Turns Out Immigrant Parents Were Right About Everything

Older immigrants are responding to the pandemic with startling resourcefulness, as their American offspring have discovered

Jeff Yang
Published in
8 min readOct 8, 2020


Photo: bee32/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When the pandemic began and the country was bum-rushing grocery stores for toilet paper, Katherine Fung’s mother was strangely calm.

“I overheard her saying to a friend on the phone, ‘Soon we’ll be boiling roots to survive. I’ve been through that before,’” says Fung, a Brooklyn-based journalist.

Fung’s mom, who grew up in a province called Guangxi in mainland China, learned self-sufficiency from a young age. The oldest of six children, she dropped out of school to do housework and help her mother farm. There were times when they didn’t have much to eat.

These times have felt familiar to her — when the family needed face masks, she knew instantly how to make them, because her own mother had worked in a garment factory. Says Fung: “I feel like I’ve always sort of undervalued her skills, but these past few months, I’ve really found out how useful they are.”

As another child of immigrants, I can relate. All of this has been a reminder that many of our parents lived through war, dislocation, and refugeeism, through famine and natural disaster — and in the process, like Liam Neeson in Taken, gained “a very particular set of skills,” acquired over a lifetime of hardship.

Remember a lifetime ago, when Covid-19 first hit America like a two-by-four to the face? Asian immigrants were treated like pariahs, under the (extremely racist) theory that they were more likely to be spreaders of the disease. The reality: In ways large and small, Asian immigrants were the first to adapt to the crisis, and not only by practices we now know are crucial for slowing the pandemic — wearing masks, staying at home, avoiding crowds. They planted (or expanded) gardens. They sewed masks. They created intrepid mutual-support collectives, sharing food, supplies, and information, not just among themselves but also with their less-prepared neighbors.

My peers have been sharing revelatory moments of their older immigrant relatives — mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunties, and uncles — responding to crisis with…