Annie: I worked at… I was an intern-reporter over the summer at the Tallahassee Democrat. It was—it’s part of the USA Network, and Tallahassee itself is one of the more diverse and well-populated cities in Florida. But even then, there’s very little coverage about Asian American issues, basically none. So when I got there the first piece that I pitched was about what Asian Americanness looks like in a city like this, what draws people to come from China, or India, or Bangladesh, and settle in Tallahassee, Florida, of all places.
Haewon: Is there a large Asian American population there?
A: Um, it’s pretty small. It’s like a few thousand.
H: Oh, it is really small.
A: But the whole town is only, like, a hundred-something thousand. But it’s still, like, decently small. Like three or four percent, I think? But anyway, so I went around town, and I spent hours collecting stories from different Asian Americans, different backgrounds. I really wanted to emphasize—so I was doing a big investigative piece, sort of in celebration of Asian American Month, or Asian American Pacific Islander Month, or whatever. So I went in, sourced a bunch of different Asians around the community, some immigrants, some not. I sourced a woman who is Filipina, married a Haitian man, raises mixed kids, sourced the kids, and, you know, was born in the States, moved to Tallahassee from San Francisco, and I talked a little bit to her about the transition between, you know, coming from a very Asian-dense population and community, and coming to Tallahassee, where there’s a very small Filipino community. And I also spoke to a Thai woman who runs her own restaurant, called Reangthai, and she works every single day of the year except for, like, one month of Christmas, I think, and there are only three or four employees in the whole restaurant, and she works every single day, from open to close.
H: Wow. That’s so intense.
A: Yeah. She works, like, fourteen, fifteen hours a day, Sunday to Sunday, back to back, and she says she just loves it so much, and she loves the food, she just takes so much pride in it, and she goes back to look for recipes and stuff, but she greets all the customers herself, and everything is cooked to order, and she’s the only chef.
H: That’s amazing, oh my god.
A: It’s pretty decently popular, it’s like a very nice upscale restaurant, and just talking to her was very interesting, and about her love of food, and what brought her here, and everything, uh. And then there were people who, talking about, um… there was a man I talked to who talked about the very distinct generational differences in the Chinese community. So he works for the state as an environmental chemist, so he was talking about how the very first generation of Chinese people to come to Tallahassee in the 50s and 60s were poor, you know, they all just depended on each other. A couple of them were professors at Florida State, most of them just came over and clung to each other. And later—they were very informal, it was a small community. And then later, his generation that came in the 80s and 90s, they came over to study. And when they came, all the existing Chinese populations welcomed them, and they became a big Chinese community. They would have dinners, they would, you know, drive the students to get supplies, they would have weekly grocery runs, they would take trips to Atlanta together to buy Chinese food and things like that, and they started the first Chinese restaurants together, with both generations. And then those generations eventually graduated, and the ones that stayed ended up working for the school or the state, Florida State, or FAMU [Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University], or the state, you know, which are generally the biggest economic drivers in the area, because there’s no industry. And then they continued on that tradition. But the newest generation of Chinese students that come, that are Chinese nationals, they are usually very wealthy, and they usually don’t want to be associated with the older generations of the Chinese community, so they kind of just, like, do their own thing, and don’t associate as much. And so there’s this feeling of alienation when you have this growth of wealth that happened between the two generations. And so it’s a big change, they don’t spend time together, they don’t cook together anymore. But the older generations still do. And they’re still very tightknit. So it was very interesting to see. And you can see that not just in Tallahassee, right, but just in how specifically Chinese populations have navigated generational differences, class differences, and cultural differences, like those.
A: It was a very interesting piece.
H: So, I know you’re from Florida, but are—wait, are you from Tallahassee?
A: I’m not from Tallahassee. So I was actually in Tallahassee because my boyfriend lives in Tallahassee. I live in… uh, Lakeland, FL, which is a small suburban area between Orlando and Tampa. Fun fact, it was the meth capital of the world in 2004, and in 2014 it was the ninth least educated city according to Forbes.
H: That’s kind of crazy.
H: There’s not—um, I think you told me that there’s not a huge Asian American population there.
A: Yeah, no, it’s pretty small, which is why we’re often classified as an Asian American population rather than having distinct populations within ourselves. But yeah. If you look it up it’s a very small number. It’s growing to the point where I don’t recognize Chinese people sometimes, when I see them, but I just remember growing up—we knew all the Chinese families in town, and there were, like, ten. In the whole city.
H: Oh really? Were you guys tightknit, or was it just like—?
A: Yeah. When we were younger it was tightknit. As we got older there wasn’t as much of a reason to get together anymore, and everyone got busier and busier, but we used to have parties every weekend. Like a potluck.
H: Oh really? That’s so cute.
A: And we’d have karaoke, and we’d play cards, and all the kids would, like, huddle in a room and play video games and yell at each other. Like argue over outlets and things like that.
H: Were all the kids like around your age?
A: Um… there were… yeah. I’d say my generation was pretty dense. We were all within a four- to five-year range, I’d say.
H: Did any of them end up going to that same arts high school that you went to?
A: No, I was the only one. They all ended up going to IB, the International Baccalaureate, I was the only one who got to go to the art school. And then, when I turned out okay, more of them are wanting to send their kids there now. Because they’re like, oh, you know, looks like they can do something they want and still get to a good school, and it’s useful to stand out in that way.
H: Was it difficult to convince your parents to go, or were they just kind of like yeah?
A: Um, yeah. We… it was a lot of challenges. One of the biggest issues we moved in my, uh, fifth grade year, or in my seventh grade year, was because I would get zoned for the best IB school. Because there were two, but one of them was way more lacking than the other. And so we moved so that we could be in the best one, aimed for the best one. Well, not in Lakeland but in our county.
A: I don’t know, my parents were not really supportive at first, but I have had a history of just not listening to my parents. Honestly, I was never the obedient Asian daughter that was supposed to do xyz, I think, and I was kind of in that phase where whatever my parents wanted, I just did not want. And so… but at the time I just loved art and I didn’t care about the IB, and I didn’t want to work bust off my ass doing busywork for no apparent reason, um, and so we fought. And I won, and I went to art school, turned out okay.
H: What was that like, the art school itself?
A: I really loved it. So, I was… So, it’s structured where we have a sister high school, that we go to all our academic classes—
H: Oh, so it’s a literal just art school, where you have, like, other school—
A: Yeah, it’s all on the same campus, and we’re still part of that community. We still consider ourselves part of that community. And so we go there for academic classes and the art school we do all of our arts classes. I was in the visual arts department, and we had a little… we had a black room, a 2D room, a 3D room, a little welding studio out back.
H: That’s awesome.
A: And a digital room, and so we were able to explore lots of different types of work, and I think it was really a great community, and I loved my experience there.
H: Would you say, like, when did you start becoming interested in Asian American issues? I don’t want to be as dramatic and be like, when was your racial awakening? But I was just thinking like—when was your racial awakening?
A: Um… honestly probably… sophomore year? Sophomore year, freshman year?
H: Of high school.
A: Yes. And I think it’s probably because my high school experience was much more diverse than my elementary and middle school experiences. Most of my friends were white when I grew up, and I think I really internalized this sense of, like, white is right and white is better, and I always had crushes on dudes with like Matthews and Ryans who dated Katies and Ashleys, and I think I really really wanted to be part of that circle, and I was, um… quiet, you know, which is hard to believe now. I mean I was always louder around my friends, but I was generally kind of shyer and I read all the time, and I just remember… you know, sort of wanting to be a part of these circles that I didn’t really fit in, and looking back I don’t—I’m glad I wasn’t even involved in.
But I think when you’re… you know, when you’re ten and you live in a city where the culture, um, leans pretty south, you kind of like… hmm. You kind of develop these senses of insecurity about yourself, and I remember having a conversation with my mom once saying I don’t want to stand out, I don’t want to be Chinese, I just want to be nice like everybody else, I just want to fit in, I don’t want to have weird food, I don’t want to do math when I’m—I don’t want to do math problems in the car, I don’t want to do xyz, I don’t want to be special, I just want to be normal. And I remember my mom being so hurt and just seeing that, but I didn’t really register because I was so young, but… I think looking back…. Just certain moments I can pinpoint, I think, really clearly: when I was in elementary school and my mom packed my lunch for a week and the kids at school made fun of it, so I didn’t pack it anymore. And then… when people would tell me, like, “Go back to China,” or like, “Why are you here,” or, “Why does your mom talk so funny, tell her to go back home,” and I think that was really hurtful too. And it’s because if it’s just you, you know, I think it’s easier to just sort of brush off, but having people say horrible things about my mom I think really hurt my feelings and really made me not want to be who I am, and really made me feel ashamed. And in middle school the same way—even like the first day of high school and I was getting water at the water fountain, and I was already scared, I was fourteen and everybody was so much bigger than me. And I’m just drinking my water, doing my business, and someone’s like, “Move away, chink!”
And I—I remember telling these stories to my friends here, right? I remember recounting this story to one of my friends here who was like, “Does that really happen? Does that really happen?” And I was like, “Yeah, that happened, like, four years ago. You know, very recent.” I think especially people who grew up in schools that had a lot of Asian kids, and who grew up in the North, or who grew up in California, which is like fifty percent of the people here, it’s hard for them to believe that things like that actually happen on a consistent basis. You know, it wasn’t a freak incident for me, it happened quite regularly. I remember—you know, this one girl at school would make fun of me for my eyes, you know, and drag her corners out, and say “ching chong,” things like that to me. And that happened all the time.
And I think in high school when I started having a more diverse group of friends, we were like the United Nations of friend groups, we had people from every race color creed that you could possibly have in a small suburban town, which is not very diverse but as diverse as it could get for where I was, situationally. And I think we really encouraged each other to wake up and look at different things. And I don’t think it was all just my own racial awakening, right. I think it sort of paralleled a growing conversation about race in the United States that I think helped bring me out of my shell, and makes you want to feel like you know yourself. And it’s so—the confidence stemmed, my self-confidence also stems from that sort of racial awakening, where I didn’t feel so resentful about my culture anymore, and I always felt like it could—I felt like it could be a badge of honor rather than of shame, and I think that was a really critical turning point of my personhood that I really value.
H: Mmm. Yeah.
H: Do you still find yourself producing a lot of artwork, or just like…?
A: Honestly, I don’t make anymore, and I’m really sad about it. I was planning on taking an art course this semester but I ended up dropping it just because of, um, intense workloads, and things, so I didn’t end up taking the course. I… I still, I made a lot of art over the summer, when I had free time. I painted, I drew, I travel with a journal, always. I honestly never made a ton of work about my racial awakening if that’s what you’re asking.
A: We… we were very much so encouraged, at my school particularly, to have a sense, I think, of design versus theme, and so I think a lot of work was circled—a lot of work circled around the aesthetics of the piece. And not even necessarily the technicality of it, it never was a school that was really emphasizing, you know, “you must shade like this, you must circle like this, you must draw a billion still lifes,” it was more of, you know, design design design. But whenever I had the opportunity I tended to make pretty thematic pieces with a lot of stories, but I did not—I never really created that much work based off race. I made pieces based off human trafficking, I made pieces based off of criticisms of capitalism, things like that. I don’t think I ever really interrogated my identity to that extent until I got here and I started writing about Asian issues and being more alert, choosing to learn about Asian issues in an academic and in a creative way.
H: How do you think you’ve changed the most since high school? Or even since, like, your freshman year to now? What do you think is the biggest change, and why?
A: Um… I think I am… growing comfortable in myself. I think I am learning to… So my mom has this phrase that she was telling me about, which is “bu yao mang, bu yao huang.” Wait, what is it? Let me look it up, she texted it to me the other day. Uh… Also I should call my parents more.
H: Yeah, me too. My mom keeps texting me “hello?” and then I won’t respond for a while and then she’ll say, “Busy?” question mark. And I’ll say yeah and then she’ll say, “Have a good day!!!” with three exclamations.
A: Um… bu jao ji, bu yao pa, bu yao lian. Which means… don’t be in a hurry, don’t be afraid, and don’t… sort of, save face. You know how in Asian cultures face is really important, she says “bu yao lian,” meaning like “don’t prioritize face.” So… if you feel like you cannot handle things, don’t run yourself into the ground for the sake of having your face. And so I think that’s sort of a mantra that I’ve really tried to navigate towards this year. And I think I’m more mindful than I was in high school, and I think I am… Probably what I am most proud of is that I’m more conscious of my own presence, and uh, of my role in the world, and what I want to be contributing, and you know, what I want to be able to tell my kids I contributed when I grew up. When I have them, I guess. Or when they grow up.
H: Yeah, I think you seem really grounded. Because, like, I think you did too last year, or last semester, I guess, but I think you seem even more grounded, now that I’m talking to you again.
A: I hope so. Maybe it’s just because I’m tired.
H: Let’s see. I know what you did this summer, you were doing cool things.
A: I traveled. I went to China. And to Mongolia. Although I will tell you, this time going back to China felt very different, even though I brought my white boyfriend back, and I think it was—it was very odd to see a place that I’ve been to so many times and navigate so easily on my own. My parents have sort of set me free into the city of Beijing by myself since I was fourteen or fifteen.
H: Do you go back every year?
A: Um, every year or every other. Depends, when times are tough every other. But… it was just so odd having this tall white dude sort of escorting me around everywhere—
H: Or you were escorting him.
A: I was escorting him, really. Yeah, because I was translating all the time. But speaking in English in China felt very odd. Having to, you know, order for someone else, and translate everything, and having to sort of navigate a city that I feel like I blend into for the first time—you know, just because I remember going back to China when I lived in Lakewood and being like, Wow! I fit in! There are so many people who look just like me! And coming to Yale I felt the same way, and I think that was another huge change from high school was that I finally had friends who looked like me. I had a couple, you know, friends back in high school that I do appreciate, but here there’s just such a strong Asian community and such a large Asian community and such a diverse Asian community that it’s just really nice to have that wealth of choice and amazing people to spend your time with. But… anyway, so going back to China with him was such an odd experience, I felt like a tour guide, and it was very clear that I was foreign, because when I speak English, they would say, oh, how are you—are you Chinese, you know, how is your English so good, because people would assume, if we weren’t physically obviously affectionate, people would assume that I was a tour guide, things like that. But it was odd, just to like have people looking at you, and treating you differently.
H: Yeah. Do you feel like you usually blend in—like without your boyfriend?
A: Yeah. My accent’s—so I have a Beijing accent because my mom is from there, and I read and navigate well enough to just get around, and so I never have stood out. But standing out somewhere that you feel so generally comfortable in was just an odd feeling. And it was also just really cool to see the country through his eyes, right.
H: Was this his first time…?
A: No, but the last time he went he was eight. And that was… he’s—older, so he’s twenty-nine. So that was twenty-one years ago, and China has changed immensely in twenty years. And so seeing it through his eyes was amazing. But then, so we actually went to Mongolia. And we chose to go to Mongolia because he had already gone to Mongolia before, but he went to Mongolia also twenty years ago. And so he was sharing all his childhood memories of Mongolia, and I was living it through his eyes and then mine for the first time, and he was living through my childhood memories of Beijing, and I was showing him all my favorite nooks and crannies, and he was showing me, sort of, the parallels. And there are a lot more parallels between Mongolia when he visited versus China when we visited because Mongolia has—at least, especially in the rural regions—have been largely the same for the past twenty years.
H: Had he been in Mongolia for a long time the last time he was there?
A: Um, he was there for about two weeks.
A: And… it was really amazing.
H: What prompted your trip to Mongolia?
A: Because he loved it so much. He said it was his favorite trip. He’s traveled all over. His dad had like a midlife crisis or something. And none of the other—he has three siblings, and none of the other siblings liked slash were worthy enough of traveling all the time, and so he just took my boyfriend just all over. They went all over Africa, all over Europe, you know, China, Mongolia, and I don’t know. It was just really cool.
H: Have you guys been together for a long time?
A: Ah, so… November, twelfth grade, so two years.
H: Oh, so it has been a long while.
A: It’s been a minute. And we traveled together last year too. We went—we actually backpacked, uh, Southeast Asia. We did Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam last year.
H: How was it having him in China? Like, did you feel like, I don’t know, did you feel like you were letting him in on a secret, or something?
A: Kind of. Like, the man didn’t know what dim sum was until I showed him.
A: But he’s always been a super open-minded person, and I don’t think dating me was at all a new, exotic thing for him. He’s already very familiar with, just, foods from all over the world, and obviously I, you know, showed him more, uh. In terms of being open-minded and “generally woke,” don’t quote that, but you know, he was an IR [International Relations] major in high sch—er, in college, and so we have many of the same interests. I felt like he has seen—he sees and understands China in a very geopolitical context, and I think I was able to show him more what the average life of a Chinese citizen would be. Because we lived with my grandma, and, you know. Just things. Little moments.
H: What was your grandma’s reaction to meeting…?
A: “Wow, he’s very tall.” [laughs] He’s six two, and my grandma’s like five one, and my cousin is also, like, five one. But also, it feels awkward, right, because people are…. And I hate that I have to say this about my own people, but I feel so disappointed and let down when Asian people gas white men. You know what I mean? Like bringing a—I’m not trying to parade him around because he’s a white dude, and I’m not trying to be extra nice to him because he’s a nice dude, but that’s the reality. That’s the reaction, like oh, she, she went and got herself a white man.
H: Uh huh. Yeah.
A: I don’t know, we’ve talked about the racial dynamics within our relationship before, and, you know, we have a lot of, like, race-related conversations, and we don’t shy away from them, because every mixed couple has to have those conversations, and when you fit so cleanly into that narrative of “Asian woman, white man,” it’s very important to understand the nuances of your own—
H: Talk through it.
H: Yeah, I was in Korea for the first time in seventeen years this summer.
A: Wow, what was that like?
H: It was really weird. Because I was living with my grandparents, and my uncle—
A: Where were you?
H: Um… it was Incheon, which is close to Seoul. Yeah. It was just the weirdest… it was nice being with them, but it was the weirdest experience because I just felt like such a fish out of water, and I think it was—I can speak Korean, right, but I don’t know anything about the social cues because I hadn’t been back since I was like three years old.
A: So what were the biggest, like, social cues that you noticed?
H: I think I went around just like this, and that was the main thing, with no makeup, and…
A: Yeah. I was in Seoul in January, and I was just like, wow, they are all very dressed up, in clothes and makeup.
H: Yeah. Yeah, and I just think another thing was I was just—when you look as Korean as I do, and you speak Korean, and then you start speaking English because you’re with friends who speak English, there’s just like a disconnect where they’re like, what, just what is going on?
A: Were you there with American friends?
H: No, I was there… um, I was doing independent research, but my friends from Yale who are from Korea were also there, and we speak English in Korea, even though we can both speak Korean, but I think it’s just, like, we met speaking English so we continued speaking English, and after moments like that we were just like what the heck is going on, yeah.
A: But I think people also, like, don’t believe you’re American sometimes. At least, if you look how you do and you travel to other countries, for example, when I traveled to Mongolia or Thailand or Vietnam, they’re like, what are you? And I would say, I’m an American, and they’d be like, okay, but what are you, really? In the same way that people will do here sometimes, where it’s just like yeah, but. Yeah. But I think that really cements the image of how American—America is still white in the view of a lot of countries.
H: What did you think of Mongolia?
A: I… had mixed feelings. I loved the country, but I had a really bad bout of food poisoning there, and it was while we were out in the Gobi Desert, and there was no electricity or plumbing. I had the same meal for four days, all four meals.
H: Oh my god.
A: Yeah. [laughs] Don’t print that.
H: [laughs] Is there a big tourism industry there?
A: Um, not really. It’s kind of out of the way. It’s mostly white people finding themselves and Chinese tourists.
H: So where did you stay?
A: So we spent a few days in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and then we stayed in Gers. We drove out eight hours from the city, lived in Gers.