Along with mass panic and toilet paper buyouts, COVID-19 brought waves of anti-Asian prejudice: first through the uncontextualized image of an Asian woman eating a bat, widely shared on the internet, and then through the violent confrontations Asian Americans experienced in real life. Encouraged by the President’s misnomer “the China virus,” the relative privilege of the “model minority” evaporated into thin air, leaving behind the realities of the same anti-immigrant xenophobia and backlash people of color in America know too well and that always underlie the Asian American experience.
While social distancing laws restricted dine-in formats and hurt many American small businesses, Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants took the hardest hit, despite take-out options from these establishments. In Maryland, sisters Grace and Cathleen Shi saw the downward trend particularly affecting the Washington, D.C., metro area. Out of a desire to save go-to restaurants where so many of their childhood memories were formed, Woks for Washington was born.
Woks for Washington is a grassroots initiative that works to preserve Asian cuisine and culture by utilizing donations to buy meals from restaurants for essential workers at local hospitals. Grace shares that “through preserving Asian cuisine, we hope we can also help to maintain and grow the diversity unique to the D.C. area as a whole, and continue to play a part in making our capital a place that welcomes all races, cultures and nationalities.”
With a focus on our nation’s capital, Cathleen adds, “The Asian population in the D.C. area is among the highest [density] in the country, so preserving these restaurants as a part of our communities also means a lot to the Asians living here.”
Grace and Cathleen recruited their friends, Winnie Ho, Catherine Wei, Kimberly Wong and Aditya Shukla, and got to work. Their first delivery was on July 24 from Sichuan Jin River to Progressive Care Unit at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center. With COVID-19 exacerbating health conditions of all kinds, the patients in the Progressive Care Unit are often quite sick, and the nurses and caregivers coordinating their care have little time to take breaks, let alone eat.
The Progressive Care Unit’s Friday night charge nurse, Siphra Mukoro, said that the nurses were so happy to receive an abundance of food, which included chicken dishes and a vegetarian option of tofu with sides and rice. Siphra also noted that some of the nurses were able to take leftovers home to their families and were so grateful for the support in these trying times. “It’s such a blessing,” she said.
The double agenda for Woks for Washington was a clear prerogative from the start. Grace explained that “the heroes who continue to work on the front line are the backbone of our communities, keeping our families safe and healthy. We chose to support essential workers specifically because we wanted to show that Asian Americans stand behind them.” The organization is a demonstration of Asian Americans doing their part for the benefit of society as a whole.
Woks for Washington currently delivers 20 meals twice a month and is looking to grow. They have added two new restaurant partners — Neisha Thai Cuisine and BAB Korean Fusion — and are servicing more emergency departments, COVID-19 wards and a youth shelter. They are currently operating under a fiscal sponsorship with Players Philanthropy Fund, a Maryland charitable trust with 501(c)(3) status. Right now, they are looking to maintain a consistent flow of fundraising and delivery volunteers, which means a steady stream of revenue for their restaurant partners and ongoing meal donations to the organizations they serve. In the coming months, they hope to gain more support and expand their reach across the D.C. metro area.
Cathleen shares, “The Asian restaurants in our area play a part in making the D.C. metro area its own melting pot.” As long as the pandemic lasts, Woks for Washington’s purchasing and delivery initiative is the primary project. Going forward, Grace and Cathleen are working on creating educational programs to preserve and share Asian culture through its cuisine for many years to come.
“We have a duty to do our best for the good of our communities here in the D.C. area and in the United States as a whole, and a duty to continue sharing our culture with fellow non-Asians, so that one day we may lessen the underlying prejudices against us, and help to unify Americans and bridge racial divides.” Grace recalls, “Everyone would get together at a local Asian restaurant for those quintessential round-table dinners. I always thought these round tables signified that this space was special in bringing people together as one family, without divides.”
Woks for Washington is truly a smart and quick response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the restaurant industry and is a display of gratitude for the healthcare providers working to care for those stricken.