It was addressed to “CHIN CHONG.” Pham, who is 22, said he and his roommates are Vietnamese.
“Racism has no place in NYC,” the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development tweeted, saying it stood against hate toward Asian Americans. A New York City Council member called the letter “infuriating.” The mayor’s press secretary tweeted, “My god.”
Pham, a Vietnamese citizen who moved to New York City for college, said he appreciates the responses that have poured in. But he cannot stop thinking about his first impression of the employee who came by the apartment — the man who, he assumes, tapped out “Chin Chong” while filling out an inspection form on his phone this month.
What hurts most, Pham said in an interview, is realizing that even those who treat you with respect to your face “may not see you as the same person as they are.”
“Now it’s in the back of my mind when I meet someone,” Pham said. “Do they hate me for who I am?”
The recent New York University graduate, who now works as a software engineer, said he had always felt that his community was diverse and accepting. Living in a city of immigrants with the biggest population of Asian people in the United States, he heard about some anti-Asian comments and attacks but felt “like I live in a bubble where it didn’t happen to me.”
Yet Pham said he has encountered racism before. Once, he said, he was in Chinatown and bumped into someone who hurled roughly the same slur that ended up on the housing agency envelope: “Ching-Chong.”
After Wednesday’s letter, he wonders whether what he sees is “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Pham posted a picture of the envelope on Facebook, and at first, attention came from others in the Vietnamese community, he said. But by Thursday night, reactions to the post numbered in the hundreds, he said. He woke up Friday morning to find they had passed 1,000.
“This is infuriating,” City Council Member Brad Lander tweeted early Friday morning, calling for the inspector involved to be fired. “Bias has no place in NYC — and especially not in an agency whose mission includes fair housing & equal justice.”
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has not named the employee it suspended, and Pham knows only the man’s badge number. The agency and Pham both said officials met with Pham in person Friday afternoon to apologize.
The department told The Washington Post on Saturday that all inspectors are trained on its “core values” and equal employment opportunity policy. “We will refresh that training specifically for inspectors … to expressly incorporate some of the issues raised by this incident,” the agency said.
With fears of anti-Asian violence on the rise, New York police said they are increasing patrols in the city’s Chinatown and other Asian communities, as some incidents spark hate-crime investigations and charges.
Pham said he has worried little for his safety during his nearly five years in New York.
Family back in Vietnam, reading Vietnamese news, had heard about attacks on Asians in the United States and reached out, fearful. Relatives who had been urging him to get out and exercise told him to stay home after the Atlanta-area shootings March 16, Pham said.
A White man was charged with murder in the deaths of eight people, including six Asian women. The suspect told police that he was addicted to sex and called the targeted spas a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” authorities said shortly after the massacre. But police said they could not yet say whether the killings were racially motivated, as many noted a long history of Americans sexualizing Asian women.
Before the rampage in Atlanta focused new national attention on racism toward Asians, Pham had also heard of attacks in New York. Vietnamese friends talked over dinner about reports of violence in Chinatown. In recent weeks, Pham said, he started to worry about walking home alone.
“I remember one evening I was walking home from the subway, and I think that was the first time, one of the first times that I was in New York where I was looking over my shoulder making sure nobody is too close,” he said.
“Because I know it might happen that someone might attack me,” Pham said. “Because that’s what I’ve heard.”
Pham said family members probably would have advised against posting the housing department letter online, for fear of retaliation and “because there’s a sense that, you know, one person is not going to change anything, one incident is not going to change anything. You’re talking about a cultural thing.”
He made sure to cover up his address on the letter and asked reporters to redact it as well, concerned that someone might show up at the apartment.
But Pham said he felt it was important to share the letter so that “my actions match what I think.” Around him, other Asian people were speaking out, too.
“I just wanted to show it out there and to basically invite the conversation with my friends and family,” Pham said. “And it turns out that it became much bigger than that.”