American and Asian immigrant women in their known place of work, a workplace that is dependent on Asian immigrant labor. The shooter blamed the victims for his sex addiction and used their deaths to solve his own problems.

We cannot forget the victims’ families. The victims left home that day never knowing that this would be their last day and left behind grieving families without the opportunity to say goodbye. They and our AAPI communities are broken by the loss and the hate that continues to run rampant.

Over the last year, our community has reacted with anything from rage and horror to disbelief and grief. I’ve witnessed hope that Atlanta will catalyze change and acknowledge the harmful stereotypes that are at the root of a service that is very popular with customers. I’ve seen people come together and others react by pulling away. There is no one correct response, but there is a need for the AAPI community to acknowledge and define this tragedy. Following the one-year anniversary of the shootings, we ask for you to honor and remember those who have needlessly lost their lives and respectfully listen to us.

Sarah Park

Photograph by by Melissa Alexander

Finding Solace in Our Collective Grief

Sarah Park
President, Metro Atlanta chapter of the Korean American Coalition

We are familiar with the tragic shootings of March 16, 2021, but we must continue to reckon with them for both our city and our country. Empathy for the Asian American victims and their families came slowly and opened up centuries-old hurts.

Asian Americans have faced deeply rooted systematic racism since the first Asian immigrants arrived in the United States, and institutional problems persist. Even as we improve our socioeconomic and political standing, we are limited by an unfair system. We have learned that being academically elite and economically successful is not enough. But due to our own cultural proclivities, we have quietly gone about our business and waited. For the longest time, I was told, Just wait and see. But what am I supposed to wait for? Why are you asking me to keep my head down?

We find solace in our collective grief. The Atlanta AAPI community organized to provide support for the victims’ families and survivors and established a network that spans beyond generation, faith, and ethnicity. We continue to stand in solidarity and fight against hate. The support from people in all walks of life, locally and nationally, has been truly inspirational. People poured out their skills and hearts and joined the march, celebrating our community and honoring the victims.

So, why are Asian Americans breaking our silence now? If we do not speak up loudly and clearly to remind society of our existence and right to dignity, we will continue to lose our loved ones. Our vulnerable seniors and female laborers have been victimized by senseless violence. Our voices failed those who needed us the most, and countless families have been changed forever. This injustice must not carry on for future generations. We must all do the hard work now. If not, we will remain trapped in a system that does not level the playing field for all.

There is still much to be done, and we must remain vigilant. From grassroots efforts up to the White House, we must continue to teach our communities to be aware, to take safety precautions, and to train bystanders in reporting incidents. We must work with the media to create a narrative that goes beyond victimization and fear. In one voice, we must make clear that we want all our families and neighbors to be treated with the dignity and love they deserve. We must set aside our differences and step forward.We will not rest until the world joins us in our mission against discrimination, violence, and hatred toward the AAPI community. We will change the history of hatred into the power of solidarity beyond religion, race, and generation. We will build awareness through empathy, understanding, and love for our neighbors. Asian Americans are united, and we are stronger than ever.

This article appears in our April 2022 issue.