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.
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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.

鈥淎ll of our big plans were canceled. We couldn鈥檛 take any outings,鈥 said Wang, 32, a senior features writer at Refinery29. They couldn鈥檛 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.

鈥淓very night, my cousin, my aunt, my grandma would serve cut fruit,鈥 Wang said, describing it as 鈥渙ne of the small luxuries we were able to do.鈥

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鈥檚 father.

鈥淚 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,鈥 Wang said. 鈥淚鈥檓 not the best cook in the world, but the great thing about fruit is that it鈥檚 a one-ingredient meal. It鈥檚 about technique and making sure you take your time with it.鈥

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

The essay illustrates the different ways in which Asian families express love for each other without necessarily saying it out loud, even if it鈥檚 鈥渇oreign鈥 or seems different to white people. But perhaps that鈥檚 the point. As stories rarely are, Wang鈥檚 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.

鈥淭he way we grew up has its merits, has its value, has its beauty,鈥 Wang said. 鈥淎nd 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鈥檚 still value in it.鈥

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鈥檚 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 鈥淣ever Have I Ever,鈥 featuring an Indian American teenager, and the Alan Yang-directed drama film 鈥淭igertail.鈥

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鈥檚 novel about an 11-year-old Korean American girl named Yumi who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian.

The book 鈥 鈥淪tand Up, Yumi Chung!鈥 published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers 鈥 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.

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

The author was crushed by the news. On one hand, half of her family members are health care providers 鈥 many of whom are treating patients with COVID-19 鈥 and she understood all too well the urgency of the public health crisis. At the same time, Kim wasn鈥檛 sure how her novel, one of the few titles featuring an Asian American protagonist, would find an audience now.

鈥淚t was both a relief and also a deep sadness and grief that I鈥檇 been waiting my entire career for this tour to meet my readers and launch this book into the world,鈥 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.

鈥淚鈥檝e never done Instagram Live. I didn鈥檛 even know what that was, but now I鈥檓 on weekly with different bookstores,鈥 Kim said. 鈥淚鈥檝e talked to 1,300 librarians, all through the guest room of my home.鈥

Moving her book launch completely online wasn鈥檛 just a marketing challenge. It was also an emotional adjustment that she had to reckon with.

鈥淚t was really difficult because how can you be devastated about your little tour when 600,000 people are dying in Italy every day?鈥 Kim said. 鈥淚 think, over time, I found myself crying in the shower, realizing, 鈥極h, actually I am sad about this and I don鈥檛 have to feel guilty.鈥 You have to process and give yourself time to grieve that loss of what could鈥檝e been and move forward.鈥

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

鈥淭he more stories we tell, the more views we can show the world, the more human we become,鈥 Kim said.

In the meantime, 鈥淪tand Up, Yumi Chung!鈥 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.

鈥淚t 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,鈥 Kim said. 鈥淪he 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.鈥

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 鈥渦nlock that creative world of imaginary friends at a time when there鈥檚 a pandemic.鈥 But discovering fans like Chloe has helped motivate her to stay creative.

鈥淚鈥檝e definitely had a lot of stress just going into another book, but once 鈥榊umi鈥 came out, I started developing a readership and I got emails from kids themselves asking for another book,鈥 Kim said. 鈥淗earing they want another book inspired me in another way.鈥

We Are Just As 鈥楢merican鈥

During the making of the Netflix coming-of-age film 鈥淭he Half of It,鈥 casting director Leslie Woo said she would talk on the phone for hours with director Alice Wu (鈥淪aving Face鈥) about their hopes for the movie.

I know multiple times in the conversation, we鈥檇 say, like, man, if this can reach just one kid out there who鈥檚 feeling isolated or discouraged to be themselves, then it鈥檒l have proven worthwhile,鈥 Woo, 38, told HuffPost.

When 鈥淭he Half of It鈥 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 鈥淭he Half of It鈥 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 鈥淭he Half of It鈥 has helped him cope with the coronavirus crisis.

鈥淎lthough 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],鈥 Zhang, a Chinese American, told HuffPost. 鈥淏eing 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.鈥

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鈥檚 striking 鈥 and yet surprisingly simple 鈥 about 鈥淭he Half of It鈥 is the fact that it鈥檚 about an ordinary girl who is expected to fit in but refuses to be anybody but herself 鈥 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鈥檚 a pattern that Woo has seen more of over time.

鈥淚n the last year or two, I鈥檝e gotten a lot more scripts and projects sent to me that illustrate specific stories, whether it鈥檚 focusing on a specific Asian culture or having an Asian face in a great lead role,鈥 said Woo, who lives in Los Angeles. 鈥淭here鈥檚 movies that sometimes really don鈥檛 address culture but there鈥檚 an Asian person in the lead role, and that also to the Asian community is huge.鈥

And at a time when Asian Americans are repeatedly reduced to 鈥Chinese virus鈥 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 鈥淎merican鈥 as anyone else.

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

Racism and xenophobia against Asians and other communities of color is a longtime reality of living in America, but nuanced stories like 鈥淭he Half of It鈥 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.

鈥淔or 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,鈥 Wang said. 鈥淪o we鈥檙e 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.鈥


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