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Keeping Love Close

What does love look like
in a time of hate?
Asian and Asian-American photographers respond.

In Chinese families, you greet someone by asking if they’ve eaten yet. It is love expressed as concern: Let me take care of you, let me tend to your most basic need. And the response — I’ve eaten already — is an expression of love, too. Don’t worry, Mom, I’m doing fine.

When I was in college, my father would send boxes of snacks: packets of potato soup mix, sticks of beef jerky, my favorite chocolate pudding cups, purchased in bulk. Didn’t he know, I thought, that I could buy food myself? He would call me weekly — to fuss, I used to think. Did I need money? Was I staying out late? The day before he died, he called to see if I was going to bed on time.

After my son’s birth, I took him to visit my mother and found she’d converted my old desk into a changing station. A soft mat on the desktop for my baby to lie on. Boxes of wipes in the cubbies that once held envelopes; a pump of hand sanitizer where pens once stood. Every need anticipated and attended to, though of course I could have just changed him on the floor. Holding my 3-month-old, his skull still soft, I was finally old enough to see this for what it was: love disguised as worry.

These days, I video-call my mother every weekend; I ask about her hip, her allergies, her medications. Has she been eating enough vegetables? Is she double-masking? Has she gotten any exercise?

Love is a slippery and intangible thing, and sometimes we can only pin it down in these mundane, bodily needs.

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For many of Asian descent, there is good reason for love to look like worry, especially now. Our faces mark us, in the eyes of too many, as foreigners, no matter how long we’ve been in the United States. Sadly, this is nothing new. Like so many other wrongs in our society, it’s a crack that has always been present, widening under the pressure of the pandemic.

I watch the videos of attacks on elderly Asians, though they are hard to stomach. They dress like my faraway aunties and uncles; sometimes they walk like them too, hands clasped behind their backs, or clutching plastic shopping bags heavy with fruit. I cry because it could have been them; it still could be them, next time. Each of these people is someone’s auntie or father or poh poh.

I text my cousins — only our generation replies promptly. How are you? How are your parents? Stay safe, OK? I text my mother a picture of the food I’ve cooked, the cake I’ve baked, my son smiling and well-fed. What I mean is: Don’t worry, we’re all fine, see?

I wish I lived nearby, so I could bring her melons and the pork buns she loves, so that if someone came rushing toward her, ready to strike, I could throw myself in their way.

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When your face makes you vulnerable, one solution is to disappear: Keep your face hidden; don’t go far from home; don’t leave the house at all. Some advocate becoming hyper-American. Change your name; change your smile; wave the flag — camouflage yourself with what we’re told Americanness should resemble, which is to say: not us. Others would like us to disappear literally. I was 11, standing at a bus stop, when a man shouted in my face: Go back to China or Vietnam or wherever you came from.

Hanging above the desk where I type this is a small print of a famous Dorothea Lange photograph: “Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942.” It shows the Wanto grocery store, a huge banner stretched across its front. I AM AN AMERICAN, it reads. I picture Tatsuro Matsuda, the owner, a University of California graduate, commissioning the sign. Larger. All capitals. As large as you can make it. Hanging it across the windows of his family’s store, embracing his Americanness in two-foot letters.

And then, with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans, he was rounded up and sent to a detention center nonetheless, disappearing into the desert. I can’t find anything about what happened to him after that, only this picture of this sign that did not save him.

A picture can’t prove someone’s humanity — at least not to those determined to see you as other. But we don’t need our photos and stories to convince people we’re human, that we’re just like them. We don’t need to be just like them, for that matter; we don’t need to match some narrow red-white-and-blue blur of what Americanness — or humanity — means.

There is value in choosing how to be seen, in reclaiming the right to select the face you show the world, in insisting that others see you as you know yourself to be. In proudly and boldly framing ourselves in the ways of our own choosing, to say: Here I am, this is me.

In a way, this is a form of love, too.

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In the meantime, we survive: by loving each other through our worry and by our worry. We check in. We mask our children, and ourselves; we remind each other to stay on guard. We send packages with gift messages to the living and make offerings to those who have gone. We stock each other’s fridges, feed each other, tend each other’s bodies and spirits in whatever ways we can. We visit those we love, but sometimes only through glass: behind windows, on our screens, in our minds. We do what we can to show them we are fine, so that they worry less, and in this way, we show them our love, too.

In the early days of the pandemic, I sewed mask after mask, mailing them to family and friends when none were available to buy. My mother had been worrying about my masklessness for weeks, so I snapped a selfie in one and sent it to her. Happy, Mom? I asked.

I am very happy now, she texted back.