By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
One threatened to get a lawyer. Another kept a journal. Another joined a charity relief effort.
But in the end, they were still waiting to see if they would prevail.
Northwest Asian Weekly reached out to half a dozen Asian American mothers that are facing discrimination during the coronavirus outbreak. Some asked for anonymity. Others were willing to go on record. Though their experiences were different, each was deprived of her right to financial support through the use of subtle racist characterizations. Yet each found a way to disrupt the exploitation even while caring for children.
You can ‘become the company maid’
Evangeline, 38, a marketing director from the Philippines, works for an IT company on the Eastside and has three young sons. When her department was closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, she asked her company about applying for unemployment benefits.
But her supervisor refused to put her on “stand-by” status, which is required by the new state disaster relief laws to be eligible for support.
“Even though my job was eliminated, he said I could become ‘the company maid,’” said Evangeline, who asked that her name and some details of her situation be changed for fear of retaliation.
Worried about what such work would entail, she considered taking unpaid leave and taking her sons back to the Philippines, where she has family, for the duration of the outbreak. But she made the mistake of sharing her thoughts with her supervisor.
When she contacted human resources, they used her initial idea of leaving the country as another excuse for not helping her with “stand-by” status. So, she threatened to get a lawyer.
Immediately, human resources changed its position. The director now encouraged her to apply for unemployment benefits. So Evangeline began to try to reach the state unemployment office, which is flooded with calls.
A few days later, the company changed its position again. If she applied for unemployment benefits, it now informed her, her status would change to “part-time” and she would lose her company medical benefits. When she looked back through the email chain, she found the earlier email encouraging her to apply for unemployment had been deleted.
After a day of prayer, she made her choice. She filled out an application for unemployment benefits online. But the website stated that the office was “targeting mid-April” to have funds available.
“Well, I applied,” she said.
Encouraged, she then went on to apply for Obamacare.
“I had to do this,” she said. “How can I be sure I’ll even have a job when this is over?”
The whole experience has left her with bitterness.
“This outbreak is like a mirror,” she said. “It shows people’s true natures, do they choose to do good, or simply to protect themselves.”
A microcosm of discrimination
Scholars say this kind of discrimination reflects the experience of many marginalized groups.
“Inequality—racial, economic, gender—is often exacerbated during times of crisis, including in the current pandemic. Communities that were already disproportionately suffering under years of policies that have produced great disparities in wealth, employment, education, and health are now suffering disproportionately from covid-19,” said Melissa May Borja, assistant professor in the department of American Culture at the University of Michigan in an email.
“Groups that have not historically been the most powerful in the workplace (e.g., racial minorities, women) are more vulnerable now,” she added.
Keeping a diary
Mei Chen, a graduate student from China seeking a job as a professor in sociology, is at home with her 9-year-old son and her Spanish husband, a software engineer.
Although she has dozens of articles due, and is working on a book, her husband spends the entire day in online meetings or chatting with friends, while almost all of the cooking and childcare devolves to her.
While Mei—who also asked us to disguise her story by changing a few details, to protect her privacy in a close-knit academic field—is good-natured about taking on the bulk of the work. She is finding it difficult to get her work done and advance her career.
“My child really wants my attention all the time. When I give him a task to do, he is always coming in to ask me to check it,” she said.
While her husband works in a separate room, she plays soccer and Ping Pong with their son, does drawings with him, and does most of the cooking, except when they order pizza. She also is in charge of all his schoolwork, including reading and online education (her school district does not provide online teaching).
“I’m not looking at this situation as an academic who studies human behavior,” she said. “I’m looking at this as a desperate mom.”
Her husband is the breadwinner, bringing home a salary that supports the entire family in an affluent home on the Eastside, while she, as of yet, earns nothing. So the roles, of her as principle homemaker, and he as aloof earner, have become hardened. She now regrets agreeing to submit several articles and write a book review for a prestigious journal—rare opportunities to take even small steps forward in an ultra-competitive career with few openings.
“I think I took on too much,” she said.
Yet it was during a few moments that she found herself free that she began a subtle act to assert her agency by observing and commenting on her situation as an intellectual.
Her husband was on a weekly Zoom call with friends in Spain. Her son likewise was chatting online with friends.
“I heard my husband talking loudly and laughing in Spanish, it was the first time I had heard him happy in a long time, and at the same time, my son was talking in English with his friends,” she said.
“I had the idea to start keeping a journal of moments like that, that stood out to me in singular ways.” Mei continues to keep her journal.
“Perhaps I will publish it some day. It would be a hybrid of first-person reflections and academic analysis,” she said.
Joining a new group
Jasmine Zheng came to Seattle from Shanghai 10 years ago and, several years later, opened a store selling a Chinese brand of fashionable women’s clothing in Pacific Place. Though the mall forced her to move her location from one floor to another multiple times due to renovations, she found ways to stay in business despite the flight of customers to online shopping.
“People would come in for personal advice about our products,” she said.
Her line of clothing, JNBY, is a combination of fashion and art that is designed to encourage women to assert their agency.
“It’s all about finding the right style as your personality seeks out that unique combination that allows you to ‘just naturally be yourself,’” she said, explaining the origin of the acronym.
But as the outbreak spread, all of her employees either called in sick or asked for sick leave. Finding herself the only one remaining in the store, and working long hours, she pleaded with the owners of the mall to allow her to close her store temporarily.
“It wasn’t in the contract, so they wouldn’t even consider it,” she said.
While in her case, there did not appear to be overt racism involved, her perception of herself as Chinese made her susceptible to overall feelings of disempowerment experienced by foreigners and particularly immigrants in our society. She considered getting a lawyer, but she believed, as a single shop owner, that she wouldn’t have a chance against the lawyers representing the mall.
“In America, if you don’t have the resources, it’s harder to win legal battles. People may not always consider things from a compassionate standpoint.”
Eventually, however, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all businesses closed.
But even after living in the United States for a decade and operating her own business, she found it difficult to understand the terms of the relief efforts offered to small businesses. She said the interest rates for loans appeared unduly high. And she said it seemed another part of the American ethos of “everyone for himself,” that it would be left to individual small business owners to sort out the technicalities of the arrangements.
“It feels like I have to hire a lawyer to help me with them.” Meanwhile, Zheng faced the added pressure of time, knowing that if she was not able to obtain assistance within a few weeks, she would run out of resources to reopen her business.
“We still have to pay rent and everything else,” she said.
On the day she spoke to us, she was lifting her spirits by delivering face masks she had made out of her products to a Chinese American group providing supplies to local hospitals. It was a small gesture of solidarity. But it encouraged her to do something else positive. She took a walk in the park.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.