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Asian American communities mark the Atlanta area spa shootings a year ago

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Today marks one year since eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were shot and killed at spas and massage parlors in metro Atlanta. Events have been happening across the country to remember the victims and rally against anti-Asian violence. Some communities, including cities such as Nashville, with smaller Asian populations, say they're more determined than ever to unite. From NPR's member station WPLN, Juliana Kim reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JULIANA KIM, BYLINE: In a small, dimly lit bar in East Nashville, a group of Asian Americans mingle. They sip on lychee cocktails and munch on sriracha-splattered fries. On stage, a Chinese American country singer named Andrei belts a cover of Chris Lane.

ANDREI: (Singing) I don't know about you, but I never come into this bar.

KIM: The get-together is organized by API Middle Tennessee. For over a year, the group has been hosting a monthly happy hour for fellow Asians and Pacific Islanders. The founder, Joseph Gutierrez, says spaces like this are rare in Nashville.

JOSEPH GUTIERREZ: A lot of people, I think, were like myself, recognizing, you know, there just - there wasn't a place to feel like you were connected to people.

KIM: He's originally from Los Angeles, which is one of the largest Asian populations in the country. Meanwhile, in Nashville, Asian Americans make just shy of 4% of the city.

GUTIERREZ: There's one story that really sticks out from one of our community members that kind of had typed in that exact question on Google. Like, where are the Asian people at in Nashville? And their No. 1 result for a while was, like, P.F. Chang's. I was just like, this is terrible.

KIM: For Gutierrez, it was only on rare occasions that he would meet fellow Asian Americans, either through work or friends of friends. He thought to himself, there must be a better way. All of this unfolded at a time when there was a resurgence of anti-Asian violence, some of it tied to the COVID-19 outbreak. From March 2020 to this December, over 10,000 attacks against Asian Americans were reported in the U.S., according to the group Stop AAPI Hate. The FBI also reported a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes since 2019.

GUTIERREZ: One of the immediate things after the shootings was recognizing that an organization like this now has a dimension of safety to it, right?

KIM: After the attack, his group organized a vigil downtown. For some, it was the first time in Nashville they saw so many Asian Americans gathered in one place. Gutierrez and others realized there's a lot more work to do.

And it's not just Nashville. Other places with relatively small Asian populations have channeled their grief and anger to spur progress. In Indianapolis, organizers have been pressing elected officials to recognize and denounce anti-Asian hate. In Milwaukee, advocates have been pushing for more Asian American history to be taught in schools.

CHRISTINE LAI: People are recognizing that we can't be just an island.

KIM: Christine Lai is the president of the Greater Nashville Chinese Association. The group has been around for decades, but only recently have they started to protest, track legislation and brainstorm ways the city can be more inclusive. Lai says their WeChat group has never been so active.

LAI: We're not shy to speak out or ask for respect to protect our community.

KIM: She and other Asian Americans are asking themselves what progress would look like in Nashville. For Daniel Yoon, a Korean adoptee, all of these discussions are happening while he's learning to embrace his heritage and identity. But he says one thing is already clear.

DANIEL YOON: I want Asian American Pacific Islanders to join other people of color in this city and state and truly be powerful.

KIM: Until then, Yoon says, he won't be satisfied.

For NPR News, I'm Juliana Kim in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE'S "TWELVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.