The Unheard Asian American Voices of Pittsburgh

Image Source: George Zheng

* This story is an opinion piece submitted by senior George Zheng.

COVID-19. A virus outbreak that has the entire world. No matter where we see it from, each day we hear news about the Black community, Latinx community, and even the White community. However, hardly any stories are ever discussed about the virus’ impact on Asian communities. I have read online articles about the novel coronavirus causing xenophobia in California, Texas, and New York to skyrocket. Yet there have not been many stories talking about this issue in Pittsburgh. 

The Asian community is very important to me, and raising awareness is a goal of mine. I want to change the fact that very little effort has been put into this issue, so I decided to go out and interview three family-run Asian American business owners in my community from Pittsburgh. Here are their stories. 


“I walked out of the restaurant thinking that they were one of the more fortunate businesses.”

As I approached the front door of the restaurant, I immediately noticed a table blocking any entrance into the dining room. Plexiglass from the table up to the top of the door separated the workers and customers from any interaction with one another. 


Initially, I was hesitant to approach the owner. However, I decided to take the risk. The owner was very kind and took the time to tell me how COVID-19 has impacted his business. 


“Like many other small businesses and restaurants, we as well were affected very badly. We were fortunate to be able to open up after a month and a half, however, we only were able to take takeout orders. We did not take many precautions. The only focus in our mind was reopening as quickly as possible. This way, we were able to make a little cash to make up for the 2 months we lost where we were unable to make money. This was somewhat helpful, but not very effective. We saw a big decrease in our customers because many of them prefer to dine in rather than place a takeout order. When it came to my comfortability outside the restaurant, I began to become a little more aware of my surroundings and made sure to keep my distance from others.”  


I walked out of the restaurant thinking that they were one of the more fortunate businesses. 


“In order for the business to get the chance to reopen, they had to rely on the mall to open as well.” 


8:00 PM. That was the closing time at Ross Park Mall. Just the day before, I showed up too late to interview the owner of the small Chinese restaurant. The very next day, I rushed home and was determined to catch the owner before she left. I was able to make it in time, however, it was very busy. As it slowed down, I was able to get the chance to sit down and ask the owner a few questions. 


“The coronavirus hit us super bad. We had to shut down much longer than any other neighboring restaurants and businesses because our store is inside the mall. While other restaurants were allowed to reopen by only doing takeout, we had to remain closed because the mall did not reopen to people until mid-June. This left us without a way to make money for around 4 months. At that time, my husband and I were struggling a lot because we were the only two workers running the business and we had no source of income.” 


“Because of this, my husband and I were debating the decision to reopen. Rent to reopening the business in the mall was very expensive and we were hesitant to make that commitment for many reasons. Actually, only a couple. First, we did not want to reopen, then pay rent to the mall, and not have customers show. Secondly, because we were in the middle of a disease, we knew there would be a shortage of customers which meant less money.”


“We were basically afraid to lose even more money by laying a lot of our cash into the rent being made. However, we did receive some help from the government. We filed for unemployment money and we were fortunately granted it. This kept us sustainable and ultimately made us take the risk and decide to reopen. Now, we get rushes of customers, but the majority of the day is still slow.” 


After exiting the mall, sympathy and despair was all I felt for her and her husband. Their story is very unique. 


In order for the business to get the chance to reopen, they had to rely on the mall to open as well. This is very different from the situations of the other interviewees because this husband and wife were not able to do takeout like the others. Clearly, they were one of the few businesses that were impacted much heavier when compared to other businesses. 


“That night I realized that my dad’s commitment to his job was like no other and he was willing to do anything for his family.” 


11:00 PM. My dad had just come home from an 11 hour shift and was exhausted. I, on the other hand, was eager to get the chance to hear his story even though that was the last thing on his mind late that night. However, he took the time to give me a run-through of the past 6 months and how the business was doing. 


“Well, we closed mid-March and reopened around mid-May–we lost two months of business. When we reopened for the first month, we only had 10% of the number of customers we normally had. We were hit especially hard because we were a buffet and were not known typically as a takeout restaurant. Because buffets are self-serving, it makes our customers more paranoid to get their own food whereas they can sit down and order their own food anywhere else.” 


He said, “We initially only opened up for takeout, in terms of ordering off our menu. However, when we realized business was really slow, we decided to look into DoorDash to get our name out there and see if we can increase sales. DoorDash ended up being very successful, but nowhere near the numbers we had before.” 


They added about 30% more business and in total, 40% of our total business before the virus, without the commission that was taken out for DoorDash promoting us. So, 36% is the net gain in sales. 


“We reopened up in mid June for dine in, but business was still very slow because of the limited seating capacity. We were losing a lot of money so we applied for government help and were fortunate enough to receive them. We are still going through our hard times and we are working very hard to keep the business afloat and provide warm meals to our community.”


An eternity. That’s what the conversation felt like. I was so invested in his story and all I could think about was “how?” 


After seeing my father sacrificing so much and working so hard to provide for our family, it hit close to the heart. Even though he was tired and stressed, he still managed to wake up and go into work. That night I realized that my dad’s commitment to his job was like no other and he was willing to do anything for his family. 


“That was the moment I realized that this pandemic is not a joke.”


At the age of seventeen, I also felt the economic impact of the pandemic first hand. When COVID-19 shut down the business, there was not a way of making money. The only source of income all these previous years came from their restaurant. So, I had to step up and find a job to help my parents. 


I got a part-time job and worked almost 30 hours each week. Not only did I work a part time job, I began to make side cash by selling shoes and clothes. Any amount of revenue I got, I gave to my parents. When they did reopen, I worked as a waiter for the restaurant to help my parents during the rough time. They had to lay off the employees and have me work instead so I could help them generate money rather than them giving it away to the employees.


 I drove to my favorite restaurant spot as soon as they reopened, however, I had no cash or any money in my debit card. That was the moment I realized that this pandemic is not a joke and should be taken seriously. 


The Unheard vs The Heard


After hearing each story, I learned that my family’s restaurant was not the only Asian American family-run business that took a huge hit from the virus. Specifically, many Asian American family-run restaurants were heavily impacted, some more than others. With more informed people, it gives these businesses a more optimistic outlook as more customers visit and increase their sales. 


Interviewing each owner and seeing them open up really opened my eyes. As each owner began to feel more comfortable, their inner strength was very noticeable. Even through hard times, I was able to see how owners were determined to find a way to get business back on track and continue to fight. In my opinion, sharing each story will not only raise awareness and inform my community, but their voices will also be heard. 


We are NOT invisible. We are NOT the virus. We deserve to be heard.