Asian Immigrant and Asian American Families during COVID-19
Publication Date: 2021
COVID-19 offers a critical opportunity to examine how racial stigma and racial violence shape the ways that historically marginalized and excluded communities experience disasters and their economic aftershocks. This ongoing mixed-methods study examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted family and caregiving dynamics for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Despite being the fastest growing minoritized racial group in the United States, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans are understudied in research on family and caregiving dynamics, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To address such oversights, we interviewed 43 individuals in various caregiving capacities. Preliminary findings reveal that individuals providing adult care and childcare must juggle managing their own risks to COVID-19 with also maintaining the safety of their loved ones. Safety, for Asian and Asian Americans, relates to not only the health risks associated with contracting COVID-19, but also physical harm associated with anti-Asian violence. Additionally, respondents negotiated how they interact with their families as they assessed risk of exposure from travel, social settings, and pre-existing medical conditions.
March 11, 2022 will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an epidemic. The ongoing health crisis—intertwined with intensified anti-Asian hate, labor issues, and changes in social dynamics—has consistently highlighted an opportunity to analyze how racial stigma and racial violence shape the ways that historically marginalized and excluded communities experience disasters and their economic aftershocks. In the case of COVID-19, shelter-in-place orders heighten risks for family members experiencing abuse while also further distancing victims from outside social support. With forced evacuations from college campuses, many young adults have returned to family homes that are contending with significant economic, social, and physical uncertainties while also experiencing alienation from peer support and educational resources. Job loss and economic insecurity are added stressors, contributing to family conflict. Despite the significant number of Asian and Asian American groups and individuals impacted, they are often excluded from studies due to the demographic’s relatively smaller population size. However, AAsian and Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in the United States (Issues and Facts, n.d.1), indicating an urgent need to address the impact of family and intimate partner violence during the pandemic. Alongside macroeconomic aftershocks, the pandemic urges us to analyze the social consequences of disasters as they intersect with questions of racism and family dynamics for historically marginalized and excluded individuals and communities. Our study responds to this need by examining family relationships during the pandemic and in relation to economic instability, racism, and health risks.
This report is part of our larger research agenda examining how Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are broadly impacted by COVID-19. The findings presented here focus on Asian and Asian American communities, primarily those living with minor children and/or those who have moved back to their childhood homes with their parents. Still, where applicable, we include responses from Pacific Islander respondents. We will address further findings from the Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander component of the study in future publications.
Care work includes three types of relationships and activities that keep people alive. First, there is direct physical, emotional, and service work, needed to meet people’s physical and emotional needs. The second type involves the maintenance of the environment where people live, and is usually known as housework. The third type is relationship work, also known as kin work and community care (Glenn, 20102Questions for our interviewees, accordingly, were organized under these definitions of caregiving. Gendered expectations for caregiving, framed by cultural concepts such as filial piety (a belief in honoring and respecting one's parents, elders, and ancestors) and dharma (a religious concept invoking righteousness regarding individual conduct) in East and South Asia respectively, are foundational to the project’s conceptualization of caregiving (George, 19983). In particular, Asian immigrant women caregivers hold a role within their families as cultural and intergenerational mediators, essentially: they embody cultural traditions by fulfilling their gender roles (George, 1998; Neufeld et al., 20024). The expectation that daughters will take care of their older relatives is one element of the strong gender role socialization in Asian and Asian American families and it results in higher rates of female caregivers in Asian and Asian American households. This is further complicated by culturally specific norms, such as how the oldest son and his wife are often expected to take a caregiver role within the Asian American community (Pinquart & Sörensen, 20055). Research on family dynamics within Asian and Asian American households should also consider multigenerational households, where grandparents often serve as family caregivers for grandchildren even as they are simultaneously cared for by their own children (Yancura, 20136).
Racism, economic uncertainty, and heightened threats that Asian and Asian American individuals are currently experiencing in relation to COVID-19 are risk factors for family violence, IPV, and mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety (Ho, 19907; Gee et al., 20078; Cho, 20129). Research on family violence and IPV in Asian and Asian American communities is relatively uncommon (Lee, 200710; Lee & Hadeed, 200911). The studies within this subfield have historically tended to be inconclusive and have often neglected disaggregating data based on ethnicity and socioeconomic status that would likely show that certain groups have a greater vulnerability based on known risk factors (Chang et al., 200912). This study clarifies how added factors of racism and economic uncertainty affect family stability while simultaneously contributing toward building a more comprehensive dataset of Asian and Asian American individuals’ experiences of family instability in general. Immigration and acculturative stress (e.g., immigration-related trauma, language barriers) serve as key risk factors for IPV among Asian and Asian American (Sluzki, 197913; Kim & Sung, 200014; Chang et al., 2009; Cho, 2012). Within cultural contexts where divorce is highly stigmatized and family conflict often closed off from outside intervention and awareness, Asian and Asian American women experiencing violence in heterosexual relationships may endure abuse and avoid seeking support as a measure of “saving face” (Weil & Lee, 200415). Further, culturally specific differences in defining abuse or violence often contribute to underreporting.
Between March 19, 2020 and June 30, 2021, Stop AAPI Hate’s data collection of anti-Asian incident reports revealed that 31.6% of anti-Asian incidents happened on public streets, while 30.1% of incidents took place at businesses (Yellow Horse et al., 202116). The majority of these incidents taking place in public spaces likely increases feelings of discomfort and fear for Asian and Asian American individuals, and may discourage them (particularly those suffering from poor mental health) from seeking care at precisely the time when support is most needed. Considering that across the 9,081 incidents collected by Stop AAPI Hate, 63.3% were reported by women, the gendered dimensions of these patterns also require special attention (Yellow Horse et al., 2021).
Our study uses in-depth interviews and surveys with members of the Asian and Asian American population who provide caregiving in primary and secondary roles to immediate and extended kin networks. For children, primary caregiving refers to actively interacting with the child, while secondary caregiving would refer to spending time in the presence of the child to address emergency situations but not actively engaging the child (Zick & Bryant, 199617). For elderly or other dependents with special health care needs, secondary caregiving refers to support provided to the primary caregiver from intensive help like eating and bathing through less immediate needs like helping with grocery shopping or emotional support (Barbosa et al., 201118) upplement our qualitative approaches, our research team will also conduct a longitudinal quantitative survey. Survey questions will prompt responses related to mental health, feelings of safety at home, and accessing health/social support services, among other topics, such as caregiving and violence. We also conduct interviews and surveys with representatives from community-based advocacy groups and health and social service providers who identify as Asian and Asian American. The research in this paper reports on preliminary results from the family and caregiving component of our broader research study, which encompasses five other dynamics of Asian immigrant, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander life. Aspects of community organizing, and advocacy, health, education, and use of online spaces are planned for future study. Preliminary findings from the labor component of our study were reported in a 2021 Quick Response Research Report.
The family and caregiving focused component of the study is guided by the following research questions:
- How do external stressors related to COVID-19, such as racism, illness, and economic uncertainty, influence family dynamics and the relationships that Asian and Asian American people have with their families, spouses, or partners?
- How do Asian and Asian American adults under 35 who live at home negotiate social support within their families, with their peers, within their communities, and within the healthcare system?
To supplement the qualitative components of this study, quantitative surveys focusing on the labor and caregiving components of our overall study have been designed. While parts of the surveys use existing scales, such as those used in academic literature to assess discrimination, much of the focus is on assessing the experiences of people, particularly Asians and Asian Americans, living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Specific survey questions are thus further informed by the preliminary data gathered from our initial qualitative interviews. Our ongoing data collection is occurring during a critical point for American society, where increasing social polarization intertwined with a modern biological disaster will have lingering long-term effects on social theory. Accordingly, the surveys represent a unique opportunity to interrogate how Asians, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in comparison to other racial groups.
Data, Methods, Procedures
Our overall study will conduct: (a) in-depth interviews of 160 respondents (each respondent will be interviewed twice for a total of 320 interviews), (b) surveys of 1,900 respondents (with surveys conducted at two time points for a maximum of 3,800 surveys) and (c) digital ethnography with grassroots labor organizations.
In this paper, we are reporting our initial findings from 43 interviews with Asian and Asian American and Pacific Islander respondents.
Sample Size and Participants
Descriptive statistics of the preliminary qualitative sample are located in Table 1.
Table 1. Preliminary Sample Descriptive Statistics
|Mixed Race Asian||4||(9.3)|
|Income (based on US tax brackets)|
|High School Diploma (Currently in College)||2||(4.7)|
Our strategy of sampling Asian and Asian American individuals from a range of industries and with varying ties to caregiving helped us document and analyze disparities in social and physical risks, access to social networks and social capital, and feelings of future uncertainty. All names have been changed to protect the identities of respondents and ensure there is no breach of confidentiality.
Following our broader goals to capture a wider range of diversity within the Asian and Asian American and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander demographic, our study aimed to include respondents across ethnicities, genders, sexualities, incomes, and religions. To meet this aim and to access communities that may be more difficult to reach for most university researchers, the qualitative portion of our study adopted multiple strategies of recruitment including social media and community collaboration. First, our project has published a preliminary survey of contact and demographic information that we used to screen potential candidates for interviews. The research team distributed the preliminary survey through personal networks and via social media. We also coordinated news stories published by independent, university, and news outlets to publicize the project and direct readers to our website and social media account. To complement this more general strategy, we also engaged with targeted recruitment in order to access respondents from specific ethnic groups. We additionally engaged in the following initiatives to fulfill our recruitment goals:
Partnership with the Asian American & Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander COVID-19 Research & Policy Team, a community-based research and advocacy initiative, to bolster recruitment of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Pacific Islanders, excluding Native Hawaiians, have the highest rates of cases of COVID-19 (Hofschneider 202019).
Inclusion of Southeast Asian researchers with connections to SoutheastAsian workers and community-based organizations. For example, our team includes a Laotian American undergraduate researcher who is conducting interviews with workers at a meatpacking plant in Nebraska where members of her immediate and extended family also work. One postdoctoral researcher is Vietnamese American and engaged with Vietnamese cultural associations.
- Inclusion of researchers with background of collaboration and organizing with sex workers advocacy groups and mutual aid collectives.
- Collaboration with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which advocates for strengthened protections and support for low-wage workers and unemployed workers including Asian immigrants and undocumented workers.
- Collaboration with the nonprofit Muslim Wellness Foundation to bolster recruitment of Asian immigrant and Asian American Muslim workers. (Status: In discussion)
- Collaboration with expert researchers of Filipino American communities to bolster recruitment of Filipina care workers, such as nurses. In some states, Filipino Americans have the second highest rate of cases (Hofschneider 2020). (Status: In discussion)
- Collaboration with Asian immigrant, Asian American, and Pacific Islander affinity groups, student resource centers, and departments at universities
With the exception of one co-PI, the research team and those who conducted all interviews are Asian American and Pacific Islander scholars, reflecting both our project’s significant and often personal investments in the communities within our study as well as the potential for our research to contribute towards support for underrepresented researchers within the social sciences. We intentionally collaborate with Southeast Asian, South Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander researchers, students, and community organizations in an effort to uplift the work and contributions of ethnic groups who are generally underrepresented in research on Asian and Asian American and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander communities. We are dedicated to building meaningful collaborations with non-East Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in order to better represent the lived experiences of Asian and Asian American and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander communities as a whole.
For our baseline survey measures, we will have 500 Asian and Asian American, 200 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander, 400 Latinx, 400 Black, and 400 non-Hispanic White respondents in our survey sample, resulting in a total of 1900 respondents. 1700 (all of the non-Asian and Asian American or Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander racial groups, along with 400 Asian and Asian American and 100 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander) responses will be collected through Dynata, an online research firm, while an additional 200 responses from Asian and Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders will be collected through targeted recruitment. Both surveys are hosted on Qualtrics. Our baseline survey measures include demographic background, measures of physical and mental health, information about COVID-19, vaccination, and testing, and experiences of racism related to COVID-19. The survey will gauge current attitudes about Asian and Asian American individuals and communities among adults living in the US. Questions focus on attribution of blame for the pandemic to Asian and Asian American individuals and communities. Screener questions for ethnicity will assist in sampling Asian and Asian Americans beyond East Asian ethnicities. Specific measures regarding unpaid care work in family, friend, and other intimate relationships will be given to half the sample (250 Asian and Asian Americans, 100 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, 200 Latinx, 200 Black, and 200 non-Hispanic White respondents), resulting in a total of 950 respondents answering caregiving-specific questions.
We will use the same questionnaire for all racial and ethnic groups, enabling us to make comparisons across groups and parse variation among Asian ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. We will recruit through our intake survey and collaborate with Asian and Asian American and general population community organizations (social service providers, faith-based organizations) to recruit a sample that encompasses a range of incomes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and political orientations. In this vein, anticipating the challenges of accessing a diverse sample within the extensive diversity of Asian and Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, we recruited a new team member specifically to focus on targeted recruitment for both our qualitative and quantitative strategies.
We will conduct a follow-up survey approximately one year after the conclusion of the first survey with the same 1900 respondents that we survey in our baseline. This survey includes a subset of questions from the original baseline as well as emergent themes from the second round of qualitative interviews. This follow-up survey enables us to track general attitudes as they shift over time alongside changes in social and economic conditions.
Survey data collection has been stalled for months as the result of multiple interfering institutional and logistical constraints, but the team hopes to commence survey data collection in early January 2022. Once the surveys are in the field, data should be collected quickly, so we anticipate analyzing the first wave of survey data in early 2022.
Our preliminary findings largely highlight the complex family dynamics of caregiving and negotiation of interactions. Results thus far from our qualitative portion are expected to be supplemented with our collaborations with reproductive health organizations and our upcoming survey results, which will dive deeper into the questions of family conflict resulting from disasters. While our intention is to continue exploring family and partner violence, our findings in this report primarily focus on aspects of caregiving and family dynamics
Initial interviews with 43 Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander respondents revealed layered dynamics between caregivers and family members as they navigate adult caregiving, child caregiving, and visiting family members.
The increased risk of COVID-19 exposure of aging parents in the work force was a concern among respondents. Photo Credit: Ashley Shan, 2020
Caring for Aging Parents and Family Members
Respondents who take on the role of providing some level of care for adults share a sense of responsibility and concern. Adult caregivers’ ages range from their early twenties to mid-fifties, with jobs in a variety of sectors. Regardless of the age or job obligations, adult caregivers emphasized how COVID-19 adds challenges to caregiving.
Mary, a mixed-ethnicity Asian American, described how they manage the lack of information about COVID-19 for their parents and how they try to protect them. This respondent’s concerns for their parents’ health are intertwined with their concern for their parents’ vulnerability as elderly people with pre-existing conditions, particularly given their father’s increased risk due to being an essential worker.
My dad is still working though, so that's why I was also really concerned because...He works for the post office, and he has a pre-existing condition: Hep B...they don't have like a scientific background...they didn’t really understand what was occurring... when there was like the advisory to go into shelter in place...they were just kind of like, “what's going on?”...I was concerned for them because I was like, oh I don't know what's going to happen...it could be potentially fatal...my dad was going to work, and I was just like, “Make sure you like do this and wear, you know, proper PPE and like protect yourself and be cautious... they're in that age range where they're vulnerable population. Plus, you know, my mom's diabetic...
Children of medically vulnerable parents expressed concern for their parents’ safety, factoring in the job obligations of their parents, the risks of exposure, and medical predispositions that place them at higher risk for severe complications of COVID-19.
Brenda, a mixed-ethnicity Asian American, described how business losses from COVID-19 affected her mom and her mom’s financial security for the future.
Just because of like business losses from my mom's end and just her wanting to move on. She has a house, and we've been trying to sell that as soon as possible because we're just worried about like what things are going to look like in the future... my weekends also consist of like trying to move you know, and pack things for her, doing yard work, and things like that because finances are really tough. So, we're doing a lot of the stuff ourselves.
Additionally, the same respondent regularly cares for an elder in her extended family. As she revealed in the interview, her caregiving is culturally shaped and motivated, with COVID-19 adding an additional layer of complication.
I have kind of like an extended grandfather, who I’ve been taking care of as well on weekends, who needs a lot of help like doing—just like going out because he's also medically vulnerable... it's just like the cultural component... that just doesn't even really occur to me... It's just now a layer of COVID added to it.
Renewed Family Connections
Amidst the behavioral and logistical adjustments resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, some participants described how the pandemic provided opportunities to strengthen connections and quality time with family.
Sammy, a Samoan woman who is a director of an NGO, said the following about living with extended family:
My most important title isn't an executive director, it's Auntie [name]...I'm sheltering in place in a multi-generational household where like I have, my youngest is three and my oldest niece is 18 and like, it's way more interesting for me to like, watch Yo Gabba Gabba videos than sit in one more policy Zoom. I think where it feels most dynamic is with my three-year-old, who is not used to having me around. So, to hear her call on me more, be more like, ask her things and then being able to witness her growth more closely is the thing that like, brings me so much joy.
Sammy found that being able to work from home with extended family meant she was more aware of her relationship with her nieces. Accordingly, we find that COVID-19 has made many respondents more aware of their relationships with family members, whether that meant more isolation, distancing within a household, or the burden of financial and physical caregiving becoming more apparent.
For Rebecca, the pandemic offered an opportunity to spend more time with her parents and her toddler. She reflected on her Chinese ancestry and the ability to connect more to her roots through her child, which was contrary to her childhood experience.
So when [my mom’s] around like she tries to speak Cantonese as much as possible...We try to- we've been like taking [my son’s]... picture books and like translating them into Chinese and then like I’ll like, write it down so that I can like practice it and read it to him in Chinese, too. So it's been kind of neat like as a result of the pandemic, we've had a lot more time together, which also means that we have had more of a chance to do some of this work together. It's both work and not.... Like work sounds so negative in some ways, but also really joyful, I guess. Yeah. And bittersweet, I would say because you know like the whole time I'm thinking like, oh, like it's sad that I didn't get all this as a kid. But like, for instance, it was the Mid-Autumn festival recently. And we hadn't really when I was a kid — we ate moon cakes, but we didn't really celebrate outside of that. But like, now that my mom was here and I have a kid...I found some picture books about the Moon Festival for kids, and we were reading them to my child. As my mom was looking through them, she's like, “Oh, I remember like we used to have lanterns like this in Hong Kong...” I went out and found some lanterns on Amazon [to] reclaim some of those traditions that my mom hadn't really thought about in a really long time. That was really sparked by me having my own child. It’s kind of a silver lining, I guess, of the pandemic, that we're living with my parents again and having some of these like conversations and interactions together.
Caring for Extended Family Members Who Live Separately
Some respondents adjusted their own behaviors to reduce the risk of exposing those under their care to COVID-19. Jenny, a Chinese Malaysian woman, said:
Even my interactions with my mom, I call her once a week on Saturdays... my mom is quite elderly...She does not do well with new technology...I'd be like, "Mom, please like I will send you the money...go get a smartphone...so that we can talk and have more of a connection." And she's like, "No, no, I can't do it.” She's afraid of the technology...now I think with the pandemic...we don't know when we can go back to visit. It's exacerbated right, like the feelings of isolation that were already there...I have an older brother. And it's just the two of us, as far as siblings go. And because he's the older brother, and because he's male, he takes care of my parents financially... with COVID-19, he's like, "Okay, so business has kind of ground to a halt. I'm, um, and now that you've graduated, when can you send us some money?"... there are these like, additional cultural layers of the pandemic, that I'm feeling...that sense of being filial... this is really real now.
Similarly, Hanna, a Japanese American woman who works as a stage manager in California, described how she cares for her grandmother during the pandemic:
I have one grandmother that lives about 20 minutes away from me...So I do all of her shopping for her whenever she needs. I usually do it weekly. She's scared to leave her house. She won't go even to her, like my dad's house, which is her son... So, she's just staying home. She takes a walk every morning, but she's fully covered: masks, gloves, everything, hat, sunglasses. And then I put a tracking app on her phone so I could see where she goes. But she doesn't go to the store. She went to the bank maybe once...I asked her if she wanted to go shopping, and she said absolutely not. Not yet. So, she's aware of the numbers that are other people are getting infected. So, I check in with her at least three times a week, I go shopping for her once a week. My parents are in their 60s; they don't go to any events. So, like when I went camping, or when I went to...the peaceful protest...I stayed away for 14 days. And in the case of the march, I took a COVID test to just make sure. And I even explained it to my grandmother that it has to be 14 days until I can take my mask off. And I would drop off her groceries and then just go home. And she knows to stay six feet apart.
Hanna described the significant commute and regular caregiving check-ins and errands she runs for her grandmother. Additionally, she relies on an app that allows her to check on her grandmother’s geographical location. Hanna described the lengths she and her family took to maintain safety when she engaged in other aspects of her social life, like attending a peaceful protest, while taking care of her parents and grandparents, who are likely experiencing more social isolation during the pandemic.
Interviewees with young children worried about pandemic impacts on education, social skills, and risks associated with in-person schooling. Photo Credit: Ashley Shan, 2021.
Concerns for Child Education, Socialization, and Safety
Parents of young children during the pandemic are faced with the added burdens of childcare while working. As schools transitioned to remote learning, parents reflected on prioritizing their children’s education while also trying to keep them safe from COVID-19. However, remote learning presents a significant challenge to providing childcare and education while working.
George, a Filipino man who is the father of two kids, aged three and six, elaborated on some of the difficulties his family faced when the pandemic forced a transition to at-home work and school.
My kids don't have outlets, with other kids to interact with and stuff. It's just most of the energy to play around and stuff, it has to come from us. There isn't much scope for other outlets. I mean, there's— we've gotten lucky, where there's been some outdoor soccer camps and outdoor other activities that he can do, get his energy out and meet other kids, which has been good. So I think he enjoys that and it gives us some time too. But you know, not having actual school ... it'd be great for the kids to be back in a physical school setting, but not unsafely. My oldest son gives me guff more often now, exercising his autonomy more — it definitely might have rubbed me the wrong way sometimes (laughing). I could feel myself getting stressed and angry ... [with COVID,] changing from a very ordered environment to a very like, free environment ... I spent a lot of time like, doing nothing (laughs). Like, I didn't have any structure in my day, you know? But I think we're good — we're muddling through.
Some parents grappled with the possibilities that their children’s education and social skills will fall behind as a result of remote learning. While they do not want their children to become infected with COVID-19, they also want to re-establish a sense of normalcy in the daily routines of their children.
Tina, a Korean American woman with two young children, described how she may be willing to put her children back in school if it meant that their education and social life can be maintained.
I guess I'm more focused right now about her continuing to get her education. Her social development, like I really want them to be safe, but I also worry a lot that they're going to continue to be impacted in terms of their learning and their growth. And I guess I'm more worried about that, then you know keeping her home and like you know worrying about COVID so it is a risk, but I guess I am willing to take that risk to give her more of that sense of, you know, semblance of normalcy, I guess.
Some families with increased financial flexibility had divergent experiences regarding childcare. Amy, a Chinese American mother, describes how her family’s au pair was willing to move locations with them to continue providing education and care for her children. She reflected on the privilege she had to do this, compared to some colleagues who had to juggle the difficulties of childcare and work during the pandemic. She recognized how her socioeconomic status allowed her the financial resources to hire additional support for childcare and child education, which was not necessarily the case for her colleagues.
We asked [our au pair] if she would move out with us because we knew this wouldn't work if she didn't, and thankfully, she was excited to move out here...she speaks Spanish to the girls all day, every day. So, you know, they're learning Spanish. She works with my older daughter on numbers and letter recognition. There are some preschools open here. I just don't feel comfortable sending her, and I'm also just like not that stressed about it, you know. She's going to start kindergarten. I don't think she'll be behind. But if she is, we have like the resources to get her up to speed. You know, it's just not what I'm worried about, but like the childcare thing is huge because […] so many of my colleagues don't have that situation. They are blocking massive swathes of time of their day to help with, you know, the Virtual School to just watch their kids. I mean it's really, really tough. So, I can't even imagine. But I am pretty insulated from that. I'm in a really good situation.
Concerns Visiting Family
Respondents expressed fear and distress over potentially spreading COVID-19 to their loved ones. Robert, an elderly Chinese American artist in New York City, specifically addressed the fear of infecting his wife. This fear presents in physical restrictions of limiting himself from going outside or visiting family:
When COVID started, my wife was—she has a few health issues. The fear, the stress is that I'm going to get infected. I'm going to infect her. That is the main stress factor. It's mental and it's physical. So, physically I can’t go anywhere. I can’t visit my family. So that affects me mentally too, just the feeling of, because of my age, I am limited. I can’t expose myself, or it is dangerous. So, you know, a few friends have died. It’s kind of real.
Others may not live with their family members, but remain concerned about visiting family members in their homes or at care facilities (e.g., hospital or nursing home). Children wanting to visit their elderly parents are faced with the dilemma of how to safely visit and spend quality time with them. Timothy, a Filipino man, recalled the difficulties of visiting his parents in another state:
My parents are in their 80s... I am concerned about... visiting and... not wanting to be an asymptomatic carrier. Um, and I know you're supposed to isolate, like it would be tough to isolate in their house. And so, I'm still trying to figure out at some point, you know...logistically, I'm still trying to figure out what that would look like. So no, I have not—Yeah, I have not been back to [see parents] since— since Christmas.
Grace, a Korean PhD student, pointed to the difficulties of visiting family members in high-risk care settings, such as nursing homes and hospitals. She described how COVID-19 has impacted the ways in which family members are allowed to mourn the death of loved ones or even be present for them during medical procedures:
But my spouse, my husband's grandmother passed away during the pandemic. It wasn't because of COVID-19 but from a different reason. But we had to visit her in the nursing home... they would give out a permit for, you know, special occasions like that because we knew that it was pretty imminent. And then we couldn't really do any memory services or anything like that, so that, I think that was hard for my spouse's family... My father-in-law had to go through a cancer surgery. I mean, it went all well and everything. We couldn't really visit him. He had to stay in the hospital by himself right, to heal and everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced how individuals choose to interact with their loved ones. Those who take on the role of a caregiver, whether for an adult or for a child, are faced with juggling the priorities of those they are caring for while also tending to their own obligations as a student, employee, parent, etc.
As revealed by our preliminary data, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the choices that Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders are making in the course of caregiving, whether it's for aging relatives or for children. While caregivers had to reckon with greater responsibilities prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 has increased the burdens and fears that people carry with them during everyday life, with many altering their behaviors in order to protect their loved ones. We particularly acknowledge that most of the respondents who discuss caregiving identified as women. This is consistent with literature on how caregiving is gendered, with women being more burdened as caregivers compared to men (Marks et al., 200220; Swinkels et al., 201921).
Many respondents reported that juggling caregiving and personal safety fundamentally altered their relationships with loved ones. Photo Credit: Ashley Shan, 2021.
Implications for Practice and Dissemination of Findings
This study will inform policies and community-based strategies aimed at supporting racially marginalized populations, including AAPI people, in the U.S. To disseminate our current and eventual findings, we rely on social media and email distribution, in addition to using our existing partnerships with various organizations.
Our research is enhanced through our partnership with the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which puts our project into conversation with a network of social scientists of disasters and social inequality. Further, our project is one of 90 working groups in the COVID-19 Working Groups for Public Health and Social Sciences Research, supported by CONVERGE, a National Science Foundation-funded initiative headquartered at the Natural Hazards Center, and the Social Science Extreme Events Research (SSEER) Network. Our partnership with UNESCO’s International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR) widens the public reach of our study, connects us to municipal leadership who can assist our collaboration with local organizations, and enables us to collaborate with the organization’s experts to ensure that our findings are legible to policymaking audiences. ICCAR has expressed interest in integrating our research on domestic violence and mental health into their ongoing initiatives to raise awareness on and develop solutions for the problem of domestic violence that has intensified over the course of the pandemic. The project is also engaged with federal government agencies. In May 2020, a co-PI and a graduate researcher co-presenter delivered a talk on “COVID-19 and The Asian American Pacific Islander Community” at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The project aims to continue using the platforms we access to educate national policymakers about inclusive policies, the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health, and the unique challenges faced by AAPI workers. Broadly, we anticipate that findings from our study will help to develop culturally competent tools for mental health and domestic violence support organizations, which frequently have less experience providing services for AAPI communities.
As all members of the project team are employed by universities across the U.S., we are well-prepared to collaborate with universities to develop strategies of supporting AAPI students amidst remote learning. Eventually, we hope to collaborate with campus LGBTQ centers to use our data to inform best practices for supporting AAPI LGBTQIA young people, especially those living at home. We will also be intentional with using our findings to enhance undergraduate learning. As researchers invested in community-centered practices and grounded theory approaches to research, we recognize this research project is driven by the needs and priorities of Asian immigrants and the diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora. As such, our research team practices critical reflexivity in both how we approach research and our willingness to adjust our strategies of engagement based on specific communities’ needs. As researchers and members of the broader AAPI community, the research team prioritizes meaningful collaborations with Asian immigrant, Asian American, and Pacific Islander community-based organizations, leaders, and other stakeholders.
In seeking these collaborations, we aim to achieve a high standard of ethical research by ensuring that our project is: (1) responsive to the issues and concerns that are most relevant to different AAPI communities; (2) accurately representative of community members that are most directly impacted by the pandemic; (3) accountable to community members participating in our study, who we want to ensure feel respected and heard; and (4) effective in communicating the issues and concerns of AAPI communities to policy makers and institutions in order to generate positive social change. Recognizing social inequalities within the broader AAPI demographic, our project is particularly interested in practicing community reciprocity by providing professional and other mentorship opportunities for young Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community members interested in careers in research, with these endeavors supported through our partnership with the Asian American & Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander COVID-19 Research & Policy Team. As part of our philosophy of community responsive, we are also engaged with other ongoing research and cultural endeavors, such as the STOP AAPI HATE Reporting Center, a joint initiative by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and New York University’s A/P/A Voices COVID-19 Public Memory Project, which collects oral history interviews on AAPI experiences and perspectives on COVID-19. Finally, our project will collaborate with senior researchers and community stakeholders through our Advisory Board to develop ethical strategies for making our data accessible for future research, particularly for researchers from backgrounds that have historically underrepresented among AAPI scholars such as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Future Research Directions
As we continue to collect more data, we plan to refine our recruitment strategies to gather qualitative information from those who are not represented as clearly in our current sample. For example, considering 65% of our qualitative sample identified as female, having insights regarding caregiving from those who identify as women aligned with gendered expectations about who provides care (and thus is disproportionately burdened during times of increased mental duress). In our next phase of recruitment, we accordingly would like to interview more people who identify as male in order to examine how caregiving experiences are different for them, particularly in the context of Asian cultures that have traditionally been defined as more patriarchal. Our survey data collection should assist in this effort, given that we will have quotas of 50% male and 50% female for each of our target groups.
Further, as stated in our original grant application, a goal of the family and caregiving dimension of our project was to examine how COVID was impacting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual and/or agender (LGBTQIA) Asian and Asian Americans. As extensively documented in academic literature, the LGBTQIA population consistently faces identity-based marginalization in society that manifests in worse mental health outcomes and greater structural disparities such as decreased access to health insurance and increased poverty in comparison with non-LGBTQIA people — these vulnerabilities have only intensified during COVID, which has strained existing societal support for many (Salerno et al., 202022; Gonzalez et al., 202123). While broader societal instability and stay-at-home orders both have the potential to intensify the vulnerabilities of all people cohabitating with family and intimate partners, they have the potential to disproportionately impact LGBTQIA people, especially those who are younger or financially dependent. Sexuality is a significant factor that can shape how individuals, especially young people, experience life at home and relationships with non-chosen family members. In the case of LGBTQIA Asian and Asian American college students, college can offer important environments for exploration and expression of identities. Recent campus evacuations and plans to remain remote thus have already isolated many individuals from key sources of social support, information, and safety. Even for LGBTQIA Asian and Asian American young people with relatively positive familial relationships, returning home can complicate how they navigate self-expression and harmonious family dynamics. Our study draws from existing research on LGBTQIA individuals’ experiences of healthcare and social services to hypothesize that that Asian and Asian American, like other LGBTQIA individuals, encounter disproportionate barriers to care (Paine, 201824; Robinson, 201825). The very limited research on Asian and Asian American LGBTQIA individuals and communities not only makes this topic under-theorized within scholarship, but also contributes to stigmatization of diverse gender and sexual expressions within the broader Asian and Asian American demographic. While we do have LGBTQIA interviewees among our current sample, more specific recruitment is needed in order to draw conclusions regarding the LGBTQIA population during this time.
For the qualitative portion of our study, our previous report stated that we will conduct in-depth interviews with approximately 160 Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in both formal and informal economies across industries and income ranges, including small business owners and workers; self-employed and hourly essential workers; salaried essential workers (e.g., healthcare, childcare, K-12 teachers); and salaried nonessential workers. We will continue to sample individuals, but from more targeted backgrounds. As we continue our interview recruitment for other research topics of interest like community organizing and advocacy, health, education, and online spaces, in an effort to obtain representation across marginalized groups, we are especially interested in more participants who identify as:
- Frontline workers, healthcare and homecare workers, restaurant workers, gig economy workers, small business owners
- Working class
- Immigrant tenants
- Southeast Asian; South Asian; Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians; multiracial
- Diasporic specific, ex: Filipinx, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Thai, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Samoan, Fijian, Tongan
- Over the age of 50
- Living in non-coastal regions, rural communities
- More conservative in terms of political ideology
Additionally, the long-term nature of our data collection has illuminated the challenges of working with large institutions while conducting time-sensitive research during a biological crisis. The unique nature of our research collaborative, which spans multiple institutions and states, has revealed how cross-collaborative research is frequently disincentivized. In this process, relying on our home institutions for both support and credibility has been necessary —however, this reliance has led to complications that would not be necessary if our research model was more independent of existing structures. Institutional norms around data security and uses of data, which we have diligently followed to protect our respondents’ privacy, have also required us to be obliged to contracts that uphold a separate negotiation process — one that has not always been transparent to us as researchers. For a team composed of many junior and contingent researchers, this has been a learning opportunity — but one that has provided opportunities for mentorship, with more senior researchers, both in the team and in the fields of Asian American Studies, lending their expertise when it came to interview and survey development.
As we continue our data collection, we recognize the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term ramifications beyond the "end" of the pandemic. We hope the results from our study will contribute to documenting the lived experiences of Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders during this unprecedented political and biological moment.
We thank our AAPI COVID-19 Project team members — Jason Beckfield, Rachel Kuo, Jackie Leung, Catherine Nguyen, Nat Tahir, Cynthia Wang, Mu Wu, and Liwei Zhang — for their constant dedication and commitment to this work. We value our research assistants, present and past — Kent Chen, Alexandria Ho, Justin Hu, Frances Lee, Irissa Machetta, Charlie Nguyen, Brammy Rajakumar, Ashley Shan, Jennifer Su, Lucy Tu, Britney Vongdara, Matteo Wong, and Kevin Zhang — for their willingness to dive into the project with open minds. We also thank Ibis Reproductive Health for engaging in dialogue with us regarding reproductive health and family violence, topics often left out of the Asian and Asian American and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander discourse. And last but not least, thank you to Elena Ong and the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Pacific Islander COVID-19 Policy & Research Team for engaging in policy conversations around racial justice and public health, and inviting our team into an expansive network of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community organizations.
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