Turns Out Immigrant Parents Were Right About Everything
Older immigrants are responding to the pandemic with startling resourcefulness, as their American offspring have discovered
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 hard-earned expertise and startling resourcefulness. Talking to them, a few key lessons have emerged—lessons that we soft American offspring might have learned sooner, if we’d listened more closely.
When times are good, prepare for bad. When times are great, prepare for terrible.
It’s a pretty sensible idea to put a little something away for a rainy day. But immigrant parents often seem like they’re constantly preparing for a hurricane — and now the hurricane has arrived to vindicate them.
“Oh, my parents’ hoarding! Their collection of stuff goes almost back to the first day they got here, and they’re always complaining they don’t have space for all of their things,” says Caroline Choe, a chef, writer, and educator living in Riverdale, New York. “It bugged the hell out of me, but it was smart: Everything they’ve saved has been useful during quarantine. So now I’ve learned that skill.”
Says Fung, “We have napkins that are so old — because my mom buys them whenever they’re on sale — that before the pandemic, I took a package of her napkins on a weekend trip with a friend, and when we opened it up we found a sweepstakes entry coupon from 1987. But we will never want for toilet paper or napkins because of that, and you’d better believe I was grateful during the pandemic.” Even with a wealth of paper goods packed in their closets, Fung’s mom still enforces rationing: “When we use her napkins, she always tears them in half, because, as she points out, you rarely need the whole thing.”
And while urban gardening may have become vogue during quarantine, for many immigrant parents, it’s long been a way of life. “We have a yard. It’s not huge, because it’s Brooklyn, but my mom plants all kinds of vegetables in it — squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, bitter melon, loofah squash,” Fung says. “Every year, she collects the seeds at the end of summer and saves them for next season.”
With so many neighbors around her suddenly interested in starting their own backyard farms, Fung told her mom that they should try to spread her bounty: “She thought it was kind of ridiculous, but she took her Japanese long cucumber seeds, which produce a lot of fruit very quickly, and grew 150 seedlings in tofu boxes, egg cartons, what have you. We ended up selling them for $2 each.”
Don’t complain about what you don’t have—work with what you do
Our immigrant parents came to a strange country and learned to speak an unfamiliar language while figuring out how to make do without access to the goods, products, and services that made up their everyday lives “back home.” That sharpened their ability to adapt and make the most of things to a razor’s edge.
“When my parents first came to America, it was the ’70s, and it was very hard to find kimchi, and it was very expensive even if you could find it,” Choe says. “So they basically figured out ways to make it — or something like it. They’d strain jars of sauerkraut and put hot sauce into them. It was terrible, but they made do. Because of that experience, even now my dad makes his own kimchi, and they store it in its own separate kimchi fridge downstairs.”
Natalie Keng, a multicultural marketing consultant, writer, and entrepreneur who grew up outside of Atlanta, remembers her mom’s resourceful culinary combinations, which she both prepared for the family and served at their Chinese restaurant.
“Growing up, I kept asking my parents, ‘You could’ve chosen anywhere. Why’d you land in Smyrna, Georgia, where we’re the only, only Chinese?’” she says. “But you should’ve seen what they cooked up: Hunan catfish, caught in Lake Allatoona, fried in a cast-iron pan because we couldn’t find a wok, and served with Rice-a-Roni or whatever else came out of Winn-Dixie.”
Ask little, give much
Keng’s mother, a cooking teacher as well as a restauranteur, was able to use her flair for fusion fare to build bridges into a community that was at first skeptical of Chinese cuisine and standoffish to their family.
“We weren’t just the only Chinese people—we were the only non-white, non-Black family in the area,” Keng says. “And because of Covid, Asians have had to deal with a lot of backlash here.”
Keng and her mother have made it a practice to bring baskets of “comfort dumplings” — fresh, hot potstickers — around to their neighbors during the pandemic. The outreach, part of a decades-long campaign by Keng’s mom to break the ice as both a chef and an educator, has paid off. “People come up to my mom and say, ‘Do you know you’re the answer to my security question? When it asks me to name my favorite teacher, I always say you!’”
There’s always a temptation toward self-interest during times of crisis, but most immigrant parents will emphasize that a focus on mutual well-being is what truly guarantees survival. “When Chinese markets were shutting down during the lockdown, there was a Google spreadsheet that was being shared around on [the messaging app] WeChat, listing all the Chinese grocery stores [in the New York area] that were open or closed,” Fung says. “That spreadsheet was constantly being updated by volunteers, like my mom, who were confirming the information by phone and by going and actually visiting the stores.”
Why cry when you can create?
Survival isn’t just about resourcefulness. It’s also about resilience. Most of the second-generation adults I spoke to admitted that their parents were reluctant to speak openly about the darker parts of their lives, sharing memories only occasionally and reluctantly.
My mother’s childhood in Taiwan was one of occupation, first by Japanese, then by the Kuomintang, full of uncertainty and threat and, at some points, desperation. As the first among a dozen children to attend college, Mom was tasked with figuring out what to do with the family’s dwindling savings after my grandfather died of liver disease. She ended up entrusting it to her eldest brother, who was sent to Taipei from their countryside home to purchase something — anything — that might help feed their many mouths. By the time he got there, however, soaring inflation had put most trade goods out of reach. What he brought home seemed useless: A pallet of comic books.
But mom quickly realized that in a time of despair, entertainment was as necessary as food. She set up a rental library of sorts, where people could sit in the street-level atrium of their house and read comics for a fee. The business quickly expanded to other periodicals, and her family soon became the town’s major distribution hub for newspapers. (It’s how my father met my mother, because as a poor university student, he had a penchant for flipping through magazines without paying, and she was the one tasked with shooing him away.)
When things seem hopeless, don’t mourn. Imagine something new and bring it to life instead. I’ve seen countless peers sharing their immigrant parents’ artwork and poetry, created during quarantine. In many cases, the work expresses feelings they don’t feel comfortable sharing in any other fashion. Filmmaker Grace Lee began posting pictures of paintings by her mother, Sooja, to Instagram, admitting that she was startled by the eerie, cryptic images they contained. “The darkness you see in those paintings, it was just coming out of her imagination,” Lee says. “But you know, I’m sure my son doesn’t think about me having an imagination. You don’t tend to think about your parents that way.”
Sooja’s paintings quickly drew a cult following, leading Lee and her mother to auction them off, donating the proceeds — more than $3,000 — to Covid-19 relief for Asian immigrant seniors and to the Auntie Sewing Squad, a collective of volunteers who’ve been making and distributing masks for all who need them since early in the pandemic. (“It’s so ironic that a bunch of college-educated Asian American women whose parents and grandparents did invisible, backbreaking garment labor are now performing that same work all over again,” says the squad’s founder, performance artist Kristina Wong. “When this all started, factory-made masks were out of stock for weeks, and there we were, trying to put together an ad hoc assembly line from our home sewing machines.”)
At the end of the day, our immigrant parents are practical. It’s how they got here, and how they got us here. The fact is, Choe says, “Asian parents have been ready for quarantine their entire lives. The rest of the world is still just trying to catch up. Including us.”