When I was a kid in the ‘80s, my family would come to the Chinatown International District (CID) because it was the only place my mom could find Asian produce. We lived two and a half hours away. My mom would leave my sister and me with my dad — a super white, Nordic, and aggressively athletic man — and her tiny frame would take off in heels with a shopping cart to Uwajimaya. My sister and I really did just run around that store when we were kids. Mostly on the lookout for anything Hello Kitty. My dad was like, “BYE, I have a book and milk.”
I have no doubt that at some point in my childhood, I probably ran into Donnie Chin as a wayward 7-year-old.
But that’s all in the past.
Here is what I love about the IE’s community. No one’s looking for the easy way out. We don’t do that. If you give us the easy way, we’ll one-up you and find the hard way out just to show you we can. If that’s not you, you might not have a place here.
When the COVID-19 pandemic happened in February 2020, I went to Ron Chew’s office at ICHS. He was my boss. We had a conversation, and I said, “We know this isn’t just three months, right? It’s three years.” He said, “Yes, that’s correct.” Then we got to work.
We hustled. Our board hustled. We told the community, “We’re in trouble.” We told people we needed the funds to keep telling our stories, to keep printing, to keep communicating. I found myself pushing a cart in and out of boarded-up buildings around the CID, delivering the papers. We did what we needed to.
2020 was a time we could never get back. Record history, even if it’s painful. Record history, especially when it’s painful. Record history during the hardest times and during the most triumphant ones, because you will eventually be proud of them all.
The most important thing was telling peoples’ stories, and telling the collective story of the CID, because our neighborhood was hit hard. Personally, I had stopped taking the bus because people were backing away from me. A family asked me for directions when I was waiting for the bus on Prefontaine. When I told them I worked in the CID, that I knew the area very well, one of them jumped off the curb away from me.
I hadn’t felt that conditional unacceptance since elementary school. It was a lot worse for many other people. That’s just the society we live in.
The incident made me feel sad and lonely, which felt familiar, so I smiled even harder. I backed up to make them feel comfortable. After that, I stopped taking the bus. I don’t talk about it because it hurts. I love Seattle, but I didn’t want the the city to treat me poorly.
One of the most memorable and surreal moments of my life was when, for some reason, I went down to the IE office at night at the beginning of quarantine and the Black Lives Matter Uprising. I was on the northwest corner of Jackson and Maynard, when I started unknowingly snapping photos of Drag and Drop’s Ryan Catabay and Tuyen Than, who were helping board up businesses on South Jackson. I hadn’t even recognized them because everyone was so masked up in full quarantine regalia.
Tuyen yelled at me to send her the photos, and I said, “Oh [dang], [this is not what I said], that’s Tuyen!”
Choppers were flying overhead, hovering and shining lights on us, telling us we were breaking “curfew.” It was really loud and I was full on yelling at them, shaking my fists in the air: “I’m in my 40s! Curfew? Really?” We all had masks on and the streets were deserted except for us. To see the neighborhood in this state was upsetting.
My memories of the CID as a kid had always carried with them such an incredible feeling of belonging and community. I remembered how happy my mom was to find the produce she craved, with my sister and I running around the upstairs area looking for Sanrio stuff, and my dad sitting in the car, wearing his weird running tube socks, with some milk and a book in hand. And here I was, right back where I started.
It’s no secret the CID got hit hard by the pandemic, and it exhausted me, but I’m glad I was there. Well, not glad, but you get it. When we get hit hard, we hit back with perseverance, more than anyone else knows.
It’s the only thing we know how to do. And we aren’t quitting.