Activist Hong Lee on Why She Spoke Out About Her Hate Incident: 'I Want My Kids to Have a Better Future'

Diane J. Cho
·7 min read

Vienna Rose Photography

Name: Hong Lee
Location: Los Angeles, California
Occupation: Management for a nonprofit
Family situation: I have two children, ages 1 and 3. Their grandparents watch them during the week.
Parenting "philosophy" in a sentence: The way we interact with our children becomes their inner voice.

Hong Lee

What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
I met my husband eight years ago. We'll be married for five years this year. When we started dating, we both knew we wanted to have children, and now we have two little boys.

And what were the events that led to you becoming an outspoken advocate for racial justice?
It was August 2020 and I was at a restaurant in Pico Union, Los Angeles. I was by myself having lunch when a man came up to me and said, "Here is my business card, let's have lunch." I told him, "No, I'm sorry. I'm married." That's when he started screaming at me, telling me to go back to Asia. He stood there hurling hateful, derogatory comments at me, and I eventually took out my phone and started to record him.

He wouldn't stop or leave so I asked for help from employees and the patrons around me, and they did the best they could under the circumstances. I called the police and once they arrived, I showed them my video recording of the incident and he told me, "What do you want me to do?" He said this happens all the time and that it's normal. And even if we found him, there's nothing he could do.

Once my husband came and we went home, we debated if we should share the video publicly. I wanted to protect the privacy of our family because we have two young children and we didn't want our names to be out there in case the person decided to come back to find us. But at the same time, we were hearing about so many Asian Americans getting attacked and I hadn't seen another video like mine that was so vile and hateful.

The month that the incident occurred, Stop AAPI Hate had announced that they had received over 2,500 anti-Asian reports and so we decided that we should share the video to raise more awareness of what was going on in our community. Our intention was to speak out to help put an end to anti-Asian racism. Once I shared the video, five other victims came forward and said they were harassed by the same man, including one who had her case escalated to the City Attorney's office for review. My case, along with the other victims' cases, are now supporting hers.

Once my video went viral, the Los Angeles Police Department contacted me, apologized, took my police report as a hate incident, which the responding officer failed to do. They also ended up retraining all of their patrol officers on how to address acts of hate. The restaurant also said they are now offering bystander intervention training for their employees so they can be better equipped to respond to these types of situations. A vast majority of these incidents are happening inside of businesses, so I applaud them for taking efforts to make a positive change.

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I've since partnered with L.A. vs. Hate, L.A. County's initiative to put an end to hate crimes. The organization encourages victims or witnesses of acts of hate to call 211 or to report it on their website. They'll get connected to resources like counseling, legal aid, medical assistance, reimbursement for lost wages, and they'll get the opportunity to advocate for other victims.

How has the rise in hate crimes against the Asian-American community affected you as a parent?
My children are about to go into preschool, and I am terrified. As a parent, I worry about what they are going to be exposed to because of the color of their skin and the way they look. They're so young right now and I know I will have to explain all of this to them one day. I want to shield them as much as possible, but at the same time, I know I need to prepare them for the future.

Hong Lee

Honestly, I think a lot of parents are hesitant to get their kids back into school. People have sent me videos of them in school and on online classes where not only their teachers are making racist remarks or gestures about Asians, but also their classmates. From the ones I saw, it's mostly junior high and high school, but the fact that this is happening and is becoming the norm is really scary.

What do you hope your children will learn through your activism?
After I shared my story, I've heard from so many people who have reached out about having similar experiences. Growing up, they were called racial slurs and made fun of because of their food and how they looked.

A lot of these things happened to them in school, and I think up to this moment in time, many of us have been passive about it. We've just rolled our eyes and turned the other way. But now, we've reached a breaking point where people are hurting our elders and the most vulnerable people in our community and we don't see an end in sight. This is why we're seeing all of these Stop Asian Hate marches and rallies that are happening throughout the country.

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I want to raise my children to treat everybody fairly, no matter the color of their skin, race, sexual orientation, gender — all of that is irrelevant. At the end of the day, we're all part of the human race and we need to treat each other with love and kindness. We're doing our best to try and teach our children these lessons right now. We're trying to lead by example. The change we want to see in the future always starts at home.

What's your favorite thing about parenting?
My favorite thing is watching them go through all their milestones. They've also been bonding a lot because they've only had each other through this pandemic. They have their fights and they'll push each other and whatnot, but then they'll make up and apologize. It means the world to me to watch them understand and work through their emotions. It's really neat to see because they're little humans. They're watching and observing everything we see and do.

Vienna Rose Photography

What's the hardest part?
The hardest part is not being able to shield them from things that are happening in this world, like the hate and racism they may encounter in life. As a mother, it's hard because the day they come home hurt or crying because someone was hateful towards them is going to feel like daggers in my heart.

It's hard because it's something that they will have to experience in order to learn how to handle the situation. That's why I'm out here fighting for them. I want them to have a better future than we have now. I want them to be able to grow up in a world where diversity is valued, especially in the United States. I want them to be accepted for who they are, and not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.

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What's the best advice you can share with new parents?
There's no such thing as perfect parenting. Never forget that you are the best parent for your child. I always pictured myself being very calm and cool as a parent, and I'm probably the opposite of that. They test my patience so much, but I've learned to become a better person because of them. The lack of sleep and exhaustion is completely worthwhile, just see them become their own little people.

What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?
I would want them to say that we gave them every opportunity possible to have a good life and to succeed.