In A Racism-Fueled Pandemic, Asian Americans Find Healing Through Art And Storytelling

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the globe, Asian Americans are using their creativity to tell their own stories and find validation in their communities.

On Jan. 16, just days after the first coronavirus outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China, Connie Wang landed in the city of Jinan in Shandong province during a 12-day visit to see her grandparents and other relatives. Her family was immediately put under quarantine.

“All of our big plans were canceled. We couldn’t take any outings,” said Wang, 32, a senior features writer at Refinery29. They couldn’t go anywhere or do anything outside during lockdown, but Wang said her family indulged in a seemingly simple gesture: cutting, peeling and sharing fruit with each other.

“Every night, my cousin, my aunt, my grandma would serve cut fruit,” Wang said, describing it as “one of the small luxuries we were able to do.”

After she returned home to Los Angeles, Wang said she continued the practice of cutting fruit for her husband and sister, both of whom are self-quarantining with her, in order to still feel connected with both sides of her family in China and the United States. Once, after she had cut several pieces of fruit, Wang snapped a photo and sent it to her mother, who subsequently shared a picture of a bowl of fruit she had put together for her and Wang’s father.

“I find that when all the days sort of blend together, something that really helps me is small rituals, daily habits. One of the biggest comforts right now is food,” Wang said. “I’m not the best cook in the world, but the great thing about fruit is that it’s a one-ingredient meal. It’s about technique and making sure you take your time with it.”

The ritual became the inspiration for a memoir essay she penned and published on May 1, “Love in the Shape of Cut Fruit,” one of several pieces featured as part of Refinery29′s annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month package, titled, “Not Your Token Asian.”

The essay illustrates the different ways in which Asian families express love for each other without necessarily saying it out loud, even if it’s “foreign” or seems different to white people. But perhaps that’s the point. As stories rarely are, Wang’s piece is clearly written by and for Asian Americans hungry for narratives that serve as mirrors.

The piece struck a chord on social media with dozens of Asian Americans, who identified with the family ritual of cutting fruit as a symbol of love and even shared their own childhood memories of parents and relatives cutting fruit.

“The way we grew up has its merits, has its value, has its beauty,” Wang said. “And even though the way we express our love and show our love and take care of each other is very different in how other American communities do this, there’s still value in it.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the globe, Asian American authors, filmmakers, designers and other creative professionals like Wang have turned to what they know best, art and storytelling, to find validation and heal each other’s communities, particularly when anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes have risen nationwide.

Since mid-March, more than 1,700 incidents of coronavirus-related verbal harassment and physical assault against Asian Americans have been reported. At the same time, more stories depicting the lives of Asian Americans have come out, including the Netflix show “Never Have I Ever,” featuring an Indian American teenager, and the Alan Yang-directed drama film “Tigertail.”

Given the weight of the pandemic and the particular emotional stress that the Asian American community has been under, Wang said she wanted to kickstart APAHM with a more positive, optimistic tone and honor cut fruit as a source of comfort that many communities would recognize.

A Complicated Loss

For some Asian American artists and writers whose projects have been released over the last few months, the pandemic has forced them to pivot and connect with their audiences in other ways.

Jessica Kim had a five-city tour planned for her first book, a contemporary children’s novel about an 11-year-old Korean American girl named Yumi who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian.

The book — “Stand Up, Yumi Chung!” published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers — was set to be released on March 17. One of her stops was supposed to be Seattle, where coronavirus cases had topped 1,000 at the time and Gov. Jay Inslee had ordered a statewide ban on gatherings and had closed all schools for six weeks.

“I went to get my hair done — because I wanted to look fresh and nice for the tour — on a Thursday. I was to leave on Sunday morning,” Kim, 39, told HuffPost. “Then on Friday, they shut down everything.”

The author was crushed by the news. On one hand, half of her family members are health care providers — many of whom are treating patients with COVID-19 — and she understood all too well the urgency of the public health crisis. At the same time, Kim wasn’t sure how her novel, one of the few titles featuring an Asian American protagonist, would find an audience now.

“It was both a relief and also a deep sadness and grief that I’d been waiting my entire career for this tour to meet my readers and launch this book into the world,” said Kim, a Korean American who lives in San Diego.

Despite the cancellation of her book tour, Kim found alternative ways of making her book known to the world. She has spoken at several digital book conferences, including Everywhere Book Fest, and participated in social media events like #MGBookChat.

“I’ve never done Instagram Live. I didn’t even know what that was, but now I’m on weekly with different bookstores,” Kim said. “I’ve talked to 1,300 librarians, all through the guest room of my home.”

Moving her book launch completely online wasn’t just a marketing challenge. It was also an emotional adjustment that she had to reckon with.

“It was really difficult because how can you be devastated about your little tour when 600,000 people are dying in Italy every day?” Kim said. “I think, over time, I found myself crying in the shower, realizing, ‘Oh, actually I am sad about this and I don’t have to feel guilty.’ You have to process and give yourself time to grieve that loss of what could’ve been and move forward.”

That last part — moving forward — is key. She said one of the best ways Asian Americans can help beat racism is to write stories that “show more dimensions of ourselves” beyond the archetypes that people are fed in society.

“The more stories we tell, the more views we can show the world, the more human we become,” Kim said.

In the meantime, “Stand Up, Yumi Chung!” has managed to find its own community of supporters. One 10-year-old Korean American book blogger, who goes by @chloebookworm, praised the novel in a review on Instagram.

“It was the cutest thing. She shared the same name as one of the characters in the book, and she was just flipping out about it and using the correct pronunciation,” Kim said. “She was also just so excited to hear food that her mom makes at home being mentioned in a book and just her enthusiasm. She was literally bubbling with joy that she could see pieces of herself in a book. That was so amazing.”

Between managing her virtual book launch and keeping her family safe from the coronavirus, Kim has found it challenging to write her next novel and “unlock that creative world of imaginary friends at a time when there’s a pandemic.” But discovering fans like Chloe has helped motivate her to stay creative.

“I’ve definitely had a lot of stress just going into another book, but once ‘Yumi’ came out, I started developing a readership and I got emails from kids themselves asking for another book,” Kim said. “Hearing they want another book inspired me in another way.”

We Are Just As ‘American’

During the making of the Netflix coming-of-age film “The Half of It,” casting director Leslie Woo said she would talk on the phone for hours with director Alice Wu (“Saving Face”) about their hopes for the movie.

I know multiple times in the conversation, we’d say, like, man, if this can reach just one kid out there who’s feeling isolated or discouraged to be themselves, then it’ll have proven worthwhile,” Woo, 38, told HuffPost.

When “The Half of It” premiered May 1, the first day of APAHM, the film was met with critical acclaim. The dramedy follows a queer Chinese American teenager named Ellie Chu (played by Leah Lewis) who tries to help a jock pursue the girl that she is also in love with. It has a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and countless fans on social media have posted fan art based on the movie.

When it first became available on Netflix, Jack Zhang, 23, said he watched “The Half of It” with a group of AAPI friends from college over Netflix Party, a Chrome extension that allows friends to watch movies remotely. Despite being under lockdown in Connecticut, Zhang said bonding over “The Half of It” has helped him cope with the coronavirus crisis.

“Although we were not able to physically be together, we were able to connect and identify with many the cultural touchstones and experiences of finding belonging in [the film],” Zhang, a Chinese American, told HuffPost. “Being able to connect with the Asian American community and share our experiences has been a big way I have been able to navigate this difficult time period.”

Leah Lewis, left, and Alexxis Lemire in "The Half of It."
Leah Lewis, left, and Alexxis Lemire in "The Half of It."
KC Bailey/Netflix

What’s striking — and yet surprisingly simple — about “The Half of It” is the fact that it’s about an ordinary girl who is expected to fit in but refuses to be anybody but herself — a character whom anyone can relate to, except that the story is told through the lens of a queer Asian American girl (a protagonist rarely seen in movies). It’s a pattern that Woo has seen more of over time.

“In the last year or two, I’ve gotten a lot more scripts and projects sent to me that illustrate specific stories, whether it’s focusing on a specific Asian culture or having an Asian face in a great lead role,” said Woo, who lives in Los Angeles. “There’s movies that sometimes really don’t address culture but there’s an Asian person in the lead role, and that also to the Asian community is huge.”

And at a time when Asian Americans are repeatedly reduced to “Chinese virus” carriers, Woo hopes the movie will make both Asian and non-Asian viewers understand that, first and foremost, queer Asian Americans exist and are just as “American” as anyone else.

“I think it’s crucial because these stories humanize a heavily stereotyped race,” said Woo, who has worked in casting for 14 years. Her mother is Taiwanese, her father is Malaysian and her grandparents are from China. “When it does that, it helps to put things on a more quote-unquote ‘personal’ level, and I think the result of that is breaking down preconceived notions and the divisiveness between majority and minority.”

Racism and xenophobia against Asians and other communities of color is a longtime reality of living in America, but nuanced stories like “The Half of It” are helping Asian Americans better understand their upbringing and culture, and that in itself has pushed back against the anti-Asian hate that has marked the pandemic.

“For better or worse, Asian Americans oftentimes grow up with the mentality that our safety in America or our longevity in America is not guaranteed, and to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Wang said. “So we’re used to thinking through the worst-case scenario for every little decision that happens, that we have to make in our lives. But we always try to move upward and really fight our way out of this mess.”

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