“The Fire on the Other Side of the River” by Hanna Kang
Updated: May 10, 2020
I remember the day I arrived at San Francisco airport in late January this year: no one was wearing a mask. There were, of course, vague concerns about an increase in racism towards Asians due to the recent outbreak of the virus, but it was nothing serious. Overall, things were normal. I know “normal” is hard to define given we are unsure what post-COVID “normal” will look like, but here I am referring to pre-COVID normal life, when there were no distance restrictions between people and we could cough and sneeze without getting paranoid about virus infection. The talk of the town was more about the flu and the coming allergy season than the looming spread of the virus. Borrowing an old Korean saying, the pandemic in Asia was a bit like “sitting and watching a fire across the river” for most of us. Four months later, and things have changed dramatically: in most cases, for the worse.
It did not take long before I saw that the fire across the river had started consuming my side as well. As things started to get more serious, I could sense that the pandemic was affecting my personal life at a surprising speed, with some extra “bonuses” for me, for having Asian phenotypes. My instincts told me that if I didn’t want people to fear me, I should not cough when I was outside. I noticed the glances when I was choosing emergency flu medicine at the local grocery store. At first I thought I was overreacting. Anyone would avoid coughing or spending too much time choosing flu medicine during a pandemic. Things were different this time, however, as some of my Asian friends started to get randomly shouted at on the street, something my non-Asian friends did not have to go through. Even though I have spent most of my life in South America and not Asia, physical appearance still matters. For some people, I am the quintessential Asian female and a possible virus carrier. Besides restricting my outdoor activities, I started to wear a hat, a mask, and earphones whenever I had to leave my dorm, so as to avoid eye contact with people and hurtful comments. I wanted to protect myself from the virus and protect others from what they thought I had. Ironically, social distancing has become an ever-closer encounter between my own constructed self-consciousness and that which is defined and imagined by others.
The media reported that the pandemic would be a long-term problem. The more restrictions the government announced, the emptier the streets became. In March, someone posted on Facebook that there was a shortage of volunteers at local food pantries, because volunteers over sixty-five years old or with health issues could no longer show up. On the one hand, I wanted to do something for the community during this time. On the other, I could not stop worrying about all the what-ifs created by the pandemic: What if they only allow U.S. citizens to volunteer? What if I am not welcomed because of how I look? What if I don’t understand their instructions? What if I get infected and end up infecting the whole pantry staff? After some thought, I took courage and decided to give it a try. After all, I could come back early if I felt uncomfortable. I chose a local food pantry, sent an email to the address on the website, and my first shift was scheduled for the following Wednesday. I was so nervous on my way to the pantry: it was my first time volunteering in the U.S. and also my first time at a food pantry. I was also worried that my presence would make the other volunteers uncomfortable. After my first shift, I realized that my concerns were imaginary monsters. People did not care if I was a green card holder or a foreigner with limited English, since their foremost priority was getting the work done on time. They did not even ask the question, “Where are you from?” which has become like a rite of passage everywhere I go. The tasks did not require a high level of English either, and were simpler than I thought: shopping, sorting, and bagging. And while social distancing kept us all six feet apart, the other staff treated me as someone who had always been there, rather than as a newbie. I felt welcomed, valued, and most importantly, undifferentiated.
It has been three months since I started volunteering, and I love every moment that I spend there. It is not that I have a strong bond with other volunteers. Most times, all I say is “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “See you next week.” I do not know most of their names and only a few of them know mine. But the fact that we all come with the same goal in mind, that all of our efforts are geared toward achieving that goal, and that everything else (legal status, occupation, age, race, etc.) is considered irrelevant, is something that I really appreciate, especially during this time of social division and categorization. Personally, I would say that the welcoming environment that I experienced in the pantry is an unintended consequence of the pandemic. Once the fire on this side is finally extinguished, I will look back at this pandemic and remember, among other important things, the sense of belonging and comfort that I felt helping at the pantry in the midst of all the anxiety and fear in society. Indeed, the pandemic unmasks a reality that reinforces the conditional belonging of thousands of Asian Americans in the U.S. Interestingly, one can also discover that there is always a community where it is possible to feel valued and welcomed, even in times of crisis.