Aaron Tom wipes his forehead as he stands over the steaming grill at the back of Shanghai Restaurant while making his family’s lo mein recipe. He moves instinctually, having made this dish for years, creating his livelihood by serving others.
Tom’s routine working hours are spent facilitating every aspect of his business, whether that’s attending to customers or helping in the kitchen. Tom said the restaurant industry is a stable and predictable line of work for him — one that never made him worry about possible failure.
But recently, that’s changed.
The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the way many local businesses operate. In a study conducted by Business Wire in October 2020, 43% of small to mid-sized businesses in the United States reported significant or severe impact since the beginning of the virus, resulting in layoffs and closures. For Asian businesses, the economic hardships of the pandemic has an added layer.
“The pandemic has changed a lot of people’s perspectives on the Asian community, and it makes me nervous sometimes going to new places around town,” Tom said.
In a report by Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate, studies showed that 35.4% of anti-Asian hate crimes occurred in Asian-owned businesses, the primary site for this type of discrimination.
A Raleigh native currently living in Graham, Tom said his Asian American heritage is what prompted him to start his business. His restaurant in Graham promotes authentic Chinese food and provides services in both English and Mandarin. As a result of the pandemic, it has reduced its capacity limits for indoor dining and only hosts dine-in customers four days a week.
Tom said the move to Graham was a shift for him, and his restaurant has helped him find a place within the community.
Despite this, Tom said the community can feel a bit isolating sometimes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian residents make up only 1.7% of the population in Alamance County. Asian-owned businesses make up only 2.1% of the county’s businesses as well.
“Most Asian businesses in town are restaurants or spas,” Tom said. “There’s not a lot of Asian-owned businesses around town, but I feel like we’ve made space for ourselves here.”
Tom said he hasn’t dealt with too much confrontation or discrimination in his time running his business. He said the most common issue he faces are the microaggressions he encounters on a daily basis.
“It’s funny the comments some customers make. I think some comments are intended to be polite but don’t come off that way,” Tom said. “I can tell in our restaurant reviews especially, that’s where people don’t hold what they have to say back.”
Tom said he’s felt more disheartened these past few weeks after seeing some of the most recent headlines about Asian-owned businesses but that he isn’t concerned about his restaurant being targeted.
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Jenny Jiang, an assistant professor of communication design at Elon, said she felt sad upon learning of the most recent attack in Atlanta, where, on March 16, 2021, eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women, and fears this is a widespread, national issue. Jiang was a journalist in China before she moved to the United States for her education, and she currently resides in Alamance county.
“I am not familiar with many other Asians in Alamance County. I only know less than 10 Asians in Alamance County, and they are all Elon faculty,” Jiang said. “But I never heard any complaints from my Asian friends in Alamance County. I think, although we are really a minority here, we are well accepted in Alamance County.”
In a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, the number of hate crimes reported to the police decreased in 2020 by 7% in 11 of the U.S.’ largest cities. But, when looking at minority-specific hate crimes, this same study found that anti-Asian hate crimes in 16 of the largest cities increased by 149%.
Tom said his life in Graham is much different than his life in Raleigh was and believes that big cities have a tendency to isolate these minorities from the rest of the community.
“Raleigh is a big city, and while I had a solid support system for me there, I never felt that I was a part of the community at-large” Tom said. “I found my way with the Asian community there, but not much bigger than that.”
Jiang also said the discrimination against Asian Americans is a much more widespread, national issue that has been amplified as a result of the pandemic. While these issues can be addressed on a local level, she said there need to be more opportunities provided for these communities specifically.
The movement Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate began in March 2020 as a result of increased hate crimes against the Asian community stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. This surge comes from the initial days of the pandemic, when the virus began in Wuhan, China, and started spreading to other Asian countries.
Many state and local communities have come together to support this movement as well. In March 2021, there was a Stop AAPI Hate demonstration in downtown Graham, and there have been multiple demonstrations in larger cities like Charlotte and Raleigh within the past two months.
According to the NAACP, racially motivated hate crime laws in North Carolina have increased penalties, making them one of 44 states in the country that does so.
“Encouraging and promoting communication between the Asian community and other ethnicities are essential for supporting these communities,” Jiang says. “Offering more job opportunities to Asian people is another efficient way to increase the sense of belonging of Asian communities in Alamance County.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans have been the fastest growing minority population in North Carolina since 2010. Jiang believes promoting this growth is integral to seeing more justice and acceptance for minorities within the community.
Tom hopes to see this growth in the community as well and said seeing more incorporation of Asian Americans in Alamance county would allow for more diversity of business and customer base as well.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity around here for local businesses specifically, even despite the pandemic,” Tom says. “We’re in this difficult moment now, but I think with some of the work we’re seeing done, I’m confident that we’ll see changes.”