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Irene Pan is not the type of woman to be scared. She wasn’t scared when she left China at the age of 21 for the United States. And she wasn’t scared 10 years later when she started Feet Press Spa in northeast Atlanta surrounded by competition from other Asian spa owners.
But what happened Tuesday night terrified her.
“I’m going to go look at getting a gun as soon as possible,” she said the following afternoon inside her spa. “To protect my workers from any criminals.”
Pan and her business are a few minutes’ drive away from where a gunman drove to attack a pair of similar spas and where he allegedly killed four people, following his earlier attack outside of Atlanta that killed four others and wounded a fifth. Six of the dead are Asian women, echoing a long history of violence directed at women and people of color. “It could have happened to us, too, but we were just lucky,” Pan said.
“America is getting worse. We just hope America goes in the right direction and not the wrong one,” she went on.
The Piedmont Heights neighborhood of Atlanta, where Pan’s business and those targeted by the killer reside, is a combination of the brand new and the rundown. Half-million-dollar homes sit across from abandoned ones tagged with graffiti; condos costing $1,400 a month have a view of a derelict nightclub rotting away near an interstate on-ramp. Throughout it all are strip malls containing a variety of spas, many with bright neon lights and dark tinted windows: Ivy Massage, Rose Massage, Sunny Feet Massage, Asian Quality Spa. Many are owned and operated by immigrants from China and Korea.
Closer to the Aromatherapy and Gold spas where the gunman struck, spa workers were more reticent to talk. Mia, a 45-year-old who came here from Beijing two months ago, said she once knew a woman who worked at one of the spas nearby where the women were gunned down but declined to say more. Two older Korean women begged off questions, insisting they were fine despite the murders of four other Korean spa workers.
At Pan’s Feet Press Spa manager, where massages go for $35 and up and a sign on the door says “walk-ins welcome,” manager Tomomi Williams was told by a police officer to lock down immediately after the shooting nearby, with the gunman still on the loose. Regular customers called the spa to make sure the workers were okay as word of the killings spread. One brought in a bouquet of pink tulips Wednesday morning. “We were crying about it,” Williams said of the gesture.
“I just want to know why, why he killed those women.”
Like many of the spa workers, Diana Xu, a 52-year-old masseuse at Feet Press Spa, left northern China to join her husband here, who helped her secure a green card. She sat with her hands clenched in a well-kept room filled with massage chairs, “surprised, shocked, scared” at the killings. “I was concerned for my safety,” she said in Mandarin, translated by Pan. Xu nodded her head vociferously at her colleague Mark Ma’s insistence that Asians are “no threat.”
“Just don’t hate us,” he said in Mandarin. “We are just human beings.”
Ma left Guangzhou two years ago when his son helped him secure a green card. He came here for “liberty, freedom,” and a shot at the American dream. Neither Xu nor Ma wanted to leave China, where they left family and friends behind. They said they felt they had to leave in order to have a chance at a better life.
“It’s not easy to live here. We are far from home,” Ma said. “We want to be accepted.”
That acceptance, to say the least, has often been lacking for Asians across the country who over the past year have faced a wave of hatred as Donald Trump and countless others scapegoated China for the coronavirus. “Trump brought a lot of hate against Asians,” Pan said. “It’s not all Trump’s fault — I supported him — but when he would speak it wasn’t always good.”
Pan said she loves this city, this country, but both have been on the decline. There is more crime, violence, and discord, more troubling signs that the city and the country are not as great as they once seemed from afar. “Even though things are getting worse,” she said, “I hope Americans can go on the right path and get better.”