Asian American Runners Fight to Reclaim a Refuge

Amid rising racism, many have reported being slurred or coughed or spit upon on their routes in the last year.
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Martha Hao took up running five years ago, coaxed by a friend who was prepping for the New York City Marathon and wanted a training partner. She eased in slowly but got hooked before long, entering races hosted by New York Road Runners; completing the 2019 New York City Marathon in 4:19:50; and later starting a running group with fellow chapter members of the Taiwanese American Professionals. “When I’m running,” says Hao, 32, “that’s where I can really zone out and meditate.”

One sunny weekend afternoon in late April 2020, Hao was cruising past Pier 15 in the Financial District, near the end of her usual five-mile loop along Manhattan’s east side. A cloth mask covered her face, and indie-rock music thumped in her earbuds. The area was busy with foot traffic, so she stuck behind another masked jogger, an Asian man, as he carved a socially distanced route through the crowd.

Two minutes away from her apartment building, Hao spied an oncoming bicyclist—in his late 30s and maskless, with brown hair and facial features that reminded her of Matthew McConaughey. (“But not handsome,” she says.) After passing the runner in front of Hao, the biker abruptly swerved into her lane and hit the brakes, cutting off her path. “That’s when he yelled at me,” she says, and even now his words are still fresh in her mind: “Go back to Wuhan, you c---k! It's because of you there's the virus!”

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For several seconds Hao stood frozen, stunned, as the cyclist took off. Eventually she snapped back to reality and saw him run over a pile of dog feces down the sidewalk and fall off his seat. “Karma’s a bitch!” she yelled, drawing laughs from bystanders. She managed to finish her run, too, but returned home still stuck in a fog. “I was just thinking to myself, Omigosh, what the hell happened?” she says.

A few weeks later, Hao was encouraged by some friends to submit her experience to Stop AAPI Hate, a newly formed reporting center that collects data on hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Her account was one of 3,795 total incidents recorded by Stop AAPI Hate between March 2020 and February 2021, according to its most recent national report, which came out on the same day last month that eight people, including six Korean and Chinese women, were shot and killed in the Atlanta area.

Amid this rising tide of verbal harassment, physical assault, online bullying and other anti-AAPI acts, Hao is also part of a smaller group of nearly 60 AAPI community members who reported facing racial abuse while running outdoors during the pandemic. One Chinese woman was flipped off and coughed on in her northern California neighborhood; another, in upstate New York, was stopped mid-stride on the sidewalk and spit on. A car full of teenagers slowed down next to a Korean jogger in eastern Maryland, called her a racial slur and yelled, “Go back to your country.” A Taiwanese teenager outside Dallas was hit with a cup of coffee from a passing truck. A Vietnamese man was accosted on a trail near Austin and told, “This is all your people’s fault.”

These incidents make up only a small percentage of Stop AAPI Hate’s report total, which itself is far from comprehensive. “Our data is just a fraction of what’s happening out there,” says Russell Jeung, the reporting center’s cofounder. But the runners’ stories are significant for other reasons. Like Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese American guard who was called “coronavirus” by an opponent on the court in a G League game earlier this season, the victims are athletes who suddenly found their safe spaces punctured by racism, leaving them to grapple with the physical and emotional impact of having such hate interrupt something they all love.

“It just breaks my stride, and it ruins my meditation,” says Elise Chan, 54, a club-level triathlete from Oakland whose early pandemic run was interrupted when a passing cyclist hit the brakes to sneeze in her face. “And it’s shocking, and very humbling, realizing how exposed I am.”

The Atlanta Run Club staged a three-mile solidarity run in the city's Piedmont Park on March 20.

The Atlanta Run Club staged a three-mile solidarity run in the city's Piedmont Park on March 20.

Jeung and his colleagues were ready. Even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, the San Francisco State professor of Asian American Studies had already partnered with two civil rights groups, Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council, to set up Stop AAPI Hate. “With the pandemic coming from Asia, we knew that Asian Americans would get blamed for it, and would meet violence and racist policies,” Jeung says.

The prediction was rooted in the U.S.’s deep national history of Asian scapegoating, especially over issues of health and disease. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law barring a specific ethnic group from the U.S., arose in part because Chinese immigrants were blamed for spreads of smallpox and other diseases. Chinatowns in Honolulu and Santa Ana, Calif., were burned down amid bubonic plague concerns in the early 1900s. Thousands of Asian immigrants endured invasive medical checks and months-long detainments at San Francisco’s Angel Island from 1910 to 1940. Accounts of harassment and shunning spiked during the ’03 SARS outbreak.

Sure enough, within hours after Stop AAPI Hate’s website went live in six languages, its database was hit with hundreds of reports. So many victims detailed getting spat and coughed upon that the group hastily created a new incident category to reflect the weaponization of saliva in the age of COVID-19. “When you hear how perpetrators push and shove Asians, try to run us down with cars, and the language they use,” Jeung says, “you discern the amount of hate directed towards us.”

The swell has been well documented. After then President Donald Trump used the racist phrase “Chinese virus” in a tweet for the first time, less than a week before Stop AAPI Hate launched, anti-Asian hashtags skyrocketed on the social media platform. A Pew Research poll found that roughly 3 in 10 Asian American adults have faced ethnic or racial jokes or slurs during the pandemic. Reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in America’s 16 largest cities increased nearly 150% in 2020, according to police data pulled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The weekend after the Atlanta shootings, March 19 to 21, featured five reported attacks against people of Asian descent in Manhattan, including a woman who was punched in the face after leaving a protest; this week a 65-year-old Filipino woman was assaulted near Times Square by a man yelling, “You don’t belong here.”

Even in a limited data set, Jeung says that clear trends have emerged: Women reported being harassed 2.3 times more than men; elderly and youth were also frequent targets. “Bullies are preying on vulnerable populations,” Jeung says. More than two-thirds of reports involved verbal harassment, and 11% involved physical assault. Not quite half of all victims identify as Chinese.

The subsection of runners and joggers who filed reports stands out to Jeung, who is Chinese American, as noteworthy, too. Part of this is for personal reasons: He recounts being yelled at on several occasions while running in Alameda, Calif., and a man once blocked his wife’s path on a trail and coughed in her face. But he also sees the runners' stories as emblematic of the issues Asian Americans are facing nationwide.

“This racism has limited our freedoms, has limited our opportunities to lead a normal life at this moment,” Jeung says. “Even in recreational, nonthreatening moments, people are exercising and getting attacked. It’s not like you’re in public transit and you’re threatening someone’s health because you’re close without a mask. You’re going to be passing people, because you’re running and in motion. And yet people actually take the time to catch up with you and block you to direct their anger. … So running is no longer the freeing and empowering space, but can [rather] be a traumatizing experience.”

Bamn Ford (left) and James Ro of the Atlanta Run Club. "Any time hate or fear is perpetuated, there is always an opportunity to respond," Ro says.

Bamn Ford (left) and James Ro of the Atlanta Run Club. "Any time hate or fear is perpetuated, there is always an opportunity to respond," Ro says.

Mengyin Zhang, 25, grew up in the rural Henan province of China, where as a middle schooler she began competing in 5K races. Later, when she moved alone to the U.S. for college at 18, running became less of an avenue for beating opponents and more of a way to steady herself. Now a graduate student studying biology at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan, she noticed she performed her lab work with greater calm and efficiency after long runs because of the tranquility they brought her.

“If I have something going on in my life, my way of relaxing is just to run,” she says. “Honestly, I don’t know if I can live without running at this point. It’s just been a part of me for so long.”

All of which made what happened to her last July that much tougher to process. She had just exited Central Park and was jogging through midtown Manhattan when a woman came charging at her from across the street. “She was yelling at me: ‘Go back to China! Go back to hell! Your country is hell!’ ” Zhang recalls. “I had no way to fight back. At least, that’s how I felt. So I froze, then I just ran. I ran home, and it wasn’t until I got home, I started crying. I was so frustrated. I didn’t know what else to do.”

The incident took a toll on Zhang. “Now I’m spending more time online, trying to find a peace of mind,” she says. “That is something I struggle with.” Her parents, still living back home in China, asked her to quit running altogether, concerned about her physical safety. That she continues to do so is a decision based on mental health. “I don’t know any other way I can balance my life,” she says. But the frustration still lingers. “This is just new to me,” says Zhang, who, like many of the other runners who spoke for this story, has experienced anti-Asian harassment in other settings over the last year, recalling multiple times when she was slurred walking down the street. “I feel like I should fight back in certain ways,” she says. “But I’m not used to being hostile against people who are hostile to me.”

Zhang is far from alone. James Tsai, 34, began running as an “escape” during the pandemic, unable to attend his favorite group fitness classes. Then in November a man sprinted up to him and punched him in the arm while he was jogging in his San Francisco neighborhood, near the Warriors’ home at Chase Center. “I have a therapist, and he was like, ‘Let’s watch out for PTSD, for nightmares,’ ” says Tsai, who is Taiwanese American. “Thankfully, none of that appeared, but I stopped running and bought a Peloton. I’m fortunate enough to exercise indoors, but it’s also concerning: When I see the point of the assault, it is a little bit triggering, losing that sense of power and control.”

Hao similarly balked at the idea of getting back on the road after her encounter with the cyclist. “I didn’t run for another two weeks, because I was thinking in my head, What if it happened to me again?” she says. Eventually she found some security when she bought a small can of pepper spray, which she now straps to her wrist before leaving home. “But I always remind myself to not think that every person I see on the street is racist or out to attack me,” she says. “I’m better at managing that mentality, but there are still a few times I think, That person on the bike … is that the same guy?’”

According to Jeung, a recent Stop AAPI Hate survey of respondents, conducted in partnership with the Asian American Psychological Association, revealed “clear racial trauma” and deep anxiety about experiencing future hate, a feeling only compounded by the events of March 16. “They have been living with a lot of fear this past year, and the murders in Atlanta definitely intensified that fear,” says Vivin Qiang, program coordinator of the Anti-Racial Profiling Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “It’s important to acknowledge the xenophobia and the deep structural racism that has really impacted our communities.”

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For Chan, the Oakland triathlete still racing in her 50s, her experience last year brought back decades of discrimination. She thought about growing up in Stockton, Ca., where her first-grade classmates called her “c---k,” and about the time her parents were mocked at a department store because they didn’t speak English well. She also thought about the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two men outside of a strip club where he was celebrating his bachelor party; his story came up recently in a discussion with her husband and 18-year-old son. “All the injustices, we talked about that as a family at dinner,” Chan says. “We were pretty darn voiceless back then.”

But she senses a shifting tide, catalyzed by younger Asian American activists. “I think this generation, people in their 20s and 30s, they have a lot more different venues to speak, to write, to advocate. They’re not afraid. They’re American-born, so they know what the system is like. I think we’re becoming less meek, less quiet. We’re not sweeping it under the rug.”

“When I’m running, that’s where I can really zone out and meditate,” Hao says.

“When I’m running, that’s where I can really zone out and meditate,” Hao says.

The runners in red took off from the pagoda at Japantown Peace Plaza, wearing bibs that read STOP ASIAN HATE. They headed northeast toward Chinatown, turning around at the Dragon’s Gate and covering five kilometers of San Francisco streets in all. Cars honked in support. Outdoor diners cheered. “I saw elderly Asian people see us run by, and maybe they didn’t get what we were doing,” Ayako Sawanobori, 38, says. “But we were out there in numbers, and I think that makes a statement.”

A former Division III sprinter at Tufts University who now runs marathons (eight to date), Sawanobori organized the March 21 event with fellow members of the Bay Area–based Anti-Racist Run Club, which had formed in June 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd. She experienced mixed feelings about the run at first, worrying that “it would just be performative and not useful.” But she was pleasantly surprised, not only by the turnout—she had stayed up late the night before the run, printing and hole-punching 55 bibs, only to run out fast the next morning—but by the main question numerous non-Asian runners asked her: How can I help? “That made it worth it,” says Sawanobori, who is Japanese American.

In the two weeks since a 21-year-old gunman opened fire at three Atlanta spas and massage businesses, solidarity runs have been staged all over the country. Queens Distance Runners cofounder Maria Wong led some 50 attendees for two and a half miles in halting rain last weekend, chanting, “Stop Asian hate,” “Respect our elders,” and “We are not invisible”; afterward, everyone was encouraged to patronize one of the area’s many Asian-owned eateries. “I felt calm,” says Wong, 33, who is Chinese American. “I felt good to have people around me that cared and supported.”

Runners spanning more than 500 cities and 50 countries, meanwhile, logged miles for a fundraising campaign spearheaded by the Atlanta Run Club, which raised nearly $20,000 for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta. The club also held a three-mile, in-person run around Piedmont Park on March 20. “There was a lot of grief,” says Atlanta Run Club founder James Ro, 30, who is Korean American. “There was a lot of anger and hate and division. But I believe that any time hate or fear is perpetuated, there is always an opportunity to respond. That’s what we really tried to create.”

For many runners, the sport and social activism are strongly linked. Over the past year, Wong’s club in Queens has helped put together group runs with other area clubs to support Black Lives Matter and raise community awareness about the importance of voting, among other causes. Ro’s Atlanta club, which is largely made up of Asian and Black runners, organized an event honoring Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot to death while jogging in a small Georgia town in February 2020. “This time around, it was a lot of Black brothers of mine who reached out and said, ‘We really need to say something and stand alongside you,’ ” Ro says.

The importance of allyship resonates with Sawanobori, whose volunteer work includes coaching elementary-age kids for Girls on the Run Bay Area; serving on the San Francisco chapter board of Back on My Feet, a nonprofit led by runners that helps unhoused people find employment; and mobilizing Anti-Racist Run Club membership to join community patrols. (“It’s easy to say more policing, but historically they haven’t protected marginalized people,” Sawanobori says.) So does the idea that hitting the streets en masse can help people heal together. “I think running is a really interesting way to feel your own power,” she says. “The whole concept of one foot in front of another and moving forward within your own body’s ability—there’s an empowering component to that.”

Fighting back is taking many forms. Prominent Asian American voices are speaking out louder than ever, including sports figures like Lin, UCLA guard Natalie Chou, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Rams safety Taylor Rapp. Large protests were held in Chicago, New York and other cities. Scores of San Franciscans volunteered to escort senior citizens while they ran errands. Qiang’s organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, has registered more than 21,000 people for bystander intervention training through an online program, Hollaback. “What heartens me, despite the anger and sadness, is that Asian Americans have really stood up at this moment,” Jeung says. “I’ve seen people from all walks of life using whatever platform they can to challenge the racism they’re experiencing. This is a real inflection point. I think there’s a strong sense of unity and solidarity and call for justice.”

The sentiment was echoed by the six runners who shared their experiences for this story. Tsai, the fitness class buff from San Francisco, recalls “reckoning” with the country’s long history of Asian marginalization last summer, when he read articles about how the AAPI community could best support the Black Lives Matter movement as allies in the fight against racism. “So now it’s more like, ‘Oh, s---, Asians are in the spotlight more than ever, so what does that mean, and how do we take advantage of it?’ ” Tsai says.

For fellow Bay Area resident Shelley Nguyen, 48, the effort starts inside her home, where she talks openly with her daughters, ages 14 and 11, about everything from the microaggressions they face at school, to the Atlanta shootings, to the woman who berated and coughed on Nguyen when they were running as a family on a neighborhood trail last year. “My kids call her the Weird Lady,” says Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American. “They know it wasn’t violent, it wasn’t too traumatic, but we also need to stand up to that kind of bullying.” Which is why, even though she never felt like running for several months after the incident, she always willed herself back onto the trail. “Even though it’s scary,” she says, “you can’t let hateful people win.”

Jennifer Fukagawa can relate. She was harassed twice in the early part of the pandemic, both times in the same neighborhood of houses near her Rochester, N.Y., apartment, both times by men who barked the same phrase as she jogged down the street: “F------ Chinese!” In hindsight, the first incident hardly registered. “I think I was still in disbelief that this xenophobia was real,” says Fukagawa, 32, who is Japanese and Filipino. “I thought that this was just a one-off and I’d never have to worry again.”

But the second incident, perpetrated by an older man who was standing in front of a house with a red door, cut deeper. “I’m not even Chinese!” Fukagawa shot back at him, rising with anger. She had started running during the pandemic “as a way to gain control over my life,” she says, and pretty soon a rigid schedule developed: Monday through Friday, 45 minutes each day, the same loop every time. But the encounter disrupted her routine. “When I run now, I take the same route, but on the other side of the street from that house,” she says. “Even just altering my running route like that means it really affected me.”

Still, she isn’t stopping. “It’s my sense of health and well-being,” Fukagawa says. “They’re already trying to attack my culture. I don’t want them to take something else away from me.” So she continues to turn onto that street, and she continues to jog past the house, each time looking at the red door across the street and thinking about what the old man said. Then she puts one foot in front of the other and keeps on running.

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