Many Asian Americans struggle invisibly
Through Amy Yee
Like many low-wage restaurant workers, Su Hua Mei and her husband lost their jobs last spring as the pandemic set in.
With a toddler to take care of, it was a difficult time for this immigrant couple from China.
They speak little English and have only finished high school. They risk expulsion and their unemployment benefits may run out before restaurants reopen at full capacity. This uncertainty “is very hard on us,” Mei says. “It creates a lot of stress. We cannot have a normal life.
Mei and many low-income Asian Americans are largely ignored.
Last year, a widely cited national poll by the Harvard School of Public Health, NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that 37 percent of Asians experienced serious financial problems during the pandemic, compared to 72% of Latinos, 60% of blacks, 55% of Native Americans and 36% of whites.
Looks like Asian Americans are doing well, right? But the survey was conducted by phone only in English or Spanish. This immediately excludes Asians with poor English proficiency – who are more likely to be poor, vulnerable and in need.
Skewed data can produce dangerously misleading headlines – and political results.
Working class Asians like Mei work in restaurants, salons, hotels, laundries, deliveries, healthcare, housekeeping, construction and factories – all low-wage industries hit hard by the pandemic. Because they work behind the scenes and may not speak English, the average American can ignore them altogether.
They are also woefully overlooked by researchers, academics, pollsters, and the media. As a result, they are overlooked by policy makers who control the funding and services they desperately need.
They are also more likely to be victims of harassment or racist attacks, such as 84 year old Thai who was killed in February during a morning walk in San Francisco. Disturbingly, violence against Asians appears to be escalating across the country, Los Angeles at new York.
In addition, many Asians are not included in major national statistics. Due to language barriers, cultural differences or lack of internet access, many may not even attempt to claim unemployment benefits or fight eviction. They are therefore not counted in either of the two categories.
Other Asians may be afraid to interact with the government because of their immigrant status. There are approximately 1.7 million Undocumented Asian Americans, representing one in seven Asian immigrants. More than 463,000 live in California, nearly 167,000 in New York and more than 148,000 in Texas.
The media also play a role. Distressed and unemployed Asian Americans get only a fraction of the coverage that other racial groups get. The general lack of attention “is ludicrous given the needs of the Asian community,” says Alex Milvae, legal counsel at Greater Boston Legal Services.
The misperception that Asian Americans “are doing well” is damaging. In fact, income inequality in the United States is the tallest among asians, according to the Pew Research Center.
More needs to be done for Asians and others with limited English, such as hiring bilingual interpreters and building quality multilingual websites, applications and helplines. And polls like Harvard’s should highlight language and cultural barriers more explicitly, otherwise they’ll leave out those who need help the most.
Grassroots organizations in Asian-American communities also need more support. Since they are on the ground to help desperate people, they should have a direct link with policy makers and donors.
Vulnerable Asians like Mei and her toddler are in dire need of help – and influential statistics should not make them invisible.
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Photo credit: iStock