‘Not alone’: Celebrating heritage, combating COVID-19 racism

Chang Miao arrived in the United States, alone, at the age of 17. It was her mother’s idea: the best hope for an only daughter who grew up under China’s one-child policy, that such a move would lead to better opportunities.

“At the time, I didn’t think through what that really meant. I’d always been a pretty independent kid,” Miao recalls. “Ignorance is bliss. Not until I lived a life here, and I tried to figure out how to live on my own, did I realize how big of a decision it was.”

For Miao, the 12 years since have been about finding her way and learning who she really is – from navigating strange foods to paying her first utility bill, from settling on her Chinese name over an American one to starting a career at Starbucks, where she currently works as a senior sourcing analyst in Seattle.

Now, during the COVID-19 outbreak, and with Asian Americans reporting more xenophobia and racism because of it, Miao wants to take another step: to stand up for her culture and against stereotypes of Asian Americans as meek and quiet.

“I want to reach out to people, acknowledge what's happening and let them know that they're not alone in this,” Miao says. “By sharing my thoughts, I hope to provide an avenue for people to share theirs, to provide some relief and support to each other so that people can focus on taking care of the other aspects of their lives, and staying positive.

“I want to make sure our community is being heard.”

This May, during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, Starbucks is proud to stand together with our AAPI partners and communities. We honor their stories, their identities and their experiences – whether they’re immigrants or newly arrived, or their families and lives have been deeply rooted for generations. With this year’s heritage month coming during especially difficult times, we believe even more in celebrating families, neighborhoods and traditions. Even apart, we’re better together.

Finding home

When Miao first arrived in the U.S., she started school at a community college in the Seattle area. She stayed with a host family and ate a lot more meat than she was accustomed to. She missed the taste of the vegetables back home – cucumbers that had thinner skin and corn that wasn’t as sweet. The pace of life here was slower as well.

She transferred to Washington State University, where she majored in food sciences. She started introducing herself as Isabelle, because she was looking for English names and it sounded pretty. She ditched the name after graduation, deciding it didn’t fit anymore.  

She was withdrawn when she first came to the U.S., fearful of participating in conversations because she didn’t get the American sense of humor, unable to track small talk. When she started working at a creamery part-time in college, making cheese, she met some friendly co-workers who helped her open up.

“That experience taught me that if I don’t tell people who I am, if I don’t speak English often and get in the conversations with the people around me, I won’t be able to grow and evolve,” Miao says. “Because of that, slowly I started to learn how to best integrate my own identity and mix with the people around me, to still show who I am and share some of my cultural aspects and the wisdom of my heritage.”

Racism in the wake of COVID-19

Miao visits China once a year, usually during the fall. When she goes home, her mother often treats her to a special crispy sweet and sour pork dish called 锅包肉 (Guo Bao Rou). Her mother visits the U.S. once a year as well, during the Lunar New Year in early February. They usually make celery and pork-filled dumplings, with the skins made from scratch.

This year, though, her mother had to cut her visit short. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak that initially hit China, her mother, who works at a government medical clinic back home in Liaoning Province, felt she had to return and help.

Miao faced a double whammy of emotions. First, following news of the outbreak back home, she was panicked and concerned for family and friends. When the virus spread to the U.S. and created a global pandemic, she experienced repercussions here too.

Her boyfriend, who is ethnically Chinese, is a medical resident, and was working a rotation at a Northwest hospital, where he heard people making insensitive remarks about Chinese people and Chinese food markets. Another friend said her godson, who is Chinese, was bullied at his school in the Seattle area because of his ethnicity.

“Stories like that break my heart,” Miao says. “It made me realize it’s happening everywhere and happening to a lot of people.”

She is encouraged by how AAPI communities have stepped up, for example, by organizing drives to gather and donate masks and other personal protective equipment.

“I would encourage people to talk about these experiences, not to feel the anger but to share their stories and hopefully to inspire each other to be kind and supportive during this time,” Miao says. “This virus, this pandemic doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender or who you are. The only way we can get through this is if we work together.”

She’s also proud of how far she’s come since she left China. One barometer is her relationship with her mother, who she’s talked to almost daily since the beginning of the outbreak.

“We’re always together, no matter how far apart we are,” Miao says. “Seeing your mom being so vulnerable and showing that emotional side… I always saw her as a figure in my life who I can depend on if I’m hurt or sad. Now, her showing me that side, it’s hard to describe, it’s very different, and makes me feel a little sad. And proud that she can see me as someone she can depend on as well.”

Chang describes a memory from her childhood in Liaoning Province in northern China, of coming in from the icy winters to a special soup cooked by her mother.

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Starbucks celebrates Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month