Interpretation by Lily Wong and Jennifer Li.
Coming out to the HOMEY food line is usually a positive experience for Ms. Situ, 51. She likes the food that they pass out, especially the eggs, which she uses to make dishes for her two kids.
“It’s also nice to be able to come out and see people,” she added in Cantonese. “You get to exercise a little bit and have some social interaction.”
But the recent surge in anti-Asian violence has given her pause about coming to the food line. She no longer walks in the Mission by herself and, at the request of her daughter, Situ — a short woman who jokes that she looks old enough that people give up their seat on the bus for her — now carries pepper spray.
Situ is far from the only one worried. The specter of anti-Asian violence hangs over Chinese elders at food lines, who sometimes wait hours for a box or bag of goods, a pandemic routine now that the Mission has well-established lines.
Stop AAPI Hate logged about 3,800 hate incidents against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide over the last year, including 292 hate incidents in San Francisco since the start of the pandemic.
And for elders in the food lines, certain high-profile incidents are circulated and amplified on channels like WeChat that keep the news at the forefront of their minds.
“The whole world is a little bit scary,” said Ms. Cai, 72, in Cantonese outside the Mission Food Hub line. “With the more recent discrimination, even taking the bus or even walking creates anxiety. A lot of Asians are afraid to leave their houses right now.”
When Cai first found out about the Alabama Street hub a month ago, she didn’t want to come because of Covid-19, but her friend told her it would be safe, a good place for people who are hungry and don’t have enough to eat. But now, Anti-Asian violence is adding another safety concern to the mix: “I never thought that America would be like this,” she said.
For Mr. Chiu, 84, the violence hits close to home. His daughter was killed seven years ago in a robbery. Now, he lives with his wife in a senior center in the Mission and comes to the HOMEY line with other people from the center.
“If you were to ask me what type of person I am or where I come from, I would say I’m American,” he said in Cantonese. “We’re American, though we still retain our Chinese culture.”
Some elders concerned about their safety said they take solace in the fact that when in the food line, they are surrounded by others like them. Indeed, the demographics of food lines in the Mission don’t reflect that of the neighborhood: Chinese elders make up a sizeable proportion of these lines, though Asian people make up only about 15 percent of the district’s population and about a third of the city’s population And most of the elders aren’t coming from outside of the district, according to volunteers at various food banks.
The discrepancy in the lines can partially be explained by culture, said Ellen Garcia, a program manager at the San Francisco-Marin food bank, which runs two lines in the Mission: “Those who grew up in the 20th century in communist countries, frankly, are likely to be more familiar with the model of waiting in a line for food, and there might be less of a stigma about it,” she said.
She added that coming to the pantry on a weekday during working hours is more difficult for parents with kids, and there are a lot of families with young children in the Mission in the Latinx community. Chinese elders might just have more time on their hands.
There is also real need in the Asian community for this food, according to Jennifer Li, who volunteers with the HOMEY and Mission Food Hub lines. People wouldn’t line up at HOMEY starting at 6 a.m. for distribution that starts at 10 a.m. if there wasn’t.
And elders in line said they appreciated the work of the volunteers to provide food and maintain, for the most part, order in the lines.
Ms. Lin, 65, is a Mission resident who has visited the HOMEY line since the start of the pandemic. It’s safer, she explained, because otherwise, she would have to go all the way to Chinatown for produce.
“It creates a sense of happiness because there is an organization that will give free food, and we can bring food back to our families to help them,” she said in Cantonese.
Sometimes there is trouble when scarcity begets desperation. People in line can become angry or aggressive when denied a second box of food, or when people cut in line, problems that food banks have adapted to reduce. For example, HOMEY uses UV blacklight ink to prevent people from getting a second bag before everyone in line has gotten a first, marking people’s arms after they get a bag.
But some are still paranoid that they’re being treated unfairly, and there is the gossip that pervades any gathering that involves long waits and lines. Ms. Li, 56, who lives in the Sunset and comes to the Mission Food Hub line when visiting her mom who lives in the Mission, accused Latinx volunteers passing out more food to other Latinx people, and it seemed to her that they were giving Asian people less food.
That is not the case.
The elderly Asians said they were also impressed by Latinx volunteers who say “good morning” in Cantonese, and the volunteers appreciate the elderly Chinese lady who always runs exercises in the line with the people around her, regardless of the language barrier.
“They have their own non-verbal communication,” Li said with a laugh. “Sometimes language is really a barrier, sometimes it can lead to friction, but sometimes, you can also have nice moments.”