Minorities Within a Minority: Overlooked Stories of Asian Americans in the South and Midwest
Field Notes from Initial Planning and Inspirations for Pivoting
We were initially intrigued when we received our story topic: second generation Asian American immigrants who choose to move back to their families’ country of origin. Then confusion started to brew.
The prompt was broader than we realized. We sketched out a thinking map (see below), but found ourselves stuck when we came across the age-old question: How do we define “Asian American?”—a complex buzzword, packed with both belonging and misunderstanding. We knew as the cultures features team, we were tasked with unearthing how different experiences and social behaviors shaped who Asian Americans were at the core of their identity. We knew we had to narrow down the scope somehow in order to conduct in-depth reporting.
After chatting as a group, we began searching for broader themes that existed in each of the boxes: belonging, memory, identity and migration. The idea of movement interested us—what were the deeper motivations behind leaving, going or simply living in one place? As we delved into immigration and emigration patterns among Asians, we came across a NYT article reporting that Asians made up the largest percentage of the United State’s foreign-born population.
The article highlighted a turning point in the history of immigration to the United States. Historically, the majority of immigrants were from Latin America, “but a Brookings Institution analysis of that data shows that 41 percent of the people who said they arrived since 2010 came from Asia. Just 39 percent were from Latin America.”
The numbers from the Brookings study not only suggested that more Asian immigrants were leaving their motherlands, but that there was also a shift in where they are choosing to build their new lives.
The article reported that, “some of the largest gains were in states with the smallest immigrant populations, suggesting that immigrants were spreading out in the country. New York and California, states with large immigrant populations, both had increases of less than six percent since 2010. But foreign-born populations rose by 20 percent in Tennessee, 13 percent in Ohio, 12 percent in South Carolina and 20 percent in Kentucky over the same period.”
In other words, suburban Asian American enclaves in the South and Midwest were not just growing. They were rapidly flourishing -- to the extent that the Census Bureau’s figures flipped.
In pop culture, the Asian-American narrative has often been split into a binary that compares the East and West coasts. In 2015, the Fung Bros, a Chinese-American brother duo, posted a Youtube video humorously discussing comparisons between the two groups that attracted more than 1.2 million views. The four hosts in the video, all pale-skinned and East Asian, generalize East coast Asians using the term “YAPPIE” or young Asian professional, while associating West Coast Asians with “Azn Culture” —activities like breakdancing, raves, Instagram modeling and fitness culture.
Historically speaking, the coastal perceptions make sense. The earliest wave of Asian immigrants occurred by boat in the 1600s when Chinese and Filipinos reached Mexico on ships, according to a research project conducted by the Center for Educational Telecommunications. With no land to their name, these immigrants rebuilt their lives on the land their feet first touched.
And today, the most notable Asian Americans in mainstream media and the ones who subsequently get the most media coverage, still traditionally hail from the coasts—from comedian Hasan Minhaj who was born in Davis, California to 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang who was raised on the East Coast and stand-up comedian Ali Wong who grew up in San Francisco. The list goes on.
What we were interested in however, were the stories of Asian American enclaves that don't appear regularly in mainstream media. We wanted to explore the Asian American experience beyond San Francisco's Chinatown, New York's Flushing, Los Angeles' Koreatown and Nihonmachi. So, we broke down these communities into two main layers: 1) communities in the South and Midwest 2) and those that were “a minority within a minority.” In other words, we asked ourselves: which communities existing within the Asian-American community tend to be overshadowed by the East Asian hegemony?
The final product of our VOICES project will feature on-the-ground reporting about the Vietnamese diaspora in the North Texas region as well as stories about the Hmong community in Twin Cities, Minnesota. We were able to choose these two specific groups simply because physically, we have access to these communities. Grace has lived in Texas since she was in fourth grade, and will be in the Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) area this summer. Souichi will be interning at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis—the largest city in Minnesota. We wanted to conduct real-time reporting, where we could sit down face-to-face with our sources and hear their stories. Ultimately, we hope that through this project, we may also be able to help define the Asian American identity by telling the stories of overlooked narratives among Asian Americans.
Below are some primary questions that our final project seeks to answer:
What is the migration story of these unorthodox and burgeoning Asian immigrants who live in non-coastal areas?
How do their experiences of starting families or growing up in the South/Midwest differ from that of their coastal counterparts?
What kind of trends and patterns exist among their beliefs, values and sense of identity?
How do their narratives counter prevailing conceptions of the South and Midwest as less “cultured” or “accepting”?
Kaitlyn Cheung, Grace Moon & Souichi Terada are 2019 Voices Students. Kaitlyn Cheung is a China Studies graduate of The University of Hong Kong. Grace Moon is a court reporter at Documented, a nonprofit immigration news site, and serves as AAJA NY's Student Representative. Souichi Terada is a graduate of Michigan State University, and is a summer sports intern at the Minneapolis with the Star Tribune.