Joon Baek, a Korean student at Columbia University in New York City, was riding the subway last year when a woman sitting across from him began to shout. In America’s largest city of nearly 8 million people, it is not unusual to hear someone ranting.
“I was commuting from campus back to Korea Town where I live, and I tried not to say anything, to just look down, was just minding my own business,” Baek described. “But it got worse and worse, and it wasn’t just any kind of verbal assault. I realized it was actually directed at me.”
Baek said he was uncomfortable, given that anti-Asian hate crimes that have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to police data.
He decided to get off at the next stop.
Most of the international students in the U.S. are students of color, according to statistics from the Institute for International Education.
Jessica, a Chinese national from South Africa graduating from the Parsons School of Design in New York, said news reports of anti-Asian incidents make her more cautious.
“I used to feel really safe in New York, but that hasn’t been the case since 2020. … For the first time, I feel targeted when I’m walking down the street,” she said. “It’s really sad because I have to avoid going out in the dark. I have to avoid certain streets which are dark. I have to always be very cautious and very aware of my Asian identity.”
All the students VOA talked with said they generally feel comfortable on campus and among America’s diverse urban populations. They say the experience of living in a multicultural society has opened their eyes.
Baek, who studies cyber privacy and data security, said he came to the U.S. in 2015 from South Korea for the excellence in education.
“America offers the best universities, the most renowned ones, and I felt like going to America, studying there, would open up new opportunities that I wouldn’t have if I had studied back in Korea.”
Andy Mao, a biology graduate from New York University, was taking photos with three non-Asian classmates in front of the school, laughing and enjoying their graduation celebration.
“It’s been an amazing journey, especially when I look back and I got to see so many different cultures coming together. And most importantly, meet friends from different countries, cultures and get to know their stories,” Mao said. “It’s really expanded my mind, and I appreciate this kind of freedom for me to explore the world.”
But despite his enthusiasm, Mao said news reports about anti-Asian hate give him pause.
“I definitely felt really sad to see those attacks happening not only in New York City but other cities, as well. Sometimes I feel a little bit unsafe when I’m in this kind of situation,” Mao said. “But I’m lucky. I’ve received a lot of love and support.”
While overall reported hate crimes decreased 7 percent last year — likely because of lockdowns — reports of hate crimes against Asians rose nearly 150% in 16 of the largest U.S. cities, according to police data cited by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino (CSUSB).
But isolated incidents leave a mark.
Archit Choudhury, who is graduating from Columbia University in computer science, said he was walking in the midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying the Gateway Arch and hanging out with other students, when an elderly woman accosted him.
“‘You guys suck. Go back to your country. Why are you in the U.S.?’ That’s pretty much it. It’s been a rare, one-off occasion. It’s nothing that would make me feel unsafe,” Choudhury said. “It still sucks when it does happen.”