Journey to the East during COVID


Question: Do the hate crimes against Asian Americans during COVID or the AAPI movements affect Chinese Americans’ sense of ethnic identity? If so, how does this change in sense of identity affect their sense of community?

Background: With the spread of COVID-19, the prevalence of discrimination and violence against Asian Americans overwhelmed the community. However, in response, Asian empowerment movements and media also took center stage during this time. Both of these events are unprecedented. Through the lens this qualitative research project, I sought to get a glimpse of how Chinese Americans, particularly second generation immigrants (born in America to immigrant parents), have been processing their sense of ethnic identity and community in response to these phenomena. 

Methods: 5 semi-structured interviews with codebook, and alternative activities (draw). 


Key Considerations: 

Key Contributions: This was a solo academic project.  I managed the recruitment, interviews, analysis, synthesis, and recommendations. 

Deeper Dive

Since March of 2020, the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition has received a significant increase of reports documenting violence and discrimination against AAPIs. Over 6,600 reports were collected between March 2020-2021, and an additional 2,478 cases were reported within 3 months of March and June 2021. In conjunction with the media's coverage of hate crimes, Asian American movements also garnered newfound momentum in response.

So I ask the following research questions

1) What effects does the perception of these hate crimes and movements have on Chinese Americans? 

2) Does this perception affect Chinese Americans’ sense of ethnic identity in particular? 

3) How, then, does this change in sense of identity affect their sense of community?



5 Participants: Second generation Chinese American students at UC Berkeley 

3 Interview Themes: 

Special Activity: Draw Your Identity

I asked participants to draw how they felt about being Chinese American pre-COVID vs. now, as well as how they hope to feel about their identity going forward at the end of the interview. 


Sample codes and quotations from the Code Book

Before COVID, most participants did not embrace being Chinese

This was the case regardless of whether the interviewees grew up with a tight-knit Chinese American community or lived in a mostly non-Asian neighborhood. In the first group, participants did not experience a strong enough contrasts to perceive themselves as being Chinese American: 

“Most of my friends are Asian American so there was never this sense of, like, oh yes Asian American pride, mostly because that was just a way of living, I think. Growing up, like, it wasn't like, ‘oh yes, we are Chinese so we do this’, it was just ‘let's do this’.” 

On the other hand, interviewees who grew up in an environment with fewer Asians lived a “double-life” at school and at home. This highlighted the Chinese attributes; school life is considered “normal,” and home was not. The latter was laced with negativity. In this case, navigating and accepting their identity was a struggle in isolation as there were very few Chinese American students to connect with. 

“But yeah, I definitely started [speaking English at home] because I just didn't want to be Chinese. I just wanted to be like a normal kid.” 

However, hate crimes against Chinese Americans during COVID catalyzed a stronger sense of ethnic identity by igniting anger and solidarity 

All the participants took the hate crimes personally as they identified with the victims, which led to various identify reckonings that involved newfound anger. This is true especially for the cases against elders:


"It was like...first the personal feelings of, 'oh my god. She looks like my grandmother,' like, she represents my grandmother next to me and someone destroyed that. But also like, the feelings of knowing what my grandparents feel about being and living in America, how must *she* feel [as well, seeing those cases]."

Respecting one's elders is one of the backbones of Chinese culture that all the participants emphasized that they value and practice with their own grandparents. For the first time, the discrimination and racism elicited anger and disappointment (a “new low” as some participants noted) and forced participants to reflect and defend their identity at a level they have never explored before, especially for participants that felt detached from their Chinese American identity. The following excerpts are from two different participants:

"I never really had a reason to think about it for me personally except for like class assignments and stuff. I think because COVID, like the racism as a result of COVID, felt very personal, I had to think about it personally."


"This kind of like, these events kind of did make me be more defensive about like, Asian American, like, no matter how whitewashed they are, like how fobby [fob = fresh off the boat] they are. All of us are better than that, deserve better than that. So that did kind of change things a little bit. Yeah. Also, I think seeing other people's reactions was also actually helpful. like seeing other people's like, outrage. I was just like, yeah..? yeah! That's outrageous! You know what I mean? So that has helped too, definitely [with sensing that Chinese American is a unifying identity she can feel solidarity with]."

AAPI movements helped direct their identity questioning towards self-empowerment 

Seeing the activism movements over media was a major surprise to the interviewees. One participant mentioned that this movement allowed her to identify an reframe her own ingrained, subconscious belief that Asians are submissive; while another stated that it was not until seeing Asian Americans on screen at this scale for the first time that she realized how underrepresented Asians are in the media. All the interviewees mentioned a newfound sense of pride for their identity attributed to the movements. However, one participant described a more complex internal state given her parents’ teaching to “mind your own business,” which she does identify as a Chinese value that she is trying to “unlearn”:


"I felt good that there are people speaking up about it, but also I felt like, kind of embarrassed...I think that I was raised through this lens of like, you know, don't make a scene, keep your head down, kind of thing and so unlearning that attitude, still a work in progress. There's no shame in saying, like, “Hey, we're in trouble.” But why do I feel still...why do I still feel so ashamed when we're attacked? Right when we're the one who is in trouble? That's a question I still have to, you know, deal with. Myself." 

With the reckonings came a desire to connect with their roots, often with their family and/or the imaginary Asian community at large. 

All but one participant stated wanting to learn from their immediate community to improve their sense of connection and become a more intimate community member. The immediate community refers to Chinese Americans that they can interact with (i.e. family and friends). Common methods to strengthen connection include improving their Chinese language skills, learning more about Chinese culture, and spending more time with family to put their lived experiences into context

Interest in further connecting with the greater Chinese American community - the imaginary community - varied depending on whether the interviewee has an immediate Chinese American community that they’re part of. Participants with an immediate community indicated that a spot in that larger community is a given for them, that there’s no need to “assert my belonging” in that group. The sense of connection to that group is “there if I need it":

"I don't think it’s on the top of my mind. I feel like I already have a good community of friends who I can relate to because they are Chinese American as well. That doesn't necessarily make me feel plugged into the [greater] community, that just makes me feel like I have a community that I can reach out to if I ever need that support."


However, for those who had felt detached from their Chinese American identity and did not have a community to fall back on during COVID, there’s a greater interest in the imagined community

The reflections and self-reckoning were all unique to each participant due to their different lived experiences and struggles. But there are similar patterns: this newfound solidarity, indignation, and pride as a result of COVID discrimination and activism catalyzed heightened consciousness of their Chinese identity, which then renewed their desire to connect with their family, language, culture, and themselves. 

Art Gallery: Draw Your Identity

"So Pre-COVID, I was not really sure what to make of my Asian American identity. I was kind of like, not really talked to other Asian American people, it was just me by myself in my room. Other ABCs like, in college, I was feeling very out of place with all the groups and other Asian Americans. I felt very shame, like a lot of shame about being banana, like whitewashed, and not being Chinese enough."

"But now I'm definitely engaging with a lot of other people. And like, you know, I'm kind of further along like accepting I'm whitewashed. I'm ABC, and it's chill. It's how I am. There's like, a lot of other people who are like me. It's a lot of, I guess solidarity and comfort in there, be some sort of like community and have dialogue about it."


"I think the circle represents my identity. The question mark just means that I'm not super sure about it. The squiggles represent like how my identity radiates and like interact with other things around me. It's not too crazy, it's not too bold because I think I've, you know, I've never been like, 'oh I am Asian and proud or whatever.' It's kind of like the literally just body heat that naturally comes, but not something that I'm going out and like shining in everyone's faces, so that's, that's what this is."


"Now the line is bolder because it's under more scrutiny. I think there's a lot of pressure and I feel more in the public eye now, it almost feel like there are arrows pointing at me sometimes. The lines through the circle is me trying to minimize or obscure/hide my identity. There are two question marks because [I feel] there's a lot more to consider and I feel a lot more, a little bit more uncomfortable with what it means to be me."

Going Forward

"These circles are other identities that interact with me in harmony. There's still of course, like pressure being perceived by other people, but I'm also outwardly expressing and having a conversation with others no matter what pressure is coming in at me."

Here, a participant emphasizes that COVID reinforced her connection with her family, and learning about them has reimagined her Chinese identity. Prior to COVID, her connection towards being Chinese has mainly been about her traditional dance classes and the kinds of foods she ate. 

Implications and Considerations:

Future Research

Reflections and Reflexivity 

Other Works