Main Street in Flushing, Queens Photo: Josh Appel

If you know the tight-knit, overlapping Asian communities in Flushing, Queens, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn, then you know the vibe of Monterey Park, California. That’s the message from Yiyan Zheng, a reporter for the World-Journal, whom we interviewed for our podcast this week. Our publisher S. Mitra Kalita talked to her in the wake of the deadly shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay. World-Journal is the largest Chinese-language daily in the United States, reaching tens of thousands of readers every day. 

Yiyan Zheng, reporter for the World-Journal

I quoted Zheng in my column for Time magazine that focused on the dangers of valuing Asian work over Asian life, a wide-ranging piece touching on hate crimes, affirmative action, immigration’s past and future, the hard labor we’ve done, the isolation of our community. Zheng is also the guest of our podcast this week touching on a lot of the same. And I offer edited excerpts here of our conversation: 

You’ve been covering New York City since 2019, so a big part of your coverage has been the rise in hate crimes against Asians. When you heard about what happened in Monterey Park, did you think this might be an anti-Asian crime? Then when you heard that the shooter was Asian, tell me how you reacted to these events. 
You wonder if it is an anti-Asian hate crime. That’s like the first idea that crosses your mind. After I heard the shooter is an elder male Asian, you can’t help but wonder about his motive or his relationship with this place.

Also for Half Moon Bay, you wonder about the unjust and unfair situation for the labor there, especially immigrants at the farm. So it’s almost like an anthropology approach. You want to know more about the background and understand the social, economic and other dynamics.

At Epicenter, we’ve been struck how many Asian seniors are isolated and seemingly kind of shut off from the rest of the world. Has that been a theme of coverage for you?
I wrote a couple of articles on the social isolation for Asian elders. I wrote another feature story about YouTubers and how their biggest cohort of subscribers are all elders and they don’t have anything to do. They watch those YouTubers just wandering around the Chinese or Asian communities in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Here are three I recommend:

How do you think elderly Asians end up isolated in New York?
First, they don’t speak English. We have the model minority myth but a lot of Asian elders, they live in poverty and live alone. People just totally neglect such a group. But you know, if you wander around Chinatown or Flushing, you see a lot of elders. They don’t walk out and they live alone and they have no one to talk to.

Compared with other age groups, the poverty rate of immigrant elders over the age of 65 in NYC is higher, and Asian and Hispanic elders reach the highest level. According to a recent survey by Asian American Federation, among 153 Asian elders, 68% do not speak English and need translation, 30% of them live alone, and 37% have no daily contact with relatives, friends and neighbors. 

Is there any correlation between the loneliness you’re seeing in Asian seniors here and what we’ve seen in California? It might be too soon to tell and I don’t want to make an instant connection. 

I think it’s quite similar. Monterey Park, you can do the comparison to Flushing on the East Coast. Chinese people who come to the U.S. and maybe they don’t have any immigration status, it’s like their first stop on the West Coast.

On hate crimes, would you say this is a community that’s still afraid? 
Yeah, we are still afraid. The public safety in New York City is deteriorating, especially in Flushing. If you read our local page in the New York section, we have like a whole page of just crime happening in Chinatown, Flushing, or other Chinese/Asian communities. That’s why for the race for New York governor, the Asian American community predominantly voted for Lee Zeldin because simply his message matched with the Asian American concerns. 

We’ve covered this Latino and Asian move to the right, as well as the conservative forces across New York. One issue we’ve grappled with is immigrants in our audience who say they came to the U.S. “the right way.” So we try to give our community a history lesson on how immigration has changed or how hard it is to get here or how it is perfectly legal to apply for asylum. Does this sound familiar? 

That’s actually something that I’m struggling with. For a lot of controversial issues, if you interview some of our community leaders or those people in power, it appears to be right leaning and sometimes do not resonate with the grassroots. And those people (the grassroots) are hard to reach and if you ask them on an issue, they wouldn’t be articulate or maybe they only speak in dialects. These other people in power are the ones who give you a quote and it’s easier to reach out to them. I don’t think they can fully represent the silent majority of our community. 

That’s why I’m very thankful to the existence of these YouTubers because I think they have their own cohort of viewers, bringing more visibility to the grassroots or elders. For example, there’s an effort to build a homeless shelter in Flushing for single females with a child. The majority of the people on the surface seem to be against it, with worries of public safety. But these YouTubers have been strongly advocating for it. Every day they walk around the neighborhood and they talk with the homeless people and they see the need for the shelters in the community. 

Over the last few years, a lot of people have had an existential crisis and rethought the relationship of work in their lives. People were saying, “I want a job that has more purpose as opposed to just a paycheck.” Do you hear that in the Asian communities that you’re covering? 

Asian communities, most of them don’t have the luxury to reflect on the meaning of life. They struggle with the basics of living every day. 

How about yourself? 
You have to desensitize yourself. For example, I have to take the subway every day, to work, to go to events. If I think too hard about the increasing crime, I wouldn’t even go out.

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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