First Person, Last Word

The Power of Mutual Aid Extends Beyond Collective Crisis

For the past year and a half, we’ve relied on forms of support more than ever.

By Shin Yu Pai September 8, 2021 Published in the Fall 2021 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jane Sherman

After my cervical biopsy, my doctor briefed me on my coming surgery and recovery. Holding my seven-year-old son would be too strenuous, as would standing for periods of time cooking. My husband grew anxious—he’d already taken over grocery shopping when anti-Asian violence began to dominate the news, and now he’d be meeting the needs of two people. I’m also notoriously bad at convalescing.

My friends stepped in. Stephen organized a meal train, and homemade food magically showed up on our porch. Etsuko brought soup made with miso aged for 10 years and a salad of paper-thin heirloom carrot shavings dressed with sesame seeds. Linda infused pickled lotus root with vibrant hues derived from butterfly pea flower tea and turmeric and brought dim sum from her favorite takeout place in the Chinatown–International District. She also gifted me something greater than food—her family recipe for matcha bundt cake passed down across generations. As my body grew stronger, I let myself be nourished by the care cooked into each offering. I had survived my procedure, but my sustained survival, my recovery, was supported by this kind of mutual aid.

Community, I realized, manifests in other ways, too. I keep a piece of ephemera close to me—a note so short it might seem trivial. A nondescript handwritten envelope, sent to me by a former coworker, sits in the drawer of my writing desk. Daniel and I worked together at a media startup devoted to bringing more wonder to the world. We were among a handful of Asian Americans on staff and connected over our shared love of literature and activism. When the pandemic hit, about a quarter of the company got laid off. Daniel and two other coworkers organized a pool of funds to help the 15 of us who lost our jobs. I keep his paper check as a reminder of community. In the memo field, he wrote “MUTUAL AID.”

As I’ve begun to feel more like myself, I think about what it means to give. I rewrite a friend’s grant application narrative, deliver Chinese ginger candies to another with morning sickness, record a video for a former professor’s retirement celebration. Each time, I remember all the ways there are to show up for one another.

[1] My partner found me scrubbing bathroom floors while recovering from strep throat.
[2] On another delivery, she brought us said cake filled with Japanese azuki paste, dusted with sugar.

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