Something deep inside of Diana Nguyen unfolded when she heard about the Atlanta-area shootings that killed eight people.
Six of the victims were Asian women. The suspect was a white man who told police his sexual addiction motivated him to murder.
"It reminded me of the stereotype of … how Asian American women are portrayed as subservient, like a fetish, on social media platforms, Hollywood and porn," she said.
The shootings have prompted a new wave of activism across the nation and in Minnesota, where hundreds have convened for #StopAsianHate rallies, candlelight vigils and virtual listening sessions.
The rising activism follows a slew of anti-Asian harassment and violence in the COVID era. An elderly woman was kicked in the head at a Green Line LRT station. An Austin, Minn., man found "China virus" burned into his front lawn. And a Woodbury couple received a note that said people didn't want them around, "infecting us with your diseases." It was signed, "Your friendly neighborhood."
The violence in Atlanta prompted Nguyen, a 22-year-old University of Minnesota student, to reflect on growing up Vietnamese in Eagan and playing along when classmates called her "mellow yellow" and her best friend called her "chink."
Recently, she said, a man followed her into a gas station, wanting to know if she was someone he knew from high school named "Mai." She told the man she was not, but that didn't stop him from telling her she looked like a "Mai" and that he would take her out to eat pho.
When she rebuffed his advances, he called her a racial slur.
The day of the Atlanta shootings, Nguyen's brother texted their family group chat and told his parents to be careful. Their mother works in a nail salon. Worried that their immigrant parents wouldn't understand the severity of the situation, he asked Nguyen to find news articles translated into Vietnamese.
She couldn't find any, so she turned to social media, asking anyone to send her articles translated into Vietnamese or other languages to help younger Asians like herself spread the news to immigrant parents.
"In times of trauma, we need to act," she said.
More stories were shared Wednesday night when the Asian Minnesotan Alliance for Justice held a virtual meeting with more than 800 people to discuss community unity against hate crime and reporting such incidents.
"It's important for all of us to remember that an attack on one community is an attack on all of us," said U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is also co-sponsoring a resolution denouncing all forms of anti-Asian hate.
Anthea Yur, 27, who organized a March 18 rally, said she was stunned to see a couple hundred people show up at Levin Park near Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis to show their support with signs and T-shirts imprinted with "I Am Not Your Fetish" and "Stop Asian Hate." The audience cheered to show support as people shared their stories.
"To see myself looking back at me, that was the first time in my life seeing other women who look just like me [at a rally]," said Yur, who is also active in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nguyen said she decided on the spur of the moment at the rally to read a poem she had written about being an Asian American woman.
"I felt overwhelmed by all the support," she said. "I wasn't expecting people to show up."
Yur said she understands why some Asian Americans — especially older ones — don't turn out to protest. When she was growing up in Iowa, eggs and peaches were thrown at her family's home.
"I remember the pain we felt, and I remember we never talked about it," she said. "It's in our culture not to protest. It's ingrained in us to survive by turning the other cheek."
More than 300,000 Asian Americans live in Minnesota, according to the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. A quarter are of Hmong heritage. The rest represent dozens of ethnic groups that arrived in America in different eras, speaking distinct languages. Their relationships are tinted by historical conflicts thousands of years old, and their diasporas don't often overlap, even though demographers and pollsters have assigned them to a large and unwieldy racial category.
That diversity stands in the way of unified activism, said Concordia University Prof. Lee Pao Xiong, founding director of the Center for Hmong Studies. Generational differences are another cleaving factor.
Growing up in St. Paul's John J. McDonough housing projects in the late 1970s, Xiong was spit on and beaten in alleys and called racial slurs by white people, Black people and others of color, populations pressed together in the inner city by poverty, with little understanding of each other.
Racial hatred was common then, he said. In lieu of solidarity politics, Hmong people practiced martial arts and got permits to carry a weapon.
Over the past year, public beatings of elderly Asians coupled with nationwide calls to defund the police have seniors on edge, said Xiong, who discourages his mother from leaving the house on casual errands even as his 20-something son marches with Black Lives Matter in downtown Minneapolis.
"Younger generations are very active, and young professionals are very active, but the older generations, they're not," he said. "They're basically saying, 'We have to protect ourselves.' You can't blame them because of their past experiences, which makes them much more conservative in their thinking."
Longtime LGBT activist and Minneapolis Seventh Ward City Council candidate Nick Kor credits Donald Trump's presidency with injecting politics into every divot of American life. He sees Asians torn between asserting their place in the racial justice movement sweeping the nation and fearing that attention will attract more violence.
When greater awareness of tragedies like the Atlanta killings doesn't beget more accountability for everyday anti-Asian harassment, elder Asians may hesitate to speak up even while their children feel fed up.
"A lot of this has been happening this whole year, and it's been happening for decades," Kor said.
Kor, who serves as the Coalition of Asian American Leaders' senior manager of movement building, attended a variety of multigenerational community forums over the past two weeks. A recurring theme, he said, is that for all their divergent perspectives on political engagement, many participants were awed by the sheer number of Asian Minnesotans who want to get involved and seem eager to explore commonalities.
"People really want that shared space right now, to be with each other in community, to talk about their feelings and their shared values or shared experiences," Kor said. "They want to be able to find ways to get involved and take action."