Being a victim of coronavirus-related discrimination is traumatic enough. But telling your story -- to raise awareness or seek justice and change -- can be an especially fraught prospect as a member of a minority group where, culturally, speaking out is not the norm and even frowned upon.
That's why during my reporting on the virus of hate towards Asian Americans during the pandemic, I choose to share my personal experiences with xenophobia. While doing so isn't the traditional role of a journalist, it's a way of adapting to the changing storytelling landscape and it empowers others to know they're not alone and share their own stories.
By opening up together, we can use our voices collectively to have a greater impact.
For months leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, I had been reporting on horrific attacks on the Asian American community in the Bay Area. A nearly 90-year-old grandma beaten and left to die on a playground. A mother assaulted and dragged through a tunnel for her purse with less than $100 inside. The men knocked to the ground, their watches ripped from their wrists in a Chinatown intersection in broad daylight.
But it wasn't until the story of "the can collector", as he became known, that I truly understood the power of collective sharing and how your own voice can give power to others.
The can collector was an elderly man who was out gathering empty soda cans to redeem for deposit and make a few extra dollars for his family. This isn't an uncommon sight in San Francisco. But in his case, an afternoon of collecting cans resulted in getting assaulted, called racial slurs and humiliated to tears. Because the incident was caught on camera and posted to social media, the story spread like wildfire across the Bay Area and the globe.
So many people chimed in to denounce the hate that swift action was taken by law enforcement and an arrest was made shortly after. At the same time, a phenomenon was happening: My inbox and social media comments were flooded with Asian Americans who could not only relate with their own experiences with hate, but felt compelled for the very first time, fueled by frustration and anger from the can collector video, to share their stories with me.
Racist graffiti targeting Asians has been found in San Mateo. There are more than a dozen incidents. @SanMateoPD have since increased patrols & are asking for your help to find who did this. #HateIsAVirus #RacismInAmerica pic.twitter.com/ii4AqtEQfA— Dion Lim (@DionLimTV) May 29, 2020
As traumatic as it was to be exposed to these horrific tales (which were sometimes accompanied by equally horrific images), it also brought me comfort knowing I wasn't alone. Growing up in non-diverse parts of the country and later becoming the first Asian American person to hold anchor positions at three stations in Kansas City, Charlotte and Tampa Bay, I, too, had to contend with peers who referred to me as a "chink" or viewers who called me "Connie Chung" and asked, "Is the newscast made in China?"
Hearing the flood of stories empowered me to tell my own, to create an environment where more people felt safe to speak up. This fueled purpose for me as a journalist in the pandemic: to give others a voice while sharing my own, as I wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle.
One of the most meaningful messages that came from telling my own story alongside the stories of other Asian Americans during this time was from a woman named Trinh in San Leandro, California. Her family had caught a woman on their home security camera leaving a scathing, racist letter on her door and at least a dozen other homes and public places. The letters were so xenophobic and appalling, including demands that Asians leave the U.S. immediately, and a social media post Trinh made about them went viral.
Soon, journalists from media outlets around the world were bombarding her with requests for an interview. Despite being shaken, and despite her family initially being against her speaking to the media, she called me back.
After our story aired, this text appeared on my phone: "My family is happy that I selected you for the exclusive interview. You made us proud as the driving force to bring this anti-Asian racism to light."
It was a reminder that even though we may not feel comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with sharing a story of personal experience, it can bring comfort to others.
Dion Lim is a TV news anchor and reporter at ABC7/KGO-TV in San Francisco, California.