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Gym owner: ‘When I got the shot, I started crying immediately. I got a vaccine for the disease that devastatingly killed my mother.’

March 23, 2021

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Jen Wilson, co-owner, True Grit Society gym

The gym hasn’t been doing great. This is usually the time we start to hit the skids anyway; when it gets nicer out, people stop coming in. We’ve seen a drop with the people that we do have. We ran the numbers, and from January to March of last year, we had 107 people come in for our free month of unlimited classes. In January to March of this year, we have had seven. 

Gov. Walz lowered restrictions, but it really didn’t affect us in any way: He upped the percentage of occupancy, but we’re not going to shove more people into a class because — No. 1 — we don’t have more people. So it doesn’t help us.

It’s a sobering outlook at this point. Clearly you can’t run a business without business. We’re slowly getting to the place where we’ll say, “What are we doing here?” Some industries will not come back for a long time, and ours may be one of those. But closing a business is not just about you, the business owners. It’s also about the employees who count on you and the members who use you to stay healthy and get what they need to get from keeping their bodies moving. It’s tough to think that you’re letting someone down. For the time being, we’re making it work. 

It’s been such an exhausting year. I’m not giving first and second and third place prizes to my grief, but the biggest loss has been my mother. Someone asked me recently how I have gotten through it, and it’s been 100% my faith at this point. Certain things have been revealed to me about my mother’s passing, and I’ve had to sit in it for a while to just feel it, and then move past it. It’s a pretty exhausting process. 

I was able to get my first vaccine shot last week. When I got the shot, I started crying immediately. I got a vaccine for the disease that devastatingly killed my mother. I still have the picture in my head of when I saw her. The thought has occurred to me: “Would the same fate happen to me if I didn’t get a vaccine?” I wish she could have gotten the vaccine also. With the vaccine, you’re getting some of the same cells and makeup of COVID into your body, so technically we’ll share some of those strains that killed her. 

Sachi is still in remote school. People have asked us why we don’t send her back. The reason is that we’re putting ourselves at risk every day teaching classes at the gym, and we’re thinking of other people. If we get COVID and take it home, she could take it to school. We don’t want anyone else getting sick. 

Sachi’s new teacher continues to make every bit of difference in the world. Sachi has started to read, which is a very exciting moment in our family. Her first book was called “Animals on Parade” and now she reads a new one every week. They’re all, like, first-time reader books with a lot of cats and hats and mats and easy words to sound out. She’s still not super happy about remote school, but she’s doing well. 

Sachi said the saddest thing the other day that really drove home the point of how kids are affected. Marcus was telling her how he had a friend when he was growing up, and they used to hangout and go to each other’s houses and play at the playground. And she said, “Oh, was he in your bubble?” I thought, “Oh, baby.” She thinks this is a forever thing. It really hit me that in their little heads, kids must think this is normal and everybody’s had to go through this. That one killed me a little bit.  She was 4 when this pandemic started and turned 5 on April 5 last year. Now she’ll turn 6 and still no friends to invite to a party, not that we could even if we wanted to. It sucks. 

There’s been so much loss and grief this year that’s packed itself one atop the other. Once the pandemic started, we really didn’t have time to get out and grieve until George Floyd was killed, and then everything that surrounded the riots was really tough. The Derek Chauvin trial is also taxing now, and I don’t have any faith that it will resolve itself in the way people need it to be resolved.

Right after George Floyd, I remember saying how as an Asian American, we were sort of bypassed in terms of violence — not being looked at as an aggressive nationality or culture or race. The other day, I was thinking: “How wrong was I?” With all these hate crimes, it’s a situation where Asian Americans are being targeted, which is different but same as what’s happened to African Americans. 

I took Sachi to the “Asian Solidarity” rally last Thursday at Levin Park. It was supposed to be a march, and she was upset that we didn’t actually march anywhere. She was excited that she got to hear a lot of, as she calls them, “fuckwords.”

As an Asian American growing up in North Dakota in the ’80s and ’90s, I feel like I’ve been really complacent and whitewashed with the discrimination and racism that I went up against. I remember I said in June how people would call me Connie Chung or whatever but that it wasn’t intentional racism by the police. But I realized I was minimizing it even at that time. 

I know the shooting in Atlanta was racially motivated, no matter how many times people say it wasn’t. What really bothers me is when I see a 60-, 70-year-old Asian person walking down the street minding their own business and they get attacked. That’s brutal. I think about what my grandmother and grandfather went through — they were born here but they were in internment camps. Now these older folks are being targeted and it breaks my heart. 

For me, there’s a lot of buildup around having a white father and being tormented by white men and white women. I definitely have some built up stuff from my childhood that I feel sad I haven’t paid more attention to. As a child I really just shook off being called Bruce Lee and a Jap and all these things. I let people say those things to me and didn’t call them out. I wish I would have been stronger in those moments.

The fetishizing of Asian women is really something. I never had any white boyfriends; I think because I never fit into that quiet Asian female stereotype, I don’t know. There’s so much that drudges up from my childhood that I haven’t really unpacked. 

I once told a friend of my mother that I wanted to go to a dance with her son, who I liked. And she told my mom that she wanted a more American girl for her son. My mother wasn’t offended in any way. I was offended and really bothered by it, but there wasn’t really anyone to talk to about it, so I didn’t. I’ve pushed a lot of this under the rug.

When you don’t fit the mold, you question what people are looking at you for. Is it because I dress like a tomboy and they think I’m transgender or gay? Or is it because I’m Asian? Or is it because I have big legs? Part of me wishes I was a little more strong and opinionated about my heritage and my culture like Marcus is. But it’s a little more clear cut for Marcus: He’s a big Black guy. But for me, I’m a little Asian girl, but sometimes I look like I could be a boy. 

When I was 20, I just needed to get as far away from North Dakota as possible. I went to London. I loved the city because I didn’t stick out. Nobody was looking at me because everybody looked so different. 

I haven’t been back to North Dakota for at least five years. I was the only minority in a high school of 500 students. Every school I went to I was the only minority. Every school it was, “Ooh, they have a chink, and she’s going to be really good at volleyball.” I’d get teased about the slant in my eyes. I never fit in anywhere I went, and I felt like everyone was staring at me all the time.

In North Dakota they have the biggest Norwegian festival in the world, called the Norsk Høstfest. I was president of the student council, and for three years I worked the Høstfest. Every year, they would say, “You win a prize if you guess who the Norsk Høstfest princess is.” And I didn’t understand why no one ever asked me if I was the princess. 

I came to the Twin Cities after I left London to go to school at the U of M. There was a fairly large Asian student population there, but I quickly realized that the students who were full Asian — of a particular nationality — weren’t interested in talking to me either. I wasn’t white, I wasn’t Asian, I didn’t really fit in anywhere. 

With mixed kids, you sometimes attach more to one side of your culture. At some point I became attached to my Japanese side, and I do wonder if my dad took that personally. My dad calls Asians “Orientals” still — and he was married to a Japanese woman and has Asian children! So that dysfunction goes very deep. My brothers had a very different upbringing as Asian men, and they attached more to their white side and both married Caucasian women. 

I think a lot of what I went through in North Dakota made me stronger, and shaped me into the person who I am today — someone who’s welcoming and open to all different types of people. 

This year will have prolonged effects on so many people physically, because we’re carrying so much weight. I feel OK, but I’m not ecstatic to be here. It’s hard to be alive and vibrant in this time that seems very dark.

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