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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In Koreatown, Los Angeles
“Every week my parents drive an hour and half away to visit me in Los Angeles. They stock my fridge, clean my house, do my laundry, cook meals for the week and fix anything broken. It’s important to them that I stay on track ever since I overcame a decade-long opiate addiction. I’ve spent the last two years relearning how to live, replacing all the shame I had with love and connection instead. I am so grateful to be alive, and for the love, support and hope they give me.”
Christelle de Castro
In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
“I adopted my sweet pup last September, and renamed her Mayonnaise. My entire family immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. We didn’t grow up appreciating dogs, as they aren’t a big part of Filipino culture. A few weeks ago I received a care package from my mom packed with gifts for Mayo. It was a way of telling her, ‘Welcome to the family,’ and it made me feel so seen.”
In her kitchen in Brooklyn
“Love is present in my life in so many different ways, it’s hard to fully express with words. Cooking is one of my favorite activities and I can spend hours in the kitchen, but even more so is the act of sharing it with those that I care for. The joy I see in their faces when I present them a home-cooked meal is one that never gets old.”
In Portland, Oregon
“I met Denzel when my partner and I moved into a small duplex in North Portland. Every afternoon, the sounds of his trombone swelled from the stairwell, jazz melodies filtering between the creaky, red floorboards. It wasn’t long before we spent evenings in the backyard, talking about his past in Nevada, his present as a DACA recipient, and his dreams for a better future. Four years later, he and his wonderful wife, Aurora, are on the verge of becoming parents — by the time you read this he might very well be a father to a baby boy.”
“Seunghoi (안승회) immigrated to the U.S. for work from South Korea a few years ago. With a mounting feeling of loneliness, she called her sister Seungwon (안승원) to join her. To feel the shadow of absence from a sibling is something I have felt intimately, living thousands of miles from my brother and sister the majority of my adult life. Missing everything from the big days to the small moments, compounded over years, hurts. Yet, I know we will share space again — a powerful reminder of how lucky I am to have them in my life.”
Brendan George Ko
In Maui, near his parents’ home
“My father has always been an enigma. We knew he immigrated to Canada in the 1970s from South China, that he loved to figure skate and paint, and that he worked himself down to the bone. It turns out, in order to escape persecution from the Communists, my father smuggled his way into Hong Kong and left behind his mother, brother and baby sister. When he moved to Canada one of his Canadian friends told him that, in Canada, if you want to find a partner you ought to be good at figure skating. So he picked up skating and met my mother.”
“I believe nobody can replace the love of a grandma. They have the magical ability to make everything feel better. Sadly, I have only seen mine twice in the past 13 years after I moved to the United States because she lives in Korea. I was reminded to express extra gratitude and love toward her especially during this time.”
In Los Angeles
“I feel more invisible as an Asian-American now more than ever, even as someone who strives every day with every shot and every breath to make the invisible visible and the ordinary extraordinary. I aim to protect those who cannot protect themselves. These are the microcosms of humanity. Behavioral change and softening of the heart cannot be rushed, but can be encouraged.”
“Throughout the pain that this past year and, specifically, the last few weeks have caused, I realize I have retained so much joy in little pockets of my life. The love that I receive on a daily basis from my partner and my friends is so nourishing and keeps me feeling like a whole person.”
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 I was called a ‘chink’ on multiple occasions last year, I realized that my belonging in this country was provisional at best. Whatever ‘American’ identity I had pieced together over the past three decades was utterly dismantled, leaving in its wake a crippling fear of stepping outside of my apartment. Since then, my lifeline has been the texts and emails that I have received from friends and family. These messages have lifted me up on good days, quelled my fears on low days and put me back together at a time when I questioned my very existence here in this country.”
“Am I practicing self-love or narcissism? Nowadays I don’t know anymore. Last year was my welcome to America and I spent most of it at home. Last month, I moved into a new home across the street from the building where I was interviewed for my green card. I never understood what a sense of belonging felt like until recently. These photographs are pages of my gratitude journal. There’s not much to be celebrated these days. But I don’t think I can handle much more than what I got either. These photos are what I got and what I’m thankful for.”
In Ridgewood, Queens
“My kids give me hope for collective change because of how much they love life and how free they are.”
“There has been a longstanding obsession with clarity and focus in photography. In truth, only time and distance can allow insight into a particular moment, at the expense of the details that we scramble to hold onto.”
An Rong Xu
In Taiwan, his home during the pandemic
“The concept of love that I grew up with isn’t what I saw reflected on television or movies. My family didn’t hug each other or say things like, ‘I love you.’ I spent much of my life searching and trying to see people who look like me in love. It wasn’t until I began traveling through Asia that I began to see and feel the love I was looking for. These photographs reflect gestures of love from my current home, Taiwan — the small, everyday, mundane things that add up to what I’ve come to understand as love.”
In Ridgewood, Queens
“My partner and I both have a Japanese parent and an American parent. We both spent our lives in Japan until our midteens, went to high school in the States, and ended up in New York where we met. Our parents’ love stories didn’t come as easy as ours. They had to go through the hurdles of language barriers, differences in culture and customs, and acceptance from their friends and family. I thought it was fitting to pay homage to our pioneers, and the way we inherited their language of love.”
In Osaka, Japan, during a family visit
“My parents have been married for almost 58 years. They are a quiet couple without many activities, especially during the pandemic. But they still enjoy their daily routines. Many Japanese people, especially of my parents’ generation, do not express their feelings physically, such as with hugging or holding hands. But I wanted to capture the quiet moments in their lives together, to show their way of love, and my way of love to them, through the lens.”
“I’m connecting to my lineage with my elders that are in the afterlife and those who are still alive in these images. Hearing of the tragic attacks on Asian elders and others made me want to dig into my history and find the resilience and strength within my blood. We see three generations in the embodiment of my grandmother’s presence in the altar, my father through his identification card and me in the flesh.”
In Los Angeles
“Is there anything I could do?” a friend asked me the morning after the shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, most of whom were Asian women. I shrugged and put my head back down on the pillow and closed my eyes. The last year has really simplified the way I look at life and made clear to me what truly brings me joy during an incredibly traumatic time. When the feeling is too heavy, it helps to look at myself through the eyes of the people who love me.”
“These last two months I’ve spent in my Brooklyn apartment are the first I’ve truly spent alone. Focusing on the things that I am in control of — my habits, my relationships, self talk, self love, boundaries, my mental and physical health, my environment — and standing firm in the connection to myself, my history, lineage, family and friends, are acts of radical self care that keep me grounded during hard times. When we can’t do much to change the external world, we can work hard to change our internal one.”
In Elmhurst, Queens
“Two years ago, I packed my clothes, my lover’s letter and my dream to New York City. Here is where I’ve experienced my next chapter. I made new friends. We share our dreams. We all enjoy our lives in this city but still deeply miss where we are from. These photos reflect how we keep our love close to us. Our belongings carry our memories and faith here.”
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 Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
“I had hoped to wrest some profound meaning out of these photographs, but the reality is much simpler. They are just a collage of what I see and what I choose to surround myself with. All of these things in my life bring me great comfort and sustain me through times of sorrow and uncertainty.”
Justin J Wee
“I experienced a lot of violence growing up when I was caught indulging my femininity. I remember one incident where, after being found with a blanket on my head, an elder forced me into female clothing and made me stand for a picture. Since then, I’ve performed once in drag and I remember getting off the stage and into the arms of my friend Heather. She greeted me with a bouquet of flowers and a drink, and when she hugged me I could feel her pride. I keep forgetting how much it means to be affirmed by someone who looks like you, until it happens.”
“Recently it’s become increasingly hard to get out of bed. It feels like we’re being hunted for sport. This spiral is something I’ve grown familiar with over the last year, and I’ve found that the only thing that keeps me from circling the drain is the comfort of my chosen family. Each one of my friends in these pictures is holding the 20-pound weighted blanket, duvet, and bedsheet that I sleep with, because sometimes loving someone is about carrying the things they can no longer get out from under.”
Chang W. Lee
In Acworth, Georgia
“Give a hug to the tired and still struggling ‘precious’ yourself tonight,
Give a hug to the loved ones who cannot love themselves anymore tonight,
Give a hug to the ‘fallacious’ reality of America and to the ‘ferocious’ reality of Atlanta tonight,
Give a warm hug to the nonexistent ourselves who are lost tonight.”
이제는 지치고 힘들어 하고있지만 그래도 소중하고픈 나를 안아줄때이다
이제는 자신을 더 이상 사랑할수 없는 내가 사랑하는 모두를 안아줄때이다
이제는 불합리한 이민자의 현실도 안아줄때이다 그리고 아틀란타의 오늘의 잔인한 현실도…
그리고 오늘 서 있을곳을 잃은 우리 모두를 따뜻하게 안아줄 시간이다.
In Brooklyn and Glenmont, New York
“To the general population, the word powerlifting conjures thoughts of red-faced white men from the Rust Belt. While communities like that may still exist, powerlifting has become popular among Asian-Americans. The unfortunate reality is Asians are perceived as physically small, weak and fragile. Yet the goal of powerlifting is to get big, strong and resilient. There is a social currency to being an Asian person with a larger frame. I am perceived differently and less worried about harassment, whereas I am constantly concerned for my parents.”
In Brooklyn and Connecticut
“I came to the United States at age 10 to join my parents, who had immigrated when I was an infant. Soon after, my mother left my father. With a steely determination and frugality, she raised three children on her own. A few weeks ago, when my younger brother Albert, 55, died suddenly, it made me reflect on those early, tough years. Albert’s wife, Katherine, and her three kids — including Tasha, pictured here — now need to be strong. I don’t think I ever really hugged my mother or told her that I loved her. I didn’t live with her as a young child — I was raised by my grandmother — so our relationship was more formal. I’m not sure what she would have done had I told her I loved her. I imagine she would have responded by asking if I had enough to eat.”
In Austin, Texas
“During the first two weeks following my father’s unexpected death last year, family, friends and those in our local Korean American community came together to organize a meal train to drop off food for us. They understood that our grief may have weighed us down to the extent of not easily being able to take care of ourselves. During our difficult time, it was a source of comfort and nourishment for us. More than that, it was a source of love — a love from a community with which we are interdependent.”
In New Orleans
“Love looks like this to me: My cross-cultural family members’ radical embracing of one another, like making a home in a foreign land, like our unique traditions that combine southern Cajun and Thai practices, like a tray of spicy boiled crawfish, like my dad taking delicate care of his makrut lime tree used to make Panang curry, like a sack of pecans picked from my Uncle Spyder’s yard, like my Aunt Natana and her blooming azaleas in the spring, like Louisiana oaks adorned with Spanish moss and golden light, like my dad’s endless photographs from the ’70s and ’80s that we salvaged after Hurricane Katrina, like my mom and dad dancing on the back porch after 50 years of marriage, going strong.”
In Los Angeles
“My real name is Trạng Hoàng Nguyên, but you may know me as Tracy Nguyen. My worlds were often divided growing up. There was a life I lived in public as a first-generation Vietnamese-American, and then there was my life at home with my family, who migrated here on boats from Vietnam. Living on my own in a new apartment has given me a new opportunity to combine those worlds with my friends and family. Nhà của Trạng, or ‘Tracy’s Home.’”
Peter Ash Lee
In Gwangju and Yeoju, South Korea,
on a work trip
“This is my 97-year-old grandmother, Kim Gap Soon. I remember her telling me the story of when she crossed a large river in the middle of the night to flee south during the Korean War while pregnant with my dad and carrying her other children, praying they wouldn’t cry so they wouldn’t get shot at. She’s now living at a nursing home outside of Seoul and is suffering from dementia. When I see the senseless attacks on elders in the U.S., it breaks my heart to think that anyone would want to hurt these grandmas and grandpas who suffered so much and made so many sacrifices for us.”
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.