Opinion: Silenced voices now speaking out

I was inspired by President Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what this country can do for you, ask what you can do for this country,” in my roles as a mom, neighbor, nurse educator and community organizer.

On the same day of the Atlanta mass murders, two of my daughters and I went to a local spa as part of a mother-daughter outing. The tragedy has brought terror to an already edgy Asian American community, and my daughters and I have been feeling anxious, angry, and sad all the same time. I cannot help but reflect on how we have been fighting both COVID-19 and political viruses this past year.

I visited my parents in China in December 2019, right before China announced its first COVID-19 cases in Wuhan, and, four months later, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Like everyone complying with social isolation, staying separated from family has been difficult.

My parents had been on strict lockdown for months, having their groceries delivered directly to their doors. I was not able to visit them as planned in the following year to help my father, who has multiple health issues. For my parents, the social isolation and the traveling restrictions, which prevented me and my siblings from visiting them, had been extremely difficult.

Jian Lily Chen

Credit: contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: contributed

However, they never doubted the necessity of the lockdown and dutifully complied while anxiously counting the days to see their beloved children and grandchildren in the U.S.

While trying to figure out the challenges and uncertainties of keeping our families safe during the pandemic, we had to fight the political virus of racism by addressing its detrimental effects on our children. I remember my youngest daughter in high school came home one day, telling us that one of her Asian classmates started coughing in class, and their teacher mocked her cough and said, “coronavirus!” I asked her what her friend did, and she said “nothing.”

It broke my heart knowing our children had to face microaggressions that reflect racial stereotypes, and that they did not know how to respond. I have Chinese American nurse friends who were threatened by patients and asked to “Go back to China”, and attacked in a hospital parking lot at night, yet were too afraid to speak up. There are others who might want to speak up, but have to remain silent due to limited English proficiency, including both parents and children.

As a result, we started organizing bilingual anti-racism webinars and spoke to Chinese-language news media to help parents understand racism, its negative effect on children’s psychological development and how it can lead to mental illness, and we suggested ways to help their children.

Despite political and racial vitriol targeted toward Asian Americans, we believe in “Combating Hate with Love, and One People United.” I helped the United Chinese Americans (UCA) successfully organize a national “Food of Love” campaign in May 2020. We delivered hot meals to homeless shelters, nursing homes, senior buildings, police stations, and many frontline workers.

The campaign reached 50 states and 124 cities, involving over 170 Chinese-American community organizations and restaurants. Our good deeds were picked up by over 100 media outlets. Since the start of the pandemic, we have also launched a personal protective equipment (PPE) donation drive. Our Illinois chapter in Chicago alone donated more than $250,000 of PPE to area hospitals.

I have been in the United States for 33 years. As a mother of five wonderful children, nurse, mental health advocate, and Chinese American, I am fighting COVID-19 and racism. This is where I received my graduate education in nursing and applied my clinical experiences in community health settings serving White, Black, Chinese, and Hispanic communities to make Americans healthier.

I am currently a nurse educator training the next generation of nurses and vaccinating my community. As a clinical scholar with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and UNC-Chapel Hill, I am advocating for the holistic well-being of Asian youth and developing a peer mentoring program for nursing students experiencing stress and anxiety during COVID-19.

I always love my community and was voted “The Neighbor of the Month’' by Naperville, Ill.’s community television station. I led girl scouts and was a sports team and school room mom while raising my children.

I was inspired by President Kennedy’s words, “Ask not what this country can do for you, ask what you can do for this country,” in my roles as a mom, neighbor, nurse educator and community organizer.

As our community and the country mourn for innocent lives lost in Atlanta, we fight against racism and xenophobia head-on. But let’s not forget our belief: “Combating Hate with Love, and One People United.” We are the United States of America.

Jian “Lily” Chen, RN, MA, is a certified nurse educator, project director for UCA’s Wellness, Advocacy, Voices, Education and Support (WAVES) Youth Mental Health Collaborative and a community organizer. She lives in Cary, N.C.