In the Midst of a Pandemic and the senseless racist attacks against the Asian American Community, I witness Community Love
This weekend is Lunar New Year — a very important and festive holiday for many cultures within the U.S. and abroad. It is usually a time where I direct my energy towards shedding away the previous year in order to welcome a new year of new cycles and new growth… and as we know it, 2020 is a year that we can gladly leave behind.
Today, the day before my New Year, I began a new temporary job at my favorite community health clinic in Oakland on their COVID response team. The clinic has a mission statement to serve the medically underserved in a very niche community in Oakland — a niche that I identify with, connect with. This was also the first time since March 2020 in which I have left my home to work, after being unemployed since the pandemic.
Just a week ago, news circulated on social media of an insidious rise in the senseless, violent attacks on the Asian American community. Many of these cases involved viscous battery and in worse instances, death. The most heart-wrenching part in all of this is that our most vulnerable population are the targets: Our Elders. When I heard of the 64-year old Vietnamese woman robbed in San Jose, I went cold. When I read of 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee pushed to his death in San Francisco, my throat burned to the touch. It’s getting closer and closer to home.
Then, Asian Americans on social media made a point that the News will not cover our stories and took liberties of it upon themselves. They surfaced stories and highlighted the many racially charged attacks towards Asian Americans to date. Towards the end of the week, I learned that there was not just one but THREE elders who were seriously injured here in Oakland. It’s now hit home and again, I ached silently in grief. In every story that I read up on, all I can see is the face of my grandma or grandpa in the suffering elders within the stories and I feel helpless.
While Oakland has had a long history of poverty and violence, witnessing collective trauma and senseless cruelty unravel in a short amount of time will generate a concern for our lives. Last night while preparing for my first day of work in Oakland Chinatown, I was conscious that my identity — a Vietnamese-American woman in her mid-twenties — presents as a safety-risk in itself. I planned an outfit that revealed no skin, felt secured in my green-edgy-emo hair, and deliberated on the items that I would carry. Only the bare necessities: keys, ID, phone, and lunch money. I cannot give anyone a reason to make me a target.
At the end of the work day, my coworkers and I made a split in the hallway. I stood alone at the elevators and wistfully watched the rest of the group walk away together. Meanwhile, a young man on a scooter greets my coworkers as he passed them by and stood beside me at the elevators. We enter the same elevator… together. For whatever reason it might be, in situations where I am alone with a person who I categorize as ‘Male’ or ‘Masculine’, my fight-or-flight activates. I become hyperaware and I plan my escape strategy, in case, if anything were to happen. No matter how conservative I dress or how edgy my green hair is or however else I try to deflect the male gaze, I know at the end of the day I am still a woman and that will always be reason enough to make me a target.
He made small talk in the elevator and asked me where I parked my car after we got off in the lobby. In the open air of our urban street, the chaotic crackling and popping firecrackers sang proudly to alert everyone that Lunar New Years is here — and… my car was parked somewhere in that direction. Hesitant to respond to his question, I examined my surrounding on the street and flustered as I pointed towards the crowd of people. It was an honest answer, my car was indeed in that direction, and I suspected I would not encounter any harm by this man while others were around. He politely gestured for me to follow along, but I turned him down, “Nah, I can walk alone. I got it. Thanks.” He declined right back at me, touché, and stated that he wanted to make sure I got to my car safely. It was a checkmate, and I decided I would ditch him in the crowd. While he rode his scooter, he looked back periodically and adjusted his speed to make sure I tailed closely behind him. This was such a very peculiar experience.
As we passed through the crowd, I overheard nurses in scrubs, locals, and young men thank him for his work. When it finally clicked, I looked at the peculiar man on the scooter and said “Oh! You are patrolling!” After news of the attacks in Chinatown caught wind, many young adults organized together to escort vulnerable community members to their destination safely. A letter was sent by the clinic the week before my arrival that community volunteers are to assist anyone to their car. Unbeknownst, I assumed that the volunteers were charged to protect the elders only and were not involved with helping clinic members at all. The man on the scooter informed me that many health care providers in the area have also been targets to the racist attacks. Everyone deserves to get home safely.
The morning before all of this, I was rejected from the parking lot plaza because I did not have a credit card on person. Due to COVID, credit cards became the only method of payment at this plaza and because it was my first time here since the start of the pandemic, I was not aware of this fact. I parked one street away in the direction of a somewhat sketchier area. During work, my mind wandered to the well-being of my car thrice and I worried. When I watched my new co-workers take a different path from mine in the office, I was anxious on whether or not I would get back to my car safely. When this man on a scooter silently escorted me in Chinatown, I was absolutely terrified. It was after I realized who he was and what he was doing that I began to notice all of the other men escorting folks across the street.
The community is alive even though being near each other is risky. Feeling grateful that I have finally reached my car, when I turned around to thank the man on the scooter, he was already gone. As the saying goes: not all heroes wear capes. This one in particular rides a scooter.
In that moment, I was reminded of what Community looked like; what it felt like. While this was a year of living in isolation with minimal contact to loved ones… Where the ultimate act of love during this time is to avoid each other in order to protect one another… I was able to witness love in such a pure and contactless form tonight; and this in itself was such a beautiful gift for me to behold.
Happy Lunar New Year!