I was punched by a random stranger in New York. Was it because I’m Asian, or gay?

Written by:

Yen Feng

Yen Feng

Yen is the editor of asia.gay. You can reach him at editor@asia.gay.

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There I was, walking down Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, minding my own business, when suddenly I felt a blow strike my stomach.

I fell to my knees. Perhaps I blacked out for a couple of seconds, I wasn’t sure. The pain was sharp and overwhelming. I remember looking around and watching a man walk away in the distance. I was breathing heavily and couldn’t see clearly. Was he the man who punched me? There was no way to tell.

Perhaps what struck me more was that no one came to my help. This was on a Tuesday, around 2pm. Out of the corner of my eyes I noticed a few people staring, but they walked on. I lay on the ground for several minutes, gathering myself, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital. After a few minutes, I was able to stand up. My vision cleared. I was shaken, but not seriously injured.

“Thank god,” I muttered under my breath.

That was in November, 2018. The recent news of rising hate crimes towards Asians in New York has hit a raw nerve, especially since I considered New York a second home. I went to college in Manhattan, came out there, and lived in the city for several years with my partner before returning to Singapore. That year, in 2018, I was in New York on a sabattical for three months. I love the city, and what happened to me, and what is happening now to others like me, is incredibly alarming and saddening.

The truth is, when I was trying to work out why I was assaulted, I kept resisting the possibility that it was because I was Asian. I mean, I had lived in New York for so many years, and nothing like that had ever happened to me. I even wondered if it was because I was gay, and started thinking about what I was wearing that day. I was quick to blame myself, but in the end I convinced myself it was just a random assault by someone who was probably mentally disturbed.

I’m not sure I believe that anymore.

From 2019 to 2020, a new report has found that hate crimes against Asians across the United States rose 150% in just one year. In New York, especially, the number increased from three cases in 2019 to 28 last year – that’s a 833% increase, the report noted.

Reasons for the rise in these attacks were attributed to the rise in Covid-19 cases and Trump’s influence on emboldening racist attitudes and behaviours.

Before you think this wave of hate crimes towards Asians is happening only in the United States, remember that London-based comedian Uncle Roger also suffered a racist attack in October last year. And in the same city, a 23-year-old Singaporean was similarly attacked last February by a group of teenagers, in what the court described as “unprovoked and racially motivated”.

What about in Singapore?

It is highly unlikely that you will find this type of racially-motivated assaults in Singapore – though, I can tell you decades of indoctrination by the Singapore government and working for The Straits Times have taught me that racial harmony isn’t something to be taken for granted.

And I know it’s probably simplistic to conflate the two, but there are plenty of racially motivated micro-aggressions that still exist in Singapore, especially within the gay community. I can point you to several articles written in the past year about this issue, such as here, and here.

Of course, being physically attacked is really bad. And I’m not suggesting that anyone who doesn’t like a particular race sexually is going to go out and start punching people of that race.

But I am not so sure that the mental and emotional bullying we put others through by using phrases like “No Indians” on Grindr and other dating apps is any better. In my opinion, there is a clear difference between “preference” and plain racism.

There is no quick cure for racism, but I think it starts with beginning to see others not as “foreign”, but what is the same about us. We are all human, we all want to love and be loved. There is much, much more that unites us than divides us.

Now, I haven’t visited New York since 2018, and I’m not sure I’m ready to head back. The Covid situation was one thing, but now I feel even more unsafe. I don’t want to be punched again – or worse, kicked in the head, which was what happened on Monday to a Filipino woman.

I haven’t had any complaints about my head, and I want to keep it that way.

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