Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Growing up Asian in a Small Town

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 withpre-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.

This article first appeared in the International Examiner, at http://www.iexaminer.org/news/small-town-life/

Images: A house in Longmeadow, Mass. and a shot of Manhattan, Chinatown. My two contrasting worlds.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Do APIs Have Equal Access to Organic Food?

Last month, the USDA released an online food “desert” locater where one can view areas that are considered “food deserts”, based on the percentage of the population considered low-income, and the distance away from major supermarkets. Parts of West Seattle, Renton and Skyway are encompassed in big pink masses on the map. According to the site, one area in Renton has 2,174 people with low access to food. Among those with low access, 240 of them are considered low-income, 342 are children and 402 are seniors.

Food deserts are common in rural, urban and industrial areas, where high poverty rates combined with low access to healthy, affordable food can result in high obesity rates and poor nutrition. Eliminating food deserts through outreach to supermarket chains and community education is seen as just as much a social justice issue, as it is a health issue.

As negative health impacts are increasingly linked to exposure to pesticides used to grow conventionally-grown produce, urban areas that are flush with supermarkets are grappling with another issue. Is it possible to live in another kind of food desert — an organic food desert? And, could even moderate levels of poverty, or cultural notions of thrift, actually promote organic food deserts?

The choice to eat organic reflects a cultural rift in Seattle, and across the country. Those who are educated about health impacts, the environmental toll of nitrogen pollution in our waterways, and the fossil fuels that are burned to ship produce all over the world, can often afford to eat all organic.

For others, especially those in the Asian community, culture trumps all of these concerns. Upscale supermarkets like Whole Foods and Metropolitan market sell loads of (expensive) organic produce, but their selection of leafy green choy would leave any serious Chinese cook running for an Asian grocery.

Varieties of noodles, precisely mixed sauces, live fish and exotic mushrooms make up the dishes that are ingrained in our culture, and remind us of home and our families. All these ingredients are readily available to those living in my neighborhood in south Seattle, but are largely not organic.

To find out how many Asian groceries in my neighborhood offered organic produce, I did a little field research. I walked to my neighborhood market, Mekong Grocery on Rainier Ave. S., and asked an employee if any of the produce was organic. He said no, and that in the two years he’d worked there, he’d only seen organic baby bananas, once. I then went over to the new Othello Public Market on MLK and Othello. They have a diverse selection of produce for Latino and Asian communities, but nothing was organic.

“Our number one priority is to keep produce as accessible as possible,” said Mateo Monda, the market manager. Often organic produce is too expensive if they want to move it quickly, explains Mondo. Othello Public Market does plan to have local Washington produce, but not until another month or so. At Viet-Wah, the story wasn’t much different. The produce mostly comes from California, Mexico in the winter, with Washington fruit coming in the summer. It was not organic except for some tangerines, the produce manager told me. The barrier? Price.

So what can one do, if one wants to continue cooking Asian food, eat organic, and not spend a fortune? There are some options for gaining access to organic foods, that doesn’t mean trekking across town to an expensive upscale supermarket. For example:

• Cowpool. You and a group of people can organize to buy a whole, grass-fed cow from a local small-scale farm, rather than buying meat from an industrial factory farm. An eighth of a cow can be enough for a small family of three, is cheaper than buying organic meat from the supermarket, and you can request specific cuts, such as the tail, cheek, tongue and tripe. Cascade Range Beef is one company that handles cow shares. Harvest is available annually in spring.
• Farmer’s markets. There are now weekly farmer’s markets in nearly all neighborhoods in Seattle during the summer, including Columbia City, the Central District and West Seattle. Events, hours and locations are at www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org. Deals on organic produce can be found, depending on the item, season and vendor.

• Be selective. If you’d like to incorporate more organic foods into your family’s diet, focus on apples, bell peppers, berries, celery, cherries, grapes (imported), lettuce, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, spinach, and strawberries, as they tend to be the ones that contain the highest levels of pesticides. Environmental Working Group has a full list of best and worst fruits and veggies at http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php.

• Community supported agriculture, or CSA is an alternative food network where individuals support local farming communities by purchasing a weekly or bi-weekly delivery or pick-up of organic produce, and sometimes dairy or meat. CSAs available in Seattle include Full Circle Farms, Tiny’s Organics and SPUD.

There isn’t conclusive science finding that those eating non-organic produce are far worse off than those who eat all organic. But, there have been studies finding that babies exposed to high levels of common pesticides in the womb have lower IQ scores than their peers. Pregnant women and parents of young children, especially, are choosing organic produce when it’s economically viable, as a precaution.

If you do live in a food desert, visit www.healthycornerstores.org for tips on how to build community support for healthier products at your nearest corner store. After you’ve developed a plan, reach out to your mayor and city council — they should want to work with you, especially if they have already introduced any special initiatives promoting healthy food, nutrition or wellness.

Above all, choice is precious. Those who have access to fresh, affordable produce that they can incorporate into their culture’s dishes are fortunate, to say the least. But if some are exposed to higher risks for types of cancers, reproductive problems, lower IQ and developmental disorders because of the food options they have, organic food deserts become an important problem to eliminate.

Sian Wu has been covering environment, human rights and politics for the International Examiner for seven years. As her day job, she works at a communications firm specializing in environment and public health issues. You can reach her at sianwu@yahoo.com.

This piece first appeared in the International Examiner, at http://www.iexaminer.org/news/food-nutrition-apis-equal-access/