The first apartment I remember living in was a small two-room unit in the South Bay Area. My family — me, my older brother, and our single immigrant dad — lived on the edge of downtown Mountain View, a mixed, middle-class suburb on the San Francisco Peninsula. And though it didn’t mean much to me as a child in the mid-1990s, it forever shaped me.
The whole time, we were the only Mexican family in the apartments; all of our neighbors were Chinese or Vietnamese. Every day, my brother and I would cross the hallways and kick it with our friends in their living rooms while our dad was at work. That’s when we were exposed to everything we could never learn from a school textbook. From food to family dynamics, cultural norms, and holidays, we were privileged to access a different way of living than our own. It may sound cliche, but for two Mexican American boys with hella unsupervised time, this is who we grew up with.
Our best friend was Abau. He was a bit older and cooler than us — naturally, we wanted to be like him. I recall envying the Joe Montana card he kept in his sock drawer, which he occasionally busted out before sneaking it back where his many siblings couldn’t find it. I first listened to E-40’s “Sprinkle Me” in his bedroom from his older brother’s boombox. It’s also where we debated NBA rookies or which one of us was the fastest kid at school (I was, of course, but as the youngest in our group, they’d never admit it).
Abau was a big brother to us, but he wasn’t our only homie. We knew everyone who lived in those buildings: Chan, Mimi, “Fat John,” Tri, and the younger ones. I admit I don’t remember all of the older kids’ names because they were bigger than us, but they still said what’s up whenever we saw them. All of them were proudly Asian, with immigrant parents like ours. In elementary, I must’ve thought everyone in the world lived in an Asian environment, too, and for years, my closest friend at school was Sydney, a Korean American.
By middle school, we moved to a new apartment on the other side of the city, next to Highway 101, and became friends with more kids — some Russian, Salvadoran, Black, Samoan, Filipino, and Persian. That’s just how it was growing up in the Bay. We’d all hop fences to swim in pools together, skate in parking lots, wrestle on patches of grass, play basketball and football in the streets, and barter away our CDs and VHS tapes over stupid bets. Every day was like an unsupervised summer, and by the time we’d reached high school, we had friends from all over. But we never lost touch with our Vietnamese friends who treated us like their own kin — and to this day, we invite each other to our family functions.
It may sound cliche, but for two Mexican American boys with hella unsupervised time, this is who we grew up with.
Here’s the truth of it: None of my Mexican family ever crossed the border to follow my dad. So these U.S. friends became the nucleus of my upbringing in ways that immigrant diasporas often experience when they carve community from nothing. We didn’t have our abuelas, or tías, or primas here. Instead, we had our Asian neighbors showing up at our most formative milestones.
There has been an alarming surge of violence against Asian and Asian American communities throughout the country, especially here in California. It’s not an especially new tension in this state (see: Japanese during internment camps and Koreans during the L.A. riots). Still, it is perhaps the most inexplicable in that it doesn’t seem to stem from any singular motive. Instead, it’s linked to an invisible set of interconnected and historical factors, such as Covid-19, fear-mongering, economic desperation, cultural stereotypes, and lack of cross-communal solidarity.
A KQED study revealed that at least 700 anti-Asian hate incidents have occurred in the Bay since the pandemic started — and that’s a low estimate. Chinese elders and women have been targeted at the highest rates — with violent thefts and assaults caught on camera and predominantly committed by White or Black men — raising concerns, anger, and tensions throughout the nation. In a recent Oakland case, a 75-year-old Asian man was tragically killed while taking his morning walk by a seemingly random attacker. And just this week, six Asian women were killed in a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas. No hate crimes have been charged yet — leaving many rightfully outraged.
As someone with deep connections and respect for Asian folks, I’ve been trying to grapple with it all. And with everything else that haunts me, I turned to my group chat and rap lyrics for answers and guidance.
My homie Drew was born and raised in East Oakland and is the first-generation son of Chinese immigrants. In the decade I’ve known him, he has been extremely vocal about the representation of his city and his culture. And lately, he has increased his volume.
Last week, he hit the group chat with this text:“I just finished a run around Lake Merritt and overheard this girl as she walked past me talking to her friend and caught this part of the convo… ‘China, and they fucked over the whole world.’” He later admitted that he hadn’t said anything to check her but wished he had.
Our group chat has been going for years on WhatsApp. It includes myself, my older brother, a Cambodian American friend who is also from East Oakland, and our SoCal boy who migrated from the Philippines at a young age. It’s a rare space where, as men of color, we can chop it up about The Warriors and Mistah F.A.B., but also open up on relationships, politics, and other social issues.
After a few of us responded to Drew — first by cracking jokes and then by affirming his feelings — he eventually followed up:
“Man. Since the start of the pandemic, with all this anti-Asian sentiment and social media posts that have highlighted it all, it sometimes makes me wish someone would try me the same way. Probably not the healthiest way of looking at it but every time another moment like this happens, it makes you feel helpless.”
I’ve seen Drew throw punches at the local boxing gym, and I’ve also known him to put hands on those who’ve spoken out of line in public, so I trust that he meant it. But I also sensed he was wrestling with something harmful, and in a unmacho way, was vulnerable enough to express it with us as his brothers in our multidiasporic group chat.
I thought about what I could say to let him know that I would never really understand what he was feeling in his position; but I also knew what he was communicating on a real level. I couldn’t articulate myself eloquently, so I said something extremely basic:
“I feel you, bro.”
Luckily, my older brother was more cognizant; he sent us a song titled “Viral” from a Korean American rap duo named Year of the Ox, and told us to listen.
I’ve spent the past few days watching YouTube videos, dissecting Genius lyrics, and reading fan pages — disappearing into the rabbit hole of music that Year of the Ox led me to. Originally from Virginia, the two rappers embrace their Korean roots and deconstruct the complexity of their modern identities in a poetically majestic and searingly brutal way.
I’m a hip-hop head above anything else. And these boom-bap flows with intelligent wit and analytical precision laced over jazzy instrumentals are nothing short of Gang Starr mixed with Black Star, then freshly flipped by these untold stars.
Within rap, Asians are in the minority, and Year of the Ox leans into their marginalized space to create urgent and authentic music that needs no translation. If you know struggle and oppression, you know struggle and oppression. That’s what they give you. Period.
Yet, I most admire and enjoy this group because they aren’t simply regurgitating formulaic phrases or perpetuating empty stereotypes. Instead, they portray their whole selves while asking the same types of reflective questions that my guy Drew asked us in the chat. The only difference is that they’re sharing it with millions of listeners:
“Why do we group people together and only focus on the minuses/ Scared of pandemics, but hatred’s stronger than any virus is/ Think I’m dealing with racism worse because of the outbreak?/ No, we’ve been dealing with racism since birth without breaks/ I still have faith in humankind, but what do I know?/ Hatred’s the most contagious, and these days it’s going viral.”
Those are the closing bars from the opening stanza of “Viral,” which investigates the idea of hatred toward Asians in America. The video portrays triggering clips of Asians being abused, mistreated, or physically harmed by U.S. citizens clearly preying on racial differences and perceived weakness. It also raises philosophical questions within the context of Covid-19 — which Trumpito hatefully dubbed “the Chinese virus” as a way to scapegoat and avoid the blame of his failures as president, and which, in many ways, has exacerbated hate crimes towards Asian Americans. His hateful rhetoric has undeniably increased the targeted hostility towards this group of people, in the ways South Asians and Middle Easterners experienced after the 9/11 attacks.
Throughout the song, Korean American rappers Lyricks and JL allude to this, while figuratively spitting about the ways their people have been literally spat on in history — long before the pandemic. Like any other marginalized group, the Asian community has been subject to social and systemic harassment, mistreatment, and violence — particularly Asian women — but this narrative often gets ignored or overlooked.
“Viral” becomes a rallying cry of awareness — an anthem of pride to empower the listener and educate anyone who mistakenly thinks Asian people have received some sort of golden ticket to exist without persecution. They don’t; it’s a myth. And we need to deconstruct that as a nation.
I’ve seen Asian struggles in the ways I’ve seen the struggles of undocumented Central American friends or any other oppressed group I’ve grown up around. The reality is that we are all subject to the same injustices and inequalities that fester within a capitalistic society. We need to work together to dismantle systems of White supremacy, no matter how subtle they may seem — not to damage each other.
My brother was right in recommending the track. I hope Drew listened to it and found some refuge like I could, if only for a moment. You are not alone. We are not alone. Because I know so many others feel this way and have been able to bridge their way into meaningful clarity through music, too. Reading the comments below the “Viral” video reminds me that there are indeed good people in this world — even online, of all places. Though we seem to be surrounded by hate and violence IRL, and it’s real as fuck, artists like Year of the Ox and homies like Drew keep us glued together with messages of togetherness in moments of crisis.
Nothing sums up our collective desire for cohesion as much as this post in the video’s comment section, which underscores the power of solidarity, unity, and awareness across racial groups:
“As a Black man I always respected your work and I love the honesty and message in this video I will not allow media and government turn my eyes away from the truth. I don't support anything racist in the slightest and I will defend and bash anyone who tries to target a group of people for any reason or use it as an excuse to throw hatred when they can easily educate themselves.”
Let’s all be this dude and stand up for one another, actually educating ourselves and our communities about what’s happening around us. Call each other out when necessary. Share relevant and critical information. Retell stories and amplify the voices of those being targeted. Support in ways you are able to. Let’s summon the strength of the ox, which according to YOX’s interpretation of the Chinese zodiac, states: “The Ox is attributed with traits of strength and familial loyalty. Nevertheless, they can be stubborn with their ideals and quick to snap on anybody who might violate tradition.”
I’m calling on everyone to honor the traditions of cross-cultural exchange and growth that built California— my home, our home — on the backs and exploitation of Asian, Black, and Latinx laborers. The same place where Latinx and Asian migrant workers unified to raise their standards of living. The same place where a group of kids without obvious similarities can live in the same apartment building until they become family. This xenophobic aggression is out of hand and demands all of us work together to rectify and repair the damage that has been done. I won’t stop until my Asian homies and their families are safe. It’s fists up until then.