Asian Americans warily watch family overseas enjoy ‘normal’ life
When chef Eric Sze wakes up in New York City, he often watches video clips of his friends in Taiwan singing karaoke via Instagram. “It’s always the first thing I see in the morning,” Sze, co-founder of the Taiwanese restaurant 886, told NBC Asian America. “Nothing like starting your day with a fresh dose of FOMO” — or fear of missing out.
Sze said he feels jealous watching his parents, grandparents and friends in Taiwan — where there are fewer than 1,000 total cases of coronavirus in a population of more than 23 million — going about their normal lives while the U.S. contends with lockdowns, new variants of the virus, a slower than expected rollout of vaccines and an unfathomable 400,000 lives lost.
It’s a common sentiment shared by many Asian Americans watching their family members and friends in Asian countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, where widespread use of masks, experience with past pandemics and government leadership that included mandatory quarantines and emergency cash payments has led to exceedingly low infection rates.
“I do think my greatest frustration is the lack of communal support as a country,” Sze said of the United States. “I get that bipartisan politics tend to divide the country, but a part of me thought humanity would always come before politics — apparently not.”
Sze, whose restaurant raised nearly $150,000 to provide 15,000 meals to hospitals and shelters during the darkest days of the pandemic in New York, said his family in Taiwan is “concerned, but not surprised” by America’s response to Covid-19: “The price of perceived freedom seems to be exponential with pandemics.”
When Las Vegas resident Carla Doan sees images of her family in Vietnam being carefree and socializing, she said it makes her yearn to live a normal maskless life in the U.S.
In Communist-led Vietnam, the public feels a shared ownership of Covid-19, according to public health experts, and overwhelmingly supported its government’s rapid response.
Despite a border wall with China and a population of 96 million, Vietnam has reported fewer than 2,000 total cases and 35 deaths during the pandemic.
Last January, the deputy prime minister ordered Vietnam’s ministries to take drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as locking down and evacuating cities, imposing travel restrictions, closing the border with China and employing a labor-intensive contact-tracing operation.
Visitors and people who were possibly exposed to the virus were sent to free quarantine centers for two weeks and the government communicated regularly with the public and sent text messages to phones telling people how to best protect themselves.
“I think the difference [between Vietnam and the U.S.] is that when their government says to do something, everyone follows the guidelines,” said Doan. “I just wish our leaders here would have done what they did.”
Doan said she’s frustrated because half of Americans appear to follow mask mandates and social distancing rules, but “because the other half isn’t willing,” it makes her feel her efforts are futile.
Her 16-month-old son wasn’t able to have a first birthday party because of the pandemic and Doan is unsure if he’ll be able to have one for his second birthday either.
Some Asian Americans knew collectivist Asian countries would manage the virus and reopen quicker than the U.S. because they value the needs of a group.
Diana Choi, who lived in South Korea as a young adult and now resides in Dallas, said South Korea succeeded in managing Covid-19 because its people are “community-focused” and not individualistic.
The hyperconnected country of 51 million benefited from fast and free testing and expansive tracing technology. South Korea also learned lessons from mistakes made during the spread of MERS in 2015.
“I knew they were going to take precautions, always wear a mask and social distance because they’re so afraid of what people would think of them if they didn’t,” said Choi. “In America, wearing a mask is politicized when it really shouldn’t be.”
When she sees family and friends in South Korea taking walks or going out to eat, Choi — who has a heart condition that makes her high-risk for Covid complications — said she is “jealous that they’re in a place where people care about other people and take precautions.”
Choi’s parents live in Gwanju, South Korea and often ask their daughter about the U.S. health care system. “They say America is kind of a laughing stock,” Choi said. “America is supposed to be the strongest country, but they see us become so divided and chaotic over a pandemic.”
She said South Korea’s system of universal health care also makes a difference.
“It [health care] isn’t a privilege over there, which was another contributing factor for them to quickly test people and get everything under control,” Choi explained. “I talk to my mom every day and they get updates if there is a Covid patient nearby. Here, we have no idea who has it and a lot of people don’t think it’s a very big issue.”
Of course not all Asian Americans are envious of what’s happening in Asian countries. While South Korea, a democratic republic, has been innovative and transparent with its citizens, authoritarian-run countries like Cambodia have been accused by human rights experts of falsifying case numbers and using the pandemic to undermine the rule of law.
In Cambodia, a nation of around 16 million people, there have been fewer than 500 infections and no deaths reported.
Some believe Cambodia’s low Covid-19 rates are because three-quarters of its population live in rural settings and spend ample time outdoors. Others say low rates of testing and the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, isn’t telling the whole story.
“The government doesn’t give true numbers,” said Sindy Barretto, who lives in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and has family in Siem Reap and Battambang, Cambodia. “The prime minister is up for election so he’s going to try to portray this image of safety and that he has everything under control.”
Barretto stays in touch with her relatives overseas through Facebook and said when she sees photos of them gathering in large groups she “feels sorry for them” that they’re not being safe.
She believes Cambodia is losing lives to Covid-19, but that the deaths are classified as being due to heat stroke or a heart attack, based on conversations Barretto has had with family members.
While Cambodia’s rates could be higher than reported, their hospitals have not been overwhelmed like in the U.S. or Europe.
Early on in the pandemic, Cambodia temporarily closed its borders to foreigners, particularly from the West, and shut down schools and entertainment venues. The country also quarantined nearly 30,000 garment workers.
While the Trump administration’s handling of Covid-19 has been widely criticized by public health officials at home and abroad, President Joe Biden recently laid out a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package with a goal of vaccinating 150 million people and reopening schools in his first 100 days. He is also implementing a 100-day federal mask mandate and deploying FEMA and the National Guard to set up vaccine clinics throughout the country.
“People in Asia definitely laugh at America because they say that we are supposedly a first world country and now we’re dying at a faster rate than they are,” said Barretto. “I still think we’re doing a wonderful job [in the U.S.] because we’re taking precautions. If we didn’t do all this social distancing or putting on a mask, I think we’d be in worse shape. It is what it is right now.”