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Long Islanders experience heartfelt 'homecomings' abroad during pandemic

Peter Wang and his wife, Rosa Chen, visited

Peter Wang and his wife, Rosa Chen, visited Taroko National Park in Taiwan in March 2020. Credit: Peter Wang

After Walter Puriszaca, a Greenport resident who was born in Peru, got his first Moderna vaccine on March 9 and the second on April 26, he felt he was able to do things he hadn’t for a while. In particular, immunization opened the door to visit the country where he was born.

"I was fully vaccinated. That encouraged me to go," Puriszaca said.

A permanent U.S. resident known by the stage name Sicanni when he plays Native American flute, Puriszaca went to Peru in August to celebrate his 49th birthday. "I like to see my family and my friends," said Puriszaca, who had moved from Peru in 2005. "The nature. The beach, the water there. There is a desert and mountains."

Puriszaca said he had a very different, smaller celebration because of the pandemic, but it was a homecoming, nonetheless. He stayed with his mother, got to see family and friends and, as with many families fragmented by geographic borders, crossed the world to see loved ones in an era of social distancing.

"I didn’t have invitations. I didn’t bring friends," Puriszaca said of the small party, which included his mother, two sisters, son and daughter Karla. "We listened to music, ate and talked."

Long Island is a home away for home for many people born abroad, often with family members who remain in their native country. Generations often are divided by geography. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2019, more than half a million Long Islanders were born in other nations.

The pandemic paused many trips to visit loved ones abroad and prompted very emotional returns as well. Some Long Islanders traveled early in the pandemic, but far more have taken trips since being vaccinated — some enjoying extended stays.

"The people I know who have gone back have gone back for family reasons, a wedding or some religious function or an emergency," said Shashi Malik, who lives in Wantagh and is president of the Indian Association of Long Island, which has more than 2,500 members.

Escaping the pandemic

Peter Wang, 70, grew up and studied in Taipei, Taiwan, speaking Mandarin Chinese, before setting his sights on the United States. "I came here to study. I wanted to go to college," he said.

He came to the United States when he was 23, joining his mother and sister in Queens, before moving to Greenvale about 30 years ago. He couldn’t afford college and instead got a job as a server in a Chinese restaurant.

"I go back almost every two years," he said. "It’s so modernized just like New York City."

Wang and his family co-owned Chung Hwa, a Chinese bookstore in Flushing, for more than 20 years before closing it in 2016. That left him with more time to visit Taiwan. In 2020, however, he found himself cooped up at home as the pandemic spread across the United States.

"There was no place to go. I could usually go to the gym and swim every day. But I couldn’t. Or to restaurants. So I stayed home," Wang said. "It was so boring. I felt nervous because the pandemic was so serious."

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, COVID-19 outbreaks were remarkably contained, leading to fewer than 900 deaths and 17,000 cases, according to Taiwan Centers for Disease Control. Although Wang at the time could hardly travel on Long Island, he headed off to Taiwan in November 2020 and stayed for seven months.

"I feel very comfortable there," he said. After quarantining in his apartment in New Taipei City for 14 days, he was able to go where he wished. Wang celebrated the Chinese New Year with a family dinner for around 20, eating Peking duck and fish. He visited museums, seeing Chinese porcelain and paintings, visited parks and enjoyed time with his wife, family and friends.

"Over there, the Taiwanese people are very careful. They got used to masks, even before the pandemic. They wore masks because of air pollution," he said. "I ate good food, spoke my own language."

By April 2021, Taiwan was seeing an uptick in cases and precautions increased. Wang returned to Long Island in June 2021 and got two Moderna vaccines.

Wang said his family in Taiwan hopes to visit the United States soon. "They like to come here," he said.

Family rituals return

Rekha Chichara, 74, and her husband, Jitendra, 81, of Hicksville, married in August 1970 in India before coming to the United States in 1971. Jitendra arrived first, in January, and Rekha followed in August. They lived in Flushing and Bayside before buying their home in Hicksville in 1993.

Jitendra worked as a civil engineer, retiring in 2009, and Rekha worked in bookkeeping at a home insurance company, advertising agency and TIAA- CREF, before retiring in 1988

With time to travel, they booked a trip to India in 2020 — but it was curtailed by the pandemic. "My flight was canceled," Chichara said. "They gave me the money back."

The couple stayed put as the pandemic ravaged both sides of the world; they lost relatives in India and the United States to COVID-19, including Jitendra’s brother-in-law, who died in 2020 in Jericho. "We lost so many friends," Rekha said of the early days of the pandemic.."Those days were very bad."

In February 2021, they got the Pfizer vaccines, and on July 14, 2021, flew Air-India to attend their niece’s wedding. Rekha said the family had waited until she and her husband could travel before holding the wedding.

"There were some restrictions to limit people," she said of the event, which was capped at 50 people. "They were doing so much cleaning, sanitizing. We stayed three days in the hotel, the family from the bride’s and groom’s side."

She said there were fewer people, but "the decorations were the same" with functions outdoors and indoors.

"There are so many rituals," Rekha said of the wedding in India, where the Covishield and Covaxin vaccinations are being administered. "Everybody was vaccinated. The hotel won’t allow you to stay … if you’re not vaccinated. They were taking precautions."

Rekha got her third shot after returning to Long Island. "I took a booster two weeks ago," she said. "They were saying, ‘Now you can come. You’re more safe now.’ I said, ‘Do some weddings over there. Then I will come.’ "

Enjoying open space

For Walter Puriszaca, the Peruvian native who lives in Northport selling jewelry and crafts and playing Native American flute, traveling to Peru during the pandemic was anything but routine.

"Obviously, it was not regular," he said of his August birthday trip. "I had to do the COVID test to go and come back, [and] quarantine. I had to go through all these procedures."

Puriszaca says he wore two masks, socially distanced and followed rules, including curfews and other restrictions. "By the time I went there, concerts were not allowed."

While in New York, Puriszaca had watched from a distance as Peru struggled during the pandemic, which has led to 2.2 million cases and 200,000 deaths there. "I lost friends, neighbors, family, cousins, my wife’s uncle," he said of people who died in Peru. "All together between family and friends, I lost at least 10 people."

After he got the Moderna vaccine, Puriszaca felt safe enough to return to Peru to celebrate his 49th birthday on Aug. 17, 2021. He traveled there with his wife and son, seeing his 79-year-old mother, a daughter he had with another woman, and others on a three-week visit.

While visiting, he stayed at his mother’s house. "The main thing was to see the family. We had a family dinner," he said. "We danced a little bit."

Puriszaca, who contracted COVID-19 well after returning from Peru, said most of his family has been vaccinated — and many family members have also have COVID-19. "Some people are very concerned," he added. "Some people think it’s fate."

In addition to seeing friends and family, Puriszaca enjoyed the landscape in a country where open space not only provides beauty, but greater safety from a disease that thrives in densely populated areas.

"In some parts, you can go and there’s nobody there. The beach is clear and wide-open," he said. "You can bring your cousins, your friends, and talk. There’s so much space in the countryside."

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