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Hurting but still hopeful: What it’s like for Asian American family-owned businesses right now

“The pandemic was seen as an ‘Asian virus’ from the get-go, and it was just a matter of time [before] something horrible was going to happen.”

Sunset Park, Brooklyn, home of AE3 Pharmacy, in happier times.
Moment Editorial/Getty Images

“Recently I was taking a walk in my neighborhood with a friend and a man followed behind us,” Peipei Yu, the daughter of an Asian shopkeeper, tells me. “He was yelling at me to go back to my own country, calling me a monkey, claiming I was spying for the Chinese government.”

The unsettling experience of having a stranger unload assumptions on her is sadly too familiar for Yu. “I live in an affluent suburb of Silicon Valley. I’m a very accomplished person,” she says. “But that’s the whole point of racism: It doesn’t matter who you are. All that matters is what that other person perceives you to be.”

Many Asian American immigrants choose entrepreneurship as a vehicle for upward mobility. This is both the quintessential expression of the American dream and simultaneously an outgrowth of the racial and cultural barriers to well-paying jobs in the US that immigrants face, despite often being well educated in their home country. Census data from 2014 found that 11 percent of foreign-born Asian Americans were self-employed, compared to 7 percent of US-born. While the spotlight often focuses on high-flying tech founders, the majority of immigrant entrepreneurs start small businesses rather than VC-backed startups.

By starting businesses in mostly retail, food and hospitality, and personal services, they can occupy a space between the upper and lower classes as a so-called “middleman minority.” This line of work often brings immigrants in contact with the local community through their employees, vendors, or customers. In theory, this should build trust and understanding, leading to social integration. But as the deadly shootings at three Asian-owned spas in Atlanta revealed, acceptance is not guaranteed. Community backlash is a real possibility, and female entrepreneurs face the additional threat of gender-based bias and violence.

To better understand the experience of these small-business owners, we spoke to five Asian American immigrant women who grew up around an Asian-owned business or operate one today — oftentimes both. Along with the typical challenges of running a restaurant, shop, or pharmacy, they talked about battling stereotypes, feeling invisible, and dealing with generational culture clashes. In the wake of immense tragedy, their stories spoke of hurt and despair, but also fortitude and hope.

Michelle Kang

Manager, Bulgogi Hut, Koreatown, LA

My grandparents owned a restaurant while my mom was growing up, but it was a cheap burger/teriyaki place. In 2014, my mom bought this massive 8,000-square-feet space in Koreatown. It was the second location of another all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue place that just wasn’t doing so well. There were already grills in the table and gas lines installed. We kept the equipment and concept, just with a new name and new management.

I started as a host in 2017 and became a manager in the last few years. Hosting feels like solving a human jigsaw puzzle made up of hungry people. You have so many parties and limited tables, and in Korean barbecue the tables don’t move together because they’re bolted to the ground. I have to make it fit. Every server has their own section, and my job is to provide customers for them to serve.

I grew up in the San Bernardino area, which is not known for having the biggest Asian population. But we did go to Korean church, and my grandparents took me to Korean school. I’m told I spoke fluent Korean when I was a baby, but when I started school I pretty much stopped, so it’s pretty terrible now. Since working at the restaurant, I’d say my Spanish is better than my Korean, and my Spanish isn’t great either.

In Koreatown you’ll see an apartment that rents for $4,000 a month and around the corner there are a bunch of tents and trash. Homelessness has really risen recently, specifically Asian homeless people. Once I saw a grandma standing outside the building at 2 am sitting alone. She tried to explain to me in Korean that they need to go home, and I don’t know if she just got out of a hospital or what her situation was. Seeing those disparate highs and lows is really eye-opening for me.

I’m mostly worried about my parents’ safety because it seems like older Asian people are being targeted. I’ve started walking my mom to the car every night. One guy was hospitalized after a woman hit him in the head with a brick in Koreatown. And I know the family whose nail salon had a rock thrown through their window. It’s very scary that someone would do that to other businesses, and it could easily happen to me. I’ve got a wall of windows.

Marcia Hu

President of AE3 Pharmacy, Sunset Park, NYC

My mom started a home health care agency with two immigrant partners serving the Chinese immigrant population about a decade ago. At the end of 2019, they acquired this pharmacy as a way to minimize friction for their patients and build a health care network. I slowly got more involved in 2020 and eventually transitioned [to] full-time in August.

We have pretty longstanding relationships with our customers. They mostly speak Fuzhounese, Cantonese, or Mandarin, and so almost all of our employees are Chinese immigrants as well. Because we are in a part of Brooklyn that’s not very rich, many of our patients are on Medicaid and Medicare. We did register to administer eye exams with the DMV, and now we are getting a lot of Hispanic people that are popping in to the pharmacy because they need to get their eye exam, but otherwise our communities don’t really cross paths.

Right now my employees are on edge because of the extremely gruesome stabbing that happened literally one block from us. I’ve had meetings with my store manager about installing panic buttons in parts of the store because they heard gunshots.

For people like me that are Asian American and see what’s happening in the news, we feel like anti-Asian bias is ubiquitous. But for my mom and our employees, it’s different. It’s easier for me to see when a crime is racially motivated, and it’s harder for her to see that because the Chinese news might just report it as an act of violence.

Her English isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t really let that affect her. One time we were fighting over a parking spot and someone just called her a “dumb ch**k.” I was so shocked, but she didn’t know what that meant. She just went into the Paris Baguette and bought her thing.

I tried to explain that it was a really bad word. And she was just like “Well, they’re mad. I’m eating my bread. So who is ahead at the end of the day?” That would have affected my confidence a lot, but, you know, my mom lived through the Cultural Revolution so her barometer for hatred is just so different from mine.

Kerry Lee

Co-artistic director of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, Atlanta

My mom’s name is Hwee-Eng Y. Lee, and she’s been teaching Chinese dance in Atlanta ever since I was a baby. It started with immigrant moms looking for cultural activities for their American-born daughters to stay connected to their roots. She founded the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company as a nonprofit in 1991.

I’d imitate the older girls from the sidelines and beg them to let me play with their silk ribbons. I joined the youngest group when I was 5 and never looked back. After I graduated from Stanford, I danced professionally for three years nationally and internationally. I moved back to Atlanta in 2010 and started helping my mom out. Now we co-lead the company together. We typically have about 80 dancers at a time, mostly women and a few men, ages 4 through 70. They’re immigrants, American-born Chinese, adoptees with white families, multiracial, and also non-Chinese. Some have performed with the company for over a decade.

In terms of audiences, we make a deliberate effort to perform for people from all walks of life. Dance and music are nonverbal mediums, which let us connect emotionally with people in a way that words can’t. We’ve performed at schools and universities, museums, senior homes, military bases, and more. This month we’ve been doing live virtual lecture-demonstrations for schools in northwest Georgia, which is [QAnon-supporting Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district. There are almost no Chinese kids in these schools. When else would these students be exposed to our culture besides eating at a Chinese restaurant?

It bothers me when people see Chinese dance as exotic and foreign. Even though our performers are Americans and fully fledged human beings like everyone else, we can get reduced to stereotypes. When the news of the Atlanta shootings came out and the suspect brought up sex addiction as the reason he killed six Asian women, it reminded me of an incident last summer. A producer reached out to me and our dancers about performing in a music video that played into the Asian fetish stereotype. He showed me a PowerPoint, and I could immediately tell what he was going for. I was not okay with it and told him I wasn’t available.

But it can be hard to convey that to people, even AAPIs [Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders], who might think “Oh, I get to be in a music video. It’s sexy. What’s so bad about that?” I understand that pop culture might make it seem cool, but there’s a long history of objectifying Asian women, which has made us more vulnerable to sexual violence. Perpetuating these stereotypes can have serious consequences for our community. I really hope we use this moment to educate ourselves about that history of not just violence but systemic and internalized racism against AAPIs. In the conversations I’ve had with young people as well as our elders, there’s clearly still a lot within our own communities that we need to address.

Sakura Yagi

COO of TIC Restaurant Group, New York City

My first summer job as a teenager was making takoyaki [octopus balls] at one of my father’s Japanese restaurants. Twenty years later, I was back where I started: sweating, swearing, and cooking takoyaki because of a recent Covid-related staffing shortage. Of course I had to call my kitchen captain for help, but in the end, it felt great to know I’ve still got it.

I was 25 when I got involved with the business full-time. My dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and I was worried about his legacy and the livelihood of our entire staff, including my mom, if, God forbid, anything happened to him. I thought I’d only be in it for five years, but here I am, nine years later, with still so much to learn and do.

When I started, I naively thought that I could change a lot of things and spruce up the mom-and-pop company. I was “managing” people who have known me since my preteens and dismissed me as the boss’s pretentious daughter. Which I was. I still remember the argument I had with a manager who was 16 years my senior where I disrespectfully asked him why he couldn’t use spreadsheets. How could we be running a business without knowing how to use Excel? I’d like to think I’ve learned some tough lessons and am much more humble now.

Growing up, I was hyper-aware of my Asianness in a sea of whiteness. I was the token Asian girl who was told she was “lucky” because she was “unique” and people fetishized her. I traveled abroad and realized that most of the world doesn’t think of me as an American when they first see me. I had to learn how to own my New Yorker identity and be proud of who I am.

Yet even as I say that, when a white guy recently sat extremely close to me on the subway, I felt terrified. My immediate reaction was to pull out the Wall Street Journal I had in my bag as if to prove that I was like him despite looking different. I felt so weird doing that, but with everything going on, I didn’t know what else to do.

My best friend, who’s biracial and not Asian, asked if it was cathartic to see conversations about the Asian American experience taking place on a national level. It’s not. I’ve been lucky to have a great support network, which let me share my experiences as an Asian American and a single mom. But it’s devastating to see our fears become reality.

The pandemic was seen as an “Asian virus” from the get-go, and it was just a matter of time [before] something horrible was going to happen. We knew this was coming. How could you not?

Peipei Yu

Daughter of an Asian retail store owner, San Diego

My mom brought me and my brother and sister to the US from Taiwan in the ’80s. As the single parent of three young kids, she needed a job that could give her flexibility, and running a business was the obvious opportunity. Her store sold everything from furniture to tchotchkes to rice cookers and high-end chopsticks.

There were no boundaries between work and home. We didn’t have Photoshop back then, so I would help my mom write up what should be in the newsletter and cut out items, lay them on a piece of paper, and go to the print shop to make flyers. Eventually we saved enough money to buy our own printer, which went in the dining room along with supplies and accounting papers.

Because I was a stronger English speaker, I would often work the front of the store, selling and explaining products to customers, especially to non-Asians. My mom was always worried about me being out there by myself. It wasn’t a specific thing, just this general amorphous fear that as an immigrant, something could happen to you at any time for any reason. That feeling never leaves you, especially with the last four years. Even though I’ve been a citizen for most of my life, there’s a sense that because you don’t have that birthright, you could still be deported.

I had to confront shoplifters as a 13-year-old girl. My approach was to be overly polite but persistent. I would go up to them and ask if I could tell them more about a specific item they seemed interested in. Sometimes they’d put it back, but other times they just took off with it. I worked in that business from about 6 or 7 all the way till I left for college. All my siblings and cousins did, too. Our family helped each other; we were all we had. If my aunt was sick, my mom would drive to LA to help with coverage at her location.

After the Atlanta killings, I went to bed crying and woke up crying. My mom’s worst nightmare happened to those families. And I felt both incredibly grateful that it never happened to us and deeply guilty. When my mom would say that somebody was going to hurt us because they were mad about something else, I would tell her she was being paranoid, that most hateful people are outliers who don’t represent America. And to some extent, I still believe that. But it’s really hard when you see the son of one of the victims post on Instagram asking how he is supposed to live and keep going after this tragedy. How do you explain to him that American ideals are still worth striving for? We have to do more for these kids than talk about ending racism and misogyny. We all have to take action.