“Being Chinese American means that my heart is shattering in a thousand different ways.”

No. 193
Article by:
Leona Chen

I’ve always been proud of sharing the BOBBLEHAUS genetics - one chromosome from New York City, another from Shanghai - but lately, being Chinese American means that my heart is shattering in a thousand different ways. In New York’s Chinatown, plans for the pinnacle of America’s carceral impulses are underway: a 300-foot tall “mega-jail,” where the state’s least wanted will be detained alongside my community’s most revered and vulnerable. 

“While most Chinatown businesses focus on food, health, and medicine,” quips Tiktoker Aaron Yin, “this Chinatown dig specializes in mass incarceration.”

“While most Chinatown businesses focus on food, health, and medicine, this Chinatown dig specializes in mass incarceration.”

In Shanghai, there are hundreds left hungry and isolated due to extreme COVID lockdown restrictions - or so we believe. Somewhere between the Sinophobic anxieties of Western media coverage and the Chinese state media’s neutered proclamations, the truth exists in constellations of individual cases. Some of them are anxious, bored but fine. Others struggle.

In Shanghai, many neighborhoods have metal fences surrounding the entire compound, barring residents from leaving their homes.

“There is no single way that all Chinese are experiencing the pandemic.”

I rely on foreign reporting to bear news of my loved ones who cannot testify in the non-intimacy of our WeChat. There is no single way that all Chinese are experiencing the pandemic, but Twitter threads from proclaimed witnesses become a proxy for every family desperate for news. If it’s not my family who is starving, I tell myself, it could be another’s. 

I read stories from other families and pretend they are from mine. An elderly resident asks her neighbors for the mercy of a fresh tomato, and offers to pay in cash. She is ashamed of her technological ineptitude, of her own hunger. I cry until I hiccup, until my throat is sore and my tear ducts are swollen. I wonder if she has children, cities away, their correspondence too sterilized for them to realize their own mother has encountered famine yet again.

Images of frontline workers, cutely nicknamed 大白(Baymax) in a gross misreading of public sentiment, oscillate wildly between those of heroes and villains. They are unrelenting, aggressive, abusive. Or they are mere humans in puffy white suits, ill-equipped to deal with a public in crisis, in fear, in disbelief. Everybody has a hot take on what went wrong, or on the epidemiological learnings that can be siphoned from Shanghai. But I don’t want to talk about geopolitics or the miscalculations of party leaders. I want to talk about how the people I love are hungry and scared. Some of them are forced to leave their homes with nowhere to go. 

Some of them are dying. 

How is it possible that in this big wide world, with so many people supposedly invested in its operational efficiencies, with great, crushing economies meant to stabilize and enrich, we have so many who are unfed and unhoused and unknown? If hunger and loneliness have become permissible, what do we have left to bargain with?

“I don’t want to talk about geopolitics or the miscalculations of party leaders. I want to talk about how the people I love and care about are hungry and scared.”

Still, I manage to excavate the best of us in the midst of the worst that has happened to us. I see the efforts to feed the unfed, to tend to the unwell. In a since-removed blog post by podcaster Hayami, I read about the warehouses in Shanghai where those who have tested positive are directed to bide their quarantine. The warehouses are not failures or successes: they are ecosystems where everybody does their best amidst impossible circumstances. When the elderly and disabled struggle to use the porta potties, the nurses apparently construct a more accommodating one from scratch. Volunteers share the Herculean demands of caretaking. They help a wife carry her weak-sighted husband to the bathroom. Strangers, writes Hayami, became survivors, neighbors, and friends. 

Image Credit: Hayami's blog | 我在方舱,看见老人们的孤岛求生

I muse over more imperfect stories. Delivery drivers become nomads. They camp out under bridges, avoiding residential lockdown so they can continue to deliver food. Neighbors conduct a farmer’s market within WeChat: one person sources the eggs, another offers contacts at a bakery where they still have staff sleeping in the warehouse. If you are lucky, you can pay a premium for a bag of soft, luxurious pretzels. Camden Hauge, a Shanghai restaurateur, pays homage to the double absurdity of fine dining pretension and pandemic anxiety with @shanghaihotel1927, a “quarantine fine dining popup” that converts delivered meals into gourmet plated dishes. They include: “Pulled BBQ pork, braised cabbage, oil-marinated carrot, green bean relish on steamed leavened bun; spiced potatoes.” 

“The ‘ambiance’ captions are little jabs at the other self-referential restaurant traps we fall into,” they tell Far & Near, “[stuff like]  collaborations with artisans on serviceware that cracks when washed the first time or niche art that no diner will notice.” 

In these stories, food prevails as a source of life, a tool for solidarity, a mechanism for art and expression. It is a reason to be brave, a way to be creative, an offer of love. As food sustains those who are given it, the act of feeding strengthens the giver.

“If hunger can be a universal trauma, then feeding is a universal act of healing.”

I think about that resident who asked her neighbors for a tomato, how her handwritten note bears more hope than shame. In unimaginable circumstances, she harbors a sacred optimism that she may be helped. If hunger can be a universal trauma, then feeding is a universal act of healing. It is the most practical, material way we tend to each other. It is the way so many of us receive and express love. 

I am sad because people are suffering. But I am encouraged by how they are surviving, together.

In an exposition of Shanghai’s lockdown for The Intelligencer, Dan Wang and Silvia Lindtner write: “Everyone has gotten to know their neighbors. People were thrust into WeChat groups with others on their floor, in their building, or sometimes across their whole compound (which can consist of hundreds of households). People who had once been strangers helped with medical emergencies or sheltering one another’s pets.”

They describe the mass coordination of group orders, leveraging the purchasing power of neighborhoods, rather than disaggregated households, to buy food from grocery distributors or wholesalers. It is not a perfect system, with frustrating instances of bad faith, but it reveals an ultimate truth. Everyday people, bound together in a shared struggle, will work together - not because camaraderie can be encoded into party politics or rhetoric, but because in it they will find and value something recognizable in each other. In the only economic framework that works, as D.L. Mayfield writes, “you shall know your neighbor who is suffering, and you shall be compelled to do something about it.” 

I know neighborhoods that stake their survival on isolation and comparison. They are the ones that turn residents away from their own homes, fearful of exposure. Their pursuit of affluence, safety, and security turn them into hoarders and gatekeepers. I do not blame them. I recognize my own fears in theirs. 

But I’ve realized that to be neighborly is not to merely live in proximity with another. It is to practice kindness as a principle, to bind their well-being with your own. 

I think about what it means to have a piece of my heart in both Shanghai and New York neighborhoods. I have two communities to love, to defend, to care for; two sets of neighbors with particular needs, complexities, despairs, and gifts to offer. Two opportunities to practice generosity and thanksgiving, to be neighborly rather than a nearby stranger.

I think about the pulsing heart of a neighborhood: a grocery store, a bodega, a pantry where everyone is welcome. My Chinese soul places my faith in a group order where even the single tomato is an act of profound love and witness; my New York heart finds optimism in every farmer’s market where the vendors know their customers by story and produce preference. 

Neighborhoods flourish when neighbors feed and are fed. This, I think, is how we will survive. This is how we know we love and are loved. 

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