The emotional labor of women heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic

Back in May, The New York Times published a story about how women are the worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. They wrote that the pandemic has “exposed gender fault lines” in numerous ways, and that the “next-to-invisible but overwhelming burden of unpaid labor, the bulk of which is shouldered by women in every country in the world,” has been even more painfully unmasked by the virus taking over our lives. Men have this erroneous perception that they contribute equally to the household work and child-rearing; women are in total disagreement about this — men say they are doing half of the homeschooling; only three percent of women agree with this. The worst part about all this is that it’s not necessarily the housework per se that women do more of (there’s no doubt we do more of this and yes, that is also a problem) that is the problem; it’s the fact that all the planning, the remembering to take care of tasks such as stocking up on household essentials like fresh fruit, vegetables, knowing when things go bad, keeping to a bathroom cleaning schedule, that are the unpaid burden of women that men fail to recognize, even men who consider themselves progressive and feminist. The most enlightening article I read on this was published in Harper’s Bazaar about two years ago entitled, “Women aren’t Nags – We’re Just Fed Up: Emotional Labor is the Unpaid Labor that Men Don’t Understand.” What the author’s experience is here is how I feel and how I’ve felt for a long time, but it’s been massively exacerbated by shelter-in-place. I also started thinking about this in the context of my own parents and how my dad used to accuse my mom of nagging. It’s men’s favorite thing to complain about: their wives being “nags.” It’s another way of men gaslighting women, to call them nags. Why? Because if you call your wife a nag, then the onus is on her to change, not on you to change. You are not the problem; she is. And thus, the status quo of the inequality of housework along gender lines continues. I still have my paid day job, luckily, but in between meetings, calls, and work tasks, I am doing what my 100% female remote colleagues tell me they do all the time: between calls, they will sweep the kitchen floor, empty the dishwasher, defrost meat, cook rice, load up the washing machine. My 100% male remote colleagues? Not a single one of them has ever mentioned the idea of being able to better “multi-task” in the house with their remote work situation. EVER. There’s bigger magnifying glass on these feelings now because all we are doing now, given COVID-19, is spending more time at home doing everything – working, sleeping, cooking, eating, and cleaning. CLEANING. My female friends and colleagues have brought up their feelings on this on multiple occasions. Cleaning that used to happen every now and then, maybe every two weeks, like dusting, sweeping, and cleaning countertops, the oven, the stove, and even the mirrors, has to happen far more often now because we’re here more and using all these things more. And when you use things more, they get dirtier faster and need to be cleaned more frequently. For some reason, men do not seem to understand this. They say they don’t expect the women in their lives to take care of these things, but simply by never thinking about these things or taking care of these things unless they are right under their noses, they are indirectly giving the message that the other person has to do it.

The most common male response to a woman getting mad about his not cleaning or picking up after himself is, “You could have just asked.” But as this Harper’s Bazaar article concisely makes the point — the point is that we should not have to ask. We should not have to ASK you to clean up your crumbs, clean the bathroom, sweep the floor, dust the tops of dressers or drawers. You should know to do this automatically, and if you do not, set a schedule to do all these things the way women have already been doing for hundreds of years.

There are a lot of terrible things about being a woman in a patriarchal society, even in 2020. Emotional labor was not an issue I ever consciously thought about until a few years ago. And when I read about it, I had a mind-shattering moment. And that is very, very disturbing — because that’s exactly what the world doesn’t want us to think about in order to keep the status quo.

This particular part of the article resonated with me:

“Even having a conversation about the imbalance of emotional labor becomes emotional labor. It gets to a point where I have to weigh the benefits of getting my husband to understand my frustration against the compounded emotional labor of doing so in a way that won’t end in us fighting. Usually I let it slide, reminding myself that I’m lucky to have a partner who willingly complies to any task I decide to assign to him. I know compared to many women, including female family members and friends, I have it so easy. My husband does a lot. He does dishes every night habitually. He often makes dinner. He will handle bedtime for the kids when I am working. If I ask him to take on extra chores, he will, without complaint. It feels greedy, at times, to want more from him. 

Yet I find myself worrying about how the mental load bore almost exclusively by women translates into a deep gender inequality that is hard to shake on the personal level. It is difficult to model an egalitarian household for my children when it is clear that I am the household manager, tasked with delegating any and all household responsibilities, or taking on the full load myself. I can feel my sons and daughter watching our dynamic all the time, gleaning the roles for themselves as they grow older.

When I brush my daughter’s hair and elaborately braid it round the side of her scalp, I am doing the thing that is expected of me. When my husband brushes out tangles before bedtime, he needs his efforts noticed and congratulated—saying aloud in front of both me and her that it took him a whole 15 minutes. There are many small examples of where the work I normally do must be lauded when transferred to my husband. It seems like a small annoyance, but its significance looms larger.

My son will boast of his clean room and any other jobs he has done; my daughter will quietly put her clothes in the hamper and get dressed each day without being asked. They are six and four respectively. Unless I engage in this conversation on emotional labor and actively change the roles we inhabit, our children will do the same. They are already following in our footsteps; we are leading them toward the same imbalance.

“Children learn their communication patterns and gender roles (kids can recognize ‘proper’ gender behavior by age three) from a variety of people and institutions, but their parents are the ones that they, in theory, interact with the most,” notes Dr. Ramsey. So if we want to change the expectations of emotional labor for the next generation, it has to start at home. “For parents, this means making sure that one spouse does not do more of that type of labor than the other. Speaking in terms of how emotional labor is currently divided, girls will hopefully learn not to expect to have to do that labor and boys will hopefully learn not to expect females to do that labor for them. Children watching parents share that emotional labor will be more likely to be children who expect that labor to be shared in their own lives.”

Trader Joe’s – no lines!

At the beginning of the pandemic, Trader Joe’s visits were like any other grocery store in New York City. Sure, it would be crowded, and yes, there might be a line to get to the register, but then the lockdown got more severe to the point where all restaurants closed, except some for takeout and delivery. People either lost their jobs or had to work from home. And once this happened, the 40 minutes to 2-hour long waits started at Trader Joe’s…. TO GET INTO THE GROCERY STORE. I waited once for 40 minutes in late March and decided that I would never go to Trader Joe’s again during this period until the lines had disappeared to get into the store. And lo and behold, they started dying down once the city started reopening. Last week, I walked right in, and this morning, I did, too! There wasn’t even a wait for the cash register!!!!!!

We have to embrace the little things during this period, and if there’s no line, then that’s always a win!

Meeting friends during COVID-19

As New York has gradually started opening up, it has meant that more and more people are meeting with friends and family outdoors, whether that’s at the park, the beach, or at outdoor seating areas at restaurants that allow for this. I finally met up with a friend this late afternoon for snacks and tea, and it felt so strange to be meeting after such a long time of feeling restricted from being able to see each other. The cafe we patronized also seemed to be adjusting to being open (for outdoor seating) — almost all their snacks except one were either not available that day or had already run out. The owner was actually the only one working and thus the one serving us, and he was extremely apologetic about it. But it’s not his fault; it’s just a reality of limited food, supplies, and resources during this time.

Another issue with COVID-19 hangouts outside with friends? The fact that inevitably, at some point, one (or all) of you will need to use the restroom, and casual cafes and takeout joints will not have restrooms available. I’ve noticed that some restaurants that are open for outdoor dining will not even allow their customers to use the restroom, which is really terrible. I understand the reason behind it, as all establishments are short staffed, and they cannot constantly check and clean the restrooms, but how can you expect people to eat and drink at your establishment but not be able to relieve themselves…? So while we were originally only meeting for tea and snacks, we ended up having a light meal at a restaurant… simply because we BOTH had to pee.

A day in the life of meeting with friends during COVID-19 — it was still fun, though.

White supremacy in school, in our world

I’ve been thinking about the concept of white supremacy a lot in recent weeks given the heightened awareness of racial injustice in the world, and I realized that without even realizing it or not, every single one of us plays a role in white supremacy whether we realize it or not. Many white people hear the words “white supremacy” and think that the term does not apply to them, that they do not modify their behavior based on the color of a person’s skin. But that could not be further from the truth. We’ve been born into a world that lives by the concept of white supremacy. If we were to be void of white supremacy, we’d also be void of socialization, which would be impossible. We live in nations taken over by white people from indigenous peoples. White people have colonized lands from the African to Asian continents. In schools, literature and history is taught with a focus on the white world – European and American history. World War II history lessons in U.S. high school courses barely touch upon how this great world war also had atrocious events such as the rape of Nanking — merely because it took place in China, and who cares about China? In English literature courses, we are focused on Shakespeare, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy — just the great works of white men. In Advanced Placement art history, I distinctly remember asking my instructor why we were skipping over about half of our fat art history book that covered Asia and Africa. My instructor responded that those parts of the world were not covered in the AP exam, so we wouldn’t have time to cover those. But of course, if I was interested, I should go ahead and read those sections on my own for self study.

Message to take away from this: the European and western world matter. The African and Asian world do not.

And that’s pounded into our head time and time again. And whether we realize it or not, we internalize all that messaging and think it’s just normal.

That’s why when I traveled to Cambodia with friends in 2012 and wondered out loud what delicious dishes there were to eat in this country I’d never before visited, one of my friends’ husbands memorably responded back, “Yvonne, I don’t think you should spend too much time researching food here. There’s a reason that Cambodian food hasn’t made it big in the U.S…. it probably isn’t that good.” I angrily shot back that this idea was ridiculous and snobbish. What I failed to verbalize at the time, which I know now, is that his statement was soaked in white supremacy and racism. His statement indirectly said, “If white people have not embraced this people’s food, then there’s no way it could be good… because the white man knows best for all.” It was a justification of white colonization, that white people have to save people, approve of the foods and cultural practices of people of color.

I finally finished reading yet another Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book today called Half of a Yellow Sun. So far this year, especially given quarantine, I’ve read a lot — 19 books to date, and this is definitely one of the biggest highlights (among ALL of the other Chimamanda books – I’m truly in love with this woman). The book chronicles the lives of three different individuals during the course of the Nigerian-Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, which took place from 1967-1970. The book grapples with many themes, such as moral responsibility, white colonialism, ethnic allegiances (Igbo, Yoruba, Muslim), and class and race. Given that Biafra is not on the map today, we know without even reading this book that Biafra fell and Nigeria (the original government) won the war in the end. What we get from this book is exactly how ugly war can be, how racism and classism seep their way into everything, especially when it comes to life and death. Over three million people died during this war, whether it was due to casualties, famine, or pure war fighting. Do those lives not matter because they are Black? Is that why I was never taught this in school? As the book says, “It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.” 

While contemplating this book after finishing it, it made me angry to think that I never learned about this war in school. I never learned African art in art history. We barely touched African geography. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that Africa the continent was downscaled significantly by a bunch of racist white map creators; in fact, Africa is bigger than China, India, the contiguous United States, and most of Europe, combined! The African continent takes up about one-fifth of the world’s landmass. The only African history I ever learned was a tiny bit about Egypt and Cleopatra. What is wrong with our society, with our world, that we wouldn’t teach about such huge populations and pieces of land in the world and favor only certain parts lived in by white people? Is this just going to continue, and for how long?

4th of July at home

It’s our first Independence Day in New York City since 2012, and neither of us is particularly chipper about this today. Yes, I know: we’re lucky to have jobs, a place to live, to be healthy. We’re grateful for that – we really are. But this long weekend just seems so gloomy without the travel we were so used to at this time of year. It’s as though there’s really nothing left to look forward to, and it’s a bit depressing.

We went down to the Lower East Side today and finally had a small meal at Baar Baar, an upscale Indian restaurant we’d been meaning to try for a while. Everything was really delicious; the cocktails definitely blew me away. The restaurant was lucky in that it had lots of space to set up outdoor seating, so we were able to find a comfortable table outside that was shaded. It was the highlight of our day… when normally on this day, we’d be running around some new, amazing city, eating endless new things and taking in all kinds of new experiences.

This is our new normal. No travel. The only “travel” we will do is go to other neighborhoods or boroughs.

Chinatown: a way of life

I took the day off yesterday and wandered around Chinatown, attempting to support as many local businesses that I could (which means, as much as I could carry in my reusable cloth bags). I visited a third generation tofu, grass jelly, and rice cake shop, a bakery that specializes in Portuguese-style egg tarts, another that has three locations and is famous for their cha siu bao (Chinese barbecued pork buns, baked), coconut buns, and pineapple buns. The location I go to has temporarily closed during COVID-19, so I went across to the more “real” side of Chinatown to their second location that was still open. I usually like to get their taro bun with a pineapple top, but alas, they are not making them at this time. I purchased vegetables from my usual Hong Kong Supermarket and also from a corner street vendor at Grand and Chrystie. And while exiting the train to start my wandering, I happened to run into the zongzi / joong lady, the one I’d read about online: she was famous for making multiple times of steamed Chinese tamales, from the Cantonese kind I grew up with to Tainan style in Taiwan, using pork belly and mushrooms, to the sweet ones further north in China. I purchased two Cantonese style and two Tainan style to store in my freezer for future eating; I was going home with a LOT of stuff to eat for the next few days.

Chris likes to make fun of me about literally everything, but he especially loves to make fun of me for my love of Asian food and goods, of my excitement whenever we visit Chinatown, whether that’s in Manhattan, Flushing, or anywhere else. It’s not really a novelty for me because I grew up eating a lot of these things, but I still love to explore flavors and styles outside of the Cantonese stuff I grew up with. China is a big-ass country; there’s no way I’d be familiar with everything food-wise that existed.

But that’s the thing: shopping in Chinatown or buying Asian foods and goods is just a way of life for so many people in this city and around the world. It’s not a novelty like it is for so many non-Asians. These businesses need us to frequent their businesses, buy their goods, and tip them so that they can survive. During the last five months, I’ve been worried about what Chinatown will be like after quarantine has officially ended. Chinatown was seeking a decline in clientele about six weeks before the shutdown officially took place in New York City due to anti-Asian, “China virus,” “kung flu” racist sentiment. People have been worried about the restaurant / hospitality business in general; frankly, I am more worried about local, family-run Asian businesses because most of these places in Chinatown run on razor thin margins and count on high volume; their prices are relatively cheap, which means they really don’t take much home (unlike more Western businesses, ahem). A lot of businesses have already closed permanently. The original rice noodle/tofu place I used to go to has closed forever, so I had to find a new one. But what if one day, these businesses are all shut down and all I can find in Chinatown are hipster matcha places or Asian-fusion noodles?

Fruit fly genocide, continued

I went to inspect our apple cider vinegar traps to see at least 1-3 dead fruit flies floating in each of my shallow baths. I was quite self-satisfied, if I do say so myself. Though I hope that more will be attracted and die from my traps, I’m still concerned that more eggs may hatch in the coming days. And what’s even more weird: I feel like the fruit flies keep flying into the fridge.. and eventually dying from the cold. So far, I’ve already removed six dead fruit flies in the fridge and freezer. They come for the fruit in the fridge, and then they die. Hmmmm. That is like their version of suicide – entering the fridge and freezing to death.

There are still more, though. I’ve already killed eight while sitting by the window. This is definitely war time.

Home to… fruit flies?

As the weather has been getting warmer, I’ve wanted some fresh air in the apartment, so during the day, I’ve been leaving the windows in the bathroom and kitchen open. While it’s been nice to have air coming in that is not just from our air conditioner, unfortunately, this has resulted in fruit flies coming into the apartment… and likely laying eggs and having babies spawn. I’d kill one or two, thinking my job was done. But no: there were more, and smaller ones randomly showing up in the bedroom, kitchen, and living area. They were definitely procreating, and this was not a good sign. I immediately looked up home remedies for this and found that the easiest ones for us would be to create apple cider-sugar-soap baths in shallow cups and bowls, place them in each room, and wait for the scent of the apple cider vinegar to attract them. Then, they’d dip themselves in for a drink, and BAM! They’d drown to death. I prepared these and laid out six bowls across the apartment. The next option is to leave a little bit of wine in the bottom of a wine bottle and let them come in, drink, and also drown. We haven’t opened a bottle of wine yet this week, but intend to do so, not just to enjoy, but also to commit fruit fly genocide on these little twits.

Opening the windows in our apartment: good in theory, bad in practice.

Mangoes galore

During our trip out to Jackson Heights, Queens, yesterday, we also picked up a few more mini Ataulfo mangoes from an Indian grocery store. While Haitian mangoes were being sold, we decided we didn’t like them as much since they were more stringy and tart than the Ataulfo ones, so we passed on those. If you can believe it, we got six mini Ataulfo mangoes for just $2 – that’s crazy cheap! They were on the ripe side, though, so I immediately had to cut them all today, resulting in six plus two of the regular sized Ataulfo mangoes I got during the mango sale at Whole Foods. This apartment is just swimming in mangoes. I’m looking for different desserts to use them in so that we don’t end up having to eat four whole ones each per day. No-churn mango ice cream looks like a good and easy option that I’ll test out this week.

Jackson Heights trip

Today, we ventured out of Manhattan for the first time since quarantine began in early March. We took the train to Jackson Heights, Queens, and loaded up on delicious, cheap groceries and produce from a couple of Indian/Pakistani markets, picked up a box of Indian sweets, stopped by a Colombian bakery and bought some pan de bono (cheese bread), and attempted (but failed) to eat at one of the outside dining tables of our favorite dosa place. They had only two tables available, and they had a steady stream of people trying to eat there. Plus, the service looked quite slow. All of the outdoor tables and chairs that are normally outside the train station were gone, likely because of COVID-19, and so we ended up having to go back to Manhattan to find a spot for outdoor dining. It was still good to leave the borough and see life elsewhere, though. I miss the hustle and bustle of wandering around neighborhoods in Queens. I also miss the variety of produce and spices, the diversity of the clientele, plus the cheap prices.

I perked up for a bit, especially when I saw a sign for Pakistani mangoes at one of the markets. Unfortunately, a worker said that they wouldn’t be getting their delivery from Pakistan until next week, so we came just a week too early. I purchased some Haitian mangoes from a street vendor here on the Upper West Side this past week, and unfortunately, they just weren’t as sweet or delicious as the Ataulfo mangoes we normally get. Plus, they were quite stringy, which I strongly dislike.