HomeCrimeReflections: Asian American woman rides subway with fear

Reflections: Asian American woman rides subway with fear

By Barbara Yau, AsAmNews Staff Writer

Asian Americans across this country are mourning Michelle Go who was senselessly killed after being shoved onto the New York City subway tracks this past weekend. It has spurred widespread discussion about rising subway crimes and anti-Asian hate on news outlets and social media. For me personally, I feel heartbroken for the loss of someone who looked like she could be my cousin, friend or coworker. It has also made me reflect upon my own memories and experiences as a longtime subway rider. 

My first memory of the subway occurred in the 1970s, when I was around four years old. I remember feeling devastated because there were no available seats for me after a tiring day at nursery school. By the mid 1980s, graffiti lined the subway cars both inside and out, subway floors were soaked with urine and other unknown liquids, and brown paper bags and empty soda cans were littered everywhere. I always hid my gold necklace under my shirt to protect against chain snatchers, and I was on the lookout for “flashers” – men wearing long coats who would get a thrill from exposing themselves to unsuspecting females.

After a four year break with subway riding due to college, I experienced years of uneventful underground journeys to and from work…that is until September 11th, 2001 when the subway saved me, quite literally. That morning, I caught my usual train from the World Trade Center to work at 8:30 AM. By the time I arrived at the office, the first plane had already hit the North Tower, and the rest of the day was a blur. To this day, I count my lucky stars that my subway was on time and helped me fully escape the devastation that stole the lives of too many.

In the early 2000s, I initiated a more intense relationship with the subways. I took a job as a home care therapist which required me to travel across Manhattan to treat medically compromised patients in their homes. For the next 20 plus years, I would take the subways six and eight times a day zigzagging across and up and down Manhattan. Despite all of this, I enjoyed the independent nature of my job and was grateful to have a reliable and fast mode of transportation to get me to all my appointments.

One afternoon in early March 2020, I remember entering a crowded subway car and grabbing onto the pole. The two other people who were holding the pole suddenly walked away from me. One of them shot me a dirty look. I was left wondering if there was something on my face or perhaps I was giving off a foul odor. I eventually dismissed it, but it stayed in my head because it was definitely strange. It took several weeks for me to realize that the fear of catching the Trump termed “China Virus” was likely on the minds of my fellow commuters.

I took another break from riding the subway when the pandemic hit. I took a leave from my job and didn’t leave my home for over six months. When I returned underground for my home care job in August 2020, things were not the same. It was eerie because it was so empty. But the main thing that changed was that I was acutely aware of how very Asian I was. A face mask could not hide my black hair or almond shaped eyes. I felt like a target. With the surge in anti-Asian attacks in the city and across the country, I was vigilant times a hundred. I was wary of every single person in my vicinity and ready to use the pepper spray, personal safety alarm, and tactical pen that I kept in my pockets. I memorized the 4 D’s of Bystander Training and was ready to implement them if needed. For the six to eight times a day that I stood on the platform and rode the subways, I felt like a soldier who needed to stay hyperalert for an ambush. It was exhausting, and there were times when I opted to walk 30 blocks instead of taking the dreaded subway. Needing to maintain this level of vigilance can suck the life out of a person. 

In September 2021, I became increasingly fearful of the subways not only due to concerns about my own safety but I was tremendously concerned for the security of my teenage daughter. With the resumption of her subway commutes for in-person school, I became a nervous wreck, monitoring her every move on my Life360 app, especially when she had to transfer at Times Square, which I considered unsafe with narrow platforms and little police presence. I was particularly concerned because she was a thin and petite Asian girl who loved listening to music with her headphones in – in other words, an easy target. Sending her off underground would have been challenging enough without the added stress of letting her go in the midst of the dual coronavirus and hate pandemics that Asian Americans were facing. I lectured her relentlessly on subway safety and armed her with all the self defense tools possible. But like me at her age, she also possessed a sense of invincibility that often plagues teens. The fear for my daughter’s safety underground was and continues to be real and intense.

I can describe my present relationship with the subways as toxic and abusive. I have never felt more unsafe when I am below ground. According to the New York Times, “the rate of felony assaults in the subways in 2021 through November was triple that in the same period in 2019. For those same periods, the robberies per million riders more than doubled.” And with the drop in temperature outside, the number of homeless and/or mentally ill individuals that go underground appear to increase. In the past couple of months, I have witnessed countless terrifying incidents of individuals who are clearly unstable and unfit to be out and about with the general public. I have moved to different subway cars due to feeling imminent danger. I have exited the train station altogether due to an agitated person on the platform. I have scolded a man who was harassing a group of preteen girls. I have alerted the train conductor twice in a month to report precarious situations. I have walked away from screaming individuals when I refused to give them money. I have encountered more frightening events than I ever had collectively since I started riding the subways at the age of four. And what makes it worse is that I rarely ever see police presence unless they are specifically called in AFTER a crime has taken place. Like many New Yorkers, I depend on the subways for work. This is what makes the relationship truly toxic.

After this past weekend, I can say that my feelings about the subway system may have reached an all time low. The senseless murder of Go who was shoved to her death at the Times Square subway station has magnified the decay of the subway system that seems to have no bottom. Michelle was an Asian American woman standing on a subway platform during a dual pandemic in the midst of unstable and hateful people. These conditions made it almost inevitable for something like this to happen. Michelle was a target and a tragic consequence of a failing system in many ways. I am mourning someone who looked and seemed like someone I would know and like. It is so deeply painful and magnifies the trauma that many of us now hold as Asian Americans living in this country. 

My decades-long relationship with the subway has had its share of ups and downs, but until now, I have never reached a point that I am willing to bid it farewell once and for all. Whether the subway system will improve or sink to further decay remains to be seen and rests on the shoulders of our new mayor and administration. I am hoping for the best, but also expecting the worst. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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