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Their names are Sandra and Joe

By LiAnne Yu

These are my parents, Sandra and Joe, ages somewhere around 80 and 84. We don’t know for sure. Both of them were born into very poor families during war times, and their actual birth days were never recorded.

Mom named herself after Sandra Dee, having watched all her movies while growing up in rural Taiwan. After marrying her first husband (my biological father), she moved to a small, all-white town in the Pacific Northwest. The local community college was so excited to have an actual foreign born person in the town, they organized a potluck in her honor. But in their desire to make her feel welcome, they made the mistake of hanging a flag of the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China), instead of the Republic of China (Taiwan). My mom giggles, remembering how insulted she was back then, picking up the still hot dish of noodles she had brought and stomping out of her own party. She’s like that – she can be as sweet as a juicy, ripe mango one moment, and as cold as ice the next. I think I’ve inherited that from her.

My stepdad immigrated to the U.S. when he was 13, and worked from the moment he landed to just over a year ago, when he was told that his part time job at a laundry cleaner’s was being eliminated due to Covid. He grew up in and around San Francisco’s Chinatown, and I know he misses going there so much. He has a story for every corner. I suspect he brushed shoulders with some colorful Chinese gangsters back in the day, but he claims to not remember. Work is his life, and he feels lost without it. These days he funnels his energy into taking care of the garden, but truth be told, he sucks at it.

Neither of my parents have more than a high school education. But through working at restaurants and cleaners, they bought a house in the 70’s ($40k in San Francisco, anyone?), and supported me from K-PhD. Sometimes their frugality drives me nuts. I’m like, dad – you don’t need to mend your 20 year old underwear. Let’s just go to Target! Other times it breaks my heart, like when I find out my mom has been living with a painful, decayed tooth for months because she doesn’t want to “waste” money at the dentist’s.

These days, they enjoy watching the GRIT channel on TV, which features old westerns, and the SoCal Chinese channel, which features cooking shows. And every Sunday, they watch Joel Osteen, since they haven’t been able to go to church in the last year.

Here are some more things my mom loves: purple flowers; Princess Di and royal family gossip; grilled saba from our local Japanese restaurant; Celine Dion perfume; napping; YouTube.

Here are some more things my dad loves: Ronald Reagan; AM radio; picking up used items from the sidewalk that he *thinks* we may need; Home Pride Butter Top Bread; chili with hot dogs; John Wayne movies.

My parents aren’t angels. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve screamed into a pillow after interacting with them, finding myself breaking out in zits even at the age of 50. And don’t get me started with their politics.

But these days, I reach for my phone even before I’ve properly woken up, to check my texts, to check the news, to check what the Asian-American community is saying on Twitter. Afraid to hear about another elderly Asian-American getting attacked or killed. Afraid of exactly what happened in Atlanta this week. I can’t help but imagine their faces, bruised and battered. Their frail bodies, shoved to the sidewalk. And then I concoct reasons for reaching out to them, not wanting to make it obvious that I need to know they are okay all the time, not wanting them to pick up on my anxiety. Just relieved when I find out they are simply going about their day, complaining and cranky as usual.

There are so many good resources out there to educate and address hate crimes against Asian-Americans. I’ve been asking myself, what else I can do? So I go back to my fundamentals, my roots as a writer and storyteller. What strikes me most about the media coverage is how Asian-Americans are often portrayed as a faceless monolith. Just an undifferentiated group. Not worthy of being recognized as individuals. Not deserving of respect because our names may sound unfamiliar or our culture deemed weird or un-American. Not full of motivations and dreams. Not real, flesh and blood people.

And that’s what makes it all the more easier to scapegoat us.

My 80-ish year old mom and 84-ish year old dad are Sandra and Joe. Can you picture them, putzing around the garden or getting way too excited about the $1.50 hot dog and soft drink special from Costco? Can you see them, watching the Good, The Bad and the Ugly over a dinner of rice and steamed fish? Can you imagine them, spending 20 minutes at the corner store, picking out the perfect birthday card for their daughter?