After she endured a brutal attack in front of a luxury apartment building in Times Square in New York City, which drew widespread outrage after video of the assault went viral, Vilma Kari, the Filipino American victim, and her daughter, Elizabeth, are making their story heard.
Vilma Kari, 65, who was knocked to the ground and repeatedly stomped on as she was on the way to church in March, agreed to speak to NBC Asian America via email and Elizabeth Kari spoke over the phone in hope of drawing attention to the racism Asian Americans have withstood during the pandemic. Vilma, who was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis and said she is “still processing the full spectrum of what has happened,” called for greater attention to violence against people of Asian descent.
“I feel that there is now more awareness and consciousness that has developed after my attack,” she wrote. “But there needs to be more support and education about what the AAPI community is facing at this moment, especially since there are cases that have not been reported and classified as hate crimes.”
Her attacker is alleged to have yelled, “F— you, you don’t belong here, you Asian,” before attacking Vilma, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. A suspect, Brandon Elliot, was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree assault as a hate crime and one count of first-degree attempted assault as a hate crime.
Elizabeth said Vilma, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1980s, has been cautious about giving interviews and has largely shied away from media attention in part because of shame, a pervasive concept in the Asian American community.
“I think, generally, the AAPI community is very fixated on staying in line, working really hard, gaining respect. That idea of respect is so ingrained in culture and family, in our community. It doesn’t lend itself to managing our pain and suffering in an open way. So I do believe a lot of our own pain and suffering does get minimized,” Elizabeth said. “If it’s shameful or embarrassing, we don’t want to be connected to it. We just want to deal with it, move past it, downplay it. … And that’s definitely something that my mom had been thinking about.”
Elizabeth said that if the incident hadn’t been so public, her mother probably would have dealt with it even more quietly, as “she wouldn’t have wanted to draw the type of attention that we’ve received to it.”
Shame, or loss of face, has been so bound up in cultures across Asia that clinical psychologist Stanley Sue wrote in the Journal of Community Psychology that many languages have terms for the concept and that it has become a major barrier when it comes to openly seeking help.
“‘Haji’ among Japanese, ‘Hiya’ among Pilipinos, ‘Mianzi’ among Chinese, and ‘Chaemyun’ among Koreans are terms that reveal concerns over the process of shame or the loss of face,” he wrote. “Many Asian Americans tend to avoid the juvenile justice or legal system, mental health agencies, health services, and welfare agencies, because the utilization of services for certain problems is a tacit admission of the existence of these problems and may result in public knowledge of these familial difficulties.”
Such concerns around shame and stigma often add a messy layer of emotion in the context of hate incidents, Dj Ida, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association, has said.
“The thing that makes a hate crime really, really dangerous is it’s not that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s you’re being perceived as being the wrong person, all the time, everywhere. … You can’t escape,” she said in December. “That’s the shame that the children of people who’ve been incarcerated for being Japanese Americans, for being seen as immigrants, that’s the shame that we bear that we should not have to bear.”
Moreover, Ida said, talking about such violence or similarly upsetting issues can be further suppressed, as Asian Americans may feel pressure to gloss over or ignore the problem to avoid burdening or worrying relatives, given what they’ve had to go through to make it in America. Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of the policy and research nonprofit AAPI Data, said that in addition to factors like fear of retaliation and a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, many Asian Americans may opt against reporting incidents to avoid unwanted attention.
A study in March revealed that Asian Americans were among the least likely to say they are “very comfortable” reporting hate crimes to authorities.
Elizabeth said the unease around the attack was further amplified by the way the graphic video was so rapidly disseminated across the internet. She said the video, which caught the attention of several mainstream media outlets and large social media accounts, was spread widely before her mother saw it or was even verified to have been the victim. Elizabeth, who was with her mother on the day of the incident, was alerted to the virality of the video by friends later in the night.
“My friends started sending me the posts of the video and asked me, ‘Is this your mom?’ I just had the most sinking feeling watching the video,” Elizabeth said. “Actually watching the person walking and seeing that’s her walk, that’s her outfit — putting all the pieces together and actually understanding that that’s my mom … for me that was incredibly hard. And I was beyond terrified that she was going to see it when she was at the hospital without me.”
Vilma saw the video about a week later, as her daughter carefully monitored her well-being and prepared her for the onslaught of attention. Elizabeth said her mother’s name was released before the family could decide whether they wanted to maintain their privacy.
“It is a very strange feeling to know that the entire world is talking about you and not raise your hand,” she said.
But Elizabeth said she is now grateful to be able to raise awareness about anti-Asian violence. While she asks media outlets to be more respectful in such circumstances and to check their facts, she said aspects of the experience have been “incredibly moving.”
“I’ve received so many inquiries from reporters in different countries asking for my perspective, because they’re trying to learn more about what’s happening in America and this issue that we’re facing,” she said. “It was really incredible.”
Vilma wrote that she is still healing, both physically and mentally. She has mostly stayed indoors since the attack, Elizabeth said, and the family has yet to unpack the emotional toll of being in public around others. Hearing about the continued attacks on Asian Americans has been particularly painful for the family, as well, she said.
But as difficult as the journey has been, Elizabeth, who launched a project encouraging Asian Americans to share their stories of racism and belonging, hopes survivors can open up to their families or lean on their communities.
“Even if someone doesn’t have that family unit, there are people around that can talk, that can support,” she said. “The issue is if we keep hiding it and brushing it under the rug, it’s never going to get the light that it needs to be fixed.”
Vilma said she has received “immense wishes of good health and prayers from thousands of people — it has made me feel very supported and consoled during this recovery process.” She said it has proven to her that “goodness exists in the world.”
“We need to look out for one another, not only as the AAPI community, but as human beings. One Good Samaritan is all it takes to set an example. If you see someone in trouble at least call for help or try to distract,” she wrote. “We need to be on the lookout for each other. No one should be targeted because of the color of their skin or how they look. I belong. We all belong.”