APAHM 2020 Unsung Hero: Cynthia KuangJason Liu
May 31, 2020
To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Sparks Magazine is featuring Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) unsung heroes during COVID-19.
We’re excited to feature Cynthia Kuang, who is an Asian American from Queens, New York. She is a nurse and dental student at Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine. During our conversation, we discussed being in quarantine in the city, the lack of resources for Elmhurst Hospital (one of the hardest-hit hospitals in New York state), and the inspiration behind her GoFundMe fundraiser.
To learn more about Cynthia’s fundraiser to support Elmhurst Hospital’s staff, click here.
How are you currently doing during this time in quarantine and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Currently in New York City, we’re kind of going through the thick of it right now, especially compared to the rest of the country. But personally for me and my family, I would say we’re doing OK. I am a student, so we’ve transitioned from the classroom to online instruction, but we’re still trying to figure out when we can go back to clinic to pick up a lot of the stuff that we have yet to learn in SIM lab. My sister is actually a dental resident at Flushing Hospital, which has been hit pretty heavily as well. Our parents have been worrying about her a lot, but most of the time we’re staying inside, trying to be smart. It’s a little tough because we have a grandmother who lives in Queens as well, and we haven’t seen her for three months now. I think that’s the toughest part about being in quarantine personally, but otherwise, my family is staying active, and we wear masks when we go out. We’re hanging in there.
I was reading up on your work with Elmhurst Hospital. It’s super amazing what you’re doing with them. What is the connection that you have with the hospital?
I live in the intersection of Woodside, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. Growing up, I played in the parks of Elmhurst, my local library is in Jackson Heights, and I attended elementary school in Woodside. I see myself as being a part of all three neighborhoods because they’re so close to each other. When I was younger, I regularly volunteered at Elmhurst Hospital, being that it’s such a short walk from where I live. My grandparents have been through their ER many times in the past, and my cousin is a longtime pharmacist there. At the end of the day, it’s our local hospital, and it is a place that has taken care of my family for as long as I could remember. It’s the one place that we would turn to if someone got sick or didn’t feel well, and we very much depend on the hospital for our well-being.
Why do you think Elmhurst Hospital is one of the hardest-hit hospitals in New York state?
I think there are many reasons. One of the biggest would probably because of Elmhurst’s location, it’s the Roosevelt Ave/ Jackson Heights train station, which is the largest public transit hub in all of Queens. Elmhurst is the one of the densest neighborhoods in all of New York City, so crowding can be severe, and statistically speaking, there are a lot of people who live together in one apartment who don’t have the ability to work from home. A lot of immigrants also live in Elmhurst, as well as Jackson Heights and Woodside, and there are a lot of blue-collar essential workers who commute for work, but then they come back at the end of the day and they live in housing units with multi-generational families. So, their grandmothers, their parents, their children—they’re all living in the same place, sometimes sharing the same bedroom. That really adds to the complexity of social distancing for a lot of our residents. So, if one person gets sick, it’s a lot easier for everyone else in the family to get sick as well.
These two masked men pretty much came up to our faces unprovoked and started expressing their disgust in our faces. This just shows, no matter where you are, something like this can affect your entire community.
I think this pandemic is exposing the major socioeconomic issues in New York City since the pandemic has been really affecting minority, especially Black and Brown, communities in New York City. I think what you brought up is such an important point that isn’t talked about enough during this time. Do you feel the same way? Do you feel like there needs to be changes in the city after this whole pandemic is over, to adjust to these issues?
Yeah…for a lot of the residents who live in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, Elmhurst Hospital would be the main hospital that we would be going to. But a lot of us are also undocumented immigrants, and there are a lot of people who are uninsured and lack access to healthcare. When stimulus checks were distributed, it just took a really long time for a lot of these families to get their checks, and some never qualified at all. A lot of small businesses have also been left behind, and they’re not getting the grants that they need. With this GoFundMe, I learned about two street vendors who have been out of work for six-plus months, about business owners who despite having COVID-19+ family members, can’t afford to stay home to care for them and have to continue to work despite the exposure risks this brings to their loved ones. They have to try to make the most of whatever livelihoods they have.
I read this article recently that showed how, when the pandemic hit New York City, a lot of people who were in wealthier neighborhoods had the ability to leave, and Queens was one of those places in which a lot of people did not have that luxury so they stayed. Elmhurst Hospital serves an area of approximately 1 million residents, and when these things happen, it just shows how under-resourced our hospital is. While other hospitals in the city had empty beds, Elmhurst Hospital was inundated, and external transfers of patients didn’t happen fast enough. This highlights how, in comparison to other hospitals throughout the city, our needs are not on par with what we have in terms of staffing and equipment, and it manifests the healthcare disparities in our community. It takes a big toll on its patients, and you can see how overwhelmed Elmhurst Hospital was – they were lacking mechanical ventilators and they had the greatest need for surge staffing. To me, these issues definitely bring to light those structural deficiencies within Elmhurst Hospital and within our community.
Let’s talk a little bit about your fundraiser. It’s so interesting that you brought up what you learned about GoFundMe. How did you come up with this idea for this fundraiser?
I was actually watching the news and there was actually a small blip about a doctor from Flushing Hospital who created a GoFundMe campaign because she saw how her hospital’s staff could benefit from having meals delivered during such a chaotic time. I realized how Elmhurst Hospital was also heavily hit, but there wasn’t something like that for the hospital.
As a nurse, I know how hard it is to sit down and take a break on a regular day. But to be working on the frontlines right now, I just couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to even go to the bathroom. From the nurses, doctors and residents, to maintenance staff or security—I highly doubted they would have the time to even meal prep at home after a long day of fatigue, much less actually eat once they got to work.
I figured one of the things that I could do, just like how that doctor from Flushing Hospital did, was try to raise money so that not only could we send meals to hospital staff so that they don’t have to worry about, “Where am I going to, what am I going to eat for lunch today,” but also support small local businesses in the process, many of whom are immigrants who have suffered heavy economic losses due to the pandemic.
The thought of a healthcare working sitting down to eat, and then possibly having to run out at any minute’s notice, if your patient starts crashing or if something critical happens, is a lot. Just thinking back about my experiences working on an inpatient unit, and how hard it was to stop just to drink water, it made me realize how this could be a good idea. So, I drew inspiration from what I saw on the news about this doctor from Flushing Hospital and then immediately applied this to Elmhurst Hospital because I saw a need for it. I saw the potential for a community benefit for our small-business owners, and a benefit for our local hospital, which was battling COVID as the epicenter.
I think being Asian American, a lot of times we’re taught to not speak up as much or be out in the frontline to go out of your way and help someone and organize, especially with what’s been going on in this pandemic. In general, I think a lot of people don’t know how to really help. How important do you think it is for people like you to organize and help our local communities right now?
You brought up many good points. I wanted to show that people of color and communities of color are very much invested in our own communities. We want to lift up our own communities, that was the one thing I really wanted people to see. For the GoFundMe, I had a lot of anxiety starting it because I knew that, on top of having school, that it was a commitment. And if I started it, I wanted to do the best I could with it.
I felt the weight of the campaign because I knew what it meant if this was successful. I knew the potential impact this had on the large number of businesses out there right now in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights who have shuttered, and the number of families right now who, on top of having sick family members, are also thinking about putting food on the table because they may not be getting any stimulus checks. They might be left behind and I wanted to make sure that I did whatever I could for my community. But also because as a nurse, I really felt for what my fellow nurses are going through. And I wanted to make sure that I did this right… And that if I did it, it was going to be an all-encompassing effort.
Volunteers have reached out. A lot of us are sitting home and we’re sheltered in place, so we can’t do physical outreach, but we are willing to call and fundraise by phone or to reach out to our own networks. I have a few friends who are connected to local advocacy groups, and that’s how we started working with the Street Vendor Project and Chhaya CDC, which helps small businesses within the Jackson Heights area. It just shows how, as a community, we just need an idea to be sparked, and then the rest of it will be carried by a communitywide effort because we’re all invested in our community’s wellbeing. I think that’s probably the most beautiful part of this GoFundMe. Everyone’s coming out from the woodworks, and everyone wants to help. This is not a one person thing.
With everything that’s going on, the Asian community has been hit with a lot of racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Have you encountered any of these experiences during this time and how have you or your family/friends been dealing with that portion of this whole pandemic?
That’s actually something that I’ve been talking about a lot with just my friends…living in Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst area—I think it helps shelter me from that a little bit, just because I live in one of the most diverse places in the whole world.
At the same time, I realize no matter how seemingly diverse a place may be, it won’t ever protect people of color from acts of ignorance. I was walking through Sunnyside a few weeks ago with my sister, and these two masked men pretty much came up to our faces unprovoked and started expressing their disgust in our faces. This just shows, no matter where you are, something like this can affect your entire community. And I know that this is not something that’s going to stop once the pandemic ends. It might continue for 10 years or 20 years.
I want people to keep in mind that this recovery is not for the short term. Elmhurst and Jackson Heights has a long way to go.
And this is something that we’ve seen with 9/11 after it happened. The entire South Asian community experienced horrendous acts of violence and hate and bigotry. And it went on all the way until now and probably for the future. It’s like, at this point, as a person of color who stands out, no matter how I act or speak or work, it’s a constant reminder… When something like this happens, we all lose. It’s just a matter of whose community’s turn it is at any given moment, and what might precipitate it. If it’s not us now, it might be a brother or sister who’s black or brown. It gives me a lot of anxiety knowing this pandemic is ongoing, probably for a long while. It’s a little sad and it makes me anxious for my own parents and my sisters who might be out or when we all go back to work. The ignorance and the hate doesn’t end when the pandemic slows down. It’s something that’s going to be ingrained in people’s minds, for a while, and it’ll take a lot to dismantle that.
It is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so I do want to ask, what makes you proud to be an Asian American?
So many things. I think being Chinese American and being Asian American, I know that there’s so much richness in my heritage and culture. My ancestors—we come from a long history in which we’ve been through a lot, and we are here and we will continue to be here. I think it shows not just our resilience and our ability to thrive, but also our ability to adapt and to continue to be stronger together, regardless of whether we’re on top of the world because Crazy Rich Asians just came out, or whether we hit rock bottom because we’re suddenly the face of a global pandemic. I think we’re very adaptable as a community, and it makes me proud that, regardless of what happens, we’ll always reflect strength and excellence, and I don’t think we’ll ever stop doing that. Given our history of overcoming and succeeding and continuously fighting, I think it’s such an empowering thing to know that this is in my blood. I always jokingly say that I’m a descendant of the dragon, that we breathe fire, we’ve been around forever and that we’re magical… I do believe it. I think we’re a very magical group of people and we’ve been through a lot, but we will continue to be incredible.
That’s amazing. I love that. That needs to be on a T-shirt or something. Is there anything else you would like to say about either your fundraiser, about this whole experience that you’ve had, or a point that you haven’t gotten to talk about yet?
Well, if I could put it out there, our fundraiser is entering our seventh week now. We had a lot of momentum in the beginning and a lot of people were donating and sharing, and I feel really blessed for the support. But now that the curve has flattened, and we’re thinking about re-opening, but I think a lot of people have forgotten that economic recovery will take a lot longer. The road to community recovery will take a lot longer. And a lot of the businesses now, even though they’re opening, they’re still feeling the strain of perhaps having lost loved ones and our campaign wants to continue to help. But the momentum has slowed down significantly, and I want people to keep in mind that this recovery is not for the short term. Elmhurst and Jackson Heights has a long way to go, and hopefully we can continue to reach out and work with local advocacy groups and communities that have been doing this from the very beginning of time. We want to be able to help however we can.
Even though we’re returning to normalcy in the hopefully near future—normalcy for a lot of our residents—is going to be a lot more challenging than for most. I just want to put that out there and hope that people will continue to support however they can, and our campaign is going to try to hang on for as long as we can.
I also wanted to kind of give a shout-out if I can, to all the fantastic people who have reached out and have made this so much bigger than what I thought it would be. I humbly started out thinking that we were going to raise $3,000 and that would be the best thing in the world. But now we’re looking at $26,000.
A lot of people have heard about Elmhurst being the epicenter, but I want to give credit to the people who have been doing this work full-time. Shrima from Chhaya CDC, Carina and the amazing team at the Street Vendor Project, Heena and Kristina from our campaign team for reaching out to their networks. And lastly, Jeremy, who called the day before his birthday to help /fundraise for his birthday by telling his friends about it. The campaign definitely wouldn’t have gotten this far without these people who are so invested in the mission and in our community, and this project itself is so much greater than just me.
To learn more about Cynthia’s fundraiser to support Elmhurst Hospital’s staff, click here.