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Asian High School Students Speak Out Against Discrimination, Harassment

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Incidents of violence against Asian Americans have continued in America. Just this week, there was a vicious attack on a woman on a New York sidewalk and an arrest for threats and stalking in San Francisco. Among those speaking out against this pattern of violence and harassment are students - in fact, including the winner of NPR's 2020 Student Podcast Challenge was The Dragon Kids, which came out of Public School 126 in New York City's Chinatown. Their winning entry included the voices of Joyce Jiang and Amanda Chen, 11th graders who spoke about harassment. So we thought we'd call them back, see how they're doing now. Joyce and Amanda join us now, along with their friend Lily Zheng.

Thank you for being with us at a very important time. How are you doing? How are you feeling? Joyce, why don't we begin with you?

JOYCE JIANG: I'm very heartbroken by all of these attacks. Like, we see it being so normalized nowadays. And, like, I fear for my family and my friends.

SIMON: Yeah. Amanda Chen.

AMANDA CHEN: I personally try to avoid these news on my social media because it's so heavy. Like, it's everywhere, happening constantly.

SIMON: And Lily Zheng.

LILY ZHENG: I agree. It's extremely heartbroken, and it's also very threatening to us, seeing how the Asian are being harassed even in public. I just think it not any more could be considered a safe environment for all of us.

SIMON: You know, we like to think of schools as a safe environment. But, Amanda, in the podcast, you talked about some of the harassment that you've experienced.

CHEN: Yeah. So the first time was when we were standing outside of our school, and next to us, there was a group of upper-class students. We heard them say that that group of Asians' trying to join together and spread the virus. And then the second time was when a Chinese American student herself claimed that a lot of us have coronavirus and pointed at us because either we live in Chinatown or we hang out in Chinatown. And then the third time that I experienced it was when I was coughing after eating spicy noodles. And then this boy in front of me said that Amanda has coronavirus. And I screamed back at him, but he just took it as a joke.

SIMON: What have conversations been like with your family, Joyce Jiang?

JIANG: Yes. I called Grandma today, and I was like, just stay at home and, like, don't go outside. And she was like, this is why you have to stay home. And it's very heartbreaking to see. Like, that's how we have to worry about people nowadays. It's just very heartbreaking.

SIMON: Amanda Chen.

CHEN: Well, I don't talk to my dad about this, but I talk to a lot of my friends. And whenever we talk about this, it's just so angry 'cause, like, why are you treating other humans like this?

SIMON: Amanda, it's totally your business, but may I ask why you don't talk to your father about this?

CHEN: Well, I did tell him last year, but then he just tries to avoid it. So I think that's how a lot of Asian parents will react. Just like, oh, mind your own business. Don't get involved with anything that can get you in trouble or get you harmed again.

SIMON: Lily Zheng.

ZHENG: Early during the pandemic, if people remember, there were people who were just pushing people onto the train tracks. And because my mom spent so much time on the train, I've always been very afraid. And I would always, like, check in on her every 10 minutes or so to make sure that she's fine and not on the train tracks.

SIMON: Oh, God bless.

ZHENG: That was very, very threatening to me.

SIMON: Every 10 minutes you check in with her, Lily?

ZHENG: Yeah, I would send her a text message. And sometimes, because she's in the tunnel, she wouldn't be able to text me back because there wasn't service, and I would get really, really nervous.

SIMON: I know you've been trying to alert your school and others to the importance of changes they can make in education, right?

CHEN: Yeah. So me and Joyce informed our school about the lack of concern and importance shown towards the Asian American community in the education system. And we're glad that our school acknowledged what we said and then made changes immediately.

JIANG: In our class discussion about the Asian hate crimes, everyone was just so supportive and very encouraging. So I think that's what I would like to see.

SIMON: Yeah. Lily Zheng, let me raise something with you. I think there are a lot of Americans who think - they don't know the history. They don't know the hard and ugly history that the first Asian immigrants to the United States have, do they?

ZHENG: They don't. I could say that because my parents are first-generation immigrants to the United States. I traveled with my mom, and it was a kind of a tough travel, but also even more harder to blend into the community here. I've lived here for 11 years. I would call this place home. But after seeing all those hate speeches and those actions towards the Asian Americans, I'm not sure if I would still consider this place very safe.

SIMON: What would you like people to know about your families now?

JIANG: That, like, our experience of going outside, always, like, being alert and always, like, trying to, like, cower in, like, our own little, like, circle.

CHEN: Speaking personally, I'm panicking these days, like, feeling unsafe on the street. And I was actually considering getting some pepper spray for personal protection.

SIMON: Oh, my.

CHEN: It's like - it's so scary.

SIMON: Yeah. Lily Zheng.

ZHENG: Well, in my family, my mom is fully responsible for myself and my 8-years-old sister. So the fact that she has to work to sustain our lives, it's basically the same as what every American has to go through. So we are not that much different.

SIMON: Joyce Jiang, Amanda Chen and Lily Zheng, all 11th graders in New York City, thanks so much for opening your hearts and your lives to us. We're very grateful.

JIANG: Thank you.

CHEN: Thank you. It's really important.

ZHENG: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.