Before working from home became the new normal, I looked forward to going into my office in San Francisco on Wednesday mornings. At lunchtime, I would walk a few blocks to a vibrant farmers market at United Nations Plaza to buy a bunch of gai lan or a bag of tangerines. The square hummed with a babel of languages. Vendors sold Buddha’s hand citron next to purple shiso leaves, alongside tamales and pumpkin pies.
That’s why the recent images of attacks on elderly Asian Americans have hit close to home. In one video, a gray-haired Chinese woman, her eyes swollen and purple, held an ice pack to her head. Seventy-five-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie was at a corner on Market Street in San Francisco at 10:30 a.m. when she was punched in the head. A few minutes earlier, an 83-year-old Vietnamese man was attacked nearby while buying vegetables.
Such videos have become numbingly commonplace, but these particular images were a punch to my gut. Not just because the crimes were so horrific, but also because I recognized the streetscape. It was right by my beloved farmers market. As with many of the attacks on Asian American elders, the victims were out doing the most essential of business: buying food.
The official name of this conglomeration of stands near San Francisco City Hall is the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market. It’s independently owned by a co-op of growers and was created to make fresh food accessible for low-income residents of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a neighborhood that might otherwise be a food desert. Some of the farmers are originally from Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and they sell fruits, vegetables, and herbs that reflect their foodways. Several of the tents have handwritten signs taped to their poles announcing “We accept EBT.” Many of the customers are elderly Asians — somebody’s grandmother or grandfather.
It’s not just the poor or the recently immigrated who are at risk when they shop. One year ago, actor Tzi Ma was the target of racist verbal harassment in the parking lot of a Whole Foods in Pasadena, California. Physical attacks on older Asian Americans, a few of them deadly, have been reported in San Francisco, Oakland, and New York.
At the beginning of the pandemic, people ages 65 and up were warned not to visit supermarkets. These crowded, enclosed stores were places where the coronavirus could be concentrated — too risky for older, weaker immune systems. My 75-year-old mother showed up on my doorstep in the early days of shelter-in-place orders, when paper goods and cleaning supplies were precious commodities. She handed me a bag full of hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and medical masks.
I worried about her getting infected with the virus that we knew so little about. But as an Asian American, I also worried about my petite mother becoming the victim of hate crimes spurred by xenophobic rhetoric calling the coronavirus the “China virus” or “kung flu.” My friends commiserated about our elderly parents sneaking out to go to Costco or Target. The tables had turned. We were no longer perpetual teenagers; we were now the adults telling our elders to go to their rooms.
As long as I can remember, my mom has gone to the supermarket almost daily. She never adopted the American practice of stocking up once a week. It’s the Taiwanese way, buying only enough for a day or two so you can have the freshest meats and vegetables. In Taipei, the older people go out every morning to the marketplaces: an alley where vegetable vendors displayed mangoes, cabbages, and lychees on tarps in the morning or a tent pungent with live fish or freshly butchered pork parts. Even when she was a busy career woman raising two school-aged kids, my mom would call from her car on her way home from work, asking, “What do you want for dinner?”
Our elders don’t use Instacart or Amazon Fresh. Senior citizens aren’t tech-savvy, goes the conventional wisdom. But I have a different theory: Maybe they don’t want to just press a button and have touchless delivery of plastic-wrapped lettuce. I offer to buy groceries for my mom or have them delivered to her house. But still she goes out. “Just once a week,” she reassures me.
And that’s why it breaks my heart that so many of these attacks target Asian elders while they’re looking for a bundle of greens or a few limes, small bites of joy during these trying times. Loneliness and isolation have taken their toll on older people during the pandemic. Farmers markets and the sidewalks of Chinatown are places where our elders can stroll and mingle outdoors amid the sights and smells. They can smile from behind their masks and, for a moment, feel like part of a community.