Xiangheng Li, 19, helps at his family’s restaurant — Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant — in Des Moines’ Drake neighborhood where a customer left after learning his mother was Chinese. Photo by Andrea May Sahouri/The Des Moines Register

There would be no large, family birthday celebration for Jing Htun’s 7-year-old son, thanks to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. But she made sure there would be cake.

Htun picked one up from the Hy-Vee bakery on Euclid Avenue on the morning of March 23, her son’s birthday. The cake was nothing elaborate, she said, just enough to put a smile on his face.

She made her way to the checkout line. As Htun waited to make her purchase, a white couple stood behind her. She said as soon as they saw she was Asian, they fled.

“(They) said, ‘Oh gosh, not here,’ and went to another line,” Htun, who is among the Burmese community in Des Moines, said. “I have never seen something like that. I’ve gone to that store so many times.”

Htun is one of the Asian and Pacific Islander community members in Iowa who have witnessed a rise in racism and xenophobia since COVID-19 emerged in Iowa March 8 after the initial outbreak in China in January. There have been few complaints filed with Iowa officials, but Htun and others shared their experiences.

As fears of the virus spread, so too have they seeped into local communities, taking the form of microaggressions – such as the one Htun experienced – against those who are perceived to be from China.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Htun said. “I just try to ignore it.”

‘You can just feel it’

Nu Huynh, executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance, keeps tabs on potential discrimination tied to COVID-19, a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

“There are no reported hate crimes at the level of violent acts (in Iowa),” Huynh told the Des Moines Register and IowaWatch.

In 2017, 2.6% of Iowa’s population was Asian, according to the State Data Center, with Des Moines, Ames and Iowa City having the largest numbers. That percentage is projected to grow to 4.4% by 2050, the center reported.

Nationally, Huynh pointed to a more heated atmosphere. She cited the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islander Americans nationally, President Donald Trump referring to coronavirus as a “Chinese virus,” and the stabbing of three members of an Asian-American family – including two small children – in Texas because the suspect thought they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus,” according to an FBI intelligence report.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that sense,” Huynh said.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has had two race discrimination complaints filed by Asians so far this year, said Elizabeth Johnson, executive director of the commission. There were eight in 2019 and 12 in 2018. Eleven were filed in 2017 with eight in 2016.

Johnson said that under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, any person has 300 days from the last discriminatory incident to file a complaint alleging discrimination.

“Therefore, it is entirely possible that many claims alleging discrimination related to COVID-19 have not yet been filed,” she wrote by email to the Register and IowaWatch.

Johnson said there has not been an increase in complaints overall as most people are focused on meeting basic needs.

The commission’s process is confidential, so more details on complaints filed are not available. “I can tell you that we have fielded inquiries related to COVID-19 ranging from inquiries about national origin discrimination to inquiries about age discrimination and public accommodations to general inquiries about employment protections and COVID-19 exposure,” Johnson said.

However, Huynh says microaggressions, whether passive or explicit, are taking a toll on Iowa’s Asian and Pacific Islander community.

“We’ve heard or seen it all … experiencing looks, stares. You can just feel it,” she said.

In many cases, particularly nationally, discrimination against Asian and Pacific Islander communities has been more evident, such as the Texas stabbing, which the FBI is treating as a hate crime. But in small cities like Des Moines, microaggressions can be hard to decipher and be underreported.

For instance, Des Moines and Iowa City detectives came across no reports of Asian and Pacific Islander discrimination or hate crimes filed to police in recent months. Ames police found two reports of coronavirus-fueled harassment in April, both involving drivers yelling “coronavirus” out of their cars to Asian and Pacific Islanders driving alongside them.

The Register and IowaWatch reached out to others in Iowa’s Asian communities who said they had experienced some form of discrimination or harassment due to COVID-19. Several declined to speak on the record because they feared further harassment.

“As an Asian American in times like these we wonder, ‘Is it because of me?’” said Hieu Pham of Monsoon Asians and Pacific Islanders in

Solidarity, a Des Moines-based group that assists victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

Discrimination is sometimes obvious, other times not

For some, the discrimination is blatant.

Xiangheng Li, 19, helps out at his family’s restaurant – Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant – in Des Moines’ Drake neighborhood.

It was the beginning of March when his mother, Meifang Zheng, came home from work one evening with a story.

A white middle-aged woman walked into the restaurant that evening. The first thing she asked was if Zheng was Chinese.

Zheng said yes. The woman walked out of the restaurant without saying anything.

Li said his mother brushed off the incident; to her, it was nothing new.

“As an immigrant, we have all faced racism in America,” Li said. “I think my first reaction was, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened.’ But when you think about it, racism still exists in America. I just hope (my mom) doesn’t get attacked physically.

“Fears fuel anger, and sometimes it can really hurt people.”

To keep track of incidents in Iowa, the Asian alliance has created an online form where community members can submit reports of harassment and discrimination.

“We must take collective action to prevent and stop these hateful acts. We want to know if our AAPI Iowans are experiencing biased incidents or actions against them due to Coronavirus/COVID-19,” the organization wrote in a statement.

Post-quarantine fears

Huynh said that discrimination against Asian and Pacific Islander communities is nothing new.

“I think the reality is, these are individuals who have always harbored those feelings. COVID-19 has given them a reason to actually verbalize it, and take action,” she said. “It gives them reason to strike, and in their eyes, it’s justifiable.”

Pham agreed: “Racist ideology and racist rhetoric wasn’t created by coronavirus; it’s already been there. It’s been there for a long time.”

“We’re not just thinking about anti-Asian sentiment, we’re thinking about black and brown folks, too,” Pham said.

Both Monsoon API and IAA have been creating virtual spaces for the community to continue to support one another.

“We talk about things like how we can still be open, how we can still be providing for API, low income, refugee, immigrant communities,” Pham said. “I hope that all of this allows us to have more conversations and think deeper about the history of racism in this country.”

IowaWatch collaborated on this story with reporter Andrea May Sahouri of The Des Moines Register.

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