Tsong Tong Vang has always felt at home in his East St. Paul neighborhood. But racial threats at the school bus stop in the wake of the spa killings in Atlanta left him feeling unsafe. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Friday started out like an ordinary day for Tsong Tong Vang. Just like he does every weekday, he walked his 5-year-old grandson to the bus to take him to preschool.

As usual, the school bus pulled up and flashed its red lights so drivers would stop and children could enter safely. But a woman, a “young African lady,” drove up close behind the school bus and started pointing and shouting—at Vang.

“She opened the window, yelling at me,” Vang said. “‘We hate Asian people. Go back to your country. If you don’t want to go back we’re going to kill you.’”

At first, Vang didn’t realize the woman was directing her rage at him. But there was no one else around. 

A 66-year-old retired grandfather, he’s been in the United States for more than 40 years. He fought for the United States in the Secret War in Laos, where he was badly wounded and lucky to survive. As a veteran who’s seen his share of combat, Vang doesn’t scare easily. But the incident at the bus stop, days after a gunman killed eight people including six Asian women in Georgia, made him worry about his family.

“I feel that I’m not very safe to be in that situation or environment,” he said. “You didn’t really realize that somebody was going to be hating you, look at you as a different people or whatever. And just made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.”

Anti-Asian discrimination and bias has been on the rise throughout the country over the past year of the pandemic. From 2019 to 2020, hate crimes against Asian Americans more than doubled in 16 of the country’s largest cities. One group documented 42 incidents of anti-Asian bias in Minnesota over the past year. Tuesday’s mass shooting in Georgia made a reality of many Asian Americans’ darkest fears.

After his grandson boarded the school bus, Vang got in his car to trail the woman as she followed the school bus. Four blocks later, he saw her yelling the same epithets at other Hmong parents waiting at the next bus stop.

“I feel that I have every right to be here since I served for a long time and almost got killed right there,” Vang said. “We care about this country as much as we care about our home. We are here as refugees, settled down here to start a new life. We thought we were going to be over with the hate crime, the war, the killing each other. Now it seems that it’s never ending.”

Vang contacted the St. Paul Police Department to request more patrols near the school bus stop in the mornings. His daughter Gia, an anchor on Kare 11, posted about the incident on Twitter.

Steve Linders, a spokesperson for the St. Paul Police Department, told Sahan Journal police are investigating the incident. 

“We are at a heightened state of alert given what’s going on around the country,” he said. The department has also increased patrols around neighborhoods, businesses, and schools where Asian community members gather, and Chief Todd Axtell has reached out to community members to hear their concerns. “There’s no room for hate or bias in the city of St. Paul or anywhere, and we take all reports seriously.” 

Nelsie Yang, the city council member who represents the East Side of St. Paul where the incident took place, called it “unacceptable” and “dehumanizing.” It hurts when people don’t feel safe in their community, she added.

“It also goes against the values we have about what a community is,” she said. “Because a community is a welcoming place. It’s a place where all people belong across race and class and gender and age. I believe not just here on the East Side, but all across the map, people dream of a community like this and they’re willing to commit to building it.”

That’s the community Vang wants, too. One of the reasons he moved to Minnesota from California 10 years ago is he thought it would be more peaceful. He lived through a time of instability and violence and war. But he wants to create a safer world for his children and grandchildren.

“We are all American,” he said. “We live here together, we build here, we make peace together. That’s what we want.”

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.