Friends, Strangers Respond to ‘The Year of the Rat’ By Ben Fong-Torres

Posted by Suzanne Kai on Thursday, 15 April 2021.

April 15, 2021

San Francisco

By Ben Fong-Torres

Friends, Strangers Respond to ‘The Year of the Rat’

When I posted my piece about why, as an older Asian American, I’m nervous just walking on the street these days, I expected a mixed reaction. Especially since I told about getting less than friendly stares from some Black people at a restaurant early in the pandemic, in February, 2020. But I was wrong. My article, published on Medium,, and my Facebook page, drew more than 100 comments on Facebook alone, from strangers and friends, including classmates from Oakland High, fellow staffers at SF State’s daily paper, where I was a reporter, then editor; fellow Rolling Stone and KSAN employees, broadcasters, and musical pals, including Naomi Eisenberg, singer-fiddler with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. 

(L) Photo Credit: Dianne Fong-Torres

Here’s a sample of the thoughtful, heartfelt, even emotional comments, just ever-so-slightly edited. 

Cheryl Serame-TurkWow, Ben. Well said. As an Asian American myself, I always thought that my affiliations (glide memorial ensemble, Oakland music community, Silicon Valley tech community) would shield me from most “other” perceptions but this Covid situation is something else altogether. 

I now tread carefully which I never have. No matter the age, walking, driving, biking while Asian right now can put you in danger. Never have experienced that in my life. I’m Filipino American, born and raised in California same as my mother before me. So we’ve been here for a while but it doesn’t matter. I’m sad for all of those people of any color that have to tread carefully as well because of their skin color or decent. 

Let’s be good to each other. Praying for our safety and yours. 

Laura Stepping:"The look" you describe is what we've all experienced but now we have to consider whether someone will actually strike out, and that's what’s new and sad about the world today for AAPI people. Your words are appreciated.

Linda RichardWhen my Korean born daughter was four, a former air force one pilot during the Reagan era came up to me in a store in our small Oregon town, moving in close to hiss, “In Viet Nam, we killed people who looked like her.” My daughter is spending her 39th birthday in Hawaii tomorrow with her two little boys. I have found myself feeling relieved she is there, she is safe. 

Dianne Fukami (filmmaker, producer): As an older person I also find myself worrying when I didn’t used to. I rode BART to the anti-hate Asian demonstration today apprehensively, practicing what my response would be if someone said something provocative. It was heartening to see so many non-Asians marching with us in solidarity today.

Eileen Attridge: I remember going to elementary school in Portland, Maine and being the darkest kid at the school. No one really knew what a Filipino was. I got detention for not being "American enough."

Nelson Wong: Ben...thanks for the great and powerful write up! If you ever need someone to accompany you for some soul food or watch your back...let me know.

Jen Louie: This is such a beautifully written, bittersweet piece. The best I have read as it relates to my personal experiences and life. This is exactly who I am too, a person without borders. For me, it was working closely with the LBGTQ community as an FOB to launch the first lifestyle newsmagazine show, then promoting and marketing Hip Hop as Russell Simmons’ VP of Marketing for his licensing ventures.

Sue Steinberg (formerly with KSAN): I always loved growing up in the Bay Area, where I believed people were accepting and colorblind. And then I found out we weren't allowed in our neighbor's home because we were Jewish. WTF? And this too shall pass... hopefully they'll find intelligent life on Earth and it'll be a better place to live.

Karen Logan DeMarini: I think you’ll find that many of us are with the Asian citizens in America. I just don’t get it. There seems to always be a group of people that the . . . Less evolved . . . among us feel free to focus their hate and jealousy on. And you’re right. The orange, twice-impeached guy who needs not to be named made it quite all right to hate. He encouraged it.

Laura Myers Swezey: I hate that racism exists and that it has recently reared its ugly head in a big way. It hurts knowing that people I care about don't feel safe. I don't know what the solution is, aside from everyone needing to be intolerant of all forms of racism. Sending you love. 

Alan Wang (ABC-TV): As a fellow Chinese Texan, your story resonates with me. As a minority of minorities we have spent our lives and careers engaging and forcing people to be uncomfortable with our presence, only to break down their misconceptions and expand (I hope) their sphere of comfort. But as you admittedly begin to resemble the image of many senior Asian Americans who are being targeted by violence, I fear for you as well. I fear that some misguided idiot will unknowingly attack one of our American treasures whose works and example have helped expand the level of consciousness and racial understanding in this country. This is all a Goddamned shame. 

(I’m not really a fellow Chinese Texan, having spent only one year in Amarillo, when my Dad co-owned a restaurant there, circa 1957. But I did return for South By Southwest!)

Tim Cahill: What a piece. You said, and i hope it's true, that it never happened at RS. Hell, you were out rock star.

(Tim Cahill went from Rolling Stone to even greater heights as a writer for Outside magazine.)

Gary Silva: Being Hispanic and Native American, I know all too well about those “stares”. I learned a lot about America , as a touring musician in bands with members of mixed races . I remember not being served in restaurants and completely ignored. You learn to get up quietly, don’t cause a scene and leave as quickly as possible. I’ll never forget Elvin Bishop telling me to be careful once we got “off the beaten path” and to stick together in certain parts of this country.

Kimberlye Gold: Astoundingly poignant and accurate depiction of the state of our union through personal experience. Thank you, Ben, for your always dependable excellence in capturing a moment in time. 

Spike Wong: Ben, there is a powerful truth running through your story, and the current climate can be a fearful one, especially for elder Asian Americans. Most of my elder Chinese friends and relatives are using 360° awareness, or walking with younger friends. Let’s support and protect our community as we try and educate those who don’t!

Lawrence J Diggs: I posted something similar to Ben on Medium and thought I would share it here as well.

(This is well worth reading; seek Lawrence out on Medium or on my Facebook page, under Comments following the original posting of my piece.) 

Naomi Eisenberg (violinist-vocalist): ben, it sickens me to death the BS Asian Americans are going through. we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and i will defend any of u.

Celeste Perry (DJ; Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame): Thank you for bearing witness, for calling on us to read about your experiences. I’m sorry for what you and my AAPI friends have long endured. We stand with you against the hate, intolerance and ignorance. 

Allan Yu: Thank you for continuing to teach others thru your writing. May the Year of the Ox be the opposite of the Year of the Rat!