The unique experiences of Asians and Pacific Islanders in small towns are occurring in increasing numbers, as more and more APIs move into suburbs and smaller towns, according to recent census figures. One’s isolation as one of the only minorities in town are compounded when compared to the close-knit communities of home countries, rich in the tastes, sounds and languages deeply embedded in API identity.
I grew up in a small town called Longmeadow, a white chapeled town in western Massachusetts with pre-Revolutionary War roots and a population of about 15,000. My parents moved there for the schools, after my dad got a job as a chemical engineer at Monsanto. They decided it was a good place to raise children — away from the crime of the big city — but also away from any strong notions of culture. We became one of the only Chinese families in the town.
I remember in 4th grade, when LeKeisha Blackwell, who lived in the neighboring city of Springfield, whispered to me during class, “What are you? I’m black, what are you? Write it down.”
I thought to myself, well, my skin isn’t black, it looked white to me. So I started to write down “white” on a slip of paper. She interrupted me.
“No, you aren’t white, like where are you from?”
“Oh … I’m Chinese.”
At this early age, I didn’t truly understand the concept of race and identity — I thought it was just a matter of skin color. It wasn’t until later on that I became more aware of how my ethnicity made me unique, and came to celebrate that uniqueness, rather than be ashamed of it.
Trying to “fit in” in middle and high school can be a painful process — when you’re a minority with a funny name, parents with accents and sometimes you come to school reeking of the tea eggs your mother just made, double that pain. And yet, thousands of APIs repeat this experience every day, rather than seeking refuge in large API-rich enclaves in big cities — the Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Little Saigons, etc.
According to 2010 Census figures, suburbs surrounding Seattle such as Kent, Tukwila, Redmond and Sammamish have had at least a 10 percent increase in the Asian population within ten years. Sammamish, formerly a small town, is said to be the fastest growing city in the state. Economic and education motivators continue to push APIs into newer, more culturally unfamiliar places.
Given these findings, what are the repercussions of these living choices, on one’s concept of race, identity and culture? And how do these changed notions of culture affect one’s relationships with the generations of elders?
Mary Nguyen grew up in the only Vietnamese family in Longview, Wash., which hugs the Washington-Oregon border along I-5. She says she faced fearful intimidation.
“Going through public schools, I didn’t want anyone to know I was Vietnamese,” said Nguyen. “People hated me because of my face. I remember knowing that it’d be just so much easier to be white … When you grow up in your small town, you’re not recognizing your family life in anything you’re seeing, including figures of authority.
Since then, Nguyen has utilized her experience into defending the rights and identities of others. She has led the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF)’s Seattle Chapter and is a UFCW 21 labor community organizer.
“In college I sought out NAPAWF and that was the first time that I felt ok to really own up to my identity and relate to other API women,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen says that when she went to Vietnam for the first time, she was thrilled at the opportunity, but disappointed in her first month when her American accent conveyed the image of a traitorous, privileged American. “I thought, ‘where do I fit in?’” asked Nguyen. “I obviously don’t fit in in the States, and I didn’t “fit in” in Vietnam. I still struggle with that.”
Coming to terms with one’s own racial identity in relationship to others living in the U.S. shapes where we work, the relationships we choose, and where we live. Growing up in a small town that may have deeply ingrained prejudices toward minorities, a person can either be an outcast, seek bonds with other minorities and remain acutely aware of their ethnic identity, or, one could assimilate to American culture so much that their home culture doesn’t factor into their life choices much at all.
People arrive in the United States as refugees or as immigrants, and from a vast variety of cultures. As a result, Asian American concepts of race and identity are hugely diverse.
Growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, I wasn’t ignorant to how other young APIs were establishing themselves in the U.S. Every year, we made several trips to visit my grandparents, who lived in Queens and Manhattan’s Chinatown. Here, my parents reveled in the traditional Shanghaiese food, live fish and fresh produce and the ability to laugh and debate with their siblings and friends over dim sum and banquet dinners. While riding the elevators in my grandparents’ high rise apartment building, I would glance at the Chinese kids, speaking Cantonese fluently with their parents, decked out in Chinatown garb. I was always a bit jealous, knowing that they weren’t bound by the pressure to look like an Abercrombie model, and were fully at home in their community that so effectively imitated China.
But I can understand why my parents chose to raise my sisters and me in a small town community, despite the discrimination they faced from close-minded people. Vandalism, threatening phone calls, exclusion and name-calling are all scars on their and our lives, which will forever shape how we perceive America and ourselves.
Right now, towns all over the U.S. are in a transition. Hopefully, if towns become more and more diverse and open-minded, minorities will no longer feel the need to cover up their identities, but celebrate their culture with pride and conviction.