Trapped in a small room, an immigrant family endures the pandemic in San Francisco

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By Shiqiao Peng

I never thought, for one second in my life, eating hot pot could count as someone’s wish that could not be fulfilled. It’s one of the easiest of Chinese foods — all you need is a pot, a portable stove, and whatever you want to cook in that pot. 

Yongyu Situ lived in an SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel room in San Francisco with her family of four for the past five years. As I got to know her, she told me several times that she and her husband Fang wanted to have hot pot so badly for the past year — but they did not dare.

The family of three generations lives in a 100-square-foot room, which is only big enough for one bunk bed. Grandma Zhen sleeps in the upper bunk, Situ and her son Xiao Lin in the lower bunk. Fang could only sleep on the floor, surrounded by furniture, kitchenware, clothing, and debris. His bed needs to be put away during the day to give the family space to eat, work, rest and entertain if they have company.

My 2020 National Fellowship project (translated here in English) looked at how Chinese residents living in cramped SRO housing in San Francisco’s Chinatown are faring during the pandemic.

SROs were initially created as transitional housing. But due to soaring housing prices in San Francisco and the affordable housing crisis, SROs are used as permanent residences for many families. In the past, those who lived in SROs could move to other places after saving for a few years; now it’s just not possible with the cost of rent in the city.

The Situ family has to share a bathroom and kitchen with about 30 other residents on the same floor. For the past year of COVID-19 and shelter-at-home, Situ worried every day about the family’s health and safety. “My mom cooks for the family when there’s no one in the kitchen. Because it’s not possible to keep 6-feet distance in the kitchen,” Situ said. 

When I look at the crowded 100-square-foot room stuffed with closets, shelves, tables, and a bunk bed, the life of an SRO family during the pandemic has never been so real to me. Xiao Lin, Situ’s 7-year-old son, was playing with his Legos at a small table when I first visited them. Grandma Zhen was sitting at the dinner table looking at her cellphone. 

I now understand why Situ and her family cannot have hot pot: the space in the room was not big enough to have the family sitting around a dinner table. Outside their window is a wall, the family cannot see the sky from inside, and the window has long been blocked by a large wardrobe. Without a window or a vent, it’s not safe nor comfortable for the family to cook hot pot inside their single room.

During this past year, hot pot became Situ’s obsession and impossible dream. “My husband really wants to eat hot pot,” she said. “It will be so good if our family has a place to hot pot, but we don’t have that space. I don’t dare to do it without ventilation either.”

Many San Franciscans have heard about the hardships faced by these residents. But few outside the community have visited those SRO buildings and talked with those who lived there for years. 

“Why do they have to stay in there? Why not moving to a cheaper state?” Those are the kinds of questions frequently asked by my readers and friends. Many of the residents in San Francisco Chinatown SROs rely on community services, language services, and job opportunities. It’s not easy for anyone, whether wealthy or poor, to leave their comfort zone and risk the uncertainty of moving elsewhere. For the poor, it’s much harder. 

Many San Franciscans have heard about the hardships faced by these residents. But few outside the community have visited those SRO buildings and talked with those who lived there for years. 

It was heartbreaking to learn that young Xiao Lin has been stuck in the room for a whole year. When he had to attend online classes, he could see that his classmates have couches, study rooms, study desks, and their own bedrooms. He would want that as well, but he sort of understands the family’s plight.

It was near the holiday season when I talked with Situ, when all the children were expecting gifts. Situ said, “Living in a place like this, my son dares not make requests.” She knew that her Xiao Lin wanted a room of his own, but the 7-year-old has learned to turn his desire into hopes for the future, when he moves into a bigger home. 

Situ told me that Xiao Lin would often ask if he can buy some toys when they went out in the past. Situ used to tell Xiao Lin their home was not big enough, and Xiao Lin would say, “Then I will buy it when I have a bigger place.”

“All that I can say to him was tomorrow will be better,” Situ said sadly. 

She is a family-oriented person and enjoys the time with her family. “If it were not for living in this place, this year could be a gift for my family to stay together. We don’t have that very often,” said Situ. “But the room is too small. Living here every day, it’s embarrassing to even change your clothes. It has caused a lot of problems. Sometimes I felt that there might be some mental issues.”

“I did not expect that I’ll live in this place when I came from China,” Situ said. 

For a long time, the deepest desire of most SRO residents has been to move out, and a year of sheltering at home has made such wishes and needs even more urgent. “SRO families need exits into affordable family housing. This is more true now than ever,” Malcolm Yeung, executive director of Chinatown Community Development Center, told me. “The city isn’t prioritizing this and it’s a disservice to our community.”

It was heartbreaking to learn that young Xiao Lin has been stuck in the room for a whole year. When he had to attend online classes, he could see that his classmates have couches, study rooms, study desks, and their own bedrooms.

Talking with the SRO residents was not easy, especially when they know you are going to publish a story. I visited several buildings and talked with many other residents before I connected with Situ. Some of the residents were reluctant to talk about their hardships and some did not understand what was going on outside. After a few months of talking to different people from the community, Amy Dai, a family coordinator of the SRO Families United Collaborative, connected me with Situ. 

Before I went to talk with Situ, I talked with mentor Margie Freivogel and community engagement expert Ashley Alvarado about possible interview questions and ice-breakers. I found it useful to ask questions that seem unrelated to story at hand. The question “What do you think we/the city/you can do better if we were going back to the start of the pandemic?” tended to get a more detailed response than: “What do you need the city/community to do?”

The hot pot detail in the story touched many people’s hearts after I published it because that’s something we all share in Chinese culture. Everyone in the community understands how common a hot pot should be; they realized the lives of SRO residents were even harder than they could imagine.

The second time I went to Situ’s room, the family seems more relaxed. Grandma Zhen was singing a song when I arrived. A song called “The Shepherd of Keketuohai” was her favorite, and she sang it again to me. The melody was sad but she had a smile on her face the whole time. It was emblematic of how she has dealt with her harder-than-imagined life this whole time, her optimism intact.

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