On March 16th — just one day after the Korean American film Minari clinched six Oscar nominations — shootings at three greater-Atlanta-area spas claimed the lives of eight victims, including four women of Korean descent: Hyun-Jung Grant, 51; Yong-Ae Yue, 63; Sun-Cha Kim, 69; and Soon-Chung Park, 74.
“Like many Korean Americans, when I heard about the shootings, there were so many mixed emotions like pain, sadness, and anger,” recalled Un-Jung Lee, a Korean American who teaches art and yoga at Woodward Academy in Atlanta. “I was heartbroken for all the victims, including the Korean women.”
Yet perhaps just as shocking as the incident itself were the stark differences between Korean-language and English-language media coverage of the mass shootings. Both Atlanta-based Korean newspapers and South Korea’s top news outlets immediately labeled the massacre as a racially motivated hate crime, with multiple news sources reporting that the shooter was heard saying, “I’m going to kill all Asians,” as he gunned people down. Within a couple of days, Korean-language media revealed that all four Korean victims were in their fifties to seventies and that three of the women did not provide any massage services but opened doors and cooked food. By the end of that week, Korean-language media had also reported key statements from people with knowledge of the incident and from the victims’ families and acquaintances that have yet to be revealed in English-language media.
By contrast, however, English-language media outlets seemed content to take the killer at his word that his motive was a “sex addiction” and that race did not play a role in his crime. Many were quick to assume that these massage parlors provided illicit sexual services, even though Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had stated that the spas were “legally operating businesses that have not been on our radar” and no evidence was shown that these were places of prostitution. And while English-language media quickly published detailed profiles of the shooter, its coverage of the victims, in large part, remained vague and often inaccurate, butchering the Asian victims’ names (so much so that the Asian American Journalists Association released this pronunciation guide) and even mixing up their faces (as in this local news video that showed Xiaojie Tan’s picture while reporting on Yong-Ae Yue’s funeral). The often cringeworthy news reports illustrated that Asian Americans unfortunately continue to be othered and dehumanized by U.S. media today.
Jeong Park, a reporter for The Sacramento Bee in California, was one of the first to share English summaries of Korean-language news coverage on social media; some of his tweets have garnered thousands of retweets and likes. “There was more weight given to remarks of eyewitnesses and the victims’ families in Korean media than in English media in the early stages,” he said. “The mainstream media took some time to get there, and that led to a lot of frustration that the mainstream media was not saying what Korean media was talking about.”
Sang-Yeon (Paul) Lee, publisher and CEO of Atlanta K Media, a local Korean-language news source that has provided some of the most in-depth coverage of the Atlanta shootings, tells Rolling Stone (in Korean): “I do wonder if the English-language media is interested at all in the victims. Some media outlets seem overly fixated on the spa industry, and I wonder why that is. Why can’t they talk about the victims as women and as mothers, instead of just talking about the spa industry?”
Families of the Korean victims have decried law enforcement’s and English-language media’s framing of the incident as a sexually motivated crime and not a racially motivated one. In an interview conducted in Korean with Rolling Stone, Connie Jee, the executive director of the Asian American Resource Center, an Atlanta nonprofit that provides legal, translation, housing and other services for Korean Americans in need, shared that Soon-Chung Park’s daughter had told her that her mother worked very hard and that “it makes absolutely no sense that women in their sixties and seventies would be prostitutes.”
“The Asian American community definitely thinks this is a racially motivated hate crime and doesn’t buy the shooter’s excuse of having a ‘sex addiction,’ ” said Jee (in Korean). “And we were angry when that Georgia officer said the killer was just having a ‘bad day.’ ”
Park, the California-based reporter, added, “I think there was more skepticism toward what law enforcement said in the Korean media than in mainstream media.”
Although ongoing police investigations have not yet ruled the incident as a hate crime, a number of congressional representatives, community leaders, and local officials, including Mayor Bottoms, have already called it as such. Many members of the public outside of greater Atlanta’s AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) communities also seem to agree. E-Chia Chihade, a Taiwanese American mother of two who resides in Georgia, is part of a Facebook group for Decatur-area mothers that boasts about 5,000 members. She noted that the group’s members — which include mothers of all races — see the shootings as an anti-Asian hate crime.
But perhaps the strongest indicator that the mass murder was indeed racially motivated is the testimony of an Atlanta-area taxi driver who had visited nearby Korean businesses after the shootings at Gold Spa and Aromatherapy Spa. Mr. Kim, who has been interviewed by KBS and other Korean-language media and declined to provide his full name for this interview, told Rolling Stone in Korean, “The manager of one of the businesses told me that the police had stopped by and warned that there was a man shooting a gun while saying, ‘I’m going to kill all Asians.’ If the court or police asks me to testify, I’d be happy to.”
Some skeptics have pointed out on social media that such statements from Korean witnesses and other members of Atlanta’s Korean American community cannot be trusted since their names have not been fully revealed in Korean-language media. But in a highly charged case that has made national and even international headlines, it would be perfectly understandable if they wanted to protect their identities for fear of retribution.
Sarah Park, president of the Korean American Coalition of Metro Atlanta, which has been helping the survivors and the victims’ families, also pointed out that the local Korean American community has never been trained on how to properly speak to the media. “The community is more comfortable with giving information off the record,” she said. “You tend to be cautious because you don’t know how that will play out. The community was never really asked what they needed or what they were feeling by media, especially mainstream media. I don’t think the community ever felt heard — these shootings are really the first time the nation has focused so much on Atlanta’s Korean community, and it probably took the older generation by surprise. They’re not sure how to talk to the media about it because they don’t know how their comments might be framed.”
Jee revealed that survivors from the Aromatherapy Spa shooting had approached her organization for help because they were no longer able to work and needed a place to stay. “The survivors are so traumatized by what happened that they cannot sleep and require counseling,” she said. “But I’m certain that they will speak out when they’re ready.”
Mainstream media now seems to be providing more nuanced coverage of the tragedy that is more aligned with Korean news coverage, perhaps partly because more Korean-speaking journalists from U.S. newsrooms have finally been able to cover the story, after many of them seemed to be prevented from doing so for fear of possible bias.
However, mainstream media’s more recent coverage of the tragedy and its aftermath seems to have done little to quell the anger still felt by many members of Atlanta’s Korean American community. Lee, the teacher at Woodward Academy, told Rolling Stone, “The main feeling running through Koreans and the AAPI community is anger at the way the news media and local law officials presented the shootings of the Asian victims. Rather than calling it a hate crime and focusing the blame on the shooter, we were given the narrative of the murderer while gaslighting the victims by focusing on the hypersexualization of Asian women and showing inhumane regard for immigrant low-wage workers.”
According to both Connie Jee and Sarah Park, the Korean American community in greater Atlanta wants the killer to be charged with a racially motivated hate crime. Only time will tell whether the community’s wish will come true. But as Jeong Park points out, whether the incident is “legally called a hate crime or not,” the trauma that it has wrought within the Korean American community — and the Asian American community as a whole — is the same.
In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy, the upside seems to be the belief that this moment may very well be a turning point for the country, and for Asian American activism in particular. The older generation of Koreans who immigrated to the U.S. in search of the elusive American dream often bought into the model-minority myth and believed that they could achieve success simply by working hard. Like Hyun-jung Grant and Sun-Cha Kim, “many Koreans come to the U.S. to provide their kids with a better education, even if their quality of life was better in South Korea,” Jee said in Korean. “But once they arrive in the States, they face a lot of challenges due to the language barrier.” Still, many of them endure their hardships in silence. As veteran South Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung recently shared in an interview with AP about the film Minari, “Korean immigrants often don’t feel sadness because they expect to be treated poorly.”
But if Korean immigrants were largely able to brush off racist remarks and various forms of discrimination thus far, it seems that the Atlanta shootings have served as a wake-up call for those living in the greater-Atlanta area. “Some thought systemic racism was not personal to them,” said Sarah Park. “But now, many in Atlanta are thinking, ‘Can one of my family members be next?’ So even the first generation [of Korean Americans] are speaking up now and helping to organize vigils and marches.”
In the days and weeks following the shootings, a number of rallies, runs, panel discussions, and vigils were organized in the greater-Atlanta area, including a worldwide vigil held on March 26th that saw more than 400 organizations and 2,000 people across the globe coming together to remember the victims.
Park also mentioned that local communities in Atlanta — including black, Jewish, and other minority groups — are now banding together in solidarity with the Asian American community against anti-Asian hate crimes, forging new and stronger alliances. On March 20th, a march and rally took place near Georgia’s state Capitol, where more than 3,000 attendees — which included Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, other elected officials, religious and community leaders, and people of all ages and races — gathered at Liberty Plaza and marched through the streets of Atlanta to the CNN Center. Another major rally was held on Palm Sunday at Gwinnett Place Mall, where local black, Jewish, and AAPI organizations jointly spoke out against racism. Leaders of various Jewish groups have voiced their support for the AAPI community since the shootings, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta and the Georgia NAACP have issued a joint statement denouncing anti-Asian hate crimes as well as violence and racism against all communities of color.
If the momentum and cross-cultural solidarity continue, Georgia’s AAPI communities, which have long been invisible, might finally become visible.
Regina Kim is a communications director for a global-media agency and a freelance writer based in Queens, New York. Her writing has appeared in “The Washington Post,” MTV News, NBC News Asian America, “The Korea Times,” “The Korea Herald,” and on her website reginakim.com.