Nobody seems to care that I live alone in my 70s. My two adult children and four adult grandchildren are busy living their lives. It’s hard to put into words the feelings of loneliness that overcome me.
I give many gifts to my children. Yes, I’m invited to birthday parties and graduations—any celebration requiring a gift—and now I am broke, living off Social Security, fearful I’ll soon be homeless. I’m lonely and in fear of my immediate future.
I have no social contact with others my age. Guess I’m an introvert, lonely and wanting a friend.
Here’s another reader, Brenda:
I’m alone in Texas. My four children are out living their lives. If I died, they would find out two weeks later. My oldest daughter might care. My second daughter wouldn’t care. My son might be slightly shocked, but he would get over it quickly.
My youngest is the only one who shows much care. She calls me every Sunday. She is all I have, so I will love and cherish her from 2,000 miles away.
In an earlier note about a short documentary, The Forgotten Ones, featuring an 80-year-old woman living by herself in Chinatown, I asked readers what it’s like to grow old without any family at home. If you’re anything like Maude, it means fun, independence, and a daily sense of discovery (not to mention sex with someone in his early 20s):
A reader remembers his self-reliant grandmother:
She spent all of her life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, living in an apartment like your video’s por-por [a Chinese term for “grandmother”], but her place was smaller and up two flights of stairs. (I never visited Manhattan’s Chinatown, but the feel and vibe seems not too unlike SF.) My grandma was also by herself, after my grandpa passed away in the ‘90s. She chose to live in Chinatown because it was a familiar place and everything she needed was there. She refused to move in with us, away from Chinatown.
Many older people in that neighborhood also do not want to rely on their children. They don’t want to accept that they need to be cared for in their old age. They are sentimental about Chinatown and want access to all of the things they’ve been used to.
My grandma’s friends were her neighbors, as there was a community kitchen and bathrooms with showers that were publicly shared. Each week we would visit her at the apartment, as it was a drop-off point between shopping trips. Her birthdays were the time our families gathered. As a teenager I would still make a trip to see her, but in my 20s those trips lessened.
While my grandma did not do what the por-por in the video did [go through garbage bags on the sidewalk for discarded baked goods], she would sometimes ask shopkeepers for food that cannot be sold anymore—which they would’ve disposed of anyway—and make something out of it. We insisted that she should treat herself by buying things fresh, but she stubbornly argued that they are still good. I thought in her mind she had won something for not having spent a penny.
One of the most popular videos we featured this summer was a 10-minute documentary by Mantai Chow profiling an 80-year-old woman named King-Sim Ng. Ng’s husband died in 1985 and she has been living alone in Manhattan’s Chinatown for 15 years. Here’s a snapshot of her life, as seen by Mantai:
“This is just so sad and disturbing,” says reader JT. Another one, Ben, also got emotional over Ng’s story:
I think a lot of people can relate to the woman in the video, especially people coming from immigrant families. I almost cried watching this video because Ng, like my mother, also worked in the garment industry and her husband, my father, had also passed away. My mother is in a different living situation, but I can imagine the hardship this woman must have gone through as an immigrant and now alone living in Chinatown.
Do you live alone in your old age and want to share your feelings about it—positive, negative, or somewhere in between? Do you enjoy your independence or wish you still lived with loved ones? Please send us a note at email@example.com.
At the end of Mantai’s film, Ng disappears after being hit by a car, leaving the audience in angst. One reader pleaded in the comments section, “Do you have an update on her?? I would like to know whether she lived or not.” Mantai replied:
I got in touch with Ng finally in June after the film is done. She is back in her apartment safe and sound. She seems to be fine but her legs are still a bit weak. [Her friend] Tay visits Ng in her apartment almost every day now to give her food and stuff. Her children also are helping out! I hope things will get better for her.
A few days ago, after I got a hold of Mantai, he went to see Ng at her apartment and filmed a short update for her fans:
Such a sweet lady! Thanks to Mantai for the followup and happy ending.
Back when the documentary first aired, one reader created a commenting account (ChinatownGirl) just to share this remarkable coincidence:
I came across on the street the lady who “disappeared” in the video moments after she was hit by the car. So here’s what really happened:
On a drizzly night, Feb 4 around 10pm, I was walking down Mulberry St. to the subway. I saw a little old lady on the curb, next to her shopping cart. There was a big Italian guy on the phone with 911/ambulance dispatch. Apparently he had swiped her with his car and she had fallen.
Three Chinatown punks (I use that term 100% affectionately) were taking a smoke break outside a bar. One of the punks ran inside and came back out with an umbrella to shield the old lady from the rain. I went over and put my backpack under her arm to keep it out of a puddle. The punks and I asked her in Chinese how she was doing and where it hurt. She said her hip was very painful.
The Italian guy was talking to the 911 operator: “You wanna know how old she is? Er…um, I guess I’d say she’s 50-something?” I turned to the old lady and asked her how old she was in Canto. She said “I’m 80!” (White people REALLY can’t tell how old Asians are, I thought…)
While waiting for the ambulance, I asked her if there was anyone we should call? She dug into her many layers of coats/vests and pulled out the plastic ID pouch that all Chinatown grandmas have with their reduced-fare Metrocard. There was a worn piece of paper with her kids’ numbers on it. When the EMTs got there, I translated all the questions about meds and pain scale/locations. Then I called her son’s cellphone. He was in Queens. He was really concerned and thankful, and headed out immediately to meet her at NY Downtown hospital where she’d be taken.
Later that night, I got a text from him:
Hello Good Samaritan, Thank you very much for tending to my mother. I’m sure it was very reassuring for her to have you there. I am at hospital now but she’s getting x-rays, so I haven’t seen her yet. Thanks again & best regards
I sent a text back:
Sure, of course. A similar accident happened to my grandma at Chatham Sq a couple of months ago while she was crossing with her shopping cart too. I’m glad I was just passing by in time to help tonight! Hope she gets better soon. Good night,**--**
The next day, my uncles texted me, saying their old Chinatown friend told them I had helped his mom and helped him get to the hospital quickly. I asked my uncles how the stranger knew we were related? Because, they said, their friend only knew of one person named **--** in Chinatown!
Chinatown is not dead. It’s got to evolve, but it’s not dead. We are still here, our networks are centered here, and they run deep. I encourage more of us to re-engage and re-invent what we want Chinatown to be. What are the strands of the old Chinatown worth preserving? And how do we do that? I would like to hear your thoughts. [If you have any, please email firstname.lastname@example.org]
And for those who would ask, Why doesn’t the son have his mom live with him in Queens? Why don’t they live with her in Chinatown? Why would they let her pick trash in Chinatown streets and spend so many hours alone?
That gets back to the guilt/ambivalence over caring for our elders. Chinatown has been a community of working-class immigrants. We struggle to keep family connectedness across rifts caused by psychological economic trauma, relentless personalities that are required for survival, and the sometimes tragic success of working yourself out of poverty, only to transform your next generation into something that you are not. It’s a lot more complex than this video makes it out to be.
This video has gone viral among my Asian-American friends. I guess it speaks to a deep-seated guilt/ambivalence that many of us feel over caring for elderly parents and grandparents. Or a nostalgia for the Chinatown(s) of our childhoods that cannot exist anymore.
As someone who was born, raised, and is still working in Chinatown, I always appreciate a spotlight on the neighborhood, especially a narrative of relatively high production value like this one. However, I could not help but feel from the very beginning that this piece was somewhat sensationalistic. It leads you to believe, from the beginning, that this PoPo is eating out of the garbage, only to reveal moments later that she’s feeding birds.
The worst part is where it dramatically says, “she disappeared,” then reveals moments later that she was hit by a car. Then the video simply ends, mercilessly leaving the viewer hanging about the old lady’s well-being. A bit disingenuous when the filmmaker clearly knows what happened to her.
So now the comments section of TheAtlantic.com is filled with assumptions and condemnations for her “ungrateful” children who have supposedly “abandoned” her. The viewer is left with a sinking feeling that Chinatown is dead—just a husk of a once-thriving society, a place where a sweet old lady would be left alone to die anonymously in the street, a place that’s abandoned so hipsters should move in with their bars and galleries. No! I think this is actually a very dangerous narrative to broadcast, and somewhat irresponsible of the filmmaker!
Mantai replies to his critic:
Thanks for shedding light on what had happened that night. I am the producer and director of the film. I totally agree with you that Chinatown is not dead. The food sharing shown in the film is the proof. She helped her friend, meanwhile getting help from another friend. I think this is a beautiful picture. A lot of kindness and people take care of each other.
One thing I would like to clarify in response to your comment saying that “a bit disingenuous when the filmmaker clearly knows what happened to her.” I finished this film in March. The only thing I knew by then was she got hit by a car. I called and went to 20+ hospital but still couldn’t find her. I tried to reach out to her family members to no avail. At that point, I did not know her whereabouts and her conditions. Her friends and I only had her home phone number. All we could do was to wait until someone picked up the phone again. As a matter of fact, I [didn’t get] in touch with her until lately.
This 10-min documentary is just a glimpse into her life. I agree that it’s a lot more complex than that. This film is meant to stir up discussion and bring awareness to the society about the issues facing the elderly people in Chinatown, not to put blame on anyone.
This reader makes a great point in defense of Mantai:
It was apparently not intentional on the filmmaker’s part to leave out the information about her ultimate whereabouts and condition that elicited such strong to. However, it would be quite brilliant on his part to leave it out intentionally, because it would be consistent with the troubling feeling of loneliness and the disturbing sense of being practically invisible in a crowded city.
Otherwise, many viewers would not think much more about Ng or elderly people like her, much less take the time to write and criticize the filmmaker or express feelings of what psychology calls “disequilibrium,” which is required for learning, inquiry, action, etc. A neatly packaged video with a “happy ending” would be much easier to accept AND move right along to something else.
I speak as a second generation Asian American who—along with friends sharing similar backgrounds—has dealt with issues present in this thought-provoking film. When we pass by an elderly person (or people in similar conditions, such as the homeless or mentally ill), this film, and its unintended ending, reminds us to wonder about that person’s life challenges and actually do something that could help ease their burden, because it’s not just a movie; it’s real life.
One more reader for now:
As much as I appreciate this quick glimpse into Ng’s life, it begs a couple questions. The most glaring one has been asked by other readers: Where are her children, and are they aware of her dire straits? Secondly, is Ng aware of and able to access local charities and agencies that can assist her (i.e. Citymeals on Wheels and food banks)? Thirdly, is there some way that concerned audience members can offer assistance, such as a GoFundMe or a preferred charity?
As far as I know, Ng is aware of some community/charity groups in Chinatown. But I know there are elderly people including Ng who are somehow reluctant to reach out for help. The reasons might involve personal preferences, cultural issues, etc. It is a lot more complicated than what we think. I feel like it is the time to ask questions and figure it out together.
As to her family members, I have very limited access to them. To be honest, I don’t think it is fair to put blame on her children because we simply don’t know much about their family. They might have their own difficulties.
In terms of what we can do, I think we can keep our eyes open. When we see a need in our own community, we give a helping hand. It can be as simple as chatting with the elderly people in the street, buying them lunch and eating with them. This kind of support is especially important for those who are reluctant to reach out to the community centers and social services.
Image above: Glacier National Park, in Montana, as seen from the Blackfeet Reservation, near Duck Lake.
This article was published online on April 12, 2021.
In 1851, members of a California state militia called the Mariposa Battalion became the first white men to lay eyes on Yosemite Valley. The group was largely made up of miners. They had been scouring the western slopes of the Sierra when they happened upon the granite valley that Native peoples had long referred to as “the place of a gaping mouth.” Lafayette Bunnell, a physician attached to the militia, found himself awestruck. “None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley, can even imagine the feelings with which I looked upon the view,” he later wrote. “A peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears.” Many of those who have followed in Bunnell’s footsteps over the past 170 years, walking alongside the Merced River or gazing upon the god-rock of El Capitan, have been similarly struck by the sense that they were in the presence of the divine.
The next two years might be America’s last chance to protect the basic democratic principle of majority rule.
President Joe Biden came into office facing four “converging crises”: COVID-19, climate change, racial justice, and the economy. But after a few weeks of fast action on a pandemic relief plan, a fifth crisis will determine the fate of the rest of his administration, and perhaps that of American democracy itself: the minority-rule doom loop, by which predominantly white conservatives gain more and more power, even as they represent fewer Americans.
The doom loop consists of four interlocking components. Candidates who represent white conservatives—Republicans, in our ideologically sorted era—begin every election cycle buoyed by a sluice of voter suppression and gerrymandering (what I call electoral welfare), which makes it easier for them to win. Then antidemocratic features of the American system that have always existed but never benefited one party over the other in any systematic way help those same candidates take control of institutions such as the White House and the Senate, despite winning fewer votes and representing fewer people than their opponents. Once in control of these institutions, these newly elected officials use them to entrench their power beyond the reach of voters. If they are eventually voted out of power, they retain a veto over the agenda of the majority, which they use to block change and feed the conservative case that the government is “broken.” This hastens their return to power—along the very path they greased with voter suppression.
People who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine will have higher health-care costs. The rest of us will foot the bill.
Imagine it’s 2026. A man shows up in an emergency room, wheezing. He’s got pneumonia, and it’s hitting him hard. He tells one of the doctors that he had COVID-19 a few years earlier, in late 2021. He had refused to get vaccinated, and ended up contracting the coronavirus months after most people got their shots. Why did he refuse? Something about politics, or pushing back on government control, or a post he saw on Facebook. He doesn’t really remember. His lungs do, though: By the end of the day, he’s on a ventilator.
You’ll pay for that man’s decisions. So will I. We all will—in insurance premiums, if he has a plan with your provider, or in tax dollars, if the emergency room he goes to is in a public hospital. The vaccine refusers could cost us billions. Maybe more, over the next few decades, with all the complications they could develop. And we can’t do anything about it except hope that more people get their shots than those who say they will right now.
The former first lady fought the most conservative elements of the Reagan administration in an attempt to get her husband to pay more attention to the deadly pandemic. It wasn’t enough.
Updated at 2:24 p.m. ET on April 12, 2021.
In mid-1981 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control noticed a set of medical curiosities: an alert from Los Angeles that five previously healthy young men had come down with a rare, fatal lung infection; almost simultaneously, a dermatologist in New York saying that he had seen a cluster of unusually aggressive cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma, an obscure skin cancer. These seemingly unconnected occurrences had two things in common. First, all of the victims were sexually active gay men. Second, their maladies pointed to a catastrophically compromised immune system.
About a month after those reports, a San Francisco weekly wrote that something it called “gay men’s pneumonia” was going around. By September 1982, there was a medical name for it: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The following May, scientists identified the retrovirus that was causing it: human immunodeficiency virus. HIV. It would take longer before it became clear who was at risk, how far the disease could spread, or what needed to be done to stop it.
His parents give a lot of financial support to his twin brother and sister-in-law, and I wish they’d do the same for us.
Updated at 10:55 a.m. ET on April 6, 2021.
I am in a loving, five-year, long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, who happens to have a twin brother. My boyfriend is the successful one, with a doctorate from a top university, while his brother has bounced among degree programs and has yet to get a full-time job. His very wealthy parents have supported him through all of this. Recently my boyfriend's brother moved to Florida to start a new degree, and within a year married an older woman and just had a baby daughter.
I am jealous and angry at the support my boyfriend's parents are giving to his brother and his brother’s wife. They paid for their wedding, contribute to their rent and living expenses, and I suspect will now lavish money on their daughter. My boyfriend tells me that his parents are making sure the money they give is roughly even, but every time I ask him to be precise on this he gives conflicting answers or doesn't know.
New market-rate development helps relieve pressure on local housing prices.
If you were intentionally designing a development to spark a NIMBY backlash, you might come up with something that looks a lot like 10 Clay. A brand new building located in Seattle’s formerly industrial Belltown neighborhood, it adheres to a modern aesthetic of poured concrete, muted tones, and floor-to-ceiling windows. True to form, the website for 10 Clay celebrates amenities such as granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Hosting 76 “micro units” and half as much parking, the project seems perfectly optimized to house the well-paid, single young professionals that companies such as Amazon have attracted to the city in droves.
Today, however, 10 Clay houses Seattlites earning roughly a third of the median income, most of whom have recently struggled with homelessness. As reported in Next City, thanks to a deal struck by a local affordable housing non-profit, those suffering the brunt of Seattle’s housing shortage—a crisis that leaves nearly 12,000 Seatellites homeless—now enjoy a safe place to call home.
It’s late afternoon, late pandemic, and I’m watching a new nature documentary in bed, after taking the daintiest of hits from a weed pen. The show is called A Perfect Planet, and it is narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
I am looking at the red eye of a flamingo, a molten lake surrounding a tiny black pupil. Now I am looking at drone footage of a massive colony of flamingos, the classic sweeping overhead shot, what my brother calls “POV God.” Behind the images, a string orchestra sets the mood, giving the coral-pink birds an otherworldly theme in E minor.
Nature documentaries have never been more popular, in part because they offer easy escapism during a rough time, and in part because marijuana has been legalized in much of the United States. The combination is hard to resist, as my experience with A Perfect Planet proves. The stoned attention span perfectly matches the length of each vignette, in which Attenborough’s soothing, avuncular voice guides you through a simple story about animal life. In between, you are treated to epic, empty landscapes and intense close-ups of the rich colors and textures of the nonhuman world, which pop off like fireworks in your wide-open mind. The effect is awe-inspiring but also surprisingly chill. And there are no troublesome humans on-screen to kill the vibe.
On the morning of July 22, 2020, the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, posted a reflection on his organization’s 128-year history. “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country,” he wrote, “we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
Brune’s reexamination began with John Muir—the inveterate hiker and activist who founded the Sierra Club and was famous for his eloquent tributes to the Sierra Nevada, many of which were first published in The Atlantic. Though Muir is a renowned figure in the conservation movement, Brune wrote, he made derogatory statements about Black and Indigenous people that drew on racist stereotypes. He maintained friendships with other prominent conservationists well known for their racist beliefs. These and other long-ago words and actions, Brune argued, not only continue to alienate potential Sierra Club supporters but sustain a “dangerous idea” within the organization: “that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs.”
Workers are on the verge of going bonkers with their PTO.
Here’s a cool trick for blowing any American’s mind. Tell us that in France, so many boulangeries shut down for vacation every summer that it can be tough to snag a baguette. Bakers aren’t the only ones who get time off. In August, up to half of the country’s salaried employees have been known to take at least a full week off from work. Half!
Americans are good at lots of different things, but going on vacation is not one of them. Every year in parts of Europe, summer turns into a mini-sabbatical. In Norway, during the tradition of fellesferie, the nation simply shuts down for a few weeks of July fun. In Italy, so many people take the last two weeks of August off that Rome’s transit system runs on a reduced “festivi” schedule. Meanwhile, guess which industrialized country is the only one that doesn’t guarantee time off to its workers? Guess which country left 768 million vacation days on the table in 2018? Guess which country … arghhhhhhhh.
Many Americans would recognize the dilemma of Reuven, an anonymous Yiddish-magazine editor who is anguished by his community’s moral failures in the pandemic.
A few weeks ago, Reuven went to a party. It was indoors. No one wore masks. No one who attended was in any rush to get a vaccine. Reuven and his wife were uncomfortable. But if they hadn’t gone, his relatives would have felt as if he were “judging them” for gathering, “and they judge me back,” he told me. “I have to weigh my options.” Reuven’s parents and siblings roll their eyes when he constantly talks about their risk of getting sick, just as he did at the beginning of the pandemic. He’s meshige far corona, they say. Crazy about the virus.
The Yiddish-speaking, Hasidic Jewish world that Reuven inhabits is intensely communal. Men crowd into synagogues in his Brooklyn neighborhood to pray together three times a day—morning, afternoon, and night. Many large families share small apartments or rowhouses, where they stage elaborate meals each week on Shabbat and during the Jewish calendar’s many holidays, filling their homes with scrambling kids and occasionally the cousins and uncles who live just blocks away. Orthodox Jews in New York are distinctly vulnerable to the virus for many of the same reasons low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods have been hit hard: crowded living spaces, lack of public-health infrastructure, jobs that require in-person work. For many people in these communities, sealing themselves inside their apartments for a year simply wasn’t possible. Reuven knows this; he doesn’t fault the Hasidim for the way they live. “We shouldn't be judged merely on the fact that we feel that some forms of gatherings are important to us, even during a pandemic,” he told me. “What’s so disappointing and depressing, and even shocking, is the fact that we chose to do all this with zero precautions, for which there is absolutely no excuse.”