Coronavirus Pandemic: Chinese Americans Have Déjà Vu

Coronavirus Pandemic: Chinese Americans Have Déjà Vu

“For the people who are connected to Wuhan, the overwhelming sentiment is terrible déjà vu,” Tony Fan says. Fan, 32, grew up near Atlanta, and he and his wife have family in and around Wuhan. They moved to Hong Kong a few years ago, and spent January concerned about their relatives in mainland China. His wife’s father, a dermatologist, was briefly conscripted into seeing COVID-19 patients. Worried about the lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, in his hospital, his wife stayed up late trying to source Tyvek coveralls from a factory. Fortunately, no one in the family got seriously sick with COVID-19. But lately, Fan has been buying masks in Hong Kong to ship to friends in the United States. At the end of our call, he offered to ship me some too.

With COVID-19 cases mounting in the U.S., Chinese Americans have mobilized through WeChat, GoFundMe, and other social-media platforms to source and donate PPE for health-care workers in the U.S.—often drawing on the same connections made just a few months ago, when the outbreak in China was at its worst. Jerry Hu, an ophthalmologist in Fort Worth, Texas, ordered 5,700 surgical masks for a Beijing hospital in early February. Recently, he told me, staff at that same Beijing hospital donated about $14,000 for PPE, boxes of which are on their way to Hu’s house right now. He plans to distribute the equipment to local health-care workers.

Mei Mei has been coordinating donations of equipment like masks and gloves for health-care workers in California. (Erin Brethauer)

Mei, the real-estate agent in California, has also been coordinating a donation effort on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, collecting more than 27,000 masks, face shields, goggles, gloves, and other equipment to send to local hospitals. Packages are showing up every day outside her house from friends and acquaintances of her Bay Area Chinese American community. “A lot of the donations I received, they were all still in the original package shipped by their family [from China],” she told me.

After Mei canceled her trip to China, she immediately began social distancing at home in California. This was January and February, when life around her in the U.S. still went on as normal. She canceled Chinese New Year celebrations. She stopped going to church services on Sundays and Bible study on Fridays. Having paid close attention to the stories out of China, she took the dangers of the coronavirus seriously—so did, she says, about half of the people in her Chinese community. “For everybody who was non-Chinese, I think they thought I was crazy,” she said.

Mei’s college-age daughter thought she was overreacting, too. In early March, when her daughter’s school had a charity dance performance, Mei emailed the university president to urge them to cancel the event. The event did get canceled a few hours later, though Mei doesn’t know whether it was her doing. In any case, her daughter replied to the news with a sad face, saying, “Half of the school hates you.” “They don’t hate me now!” Mei told me on the phone. Her daughter has since admitted her mom was right.

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