Coping through COVID: My Chinese family

  • Published
  • By Dan Shea
  • 131st Bomb Wing Director of Psychological Health
I grew up in New York City in the Bronx. I left the city in 1980, and headed to West Point, not far away. Just about all of my extended family still lives in New York. I’ve been gone for long enough that I feel like an outsider when I go home.


But now we have COVID-19, and New York is the hardest-hit area in the nation, so my thoughts go right back to all my family there. Fortunately, I feel like I practiced “COVID-19 Resiliency” even before the virus came to the United States. You see, I’m also married into a Chinese family. My wife and son are Chinese. My beautiful wife has a large family. I’m closest to my brother-in-law, Hongwen. He’s a provost for a police college in a city with 35 million souls.


Though it’s a serious subject, when COVID-19 emerged in China it was very cool for me to video chat with my family online, and do the same things our leaders at every level throughout the wing are doing right now: listening to those affected and offering our support. Except in my case, my Chinese family speaks Chinese and I speak English, so my wife interprets both sides of our conversations.


I want to share with you what I learned from my almost-daily experiences checking in with my Chinese relatives during the COVID-19 outbreak. During our calls with them, I was reminded many times about the most important reason for the call: it’s to listen, and that starts with Self Care.


Before I called, I made sure to think about my approach to the multi-language phone call. It starts with preparation. As my Army Rangers first standing order reminds me, “don’t forget nothing.” So I prepare, and here’s how I do it. First, I assess my own anxiety level on a scale of one to 10. Every human being has some place in our bodies where we feel anxiety. Some of us experience our shoulders tightening up, others get it in their chest or the back of their neck. For me, I’m a stomach guy. When we are feeling anxiety, we have to do something about it. If we don’t, then anxiety will do something about us.


For our phone calls to China, I decided to do some breathing. Our lungs and brain are hard-wired to work together, so it’s all in the “exhale.” Our brains release stuff to make us calmer. I then do a personal habit that’s my very own: I turn my left thumb and forefinger into a key, move the key near my mouth and proceed to “shut my mouth.” Only then do I call, and be ready to listen.


My Chinese family members tell me things that could trigger the “fixer” in all of us. They tell me that Grandma’s hip is painfully hurting, but their local hospital tells her that they are too busy with virus cases. Sound familiar? So I turn the key to my mouth a little tighter. I make sure they know I’m listening by repeating back some things they say, and I provide the best empathy I can. I ask about their support team, of which I am a member. They tell me their understanding of available resources. I tell them all “I love you.” Then, I get off the phone.


The next day, I check in again. Hongwen tells me how much he appreciates me, and how great it was to “talk” with me the previous night. He sounds much better than he did on that call. He tells me about having connected with others, and developing a plan to help Grandma. He expresses his heartfelt gratitude again for “talking” with me. I’m a typical veteran and don’t take compliments well, but I do know enough to say “thank you.”


What’s the takeaway for the rest of us, especially during this crisis? Well it’s so darn important to listen and listen well. Words have a significant value, and we shouldn’t use them carelessly. No matter what we say, it just about always comes down to how your words make someone feel. What we say and how we say it affects the conversation in either positive or negative ways, like ripples on a pond. I at least try to be aware of my ripples, even if they are in another language, and make them as positive as I can.


Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “it is one of the most beautiful compensations in life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself,” (please pardon the vernacular of the time it was spoken). During this crisis, look to make your ripples positive. If you’re able to do so, take special efforts to help Airmen, their family members, and others in your community. It not only contributes to your self-care, but I think you’ll find that you are the primary beneficiary of helping others.


And since self-care plans are as individual as each of us, call Dan or Bethany for specific assistance in starting or adjusting your own self-care plan.


保持联系并希望平安: Be Safe and Stay Connected.


Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series of articles from the 131st Bomb Wing Directors of Psychological Heath. If you need assistance, or are struggling, please reach out to Dan Shea at 314-939-0246 or Bethany Harris at 660-687-7407. We’re all in this together.