Across Asian Middle America

Reflections on life where there are no Chinatowns, where sushi is made with 'whaat rahs' and where Asian Americans can be black or white.

August 1, 2008


I WAS RAISED AS AN AMERICAN ABROAD, and my conceptions of the United States were a weird combination of The Brady Bunch, CHiPs and John Wayne. When I was in fourth grade, my family moved to Montgomery, AL, and I soon learned the error of my views.

My new school was 90 percent African American. Until then, I had only a handful of black friends. From seventh to 10th grade, I could count the number of other Asian Americans at my school on one hand.

People didn't really know what to make of me. You were either white or black. At first, I was white, like all the other non-black kids; a Filipina had recently been voted homecoming queen for the white students. Yes, for homecoming we voted for a white court and a black court-and this was in the late 1980s.

I joined my junior high football team, and besides one white guy and me, the entire team was African American. After spending so much time with my team, my worldview began to change. I remember the first time I turned to one of the black radio stations, feeling like I was entering a whole new world. Some of the white kids began to give me grief, and by the time I left the school, I was considered by many to be a black kid. But I don't think anyone, including myself, thought that I was actually black; we just didn't have the language to discuss race and political identification.

Once in class, I kept arguing that I was from Taiwan, and one of my friends shut me down by saying that may be true, but while my mother was Taiwanese, I was now an American and just like them, so I was black. Looking back, I know my friends were often just messing with me, and some of the girls were just flirting, yet part of me felt good, felt accepted.

Back in seventh grade when I was still considered white, I remember a litmus test some of us "white kids" were given, and that was answering the question of whether we would ever date a black girl. I jokingly said, "Yes," but in my mind, I was like, "Nope."

Later, in college, I was asked if I'd ever date a white girl. I had never really thought about it, but as I did, my response was, "Probably not." I had switched teams.

Daniel D. Zarazua is assistant principal of Oakland Unity High School in Oakland, CA.


LOOK AT A MAP of the southeastern United States, and off of the South Carolina coast you'll see three words: Here Be Dragons. Or at least, that's how I imagine my parents must have felt in 1989 when we moved to Greenville, SC, into an apartment off Wade Hampton Boulevard, named in honor of the Confederate Army hero.

These days, my hometown in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is a much more cosmopolitan place than when we first got acquainted. I was in the first grade, and there were only two Japanese restaurants: Yagoto and the Kanpai of Tokyo.

Yagoto was fancier, having been built as an exact replica of an old Japanese mansion, complete with rock garden, tatami mats and, according to the plaque out front, without a single nail being used. You could almost believe you were in Japan, if only the waitresses would stop pronouncing white rice as "whaat rahs." At one point, it hosted a taiko drum show that left me with two memories I still carry: the incredible feeling of bass about to burst through my chest and the drummers' shiny, shiny buttocks.

In a similar vein, the Kanpai of Tokyo was built as an exact replica of a mediocre restaurant in a lonely strip mall, and it was a very convincing replica. I quickly realized that the cuisine wasn't so much Japanese as it was of Japan re-imagined by someone who believes that in a mystical land far, far away, grilled shrimp actually fly through the air and into your mouth.

Predictably, the Kanpai of Tokyo was more accessible to the average Greenvillian than Yagoto. So it's obvious which one represented, in my classmates' minds, what the Asian kid in class ate at home. I felt bad as I would constantly disappoint my classmates by telling them that, no, we don't have a hotplate built into our dining table, and no, my mom won't make onion ring volcanoes for you if you come over.

I can't remember when my parents and I began measuring Greenville's progress by the number of Japanese restaurants in town. But by the time I was ready to leave for college, I remember counting four. When I went back to visit last year, my father told me that there were nine. Nowadays, whenever I sit down for a meal at one of them, I always pay close attention to how the server pronounces the menu items. And when I hear that chirashi is raw fish over "whaat rahs," I know that I'm home again.

Hachi August was born in Tokyo and lived in South Carolina he was 18. He now lives and works in San Francisco.


NOT FAR DOWN THE ROAD from my parents' home in Bangor, ME, is a gas station. Beside the gas station is a squat, forgettable building that hosted a string of slowly failing businesses: a hair salon, a video store, a pizza joint and another hair salon. For a while, it was a takeout joint called Little Asia, where I worked during the summer after graduating from high school.

The owner was a beefy used-car salesman who in my memory always wears an aquamarine golf shirt. His partner was an equally beefy, perpetually worried Filipino who'd somehow ended up with his extended family in the anemic town of Dover; a half-hour's drive away, population 4,211. The line cooks came from Mexico and Central America, the head cook from China and the manager was a local kid who drove a Camaro and called everyone "Stallion." I worked the counter with my friend Natan, a half-lnuit who could pass for Mongolian. With my indeterminately Asiatic half-Filipino-ness, we gave the Little Asia takeout experience a relative authenticity.

Natan and I had a good time that summer. We'd leave cryptic messages on the specials board about conspiracies involving General Tso and his long-lost brother, Colonel Sanders. We held competitions to fill cups with duck sauce, which Natan usually won, and to pick up loose change with chopsticks-my own forte, and a much better flirtation device. The fortune cookies came packed in crumpled-up centerfolds from Chinese nudie magazines, and sometimes the cookies were stale enough to unfold without breaking, in which case we'd take the fortunes out and write new ones on the backs: "For crying out loud, you're a Goddamn Eskimo!"

The one unpleasant part of the job was putting chicken strips on skewers in great metal vats of near-frozen teriyaki sauce. Invariably this involved poking our numb hands until they were practically skewered, too. But one of the cooks had fled Guatemala's civil war and slept in a closet and never stopped grinning, and all were living far from home in a strange land, so it was never hard to remember that we were children, playing. The cooks ate with us in companionable silence on the steps out back, next to the trash bin. Over the summer, my palate expanded from chicken fried rice and teriyaki beef to include egg rolls.

Shortly before leaving for school in Boston, I received a letter from a Japanese-born sophomore assigned the task of helping me, a fellow Asian, acclimate to the strange new environment of an American college. My mother was a child in the Philippines during World War II; she saw men punished by the Japanese, their tongues hanging to their chests. She always separated past grievance from personal animosity, and made sure I did the same, but it added an extra layer of irony to the offer of my would-be Japanese acclimatizer. I never looked him up. One night, the Korean kids in my dorm invited me to eat with them, and when I demonstrated my chopstick prowess, we laughed uproariously in unison. We didn't hang out much after that.

When I went home, I still got food from Little Asia, but it only survived for another year or so. I'm not sure what's in the building now. A hair salon, I think.

Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist. Born and raised in Bangor, ME, he now lives in Brooklyn, NY, and writes for


AT MY OLD CHURCH near downtown Charlotte, there used to be a giant pit. The parking lot behind the building seemed to just open up to an enormous gaping hole that cut into a tunnel with a creek flowing through. When the wind blew hard enough, the kudzu vines and trees revealed water flowing from one tunnel into another at the bottom of the pit.

At about 9, I took it upon myself to be the first to venture down there. There were competing theories on whether the tunnel was for the Army in case Saddam Hussein hit us with a Scud missile or if it was part of the Underground Railroad and filled with Civil War weapons. Either way, I wanted to be the first to find out.

Back then, church was the only place I wasn't a misanthropic nerd. At school, I never had a witty retort when kids called me "chaknees." I even wasted an opportunity for the perfect one-liner. This bully grabbed me, and after years of tae kwan do, I finally didn't need him to grab my other wrist. I froze, thinking of something to say for a solid eight seconds before I pulled my move, but all that came out was a croaking "uh."

Church was different. There, I was the senior elder's son with a perfect bow and good Korean, rarities when church was the only meaningful contact most kids had with other Asians. I also had some younger cousins I could boss around, so I guess I kind of felt like a big deal on the weekends.

One sunny Sunday afternoon, I kicked off my loafers, yanked off my clip-on necktie and plunged into the tangle of vines toward the tunnel. The first step was the hardest because of how steep the pit was. I probably could have seriously hurt myself, but I managed to get a grip before falling. I slipped a lot, got my khakis and button-down filthy, but after a grueling half hour of climbing, I was finally there.

The water was surprisingly shallow. From 60 feet up, it looked like a raging torrent, but it barely reached my ankles. Instead of Civil War weapons, I was surrounded by two black holes on either side while I was standing there, scared and alone. Shouts from above echoed out, "What's it like? What's it like? . . ." The only other sound was water rushing past my ankles. I remember how cold and slippery it was, but mostly I remember the mouth of that tunnel, pitch-black and menacing. I left without going into the tunnel, which I regret, but at least I climbed down to see it face to face.

They bulldozed the pit four years later and tore down our church. A piece of our steeple is part of the office building standing there now. Though I never took that first step into the tunnel, I like to think that the kid who went down there wasn't covered up by all that change. Being the only Asian kid around was a bit like staring down the tunnel alone at times. But having the courage to stand there alone, sleeves rolled up and clip-on tie tossed to the side, is where it all starts.

Daniel Chun is a North Carolina native and a law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


THE JOURNEY TO MEMPHIS, TN, was my monthly ritual. I would drive 200 miles, cross the Mississippi River and traverse three states with a trunk full of recycling and a shopping list in my glove compartment. I only had one day to do it all, so I meticulously organized my time: I would have lunch at a Vietnamese pho restaurant and watch that movie I had been waiting several weeks for. Then, a bookstore and coffee shop, where I gave myself one hour to sip tea and read something other than a textbook. Finally, I would drop off my cans, bottles and paper into several bins by the freeway so that my trunk would be empty for my last stop: an Asian grocery store.

I spent two years teaching high school in the Mississippi Delta, one of the most impoverished regions in the United States. This is a place where recycling does not exist.

Surrounded by miles of cotton fields, Delta towns have gone through decades of decline because of their reliance on an agricultural economy that has become mostly mechanized. Main streets now resemble ghost towns with empty lots, boarded up buildings and weeds growing between cracks in the concrete.

In one neighborhood in my Arkansas town, Helena-West Helena, beautiful Victorian houses sat uninhabited, witnesses to a once booming river hub. The only businesses left on the main drag are the liquor store and two antiques pawnshops. The town bustles once a year for the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, when 100,000 visitors come to watch blues musicians sing about the miseries of poverty, lost love and backbreaking labor. You couldn't ask for a better venue, with the stages built in front of buildings with broken windows and collapsed walls.

Last year, a drunken visitor at the festival asked me where I was from. I answered, "I live here," to which he responded with pity, "I'm sorry."

But by then, I had gotten used to the idea of living in the rural South. I liked living in a three-bedroom house for $275 a month and shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart, knowing I would run into my kids and their parents. I liked not having to decide what to do on a Friday night, because the only game in town was the high school football game or leaving a fat tip for my students at Kelly's Restaurant, and giving them hell when I found grease stains on their homework the next day.

I even created my own blend of Asian America by throwing a Chinese New Year party each year and inviting all my fellow teachers to try my cooking and compete in chopstick dexterity contests. I no longer felt sorry for myself for being culturally deprived, because my identity was no longer attached to my past. The community I found there grounded me.

So I replied to the drunken bastard, "I'm not, this is a great place to live."

Lin Yang taught high school mathematics for two years in Helena-West Helena as part of Teach for America. He is now pursuing a master's degree in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.


WHILE ATLANTA IS INTERWOVEN with black culture and Southern history, a place called Buford Highway, 20 minutes north of the city, has a distinct Asian American district, with authentic Chinese architecture and signs in Chinese. It seemed like all the Asian immigrants either decided this street was theirs or something pushed them together onto that stretch of highway.

Mixed in with Atlanta's black-and-white checkerboard culture are Asian Americans. The younger generation that grew up there tried to assimilate. I met a few Asian Americans who dressed like rednecks, camouflage jackets and all. There was definitely a black versus white thing going on in my Atlanta, and Asians were either on one side or another. Later, when I joined an Asian American fraternity in college, they had step competitions presided over by black fraternity presidents. So you can imagine which culture won over the Asians.

But in Buford Highway, many Asian Americans were with their conservative families, so the facade was put off temporarily. It's hard to act ghetto or country when your parents are screaming at you in Chinese to eat. The older generation would be immigrants who stereotypically started dry cleaners or Chinese restaurants, while their children would be struggling to define themselves in a country and hip-hop world.

When I was little, my mom would take my older brother and I there to get some authentic Chinese food and chat with other old ladies. The central point was 99 Ranch market. It was half the size of a Kroger, and it was dirty, much more so than the grocery stores near my house, with a layer of yellow film on the ground. My mom would always let me pick one thing to take home, so I became very familiar with the candy aisle, but only with the candy at or below eye level.

As I got older, the trips to Buford Highway became less frequent, and what had been a very Asian American district turned international as more Latinos moved in. Before I left, I would go back to Buford Highway on occasion. I'd meet my mom on Sundays for Americanized dim sum, or buy groceries at the large, Wal-Martesque international food store.

Out of habit I still go to the smaller 99 Ranch, which has tried to expand. But the hastily put together expansion just makes the place look emptier than it already is. My mom still insists on buying pastries there since everything else is "not as fresh," and I still allow myself to one treat from the candy aisle.

Tony Cheng was born in Taiwan and moved to Atlanta when he was 4. He is an architect in San Francisco.


IN THE SUMMER OF 1987, my family and I packed up a U-Haul and a 1978 AMC Pacer (yes, the car from Wayne's World) and moved from Houston to Laramie, WY. At the impressionable age of 9,1 was about to start fourth grade in this small college town.

Having just immigrated to the United States from mainland China three years prior, I was still getting accustomed to the ways of American life, and yet still also learning about the ways of Chinese life. Culturally, I had two childhoods: one that took place within the home, where things were distinctly Chinese, and another that took place in the rural yet abundantly natural landscape that was Wyoming.

There was only one elementary school in town (and, subsequently, one middle and one high school). At the time, I was the only Asian student. I remember having the choice to be called by my Chinese name, Qian, or to go with my recently given English name, James. I didn't like the name James at the time, so I went with the more familiar Qian, but in an effort to try to fit in and make it easier for the other kids to pronounce my name, I started to write it as "Chin." Upon seeing some homework with the adapted spelling of my Chinese name, my parents were not delighted.

In contrast to the Texas suburbs, Wyoming turned out to have easy access to a wonderland of outdoor activities. During the five years we lived there, I was introduced to cross-country skiing, rock climbing, horseback riding, camping and fishing-activities that immersed me in the abundance of Wyoming's natural beauty.

It wasn't until I bought a skateboard at a local BMX store that I finally found my calling. The friends I skated with seemed rebellious and individualistic. It wasn't important that I was the only Asian kid for miles around; I was a skater. There weren't many of us-maybe a dozen-as all the other kids our age gravitated toward football, basketball and other more traditional sports.

We were a band of skating miscreants who declined the rural spaciousness of Wyoming for the man-made landscapes of the University of Wyoming, where my dad was getting his doctorate. With every imaginable outdoor activity available to us, we spent all of our time bonding over concrete thrills and spills. The act of appropriating public space and simultaneously breaking laws-albeit small ones-were key to our hobby and what helped make our bonds so strong.

In 2002, 10 years after my family moved to San Diego, I passed through Laramie on a road trip. The town seemed exactly the same; I could still skate the same routes I had ridden years before, completely unaltered and unimpeded.

But something did change. Time hadn't stood still. One of my old skateboarding pals, Aaron McKinney, had grown up and was convicted in the infamous Matthew Shepard hate crime, forever creating a bloody imprint on the campus.

It was the same concrete landscape, but not the same at all.

James Wang is a photographer in San Diego.


BY THE TIME I FINALLY ARRIVED in Florida, my father was almost halfway through his chemotherapy treatments and could barely whisper. My mother and sister had agreed earlier that my presence during the most crucial stages would likely only stress my father out. As far as he was concerned, I was unemployed; I worked part time at a package delivery warehouse in Minneapolis, and on weekends, bartended in a Chinese restaurant.

Conflicts with my father were nothing new. After high school, I'd left our North Dakota home and drifted, severely depressed, for nearly two years through Canada, the Pacific Northwest, California, Mexico and throughout the South, taking mostly restaurant and temp labor work as needed. Before my father's cancer diagnosis, I'd only seen him a handful of times over the course of several years.

In Florida, nothing much of our relationship changed. On the fourth day of my visit, my sister chastised me by the pool. "Why don't you go sit with him, maybe offer to take a walk together?" But I was still licking my wounds over his accusation the night before at dinner, rendered in a crushing whisper, that I was a family embarrassment.

Most days, I slept until noon, and then worked poolside on poems. The Florida atmosphere, surreally appealing, inspired me with its tiny lizards leaping away from my bare feet in the grass; the languid humidity seeming somehow to make every line's essence linger more palpably on the page; the hydra-like banyan trees whenever you suddenly looked up, certain that someone was staring. At night, I'd revise the day's writings at a tin-roofed, jerry-built bar nearby or go see a movie.

There was a cute Latina with dark, sugar-sweet eyes who worked at a sunglass-and-hair-extension cart at the mall; usually she'd be reading a novel to kill time. I'd slowly pass her shiny brown legs on my way to the cinema. One night, I bought a pair of smudged sunglasses that she cleaned meticulously with a little cloth. She was taking a world literature class at a local community college; the book she was halfway through was Crime and Punishment. The next night I returned with a gift-Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories by Chekhov-from the mall's bookstore.

"He was a doctor," I told her. She said she thought she'd heard of The Cherry Orchard.

When she asked, I told her I was in town for my father, and, after ringing up a giggly teenage couple, she offered to show me around town sometime.

That Saturday we went to a club with her two girlfriends, one Vietnamese and one blonde, who by their matching makeup and tans, similar voices, affects and miniskirts, might as well have been twins from alternate universes.

Afterward, just the two of us, drunk and chain-smoking menthols on a park picnic table, she started tearing up over her own father's leukemia; how she and her mother recently learned that he'd had a second family in Puerto Rico her whole life. "And then the bitch tells me she never even married him, like legally!" Later, overlooking a dark ocean under a navy blue sky, we made out in my father's Honda.

But she kept alternating between tearing up, apologizing, and half-mounting me over the gearshift. Finally, two days later, she admitted over the phone that she was engaged to a guy her 8-yearold son called Dad. We made a date to meet at Starbucks, but she never showed.

My existence in Florida-there with my family, but not really there-felt strangely amphibian. I must have spent as much of my stay submerged underwater as I did wandering aimlessly, sun-drunk on land. One night, lazing in the pool, I heard a small, muffled splash in the far distance. I'd heard some neighbors earlier discussing a small gator that had taken up residence in the man-made lake at the center of the compound. I remember pitying the creature lurking somewhere just below the small lake's glistening surface-for having come to this artificial hole in the ground of all the natural wetlands in the state.

My father passed away a month later.

Ed Bok Lee's first book, Real Karaoke People (New Rivers Press), won a 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, a 2006 Asian American Literary Award (Members' Choice), and in 2007, was a national bestseller in poetry.


SOMEWHERE BETWEEN LISTENING to 90s grunge rock and living in a pink stucco house, I grew up Chinese American.

I moved to Arizona when I was 5. My first memory of Phoenix is of heat and spicy taco sauce. I remember opening the door of my father's 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit and being greeted with the hottest gust in my life. My parents then took us to Taco Bell, where I felt my taste buds fall off my tongue as I took my first bite of a crunchy taco.

My life in Phoenix was of a typical suburban brat: strip malls, teenage angst and avoiding the heat by staying in air-conditioned buildings. But it was also very typical of Chinese American children whose parents came to the United States post-1965 as international students-Chinese who bypassed Chinatowns and settled in suburbia.

Growing up, my mom shopped at both Asian and regular grocery stores. Trips to Asian stores for me signified cool snacks: cups of Van Van, boxes of Pocky sticks, bags of Calbee shrimp chips and rolls of Haw Flakes. My siblings and I climbed into the back of the minivan after trips to Asian stores, sitting with our feet dangling and chomping on Van Van sticks, dipping them into cups of chocolate or strawberry frosting that were placed firmly into cup holders next to the backseat.

My mom would buy fresh fish from China Express, a store in a warehouse near my home. She'd point at one in the aquarium, and the lady would nab the fish and shove it in a plastic bag. The flailing fish always fought with all its might on our way home. Of course, back then, this was not something to tell the kids at school Monday.

I've watched the Asian American population blossom in Phoenix, and in the 1990s, Asian supermarkets like the ones my parents would go to during trips to Southern California finally started hitting the Phoenix area. We started to have shopping options: 99 Ranch Market (now Super L Ranch) opened in the Chinese architecturestyled COFCO Chinese Cultural Center. A homegrown storefront sprouted into Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket.

I hear all sorts of Asian shopping centers are in the works now. And the Taco Bell where I had my first taco, it's now a tasty pho restaurant.

Irene Hsiao is a graduate student at The Ohio State University.

Magazine Section: 

Harry Mok

Editor in chief

Editor in Chief Harry Mok wrote about growing up on a Chinese vegetable farm for the second issue of Hyphen and has been a volunteer editor since 2004. As a board member of the San Francisco and New York chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association, Harry has recruited and organized events for student members. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was also a graduate student instructor in the Asian American Studies Department.