Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The March 17 murder of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, in three Atlanta-area spas shocked the nation, as we witnessed another instance of devastating, targeted violence. And unfortunately, acts of racism, discrimination and violence against Asians and Asian Americans have been on a steady rise for the last year, fueled in part by racist rhetoric associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This has been especially true for Asian and Asian-American restaurant and small business owners who have served customers for the majority of the pandemic — folks who have not only watched sales decline at a disproportionate rate, but have also had to endure unwarranted comments and violent acts that have left employees scared to go to work. 

We asked Charleston restaurant and small business owners to reflect on their experiences with racially charged hatred and bias and share what they think could lead to visible change.  

“How has hate and racial bias impacted you?”

Jackrabbit Filly chef and co-owner Shuai Wang: I was recently telling someone that I might not remember what my childhood birthdays were like, but I can remember, in detail, every racist encounter I had. I’ve been called the “C” word twice in my lifetime — both in New York at bars, both times by much older people. I didn’t realize I was different or anything until I got to the states. All of a sudden, I’m being discriminated against for absolutely no reason, and it’s not just Chinese people. I just think in every culture and every race there’s some kind of undertone of hate.

Shuai Wang is the co-owner of Jackrabbit Filly in Park Circle | City Paper file photo

In Asian culture, we were always told to just be quiet, keep our heads down and keep working. I think that’s just ironed into our own personalities. We’re in a very Republican state, and some people are very close-minded. Some of them are our customers — sometimes they don’t like what we say, and they might never come back. You can’t let those fears stop you from standing up for what you believe in, and your culture and people. I’m sure we’ll lose a few customers for this, but I’m not going to stand by and say nothing. 

Sarah’s Dumps owner Sarah Williams-Scalise: I think I was 7 years old when a boy, the same age as me, called me a chink. I felt my face flush and ran home. I didn’t cry. I didn’t tell anyone then. I didn’t demand an apology from him or try to explain to him that I’m Korean. That moment sits with me. When I studied abroad in Spain during college, Spaniards would yell to me in the streets “China China” like that was supposed to woo me as I continued walking by. I didn’t yell back or correct them. Those moments sit with me. I’ve been asked “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” because people want to know my ethnicity. I didn’t give them an alternate way to ask the question. Those moments sit with me.

Sarah Williams-Scalise‘s company makes and sells dumplings across Charleston | @sarahsdumps Instagram

Being adopted by a white, middle-class family always made me feel like I should take my Korean heritage and the lessons learned at my Korean culture camps, but keep them somewhat tucked in my pocket. I’ve always felt most comfortable being surrounded by white people. When Asian boys or groups would approach me, I shunned them because I didn’t want to be too Asian. As I came into my own after studying abroad then moving to various major cities in the Northeast and now having close, Asian-American friends, the pride I have to be Korean has grown. 

“Have you experienced this in Charleston?”

Wang: This is the most recent experience I had. When Corrie and I got married, we got married in city hall. On the form, there’s a section for race, and I usually sign the Asian Pacific Islander section. When it was printed, mine said “oriental.” And this is 2015 from the city of Charleston. That’s not out of discrimination or hate, it’s just out of complete ignorance. I’m just surprised in 2015 that they still did not change that. 

“How did your parents react to the violence in Atlanta?”

Editor’s note: Former Charleston Magazine food editor Jennifer Hope Choi, wrote in The New York Times, detailing how she and her mother reacted differently to the Atlanta violence.

James Park (left) is the G.M. at his family’s restaurant, Shiki | Ruta Smith

Shiki general manager James Park: Ms. Choi defines it perfectly, “Stoicism is part of her (mother’s) generation’s ethos.” Belonging to the same generation as Ms. Choi’s mother, my father (Shiki owner Hae Gon “David” Park) grew up during gritty years for Korea and is part of the immigrants that endured “carving out new lives in America,” who accept the hardships that accompany it without complaint. While keeping up with the increased incidents of hate crimes against Asians and the murder that took place in Atlanta, my father said to me, “Pay attention when you’re out … It’s not a good time for us.” Like Ms. Choi’s mother, my father is “unflappable.” He didn’t say it with fear, it was just a reminder of the realities.

“What can people in the community do to improve?”

Williams-Scalise: I have spent the last week reflecting on my own experiences, thoughts and actions — especially ones that would be hurtful to humans who look like me. Now is as good a time as any for everyone to do a self-check. How do you honor yourself and those around you, the businesses you already support, the lessons history has taught us to start or continue a mindset of inclusivity? And now is as good a time as any to make a mindset shift and have conversations. I promise to do the same. 

Wang: I think in general, everyone just needs to be a little more aware of the things they do and the things they say. Be willing to learn that you aren’t always correct, or that maybe what you say is hurtful. Everyone in general just needs to be a little more open-minded and have a little more compassion. I don’t think anyone is asking for a lot. 

Park: Be mindful that the majority of people in our community have good intentions and want to be more understanding. We can choose to be kind to ourselves and each other as we navigate our own biases and grow. Forgive the unintended aggressions, but address them. Don’t degrade your friends by letting their ignorance slide. Lastly, we can recognize you’ll never fully understand someone else’s experience, but open a dialog anyway.