This week, in a hot pink box outside of a Malaysian restaurant near New York City's Chinatown, Moonlynn Tsai pulled out a stack of hand-written notes covered with Chinese characters. Many read: 我們在想您，我們愛您” which translates to, “We are thinking of you. We love you.”
These letters will be delivered, along with hot meals, to seniors in New York City's Asian community by Heart of Dinner, co-founded by Tsai and Yin Chang. It's one of many mutual aid groups that have sprung up in New York City to support vulnerable people—helping them get food, groceries, and other supplies.
Heart of DInner is providing home-cooked dishes and grocery donations to Asian-centered nonprofit organizations in New York City like the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) which runs five senior centers in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.
But with the handwritten notes, Heart of DInner is offering more than just food.
Their initiative arrives at a moment when many Asian people have been angry, sadded, and fearful about an increase in racism and xenophobia from the new coronavirus's association with China, and are seeking a way to feel reconnected to and empowered by their culture and community.
In February and March, Asian-American advocacy groups reported a spike of verbal and physical assaults across the country. In New York specifically, an Asian woman wearing a mask was physically attacked at a subway station near Chinatown. In Queens, a man yelled and cursed at a Chinese father, then hit him over the head in front of his 10-year-old. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights told the Wall Street Journalist that between February 1 and April 16 there were 105 reports of anti-Asian incidents—compared to just five in the same time period last year.
While Chang and Tsai read about increasing harassment in the news, it happened to them as well. One day, while walking down the street, a man rode by on a bike, leaned near to Chang’s face, and sneered, “Motherf*cker,” go back to where you’re from.”
“We couldn’t help but think about our grandparents during this time and what would happen if these were our grandparents,” Chang said. They started to call nonprofit organizations that served aging Asian populations in New York, and discovered that many of them were struggling with access to food.
Heart of DInner was originally intended to be a food and business tour of Chinatown, but with New York City shut down, they pivoted. The first meal Tsai and Chang made was on April 8th—about 120 orders of five spiced tofu, mushroom, napa cabbage and goji berries, delivered to Hong Ning Housing for the Elderly in Manhattan. Since then, they’ve expanded to provide food for CPC’s seniors in Brooklyn and Queens too. This week, they added Hamilton Madison House to their roster. Along with the hot meals, they also donate groceries and dried goods that can last one to two weeks.
The meals are an homage to what Chang and Tsai’s grandparents made for them growing up, and cooked by them in the Malaysian restaurant, Kopitiam, which Tsai co-owns. Another recent meal was brown rice porridge, roasted king oyster mushrooms, and tomato egg—a traditional dish of scrambled eggs, scallions, and tomatoes. Then, porridge with sweet potatoes, an egg omelet with preserved daikon, with a veggie medley on the side. From Tsai’s connections in the restaurant community, they’ve also had other’s donate food, like soups from Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social.
When Chang and Tsai asked the nonprofit organizations how the seniors were doing, they learned that outside of a need for meals, people were feeling lonely and isolated. “Many of them don't have family here,” Chang said. “The aides that take care of them aren’t able to go to work anymore because of COVID-19, or might not want to transmit it in case they’re asymptomatic.”
They started handwriting notes on the food containers shortly after. When they posted photos of elderly Chinese people receiving their food with the handwritten notes, it struck a chord with their Instagram followers. Almost immediately, people were commenting and wanting to contribute their own letters.
“We’ve been blown away because the letters are now coming from not even just New York. Now they’re coming from California, Taiwan, other countries, other cities,” Tsai said. They now have a goal of receiving 1600 letters by this week.
When Judy Lei, 30, saw the photos, she said, “I felt a deep sadness when I saw pics of seniors opening their doors, but the smiles on their faces really warmed my heart,” Lei said.
She lives in Brooklyn now, but grew up in Chinatown, went to school there, and spent her childhood weekends with her grandparents there. “Chinatown is home to me and the people who live in Chinatown are my people,” Lei said. “Knowing seniors are left alone during this time and may not have the family support really made me feel sad.”
She wrote 101 notes—until she ran out of Post-Its. Lei said that in Chinese school, part of her homework assignments were to write characters ten times. “This project really brought back memories of that type of drill,” Lei said.
Vicky, a 24-year-old who lives in Crown Heights wrote 50 notes. Last year, she bought tickets to see her grandparents in China in April, but now doesn’t know the next time she’ll visit them.
“All I can think about is my grandmother's fierce joy amidst anything and what i would give to hear her call me 宝贝 and tuck my hair behind my ear so many times i get annoyed,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Writing these notes... felt like it was almost maybe possible to send love across oceans.”
Jennifer Chang, a 30-year-old in Brooklyn, reflected on her affection for her grandparents too, who took care of her as a baby while her parents worked. She wrote around 30 notes for Heart of DInner to deliver. "These are all our po pos, gong gongs, nai nais, ye yes," she said. "They are the ones who help make Chinatown and other Asian communities the vibrant neighborhoods that they are. I want them to know we, as a community far and wide, love them and have them in our hearts.”
It's been a small way for Asian-Americans to do something positive in the face of the harassment and racism they've experienced. Lei said that she’s felt tense walking around the city as an Asian person. “While this didn’t directly motivate me to participate, I see hate happening around the world and I hope this initiative, in our own little community, will help the seniors make it through during these hard times,” Lei said.
At the beginning of the outbreak, when the virus was still only in Wuhan, Vivan Chen, a 38-year-old on the Upper West Side, said her nine-year-old daughter came home from school one day upset. “Some of the kids said they didn’t want to play with her because she was Chinese and eats bats and had coronavirus,” Chen said. Her daughter asked if eating Chinese food could give her the virus, and Chen had to reassure her she would not. This week, Chen, her husband, and children wrote 50 notes together.
Christine, 51, who lives in downtown Manhattan, also enlisted her kids to help her write 200 notes, using pretty stationary “to add to the homemade messaging, that it comes from people who really do care about them.” She wrote "“We are thinking of you. We love you," saying that she like how many times the word for "heart (心)" was in the characters.
While the spike in racism didn’t directly fuel her decision to write letters, she’s experienced it as well. On Instagram, she got a message from a stranger that “put the blame of the virus on Chinese people and told me (a vegan account) to stop eating bats,” she said.
Stephanie Moy, 27, said that living in New York, she expected the diversity in the city to lead to less discrimination. But once, while walking from the subway in Union Square while wearing a face mask, someone yelled at her: “Go back to China you walking disease.”
Moy has lost her job because of COVID-19, but said it's given her plenty of free time to write and draw letters. She’s written about 30 so far. The front cover reads: “We are thinking of you!” On the inside: “Hello! I know you don’t know me, but I still hope you are doing well. Everything will get better. Stay strong! We will get through this together. Smile and laugh often -New York Neighbor.”
Moy wrote what she would like to hear from a stranger right now. “I basically wanted them to know that as a whole, we will conquer this difficult time together," she said. "And despite the distance and lack of physical community, we are all emotionally together still and no one is forgotten. I know the letters aren’t the same as a physical hug, but I hope they leave the elderly community with that same sense of warmth and safety.”
Update 4/24: This article has been updated to reflect a name change for the community relief group, from Table to Table NYC to Heart of Dinner.
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