(NEW YORK) – This report is part of “America Strong,” an ABC News series highlighting stories of strength and resilience across the country.
Before there was a single confirmed case of the coronavirus in New York City, a foreigner shouted at Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai – who were both born and raised in the United States – to “go back to China.”
The couple saw an epidemic of racism sow new fear and economic angst in their beloved Chinatown enclave neighborhood, fueled by stigma attached to the first reports of a new respiratory illness believed to originate from Wuhan, China.
“We were more aware that our Asian American community suffered first from our own experiences,” Chang, an actress and podcaster, told ABC News, saying they watched people “avoid us, literally, like if we were a walking virus “.
“We already started noticing restaurant closings in mid-January, and that was before anything was declared a pandemic,” Tsai, who works in the hospitality industry, added of the financial impact of xenophobia. “The restaurants in Chinatown, they were closing so quickly, and it’s multigenerational families who can’t seem to bounce back.”
Unemployment levels, believed in part to be linked to racial prejudice, have skyrocketed among Asian Americans – increasing by more than 10,000% in New York in a single week in April 2020 compared to the same period the previous year.
Despite the myth of the “model minority,” data from 2017 indicates that Asians had the highest poverty rates in the city of all racial and ethnic groups. A wave of anti-Asian attacks, some targeting the elderly, also sparked further unrest. An August census survey found that Asian households were twice as likely as white households to report not having enough to eat amid the pandemic raging because they were “scared to go or unwilling to go. go out to buy food “.
As the sense of abandonment gripped Chinatown, Chang and Tsai made it their mission to ensure that the elders in their community never went hungry – and knew they were not forgotten by. the next generation of Asian America. The couple’s “Heart of Dinner” initiative to tackle food insecurity and loneliness among older people of Asian descent, long-standing problems exacerbated by the pandemic, began with just two of them pulling back. sleepless nights in their kitchen at home in Manhattan.
“In our culture, we are used to not showing emotions or asking for help,” Tsai said. “Visiting my grandparents, it was never a big hug, or ‘I love you’, instead it was always through food, and that’s why food is such an important factor and common to show care. “
In our culture, we have been rooted in not showing emotions or asking for help … which is why food is such an important and common factor in mindfulness.
These cultural ideals of “self-sacrifice, rather than relying on those around you for help” have made the need much more urgent than they initially thought, Chang added. When they first left and asked a local social service organization how many meals they needed to prepare, Chang said they were told, “As many as you can.”
Tsai used his culinary knowledge to prepare hundreds of hot meals, and Chang made sure that each came with a handwritten note thanking the elders for the sacrifices they made to pave the way for a diaspora of immigrants. Asians to find community and acceptance in America.
“The notes go a little deeper, because in our generations above us it is very common not to express our love out loud, but being born American and being American children, our older generation always tells us: “Oh, you American children are always so loud and expressive,” Chang said. “But we understand that this is a privilege in itself, so we thought we would take this opportunity to just write, ‘We love you, we think of you’, something we know that often times they’re not really used to. to hear.”
“The idea of making them feel like there are so many more people involved was our hope to counter all the horrible and terrifying news that our elderly people were probably hearing,” Chang added, noting that videos of the attacks Racists targeting people who seemed like them, sent shockwaves of fear into the community via social media, despite relatively low national media coverage at the time.
Yet amid the suffering caused by the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Chang said they have also seen the “best of humanity” emerge as Americans come together to watch over each other.
While initially just the two, Heart of Dinner has since grown to include a network of over 3,500 volunteers who serve over 500 seniors per week – and has donated over $ 200,000 in donations. directly to hard-hit local businesses to purchase supplies. Additionally, thousands of letters in a multitude of Asian languages have poured in from across the country to accompany meals after the women appealed online.
“We were blown away,” Tsai said of the support. “It has been a huge collective effort from the community, whether Asian or not, but it’s so amazing to see so many people stand up and come together.”
While the original focus was on caring for their elders, Chang and Tsai say they have also seen the younger generation of Asian Americans gain new pride in their roots and identity.
Most of the cards, including the originals written by Chang, were from American children learning to write their family’s native language for the first time through the help of their parents or even Google Translate. “And then after a while we started to see a change, where we will get letters: ‘I’m not Asian, however, I love your culture and want to be a part of this mission,'” Tsai said. .
“I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood and I had maybe two Asian friends altogether,” Tsai added of her childhood in California. “Getting to know other people who share similar stories growing up, especially during such a dark time, was a very big thing that got us through this pandemic.”
With dozens of languages and cultural ties to so many different nations, many Asian American immigrants coming to the United States in search of a better life for their families in the past have often faced and developed a ” survival mentality, ”noted Chang, claiming through Heart of At Dinner they saw“ what can be done when a whole community comes together ”.
“It wasn’t until the midst of dinner that I felt this deep connection and connection around a particular mission, especially with the Asian American community,” Chang said. “It was wonderful to see Asian Americans, AAPIs from all walks of life, different heritages, different lineages, come together.”
To date, Heart of Dinner has provided nearly 90,000 meals to seniors in Chinatown and beyond, bringing hope and healing to a community that felt their suffering was invisible.
“It has been a very, very difficult time for everyone, especially the Asian community,” Tsai said. “However, through this, Heart of Dinner really brought out the best in people, and to see so many people coming together to take care of our seniors – and for our seniors to see so many people taking care of. them and let them know they matter – it’s that silver lining throughout this dark time. “
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