"There's never an easy day for me," Patrick Mock tells CNBC Make It over the phone as he surfaces from the New York City subway to Manhattan's Chinatown.
Mock, 27, grew up in the neighborhood and has been the general manager of 46 Mott, a Cantonese-style bakery, for four years. And in the last year, he's taken up organizing efforts to help save struggling Chinatown businesses while also caring for the neighborhood's most vulnerable residents during the pandemic.
He now spends his days running the bakery on top of making sure the meals program he launched last spring — where he hand-delivers free meals to Chinatown's elderly and unhoused — is running smoothly. That often means juggling a slew of Zoom meetings and phone calls with organizers, volunteers, media and political leaders to call for support in keeping Chinatown's businesses alive and its communities taken care of.
Asian-owned businesses were hit especially hard in 2020, due to a combination of xenophobia and Covid restrictions, and were also among the least likely to receive aid through initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program or small-business grants. As shops closed their doors in New York's Chinatowns, where poverty and unemployment rates are higher than the city's averages, low-income residents were left with few options to get by.
Mock and bakery owner Tony Chen decided to keep 46 Mott's doors open, but the general manager quickly realized the same patrons would come in every day to buy $1 Cup Noodles or sticky rice. When he saw few others taking action, he decided to find a way to provide community members in need with hot, nutrient-rich foods and got to work.
Mock got Chen's approval to pass out free meals from the bakery's storefront and use the space to gather donated meals to deliver to nearby hospital workers. He then found a partner vendor with the help of New York State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and tapped the newly formed group Send Chinatown Love to fundraise $15,000 in three days for the efforts.
As Chinatown businesses reopened and foot traffic slowly resumed by late spring, Mock shifted his approach to hand-delivering meals to the homeless on the streets of lower Manhattan.
Mock and his team of volunteers were soon delivering hundreds of meals per day, and by April 2021, passed the mark of providing 70,000 meals to fellow New Yorkers.
In December, Mock was nominated by Instagrammer New York Nico and awarded with a $50,000 grant from Google, presented by actor Will Smith on his Snapchat series "Will from Home." Mock says all the of the grant money has gone back into the community that's raised him and kept 46 Mott open through its hardest year: "It's great people are giving me credit, but the reality is that without the love and support from everyone else, we wouldn't be here."
Smith also presented Mock with $10,000 from the Asian Americans for Equality organization to buy lanterns for the Light Up Chinatown initiative, Mock's idea to have donors buy a personalized lantern to be strung and lit over Mott Street.
Mock is cautiously optimistic about things turning around now that vaccination rates are increasing in New York and tourism recovers.
"I'm trying to look at things half full and be more optimistic these days," he says, "but at the same time, Chinatown is on a lifeline and needs a lot of help."
Though he doesn't consider himself an activist, Mock says he's learned a lot about himself and leadership in the last year with the help of fellow organizers.
"I grew up thinking being kind was a weakness," Mock says, adding that he was taught that keeping emotions out of business would make him a more efficient decision-maker. "But sometimes I care too much. I always thought that was a weakness, but everyone kept reminding me throughout the year that my kindness is my strength."
He says he now lives by a quote he has posted in front of 46 Mott: A simple act of kindness creates endless ripples.
"What I've done is started a tidal wave of change that's spread and is still spreading, to encourage people to be nice, take care of their neighbors and help out their community," he says.
As a young person who grew up in Chinatown, he also sees himself as a bridge between newer, tech-savvy organizations like Send Chinatown Love, Welcome to Chinatown, and Think! Chinatown, and established groups that have served the neighborhood all along, highlighting Pearl River Mart and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association as examples.
"I've been working with everyone, more like a bridge, to support intergenerational work and finding common ground," he says. "Everyone is playing their part right now to make the community better, and we need to shine a light on that."
Harassment, violence and other hate incidents against Asian Americans increased sharply during the pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate, the national coalition formed at the start of the pandemic to track such events, logged 6,603 incident reports from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021.
"Ignorance is deadly, and it's one of the things causing this divide," Mock says. He says his meals program provides a direct link to humanize Chinatown community members, Asian or otherwise, and break down racial divides among marginalized groups.
"All it takes is a simple 'hi' or 'how was your day' to get to know each other and bridge the divides. Or, Asian culture uses the question 'Did you eat yet?' as our way of saying 'I love you.' We can extend that to other people. Understanding these simple concepts to humanize and love each other for being human — this is how we start conversations around respecting our differences."
Additionally, he stresses that discussing anti-Asian racism isn't just about educating non-Asians. Conversations about cross-racial differences and respect have to happen at home, too. For example, some advocates say responding to anti-Asian hate with increased policing can put marginalized groups — including Black, undocumented and LGBTQ+ individuals — at risk.
To help cross-generational Asian Americans understand some of these impacts, "it's not just about talking with other people, but also with our own families and the different generations in our households," Mock says.
As Mock looks back on a year of advocacy, he sees Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as another opportunity to remind Americans of the history of Asians in the U.S.
"It's about education, being proud of being Asian and being an American in this country," Mock says. "I hate to say it, but we have to remind people that we belong here as well. We've done our part for the country. Chinese food is as American as apple pie. The infrastructure of America was built on the backs of Asian Americans."
For now, Mock is taking it day by day to continue making sure his Chinatown neighbors are fed and cared for, and that as visitors come back to the neighborhood's shops and restaurants, Chinatown will be ready.