(Yo! Media)
  • Stories
  • Food
  • Culture

For the People! Sustainability and Face Masks

Now that the six-month mark of the pandemic has arrived, I have been turning to my friends to help ground myself during these uncertain times. As I vent my frustrations and seek clarity, my dear friend, Cecilia Leung, has served as one of my confidants.

I first met Cecilia Leung when I worked in the food industry, and we quickly became friends. Our conversations about food quickly evolved into deeper discussions and shared ideologies on the importance of cultural identities, empathy, and sustainability. Recently, I was able to talk more in-depth about her connections to sustainability and activism. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

For the majority of my life, I lived in the San Gabriel Valley area and I lived two years abroad in Hong Kong when I was younger. I believe living in Hong Kong has made me more aware of myself and my place in this world, not just as an American living abroad but also how to be more of a global citizen. 

Being a kid of the 80s, multiculturalism wasn’t embraced until the late 80s and early 90s. I think that has really influenced my wanting to learn more about being Asian American and how to be proud of my identity on my own terms. Growing up, my parents prided themselves on being Cantonese and Chinese, but to me, it was more of a nationalistic approach to identity. I didn’t really understand the importance until I learned more about our contributions being Asian American. 

Cecilia Leung and her sewing machine.

Learning about our experiences, experiencing injustices, and fighting for rights for other human beings, especially people of color, helped me focus on what I wanted to do in my life. I am also aware that I grew up being very Western-centered and even though I am older, I am continuously trying to shift that center. 

How do you define sustainability?

Sustainability is not static and it can still change. It also has to be doable for everyone and cannot just be doable for a few. 

Sustainability has to work within, specifically, your life. Depending on what it is, sustainability cannot be applied to everyone because resources vary between each person. You have to allow for a range and figure out what you can do with what you have. It is going to be a culture shock and you may come across people bullying you into different approaches, but you are going to do what you’re capable of. There is no shame in this.

How do you connect sustainability to your identity? 

East Asian countries are really about families first. Whatever you do is because of the family. Based on the patriarchal center that has implications on itself. But it has made me more collaborative and thinking more outside of myself.

With this pandemic and crises happening, society and culture are coming at a head. Some of us are unable to think beyond ourselves. Since America is a young country, the trajectory of receiving “success” in comparison to other countries is a shorter period of time in comparison to other civilizations. America didn’t go through as many trials and tribulations as other countries and since we don’t have those experiences we are going through the events now. I think sustainability is about resiliency. As a nation, when we go through crises you have to be resilient, and when things don’t go your way, how are we going to shift? How do we change our mindset? 

The hardest part of sustainability is that it is ongoing. It isn't something that is going to happen overnight. As a country, we have sometimes have this need to see progress right away and sometimes you don’t always see it right away. 

Sustainability has to work within, specifically, your life. Depending on what it is, sustainability cannot be applied to everyone because resources vary between each person. You have to allow for a range and figure out what you can do with what you have.

How do you live a sustainable life?

Ever since I was a kid, I think it is what my family did. Waste was always important to keep in mind. My dad has composted or repurposed. I don’t know if this was a result of my grandparents and parents living through the Depression but it was second nature to think before you throw something away, "can I reuse this somehow?"

In terms of clothing, we always tried to give clothes away second-hand or donate them. My dad and grandparents being huge proponents of reusing; it has always been a part of me. The only time that I have been more wasteful is when I have such an abundance, which is a very American mindset.

Now, especially, I just think about how much I really need versus how much  want. 

But mind you, I grew up with a mom that loved to shop and I got sucked into this consumerism. After a while, I broke away from it. I realized that not having a TV really helps. One year in college, my roommates and I couldn’t afford a TV and so we did without. After that, I really chose not to have a TV. I recognized when you don’t watch commercials, you want things less. And when I do decide to purchase something, I have this thought process of “what is this product that I am purchasing? How does it affect the earth when I get rid of it?” I really learned how to live with less. 

Learning about our experiences, experiencing injustices, and fighting for rights for other human beings, especially people of color, helped me focus on what I wanted to do in my life. I am also aware that I grew up being very Western-centered and even though I am older, I am continuously trying to shift that center. 

I know you are involved with the Auntie Sewing Squad. Who are they and how did you get involved? 

Kristina Wong is the founder of the Auntie Sewing Squad. The intention of the group was to fill the stopgap because our government couldn’t provide PPE to the frontlines. Our initial goal was to fill this gap and to provide the PPE. I was out of the country for a while and the day I came back was when the shelter in place went into effect. Initially, I asked myself what I could do. What was it that I could do to help, especially those working on the frontlines? I have a friend who is an anesthesiologist at Kaiser, so I looked up mask patterns and found a stash of fabric from when I used to quilt. I asked my friend if she needed any masks and told her that I could sew a filter pocket. While I was doing this I stumbled upon the Auntie Sewing Squad on Facebook.

Cecilia with her Auntie Sewing Squad gear.

Kristina called it the Auntie Sewing Squad because historically a lot of Asian immigrants worked in sweatshops and the term “auntie” is a term of endearment. There are even “uncles” and it is a non-binary group. I joined at the end of March and initially, it was just to fulfill stopgaps, but once we saw that the PPEs were becoming more readily available, we surveyed and decided to shift and serve communities that had less accessibility to PPE like First Nations, POC, detention centers, and the incarcerated. We really tried to focus on those not served. It slowly grew into being this group from California to reaching across the nation. It moved beyond the realm to just sewing masks. We have aunties that are providing food because some folks are sewing around the clock.

Cecilia with Gayle Isa, one of the LA area "super aunties" who coordinate the care for the Auntie Sewing Squad.

We have aunties who cut fabric for us, as the act of cutting and piecing fabric together is a process. There are aunties who provide emotional support, such as Zoom yoga sessions, and are focused on supporting us as human beings as a whole. It is important to be aware of that as we can only help others when we are full. It is amazing how integrative it is. I have to credit Kristina and all the aunties. We have “super aunties”, the ones who coordinate self-care. We have aunties who vet organizations and want to ensure that they are legitimate, as we want to know that they are real people who need them and will not resell them. We are sewing them specifically to donate to those in need, so there are a lot of moving parts.

How long have you been a part of the Auntie Sewing Squad? How many masks have you made? How do you find the time to sew?

It has been six months that I’ve been a part of the squad. As a squad and as of the end of July/August, we have sewn collectively over 50,000 masks. Individually, I have sewn over 1,100 masks. I am on the low end of sewing. 

In terms of time, if you purposely commit time to do something, then you’ll do it. I was committing myself to goals that I was setting for myself. I have so much respect for factory garment workers because you have to piece these parts together, sew, and turn them inside out to finish them. On average and if I am really diligent, I sew about 25 to 50 masks a week.

For us to continue humanity is to tell stories that connect humans to humans. We are looking for commonality. 

How have you repurposed these face masks? 

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a shortage of fabric and elastic. It was really difficult to find, and if they had it the turnaround time was too long. I would order fabric on SpoonFlower and the shipping window was four to six weeks. I couldn’t wait for fabric and I needed masks now. So I went through stashes of donations and I would take the bedsheets to repurpose and use. I used to teach as a profession, so I used ULTA (United Teachers Los Angels) T-shirts. I didn’t need them so I thought about repurposing them for fabric. I had friends who wanted me to make masks, and they would bring me fabric like a Hawaiian shirt and I would make them. For my friends, there was family history and connection to the masks with the Hawaiian shirts. 

Hawaiian shirts repurposed into face masks.

Cutting up the union shirts evoked emotion because unions are important. We are out there fighting because we want what is best for everyone. We want society to be more egalitarian and more equitable. I purposely chose to work for a certain community in LAUSD because I felt there was a need. That community needed teachers who cared and wanted to teach as much as an affluent area did. 

For us to continue humanity is to tell stories that connect humans to humans. We are looking for commonality. 

Q: Any advice to those wanting to live a more sustainable life? 

It is important to recognize what makes us feel content. During this situation, people already feel helpless and bleak. You don’t want anything subtractive that will affect our mental health. A part of sustainability is if you can adjust yourself, you will consume less. Whether it is ecological or consumerism, it's about when you get down to the nitty-gritty and you can reflect on what makes you really happy and what you can do without to still be happy. I think it starts there.

Instagram story on Cecilia making masks

---------

Learn more about the Auntie Sewing Squad here.

Download it!
Article featured in this issue:
Mottainai
September 25, 2020

Mottainai takes on a new meaning for this generation as our footprint decisions will be consequential to tomorrow's environment. Will we squander and pollute our precious natural resources, or will we develop cultural standards that sustain them from generation to generation? The decision is ours.

There's More This Issue

Hidden Ecologists: The Rise and Fall of Sustainable Agriculture in Japanese American Farming

Land and micromanagement and precision agriculture techniques are perceived as innovations by environmentalists in the late 20th century. Actually, Japanese American farmers implemented these techniques in the 1900s with remarkable success...until racism intervened. 

Read More >>

Mottainai: Culturally Embedded Sustainability

More than just a word, mottainai holds deep cultural and historical meaning. Let's explore how this word can be a critical rallying call for this generation.

Read More >>

For the People! Sustainability and Face Masks

One person's journey toward utilizing their passion for sustainability and activism through making face masks.

Read More >>

Caring for Our Island Earth

We are all islanders. Let's learn about the habitual adjustments that are small for us, but make a big impact on the environmental sustainability for this island we call Earth.

Read More >>

Pruning the Bonsai: How the History of Japanese American Gardeners Lives on Through Their Descendants

Though gardening was a common profession for Japanese American immigrants pre and post-war, their era is now over. How do their descendants perceive and preserve their family's history today?

Read More >>

Bonsai Tree Roundup

Pandemic babies, pandemic dogs...how about a pandemic bonsai? Take a look through our Bonsai roundup.

Read More >>

Chasing the Japanese Whaling Fleet as a Japanese American

My experience chasing the Japanese whaling fleet as a Japanese American ocean activist led me to realize that we can't approach conservation issues without also considering the historical, racial, and geopolitical context that comes along with them.

Read More >>

Japanese Gardens in the States and Around the World

Whether it be a space for cultural exchange or to find a moment of peace, Japanese gardens (and elements of it) can be enjoyed around the world.

Read More >>

Reversing the Cycle, and Then Some: From Buy Amazon to Bye Amazon

One writer reflects on her relationship with Amazon and why she made a conscious decision to not renew her account after learning about the company's abusive and exploitative practices.

Read More >>

our latest issues

Food, Family, and a Little Shopping
Published On:
November 25, 2020
Nonprofit Sustainability
Published On:
November 15, 2020
All Hallows' Eve
Published On:
October 23, 2020
Mottainai
Published On:
September 25, 2020