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Living 30 miles apart in Los Angeles County, Hong Lee and Esther Lim never crossed paths.
Lee is from the South Bay and works as a supervisor at an affordable housing company while parenting two young boys with her husband.
Lim is quarantining with her Korean immigrant parents at their home in Monterey Park, and commutes to Orange County to manage production at a surfwear company.
Then in August, something happened to Lee that intertwined the two women’s lives.
On a lunch break, Lee drove to her favorite Mexican restaurant in Pico-Union. While standing in line at the counter, a male customer handed her a business card and asked to have lunch together.
When she told him she was married and turned him down, the man’s face grew stormy. He began to hurl sexist and racist insults at Lee, who is Vietnamese American.
Lee fumbled with her phone to film the interaction. As she pleaded with employees and other customers to intervene, the man yelled that they should tell her to “go back to f***ing Asia.”
After a few minutes of ranting and pacing, the man left. Lee, by then sobbing, called 911. About a half hour later, an LAPD police officer walked through the door, and Lee asked to file a report.
“He informed me, ‘No, there’s no police report because there’s no crime here and nothing happened,’” Lee recalled.
Lee couldn’t believe that… was it.
“I have never felt so alone, just mortified that this could be happening in August of 2020,” Lee said.
With the police ignoring her ordeal, Lee felt the only way she could be heard was to post the video online.
Within hours, a post she made on Instagram had gone viral, and viewers flooded her with messages from all over the world.
Buried in the heap was a note from Esther Lim.
‘CAN YOU STAY NEXT TO ME UNTIL IT’S SAFE?’
The number of reported verbal and physical attacks on Asian Americans has surged past 2,500 during a pandemic that President Trump has repeatedly blamed on the Chinese.
In March, a man knifed a Burmese family at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Tex. allegedly because he thought they were Chinese. In July, an 89-year-old woman in New York was set on fire by teenagers. That same month in California, a tech CEO was recorded at a Carmel restaurant yelling at an Asian American family that “Trump’s gonna f*** you” and “you f***ing Asian piece of sh**!”
After Trump was hospitalized last week for a virus he has labeled “Kung Flu” and the “plague” from China. This week in a video he posted to social media, Trump looked into the camera and told Americans: “It wasn’t your fault that this happened. It was China’s fault and they’re going to pay a big price for what they’ve done to this country.”
From early on, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, as well as the advice of health experts intended to prevent U.S. infections. Since the president himself contracted covid, some Republicans took the opportunity to deflect blame again.
Esther Lim had already been feeling discouraged that in September, 164 House Republicans rejected a federal resolution with a sole purpose of condemning anti-Asian hate.
Then came Trump’s announcement that he had gotten sick, intensifying Lim’s fears that Asian Americans, especially older immigrants like her 60-something parents, would be targeted by racists.
“When I think about my parents’ battle just to be accepted as an American here, it hits my core because my parents already went through this before,” Lim said.
Lim, 31, was resigned to the fact that she can’t stop racism itself, so she sought a way to protect victims, especially immigrants who may not know what resources are at their disposal.
A few months ago, she settled on an idea: Creating a handbook that she would title “How to Report a Hate Crime.”
In her free time, Lim researched the logistics behind reporting hate incidents, studying definitions from the United Nations and consulting the detective heading up LAPD’s hate crime investigations.
Want to report an incident to authorities? Dial LA County’s 2-1-1 social services hotline. Want to be anonymous? Call CrimeStoppers.
Need help but not fluent in English? Lim included useful phrases that victims of hate crimes could read — or point to should they have her booklet on them — like: “Someone is following me. Can you stay next to me until it’s safe?”
And there were safety tips, like carrying a whistle and not going out alone if possible.
With assistance from bilingual family and friends, Lim had the booklets translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean and made them available online.
Lim spent a couple of thousand dollars designing and having hundreds of booklets printed to hand out to older people who don’t use computers. Given high printing costs, Lim started to look for government and non-profit partners.
She got the attention of Terri Villa-McDowell, who oversees the county’s L.A. Versus Hate campaign which uses social media to encourage people to recognize and report hate incidents.
Launched by the county a year ago, the initiative has made a concerted effort to add Asian languages to its shareable graphics and include communities like Torrance, which has had several high-profile instances of anti-Asian harassment.
Villa-McDowell felt that Lim’s booklets would be widely-available in Asian communities, where hate crimes are underreported.
“She uses a very common-sense approach,” Villa-McDowell said. “It really needs to get out there into the community, particularly the monolingual-speaking community.”
Villa-McDowell said her program doesn’t have the money to print Lim’s booklets, so she’s been trying to help Lim find philanthropists, which has been difficult in the pandemic.
“You talk to funders and what they’re saying is ‘we have so overcommitted every dollar for food and keeping people housed,’” Villa-McDowell said.
That’s led Lim to sharpen her focus on getting her booklets shared on social media so users might print them out for elders.
Then on August 10, Lim saw the video that Hong Lee posted of her verbal assault at the Mexican restaurant. Given her new-found expertise, Lim knew the attack was without a doubt a hate incident. She got on her phone to tap out a message to Lee.
‘SHE WAS TRYING TO ADVOCATE FOR ME’
A couple days later, Lee saw the message from Lim, who had gently asked to connect her with law enforcement, knowing from the Instagram post that the responding officer had brushed her off.
Lee agreed, and this time was contacted by LAPD Det. Orlando Martinez, the same person who helped Lim with her booklets.
Martinez made a point of going to Lee’s home to take the police report.
“I went out there to meet with her to apologize and to thank her for giving us another chance,” Martinez said.
After she filed the police report, an investigation into the alleged perpetrator was opened. Other women who heard about Lee’s run-in with the man from the local news have since stepped forward to make reports of similar interactions with him.
Martinez says Lee’s case has also helped to spur extra training for police on hate incidents, including a video and handouts to be given to officers when they gather for orders at roll call.
“I wrote a new training that — during the month of October — every patrol officer in the city will hear,” Martinez said.
At the county level, Villa-McDowell said Lee’s incident reinforced that more work needs to be done with businesses — the site of many reported hate incidents — perhaps by providing training to employees on how to deal with racist customers.
In the meantime, Lee has started to speak out at public events about her experience, like at an anti-hate rally at MacArthur Park last month.
Young people have also been messaging her for advice on bullies targeting them for being Asian.
“It’s just awful to hear these stories,” Lee said. “We didn’t cause the virus. We didn’t bring it here. We didn’t contribute to it yet. We’re paying the ultimate price because of the way we look.”
Lee, who said she was always the shy kid in the back of the class, credits Lim with setting her on this new path: “She was trying to advocate for me and for that I’m very grateful.”
Says Lim: “It’s so good to see (Lee’s) bringing light into the situation our communities are facing.”
The two women have yet to meet in person but text regularly.
Lee has referred people seeking to report hate incidents to Lim and also shares her anti-hate booklets on social media.
Lim, meanwhile, keeps trying to expand the reach of her booklets and is next working on a Spanish-language version for Latino seniors.
Lim said this is what she should be doing as a child of immigrants.
“The second generation has to now protect the older generation,” Lim said.
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