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Conversations in Quarantine: Jackie Wong

Jackie Wong lives in a Vancouver housing co-op with her family. She is on the staff leadership team at Hua Foundation, a youth empowerment non-profit working on racial equity and civic engagement issues. Her journalism about housing, urban health, and equity issues has been published in Maisonneuve—see “How to Heal” and “The Fruits of Their Labour,” the Tyee, Megaphone, and publications across North America.

andrea bennett: What did your life look like before the pandemic and its restrictions set in, and what does it look like now?

Jackie Wong: My last normal weekday was Friday, March 13. A state of emergency was declared in British Columbia five days later, but by that Friday things were already rumbling with a sense of foreboding. Like lots of people, I had spent the weeks and months up to that point doing the late capitalism shuffle, feeling pressed and stretched, trying to revise my relationship with work while making space in my life for what was arising at the time. That included chronic illness and pain among people I love, an intense time at work, and the consuming, joyful hustle of life with a toddler.

By March 13, I’d spent the last twenty-four hours bathing in the news and cancellation emails, which I read on the bus ride to pick up our kid from daycare. They had made macaroni and cheese together for a morning snack, and it seemed decadent and effortful in a way that we might all say, “Oh hell, it’s been a long week, let’s do something nice for ourselves and melt some cheese.” One of the teachers told me how much my son loved it, and she packed an extra serving for him to take home. It was so unusual and deliberate that it felt like a final, silent goodbye. We shared a look before I closed the gate, both of us knowing without saying that things were about to change immensely. The following week, the daycare closed and laid off eleven staff.

Now, our entire life is contained within a 700-square-foot apartment. When I was pregnant, I remember looking forward to all of the unknowns ahead of me, but I also inwardly clung to the hubris that life with a baby could look and feel basically the same as my life before, which isn’t true for me. I’ve spent the last two years radically unlearning so many patterns and approaches to work and life that are no longer feasible in my current reality. The pandemic has pushed me into an even more dedicated iteration of all of that. 

After some strained days of adjustment featuring scattered sadness, anxiety, and grief, I now feel more balanced. I feel clearer than I have since my kid was born. With full acknowledgment of the upheaval and grief everywhere, this time of isolation has been, ultimately, good for our three-person family. I have been struggling to heal from a number of things up to now. I’m grateful to have the space to continue doing so.

While I’ve never lived through something like this before, I have muscle memory for shock, sudden loss, never being able to return somewhere I once loved, and grief. I know what it is to suddenly lose what feels like everything, and over time and with strife, rebuild your life from what feels like scratch. These experiences have shown me that the most important things come back. And that losing everything wakes you to different kinds of abundance that you might not otherwise get to experience. My work has also been such that I have never really had a lot of certainty. I’ve worked from home, on and off, for ten years.  

So I’m used to dealing with complexity, sadness, and burnout in my own life and in my communities. This is a huge moment of collective grief. It’s also an extraordinary occasion for necessary change. So much of what we have learned to live with—from the systems that structure our society to the small daily rituals that shape our days—have needed to change for so long. And we have dearly needed space and time to heal, individually and collectively. I am excited for the future. I want my child to grow up in a radically different, kinder world than the one we have known.

ab: When you mention sadness, burnout, and necessary change, I am thinking of the writing and the work you’ve done in Vancouver for a long time—like your reporting for the Tyee, your work at Megaphone as an editor, your piece about the overdose crisis for Maisonneuve—even the piece you wrote about Chinese-Canadian farmers in Vancouver. I have been thinking a lot about food, community, and food security these past couple months. Are these the types of things you’ve been thinking about? When you envision a radically different, kinder world, what changes are you hoping to see?

JW: I’m thinking about work, primarily—and broadly—and how the ways we have learned and taught each other to work have created exploitative, inhumane systems that are terrible for our mental health, our physical health, and our happiness. 

A lot of my work in the last little while has been done in the spirit of striving towards building and enacting more equitable contexts in which people can do meaningful work, starting at the non-profit where I’m currently situated and radiating out to other communities. People with chronic health conditions and people with disabilities are and have been experts on this for a long time: how to embody an inclusive, accessible approach to work that truly honours and reflects people’s real and evolving capacities, instead of the impossible standards that we continue to set for each other.

To me, this kind of change requires two kinds of parallel work: big-ticket systems change alongside the inner work of healing, unlearning, and creating new patterns that create space for ways of living that turn internalized capitalism, misogyny, and white supremacy on their heads. 

I want the next generation to feel worthy of care, of love, of companionship, and livelihood, and to live in a reality in which there is enough of each for them so they don’t have to fight for scraps. I want them to be happy because they are living a life in which they feel connected and affirmed, and from there, able and interested in lifting each other up. I have no wistful longings for tradition or control or a childhood in which my kid grows up “just like I did”: to me, there is so much harm in that. I’m eager to find a way forward that creates space for new ways of being that I don’t know about yet. And to me, there is a lot of excitement in not knowing what that is.