By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The memes abounded at New Year.
“What happened in 2020, stays in 2020.” Or, “The first rule of 2021 is don’t talk about 2020.” People understandably wanted to put a turbulent year behind them. But the Wing Luke Museum had a different idea. They put together an exhibition, “Community Spread: How We Faced a Pandemic,” to collect the stories before we forget the challenges but also the triumphs of a year of pandemic and its fallout.
“We tried to represent as broad of a community as we could,” Wing Luke Exhibit Developer Mikala Woodard explained. “The process has been challenging, emotionally draining. We’ve had to push back the opening date.” She expressed concerns over the Wing Luke’s ability to welcome patrons during a lockdown.
“You never know. Is anyone going to see it?” And the fact that it was a year seemingly without end, with troubling events overlapping into 2021. “More and more things kept piling on…issues we need to address around race and anti-Asian attacks. We are trying to keep it focused on the pandemic and these other things as they relate to that.”
Now, finally, with the Wing Luke open to walk-ins and with virtual tours available, they are ready to open the exhibition on May 7. It will feature displays such as COVID-19 masks and artwork, along with the stories collected over the past year by members of the community. Among others, the Wing Luke partnered with a University of Washington Public Health associate teaching professor, Anjulie Ganti, whose students conducted interviews with area residents about their experiences; Nola Liu, a graduate student who created an interactive story map with interviews, photos, and other materials to track the effects of the pandemic; and Erica Chung, who during the preparation of the project was a board member of the Korean American Historical Society here in Seattle.
“It was fascinating to hear the many stories of community members,” Chung shared. “For those lucky enough to isolate with their immediate family members, they appreciated the time they were spending together, even if it was just meals together. For those separated from family by distance, they were finding ways to stay connected virtually and anxiously waiting for when they could reconnect in person.” Chung recalled a couple of interviews that stood out to her, those of Sunset Kwon and Lori Wada, who are providing technical assistance to Korean Americans, such as helping them fill out grant or unemployment applications.
“They stated that many Korean Americans they are helping are not technically savvy and are limited to non-English speakers, so helping them has been especially challenging. Yet, at the same time, [they] recognized the desperation of the many Korean Americans who are calling for assistance.”
Something that occurred to Woodward over the course of the year was how quickly we could forget what it was like in the beginning. Before we really understood what was coming.
“We got this whole batch of interviews…documenting that early feeling of ‘What’s happening?’ Before all the George Floyd stuff happened.” Woodward said that she knew “we should capture these stories before things changed…In the beginning, we had no idea. Two-week lockdown. We thought we weren’t supposed to wear masks. What a confusing and shocking time it was…and how the ID took it hard. The businesses were really impacted…a lot of the existing inequalities have been deepened…[We] wanted to address the loss and honor the grief and hardship people are experiencing, but…emphasize the resilience and mutual aid, extended family values, and collective community support—so there are a lot of great stories about grocery deliveries, and making masks and checking on elders, all the ways people have been supporting each other logistically and finding ways to find joy.”
It wasn’t easy—it still isn’t easy—for everyone to share their experiences since the pandemic, separation from loved ones, financial hardship, and racism, threatened to dominate our lives.
“The interviewees thought it was a great idea to collect Korean American COVID-19 stories,” Chung said. “But for many, it is still too raw and emotional for them to consider. Many first-generation Korean American business owners or workers who are still struggling with the pandemic are reluctant to share their personal adversities and misfortunes. Culturally, it is not done.” But this very reticence is what spurred Chung on.
“We need to break the stigma of sharing our adversities so we can learn from them and so our Korean American community can evolve from this experience. I also started this project because it is important that we as Korean Americans are represented in history…In 25 years, in 50 years, or in 100 years, people will want to know.”
The “Community Spread” exhibition aims to make sure that people know the important part that was played by all members of the Puget Sound Asian American and Pacific Islander population during these months of both 2020 and 2021 that, as much as we might want to, will not be forgotten. The Wing Luke would like people to take from the exhibition what we have learned and can carry forward.
“There are ways that we can pull together to support each other and that’s how we can make it through,” said Woodward, who explained that the name of the exhibit was chosen as a deliberate double entendre to emphasize the good and the bad. As represented by the title art, which shows a heart with COVID spikes on it, “We want the community to spread…mutual aid and mutual care have been as contagious as the virus. People have been spreading that spirit and that’s what we wanted to focus on.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.