On my computer screen, I often look at a picture of a mile-long field of yellow flowers surrounded by mountains. At the foot of one mountain are a small village, a river, and distant houses. My mother took this picture years ago near the place where I grew up in China. Since the pandemic started in March 2020, it has been my background for Zoom meetings that I attend. It reminds me everything I left behind since I came to America.
When COVID-19 broke out in China last year, my parents and I talked on the phone almost every day. My parents are in their 80s and live alone in a 600 square-foot apartment on the 6th floor of an apartment building. For more than three months, they did not step out the door of their unit. My parents did everything they could to assure me that they were living happily in their small space so I should not worry about them. They sent me photos of my father playing piano, my mom exercising indoors, flowers set on the balcony, and birds flying outside the windows.
As COVID-19 moved to America, they watched the number of cases rise sky-high and were very worried. But they tried their best not to show their worries. We talked about the weather, food, exercise, family, and neighbors, but not COVID-19, so that I would not worry them. Without words, I know exactly how my parents felt about me living in a COVID-19 hotspot zone. I understand the fears, worries, sadness, anxiety, questions, and doubts behind their words and calm voices. Those hidden emotions and thoughts are somehow communicated and shared. Every call is a comfort for my parents and me during this crisis. My parents are just two people among millions of the resilient elderly in the pandemic.
This ongoing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate targeting the elderly is particularly painful for me to watch. In Chinese culture, and other Asian cultures, aging is not only a biological process, but a celebratory status. Asian cultures value aging and see an elder’s experience and wisdom as immensely valuable for the younger generations. Elders earn respect and certain privileges in society. Instead of greeting them by their names, we refer to unrelated elder people as “grandpas” and “grandmas,” even elderly strangers on the street. In our view, it is a societal responsibility to protect and to take care of the older generation.
Unfortunately, their physical vulnerability has become a target in the wave of AAPI hate in America. Since COVID-19 began, the number of attacks on the elderly has risen significantly across the country. Based on the “Stop AAPI Hate” organization’s report, there were over 2,800 self-reported incidents between March 19 to December 31 in 2020, 7.3% of them involving people older than 60. The number does not include many incidents in 2021. For example, in February, an 84 year-old man who emigrated from Thailand died after he was slammed to the ground in San Francisco and a 91 year-old man was shoved to the ground in Oakland. In March, a 65 year-old woman from the Philippines was stomped, kicked, and severely injured in midtown Manhattan. In April, a 77 year-old man was pushed to the ground in front of a New York supermarket. These incidents show that society has failed to protect the elderly from being harmed.
What a shame!
Coming to America was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I knew that America is a melting pot from my English textbook in high school. But after two decades of living in this country, I came to realize that America is more like a giant container with layers of boxes. The boxes are labeled and organized in different sizes and colors. We live in our own boxes and barely know each other. Some evolutionists and psychologists argue that xenophobia is a survival mechanism ingrained in human nature. However, love and altruism are also in our DNA. It is up to us to decide how to create a melting pot together.
When a society cannot protect the vulnerable elderly population and a system no longer serves equality, fear takes over, violence increases, and no one will be safe. The prolonged pandemic has turned the world upside down. To protect those who cannot protect themselves during this crisis is a duty for those who are privileged in society. Liberty, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness are a constitutional right for every American. This AAPI hate must stop.
Each phone call with my parents ends like this: My father tells me, “Eat well, sleep well, and be safe.” This is my wish to every elderly person, regardless of their ethnic background, in this country. We all have a responsibility to take care of them.