'I Was a Hate Crime Victim, But I Never Reported It'

The day before had hit 72 degrees—unusually warm for Pittsburgh in late March—and that Wednesday was settling into typical early spring as my sister and I headed from our hotel to a local CVS. We needed shampoo.

Big blue masks obscured the bottom halves of our faces but revealed enough to let us and everyone around us know that we were the only two Asians on the street.

Feeling other pedestrians' stares and unconscious movements away from us, we picked up our pace. Light was fading and even shadows from the structures around us wouldn't obscure our features or blend us in with other pedestrians.

"Hey, what are you guys doing here?" yelled one man from his car window. He swerved his gray SUV close to us, too close to be accidental and, judging by his words, too close to be anything but aggression.

I pulled my sister away from the curbside, only to be blocked by arms raised, extending from another man much broader than I'll ever be. In that moment, I looked right into his eyes, though not out of bravery. He raised one fist.

"F*** you two Chinese motherf*****s, carrying the f***ing virus!"

Before he could strike, my sister and I, just 17 and 14 at the time, clutched each other's hands and sprinted through traffic, leaving the man and his screams behind us. No one else noticed, much less intervened. If anything, they inadvertently cleared a gauntlet for us to escape.

We barged through the glass doors of the CVS, panting. We hid behind a security guard, whose eyes darted from us to the outside as he wondered what we were running from.

My sister's hands shook as she called my mom.

"Mom, you need to come to CVS to pick us up. We are 5 blocks away, maybe 6. I think we're in danger. I don't feel safe, I really want to go back to the hotel. Get here asap!"

All I could do was stare at the door as scanner beeps faded in the background. It was 2021, so by then I was well versed with stories of young people like me being beaten, mutilated, and even murdered, just because of the way we looked.

I am Chinese-American—my mom is from China and dad is from Hong Kong; they came to the U.S. when they were very young. Both my sister and I were born and raised in the U.S. But during the pandemic, people throughout the East-Asian community suffered increased abuse and discrimination.

The tales are gruesome. Just days before, a self-described white supremacist had killed six Asian women and two others at Georgia spa. One man in Texas stalked an Asian family throughout a Costco and tried to kill a six year old boy early in the pandemic. I think I dissociated because the next thing I remember is my mom tugging on my shoulder.

Daniel Lee Is a Hate Crime Victim
Daniel Lee was racially abused and threatened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2021. He did not report the crime, and says the reasons for that are complex. Daniel Lee

She and a friend sped over from the hotel to pick us up. Maternal presence wasn't enough, though, to soothe me. It could have been us splashed across newspaper pages.

We were so traumatized that we couldn't gather ourselves to locate a police station and report what had happened. Our cell service was low and the creeping darkness distracted us. This was my family's first time visiting the Pittsburgh area; touring colleges for my sister.

When we returned to our room, my mom reported the incident to Stop AAPI Hate, a website created for citizens to report hate crimes against AAPI people. My sister sipped water to calm down before she posted about the incident on social media. Within minutes, people from our school, our home city of New York, and country began to text and call us, asking if we were okay and sending messages of sympathy and understanding. The support was some relief, but not enough.

I reached out to my mom for a hug. She could have been in the same situation if she had been the one who had gone out. As the U.S. topped the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, some blamed the rising infection and death rates on the Asian-American population. Pittsburgh—ironically, the sister city to Wuhan, China, the city identified by epidemiologists to be the first of the virus' victims—had seen a spike in cases in early 2021. But it's false—fantastical, really—to think that Asian-Americans were the cause of this health crisis.

Yet the absurdity didn't take away the fear that wracked my body for the next couple of days. It took me a while to accept that my sister and I were victims of a hate crime. These actions don't require physical contact to violate the penal code. Anything that threatens harm to someone, if it's motivated by factors such as race, religion, ethnic/national origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation of the target, is a crime. The way that man menaced generated as much fear and panic as if he had struck me.

I decided to share my experience from 2021 now, more than a year since this incident happened, because the threat to the Asian community in America seems ever present. The fundraisers I still see online, hoping to cover the medical expenses and lost wages of victims, remind me of it regularly, even though I don't know the people involved.

Stop AAPI Hate Protest in Washington, D.C.
Trish Villanueva (C) of Seattle holds a sign with the hashtag "stop AAPI hate" during the We Are Not Silent rally organized by the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition Against Hate and Bias in Bellevue, Washington on March 18, 2021. Daniel Lee says organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate give him hope that people continue to fight against abuse aimed at the Asian-American community. JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

The Stop Asian Hate movement gives me some hope but I wonder if it's a passing phase, if the concern will wane as the pandemic eases further. Whatever the rate of crime against AAPI people as a population, it is difficult to quantify, or eradicate, a sense of threat. Nothing has happened to me since that March but I can't say with confidence that the chance of it happening again is zero.

And while support from family and friends was a salve that day, long term, I worry about talking about this and identifying as a victim of a hate crime.

Being a victim seems un-American. The ethos I see in this country—and especially in recent rhetoric about masking and vaccination—is one of freedom and choice. That implies that people who enjoy freedom are always in charge of what happens to them. But that's not the case. Me and my sister had no control over what was done to us, neither do other victims of hate crimes.

Those who are the targets of hate crimes are often already labeled as "outsiders." Reporting the crime can exacerbate that sense of feeling ostracized. I wonder if that's what prevented us from beelining to the local precinct that day.

I flashback to that day often. The fact that cell service was spotty and it was getting dark shouldn't have been enough to dissuade us from making a public record of how we were accosted, but it was. All we wanted that evening was a safe space and, quite frankly, that space wasn't available in public settings, at least not on that day. Refuge felt far more important than record-keeping.

Except for my sister's social media posts, neither she nor I officially documented what we experienced. Our mother added us to one pool of statistics, but it was with an advocacy group, not law enforcement. In that respect, we're a lot like other Asian victims; we're less likely to report incidents compared to other racial groups.

If a similar incident happened now, I would definitely report it. But that's a vow made in hindsight, with all the lessons learned from that day. I wouldn't report it for retribution, but to register the voice and cry for peace and justice from the under-represented communities.

But I don't know how I'd handle seeing my aggressor again. To be honest, I'm not sure if I would have the courage to look at him at all. The way hatred—toward a child no less, one he never met—overwhelmed him that day truly terrified me.

In an idealized situation, I would have a conversation and tell him to check his sources. Aside from the rage and potential violence of the situation, the whole event was just someone relying on false information. Truth—and encouraging people to accept it—can solve many of the problems we're facing now.

Looking back, I think my sister and I were less intent on reporting what happened because doing so would have solidified the reality of it. It would have forced us to face the fact that we don't have that much sway over our lives; who we are and how we look will invite ire from some people. I think we didn't report because it would have re-traumatized us.

I wonder how many people like me are out there, nursing indelible psychological wounds yet invisible to authorities.

Daniel Lee is a high school junior in the Bronx, New York.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.