Chinese Americans Have Seen This Before

The lockdowns, equipment shortages, and overburdened hospitals feel all too familiar.

In January, Mei Mei, a real-estate agent in California, shipped N95 masks to her parents in China. When the outbreak started getting worse in the U.S., they considered sending the same masks back to her. (Erin Brethauer)

Back in January, when a mysterious virus in Wuhan still seemed like faraway news, Mei Mei and her husband bought N95 masks and two boxes of hand sanitizer to take to her elderly parents, who live 300 miles east of the Chinese city. Mei, 48, a real-estate agent in Fremont, California, had planned to bring the supplies on a trip to China to celebrate her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Then Wuhan went into lockdown, and all of it was canceled.

Mei still mailed the masks to her parents, but not the hand sanitizer—“which became such a blessing,” she told me, because hand sanitizer would soon sell out in stores around the U.S. Masks started disappearing, too. Over the month of March, a strange reversal began as new COVID-19 cases in China started to fall and those in the U.S. started to skyrocket. Mei’s parents in China were now worried about her. They still had some unused N95s left over. Should we, they asked Mei, send the same masks you mailed us the 6,000 miles back to you in California?

For lots of Chinese Americans, the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. feels eerily familiar in a deeply personal way. First-generation immigrants in particular, many of whom still have close personal ties to China, followed the situation there closely and recognized the virus as a serious threat before it registered for the rest of America. Now the social isolation, the overwhelmed hospitals, the equipment shortages, the deaths—all of this is a replay of what loved ones in China went through two months ago.

“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 event, 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.

I have to say I was getting uncomfortable flashbacks at this point in my conversation with Mei. My own parents are first-generation Chinese immigrants, and when they were stocking up at Costco all the way back in February, I was rolling my eyes. “It’s not that scary, is it?” I asked my dad on the phone. I worried about my aunt in China, who is a doctor, but I never thought to worry about us here. And in the nearly dozen conversations I had for this story, I noticed the same general pattern in how first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants responded to COVID-19.

Like most Americans, Angela Zhang, a medical student in Rhode Island, wasn’t too concerned about COVID-19 early on. At least not compared with her mom, who has been sending her multiple messages a day telling her to wash her hands, wear a mask, and stay at home. “It’s how she shows love,” says Zhang (no relation to me).

Zhang’s mom, Yahua Yu, is a neurologist in Seattle. She had gone to medical school in Wuhan, and throughout January and February, she was getting dire updates from former classmates still in the city. The reality that seemed so far away and so unreal to many Americans felt very real and very close to her and other Chinese immigrants. Now that distant reality is America’s reality. “You tell people around you, but they didn’t really want to believe that,” she told me. “Then you start saying, ‘You will see. You will see.’”