Published March 31st, 2021 at 2:42 PM
When the Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander community gathered Sunday at Cafe Cà Phê to grieve the victims of the Atlanta shooting, owner Jackie Nguyen wanted to recreate the intimacy and the reverence of an at-home vigil in a space large enough to fit the whole community.
The vigil was inspired by Vietnamese American Chi Nguyễn, a regular customer of the cafe, who asked Jackie if there was anything planned in Kansas City to honor the victims. The two then combined their ideas, teamed up with cafe manager Madoka Koguchi and director of community outreach Bety Le Shackelford to create Sunday’s vigil.
Family and friends of the Cafe Cà Phê crew helped set up shop in addition to several volunteers who reached out to help the coffee shop via Instagram. Hundreds RSVP’d to the vigil on Facebook, but it was hard for the team to know exactly how many people to expect to attend.
“I hope the people that show up feel supported, especially the Asian community. I just want to make sure that they feel like they have a space. That’s mainly the reason why we did it … for the Asian/Asian American community here in Kansas City to know that someone cares about their grieving, their fear, that someone cares about them,” Jackie Nguyen said.
The overall response to the vigil announcement was extremely supportive, she said. Only a few people were concerned that the cafe was invalidating the anger in response to the Atlanta shooting by organizing a vigil instead of a protest. Nguyen said she had her own rage about the tragedy, but wanted to use her platform to focus on honoring the victims.
“I wanted to make sure that when we light incense, that it’s done with love,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to almost emulate traditionally what Asians would do inside their home at an altar or at a temple. I’m just a coffee shop. I just wanted to hold a vigil. I thought that was more of our vibe as a coffee shop too. We didn’t feel like it was necessarily our responsibility to hold a protest.”
Koguchi said she felt honored to have a role in the vigil because of its impact not only on young Asian individuals but also its encouragement to other marginalized communities to recognize the AAPI community.
“A lot of other people of other races now are celebrating our culture together. At the same time, knowing that this tiny coffee shop is the first to host something like this — our goal as a coffee shop and our goal as Asian Americans is to have unity with Asian people here and people of other colors to unify everybody,” Koguchi said. “That’s why we’re holding a vigil. … I hope this encourages other people to raise their voices, use their voices to spread the word, which is: ‘We’re not OK. We need you to help us. We need you to stop the hate.’ ”
Since vigils are intimate and reverent in Asian cultures, Koguchi said the gathering would also urge AAPI individuals to take a step back and reflect on the tragedy in a safe space.
“I feel like a lot of Asian people haven’t had time to actually breathe and accept the fact that we are targeted,” Koguchi said. “So this is for us, mostly to just take a moment and understand what is happening and honor those lives that were taken by a 21-year-old boy.”
As for non-AAPI individuals and other businesses, Jackie Nguyen did not expect the extent of support that she’s received.
“I thought people would come because they think it’s cool, but I did not expect (the support) to the extent that we’ve had. People have really shown support and really made us feel like family, really made us feel like we’re part of the community,” she said.
Both Nguyen and Koguchi didn’t know what to expect since they’ve never organized such a gathering, but they were looking forward to the turnout.
“I just hope that there’s a sense of community, a sense of love. I just hope that the community sees and recognizes that our community is hurting and that we need recognition and that we need support. That it’s something to be a part of and that we should not be pushed aside and kind of like ‘eh, it’s whatever.’ That’s what I’ve felt for so long. So I hope they’re like ‘wow, it’s actually not whatever.’ People are dying. People are hurting,” Jackie Nguyen said.
“I would love to see as many Asian people as possible, as well as our customers, our people who are in power and just notice and understand how we are feeling, what we are facing rather than unleashing the anger together so we want to see people gather to focus on one thing together,” Koguchi said.
Hundreds of AAPI people and AAPI allies gathered at 1101 Mulberry St. The vigil started promptly at 1 p.m. with a taiko drum performance. Volunteers like Filipino American Kimberly Carlson from Kansas City were in charge of passing around incense and any necessary snacks or drinks for the crowd. Carlson serves on the board of National Asian American Professionals and came to volunteer.
“I came to definitely uplift the community, honor those who were tragically murdered in Atlanta, and just come together in unity against white supremacy and create a community in Kansas City in togetherness,” Carlson said. “It feels amazing always to be with your people. I think in the Asian community, even if you don’t know each other you just feel like these are my people, these are my family, you know? In the Philippines and a lot of other Asian cultures, everyone views each other as cousins, whether you’ve met each other or not. I don’t think it’s an overgeneralization, but Asians feel that way, that we’re all each other’s family.”
Taking on the task to pass out incense, volunteer Lucy Sun, originally from Belize, said she volunteered because there haven’t been a lot of opportunities to be with other Asians since she moved to Kansas City.
“I moved here about 10 years ago and it’s been amazing to see the city flourish as a community and see so many Asian Americans, entrepreneurs and activists that kind of look like me. It’s nice to have representation,” Sun said. “It’s nice to feel like you can be with other people that feel the same way, that want the same things, and to do it in a way that’s kind and peaceful to send a message that this is unacceptable.”
Several people came to the vigil wearing #STOPASIANHATE shirts and holding different signs along with their families and friends. Ben Lee came to the vigil holding a large sign with phrases like “Proud to be Asian,” and “Embrace our people like you embrace our culture.”
“Embrace our people like you embrace our culture,” Lee said. “Just from a broad perspective, the community, the states take the food, the pop culture and whatnot. You accept that, so why not us?”
Chi Nguyễn was the first to speak. She moved to the U.S. with her mom from Vietnam in 1978 and now resides in Prairie Village with her family.
“It makes me so happy to see all of you today, especially those of you that look like me and my sons. You all look so beautiful,” Chi said.
She noted that her immigrant parents loved the little things about American life like Little Caesar’s supreme pizza, Costco and democracy. She also recalled hoping people wouldn’t smell her mom’s cooking or dreading the mispronouncing of her name or even worse, the refusal to say her name at all.
“My parents never took a shortcut in life, they taught me to be the person I’ve become: a proud Asian American,” she said.
Despite her own experiences with racism, she said her deepest pain was how her sons looked like her.
“The worst thing that has ever happened to me because I am Asian happened recently. No one spit on me. No one told me to go back to China. No one punched me in the face. No one told me I caused coronavirus. It was simply this: I wish my beautiful boys didn’t look like me,” she said. “This has caused unbearable pain. My boys are biracial and I thought maybe if they looked less like me, they’d be more safe.”
By reaching out to organize the vigil, Chi Nguyễn said she simply wanted just one person to leave the vigil feeling safe and feeling a little less lonely. Her family motto is to “show up, no matter what, just show up” and she commended the crowd for attending the vigil at all.
“Even just one more attack, one more slur, one more incident is one too many,” she said.
Other speakers included Asian American sixth-grader Haddie Watson, Missouri House Rep. Emily Weber, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, Kansas House Rep. Rui Xu, equity and inclusion consultant Cecilia Belser-Patton and Jackie Nguyen.
Xu spoke on creating an Asian American Affairs Commission in Kansas to help provide more resources and help for AAPI gatherings in the future. Xu said by uniting as a pan-Asian collective, the AAPI community can use its political power to move forward.
“I think at least we can be together to start healing through this and hopefully as the pandemic goes on and starts to wane we can start to get together more often,” Xu said. “We are a growing political force but we aren’t very organized right now as Asian Americans, and I think this is a really good first step to get people together to talk about our issues and then move forward from there.”
Weber, the first Asian American woman elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, said she was more than happy to help and educate others too.
“About four weeks ago, I called another one of our state reps who was using ‘China virus’ on the floor and at hearings. He explained to me that he’s not going to do it anymore, but he also explained that he didn’t know that it was hurting others and was hurting our community,” Weber said. “That was kind of my realization that maybe we need to start educating more. I always look for the opportunity to educate others on what’s happening in other communities that they might not know about.”
AAPI voting and AAPI representation were both at the center of her speech, urging community members to take their concerns to the polls.
Jackie Nguyen was the last to speak. Her story was similar to other AAPI members who have felt the need to diminish their Asian roots in order to assimilate to the American culture around them.
“The entire reason why I opened up this coffee shop was to push the Asian narrative,” she said. “No offense, but every freaking coffee shop in the state seems the same. It was never the culture behind the coffee being celebrated, and from there, Cafe Cà Phê was born.”
Nguyen said she wanted AAPI voices to be heard through the vehicle of coffee and for the community to finally have somewhere to go in Kansas City to feel safe and be recognized. She urged the crowd to look around them and notice how others were seeing each other.
“They don’t see you as someone who caused COVID, they see you like I see you: family,” she said. “Family who is willing to hold your hand and hold space for you. This is your home. And like in any Asian home, I’ll make sure you leave well-fed and never empty-handed.”
The vigil then moved to explaining the significance of lighting the incense. Hundreds of people approached the pots of rice to rest their incense in reverence.
Vietnamese American AìVy Bùi from Kansas City came with her family to show that the AAPI community can’t be silent anymore.
“This is something that’s been eating at our community for a really long time and to have visibility and support from the community is really important,” Bùi said. “It was nice to have a safe space to be together and mourn the losses of what happened in ATL and kind of grieve together as a community. For me, if it’s something that affects me then it’s something that affects all of us. It means a lot to have family not only by blood, but within the community as well come together in solidarity.”
For non-AAPI individuals, AìVy’s cousin Anh Phan said she hopes they understand just because people look different it does not mean they aren’t worthy of human connection.
Travis Young, a Vietnamese American connected with Jackie Nguyen when she first opened up the shop. He shared that she helped him cultivate his identity as a Vietnamese American by pursuing and owning his culture as his own — separate from his parents’ influence.
“It’s still kind of a new concept, the Asian American. It’s not a very old thing and this was the first time I felt like I was cultivating that,” Young said.
Young spoke of how he felt that in the grand scheme of hatred and microaggressions, he had to personally deal with the pain because it wasn’t as bad as the racism against the Black or Hispanic community.
“The world’s intake of Asian jokes and Asian microaggressions were so widely accepted that I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m even deserving of support,’ ” Young said. “I’ve been supporting other people and I’m so used to the Asian struggle being such a quiet thing that’s on the back bench that I wasn’t sure how (the vigil) was going to turn out.”
Sunday’s vigil was the first Asian gathering Young has been to where conversations about pain and microaggressions were brought to the forefront. He said he didn’t think a gathering like that was possible since the Asian community often would keep their pain under wraps.
“It’s cool to see this kind of validation that I do exist and I am being seen and people do care. It’s very surreal because I never thought that would ever happen,” Young said. “Racism isn’t always as obvious as it seems. … Where I grew up, the things people would say were very accepted but they didn’t understand that that was hurtful, right? And maybe I didn’t understand that they were hurtful until 30 years later, I’m then feeling like nobody cares or nobody sees or nobody understands. The craziest thing about white supremacy is thinking that you’re not racist, that you’re not doing any harm, and that’s very damaging.”
Reflecting on the vigil, Chi Nguyễn said she was very proud to stand in front of her two sons and hopes they learn to be proud of who they are and where their family came from. She urges young people to be more vocal about their cultural roots and to be proud of who they are.
“I’m just really grateful that Jackie was able to sponsor (the vigil) and actually make it happen,” Chi said. “It was just my idea, but her and Bety made it happen.”
Weber said she doesn’t think the vigil will be the last AAPI gathering in the city as community members seemed to finally feel welcome and safe to come together, but they must continue to use their voice to enact change.
“We need to have a voice. We don’t have a voice right now. We don’t have a voice because we’re not speaking up, so if we can start contacting representatives, getting involved in organizations that stand with your values or issues because you have your own voice. What I’ve realized with becoming a part of different organizations and boards, you might be the only AAPI person there but at the same time, your voice still matters and you need to have a seat at the table,” Weber said.
Bety Le Shackelford said she would have been happy if 25 people showed up and was overjoyed to be met by hundreds of people in the crowd. During the vigil, she opened the incense lighting ceremony with a prayer spoken in Vietnamese. This was both an empowering and transformative experience for her since growing up her family would get sneered at for speaking in their native tongue. Le Shackelford said she would even beg her mom to speak English in effort to ease any tension from the surrounding environment.
Now she feels the opposite of embarrassed about speaking in Vietnamese. The vigil was the first time she spoke Vietnamese in public at that capacity.
“As the words came out of my mouth, I just felt so proud to be like ‘this is who I am. This is my first language. And now I get to speak it to all of you and I don’t have to worry about translating. I don’t have to worry about whether or not people will think I’m not American,’ ” Le Shackelford said. “This is my first language, hear me roar!”
Sunday felt like a dream to her and ignited her passion to continue to host pan-Asian events to connect the AAPI community.
“I’m excited for what’s to come,” Le Shackelford said.
Nicole Dolan is a freelance writer covering marginalized identities in Kansas City. Follow her on social @NikkiDolan279. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Anna Gonzalez, a producer for Kansas City PBS, edited the video with this story.