Transcript: What’s the Asian American experience like in Vermont?
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Myra Flynn: A heads up: There’s gonna be some swearing in this episode.
Myra Flynn: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State, I’m Myra Flynn. And I’m speaking with our question-asker, Anna Costello. She’s from out of state but wants to know more about ours. That happens sometimes.
Anna Costello: I’m from California. And got married last year and road tripped this way…
Myra: Anna is from California, lives in Massachusetts now, and has visited Vermont exactly once … for a long weekend. And, driving around, she noticed something.
Anna: Going through the state, I definitely saw vast majority of white folks. Maybe 99%. So it was really fascinating that in almost every little town we seemed to go through as we were traveling around Vermont, there was a Chinese restaurant. And I didn't really see Asian folks, either, as I was traveling along, just the folks that I met day to day. And yet there were a whole lot of Chinese restaurants! My name is Anna Christina Costello Duran. I live in Chelsea, Massachusetts. And I was wondering, what's the history of Chinese restaurants in Vermont? What are some other common Asian American phenomena? How do Asian Americans experience Vermont?
Myra (in interview): Sometimes some people will sneak three questions into one question. And you, Anna, you are those people!
Anna (laughing): I’m sorry! I know, I like kept running out of character space and then, like, re-editing my questions.
Myra (in interview): No, it's okay. We're here for it. We're here for it … Do you identify as Asian American?
Anna: I don’t. I identify as white.
Myra: Anna is a white person, wondering about a specific ethnic group she doesn’t belong to, in a state she’s spent very little time in. She’s a drive-by question asker. So, I really wanna know why Anna wants to know. Like — what is her gaze, you know? It turns out that, back in California, Anna lived in places that were predominantly Asian. So, when she’s asking about the Asian American experience in Vermont, she’s actually asking about a cultural demographic she’s used to being around.
Anna: Yeah, I'm familiar, like, with Asian American friends who have been in California for, like, you know, generations and generations. And others who are first-generation. And that's just such a different experience. And so, so yeah, going through Vermont … yeah it made me kind of curious…
Myra: Anna and I talked about her three questions for a while. And it occurred to me that they aren’t three questions. They’re actually three stepping stones that got her to her real question. She begins with food and then lands here: at people. Because sometimes we take food and the cultures behind it for granted. So at about a half hour into our conversation, I tell her it’s time to decide. What are you really asking?
Myra (in interview): Which one would you choose if you had to?
Anna: Hmmmm … I think I might actually lean toward the last question.
Myra: Welcome to Brave Little State. Here on the show we answer a question — or three — about Vermont that’s been asked and voted on by you, our audience, because we know our journalism is better when you’re a part of it. Today: What’s the Asian and Asian American experience like here in Vermont? In searching for an answer to this question, we’re lucky. Because we get to be a fly on the wall, privy to conversations in the Vermont Asian American community. And this community is here. You just have to know where to look, who to talk to, and yeah — where to eat. We have support from Vermont Public’s sustaining members. Welcome.
Myra Flynn: When word got out that Anna’s question won our voting round, folks who identify as Asian American reached out instantly with recipes, traditions and personal stories. They also told me about a couple affinity groups I should look into.
(montage of voices from a Zoom call)
Speaker: I’m always talking about food and I’m always willing to talk about food. I could talk spend hours talking about food…
Speaker: I know in Vietnamese it’s like, “Have you eaten rice today yet?”
Speaker: Chinese says the same thing. “Sihk jó faahn meih a?” It means, like, “You eat rice yet?”
Myra: In October, I join a Zoom gathering with some folks who belong to two groups: the Asian Cultural Group of Vermont and the “Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans in solidarity with Black peoples” — AKA “APIDA for Black Lives.”
Speaker: Rice is, like, a summation of meals.
Speaker: I, I find myself talk to my dad too. Like, “Sihk jó faahn meih a?” … I think we treat food as a very functional.
Speaker: I have to cook a fish on New Year’s Eve…
Speaker: Not just fish. You have to have the head and tails.
Speaker: Oh yeah. Oh yeah yeah. The animals can’t be in missing parts. You have to have the whole animal.
Myra: The folks on this Zoom are key players in the Asian American community, and our Vermont community in general. As a newcomer, I feel very welcomed here. Turns out, that’s by design.
Chi Wong: You don't have to be Asian to join it. We just welcome all people in.
Myra: This is Chi wong. She’s ethnically Chinese, born in California and she now lives in Burlington.
Chi: And so when I moved here, I was basically on all the other food forums and parenting forums asking about Asian culture, Asian food, where to find this, where to find that…
Myra: Chi Wong is also a co-founder of the Asian Cultural Group of Vermont. Also here today are Mieko Ozeki, Haquyen Pham and Linda Lai Nga Li. When it comes to Asian heritage, the group is diverse: Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese American. I learn they mostly get together to obsess about food.
(montage of voices from Zoom call)
Speaker: I’m always talking about food and I’m always willing to talk about food. I could spend hours talking about food.
Chi: Sorry, there's no good XLBs here. XLB is xiaolongbao. So that's just soup-filled dumpling. So I’m like, “Uhhhh.”
Speaker: You know, I think that, like, recognizing that that, like, in Chinese cuisine, like, there was a certain taste that was developed during the Gold Rush. And because of that, Chinese were, like, learned how to do Chinese American to the taste of Americans.
Chi: Unfortunately, there’s no secret restaurants. It's really whatever is cooking in your kitchen…
Speaker: You know, I have some co-workers. I'm in Middlebury, I work for the college — very educated, worldly people — but, you know, some of them have never had bubble tea. Some of them have never had Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. And it's like, you've been missing out on some amazing stuff!
Speaker: Everybody should know what hot pot is. I am so excited for hot pot. It's going to be perfect season for that…
Speaker: One of my friend came here, had a baby. You know, postpartum care is very important in Asian woman culture. We have special soup. So her mother pick up the phone. Somehow she pick up a phone book and is able to find a Chinese restaurant and start talking Chinese to the owner. And start saying, “Oh, my daughter is, you know, I just gave birth. Can you do this and this? Can you help her?” You know, no question asked. They did it! They did a special herbal soup every night for, like, I don't know, 30 days.
Myra: I’ve heard a rumor about Chinese restaurants.
Myra (in Zoom): In the back of every Chinese restaurant, there's a secret menu, you just have to ask for it. Is this true?
Haquyen Pham: Yeah! Pretty much.
Speaker: Same thing in New York. You go to New York, you go to, like, yeah, you go to every other city we… there's a different menu, there's a different menu available if you say the right words.
Myra (in Zoom): How do I — what are the right words? What are the right words? I want to know!
Linda Lai Nga Li: Walk in speaking Mandarin or Chinese you got it (laughing)
Speaker: My husband and I both really love regional Chinese food. My husband’s Quebecois and Black American, but we've managed to work it out with our local place in Middlebury sometimes. We, like, come when they're not busy during rush hour. And we say, like, “Oh, is there anything, like, you're cooking for your family today? Or anything that you can do in a more, like, regional style with whatever's available in terms of ingredients?” And they're like, “Oh okay, well, like, I've been doing some of this.” Or, “We just got some pea shoots as a delivery. Do you want some of that?” And we're like, “Yes!” So it's not, like, a set menu. It's just, like, whatever's going on that they're doing for their family, as opposed to, you know, your standardized American Chinese food.
Myra: But this group, as fun as it is, wasn’t only born out of food and friendship. You may remember in 2021, at the height of COVID, there was a deadly shooting in Atlanta-area spas when a white man killed eight people. Six of them were of Asian descent. This is Mieko.
Mieko: There's a lot of us who are not … who were expressing nervousness, especially during COVID. A lot of us feeling nervous about being attacked because we were seeing it in other cities. But I think people kind of felt, like, well, Vermont is very understanding and there it wouldn't happen. But, like, I didn't want to take the chance.
Haquyen: One of the things, I kind of, I still felt nervous when people, you know, people looked over you at your, over a mask, and expressing anger or frustration or whatever. One of the first things that my mother said to me that her nervousness was because of my parents’ experience, my great-grandparents experience of being in the internment camps is, like, we were scared of being locked up. And, like, given the administration, like, during the time of the administration that we're under, just it's too easy to spot us too, as well. And I think it's just, I think that that was running through a lot of, like, some I don't know, in my head, because I could feel that in my bones and history.
Haquyen: I think by having this group, we were able to express our concerns and what was going on for us. In a lot of ways, like, food was our comfort but I also certainly think it was a good way for us to express, like, what are our challenges, what are our concerns. Especially for our children too.
Myra: Most people I speak with know most people I should speak with. This is a very connected community. And pretty much everyone mentions this one person. They tell me, “You need to talk to Weiwei.”
Myra (in interview): How did this begin?
Weiwei Wang: Do you want the long version?
Myra: Weiwei Wang grew up in South Burlington, and does identify as Asian American. More specifically — she’s chinese. She went to part of middle school and high school here, and says that experience was a lonely one.
Weiwei: I never saw myself represented. In the school, on the street, there were maybe a handful of Asian kids who went to my school. And I felt very disconnected from this place. And I never really knew why I didn't fit in.
Myra: Weiwei eventually left for college and after some years of back and forth between the states and China, she came back to Vermont for grad school. And found herself again yearning for a connection to the Asian community.
Weiwei: And I remember having a conversation with a friend and being, like, “Listen, there are no Asians here, like, I need to move to California.” And she said, “There are Asians everywhere, you just need to look harder.”
Myra: Weiwei said challenge accepted.
Weiwei: I basically stopped every single Asian person that I met, like, on the street, and was, like, I'm going to be your friend. And I did that for about nine months to a year. And over that time, my entire life changed.
Myra: By 2019, Weiwei co-founded the Vermont Professionals of Color Network. VTPOC held their first event at the Vermont Comedy club and Weiwei says — it was a hit.
Weiwei: A hundred people of color showed up to that event alone, just you know, from the Burlington area from Chittenden County. Some people came from a little bit further. And every, like, time I turned the corner, someone was saying, “You've been here for how long? I can't believe you've been here for that long. I've been here for this long and, like, we've never met.” So it was this instant joy and, like, sense of community.
Myra: Weiwei stayed in Vermont. It’s just her and her father now, and food is one of the things they share to stay close to their culture and traditions. By the way, that secret menu we talked about earlier? Weiwei is the one who told me about it.
Weiwei: You know, there's, like, this secret menu when you're an Asian person. (laughs) That, you know, other people don't get. And so that has benefited us, or me, at least as I was growing up here in Vermont. It's a different relationship between, like, my father going into a restaurant and talking with the owners, and saying, “Hey, we're connected.” And, you know, he gets to know them. And then suddenly, they're bringing out dishes that they would never make for the normal customer.
Myra: And as far as Weiwei's Asian American experience goes, it sounds like she’s worked to make sure it’s a good one. She’s embraced parts of her culture that serve her well — a la secret menu — and worked to shed those that are no longer useful.
Weiwei: At least for me, I'm an immigrant from China. And we're told “Keep your head down. Don't make noise. Don't raise your voice. Just get shit done. Just get it done.”
Weiwei: I did keep my head down. And I just wanted to get through it, whatever it was. And once I started lifting my head up, and I started connecting with people … When I started doing that, I was surprised at how people reacted to it, that they wanted to have that connection. There is a community, but we're not really visible. But actually, as of the last census, the highest growing populations in the state of Vermont is the Black community and the Asian American community.
Myra: Weiwei gifted me some Vermont sentiments in Mandarin.
Weiwei: Wo xiang zai Vermont daizhe yingwei wo de jiaren zai, yingwei wo de pengyou ye zai, yingwei wo juede … zhege difang buzhi shi mei, zhe difang yeshi ... (In English: "I want to stay in Vermont because my family is here, because my friends are also here, because I feel that this place is not just beautiful, this place is also...") … I don't know how to say this in Chinese: Vermont is a big part of me.
Myra (in interview): Could you pronounce it one more time for me? I'm gonna try next.
Paul Suk-Hyun Yoon: Of course. So, as you said, My first name is Paul. My middle name is my Korean given name, which is pronounced “Suk-Hyun” and my last name is my family name: Yoon.
Myra: “Hyun,” almost, like, with an “H” in front of it a little bit? Suk-Hyun Yoon. Paul Suk-Hyun Yoon. I'll get there by the time this comes out (laughs)...
Myra: Paul Suk-Hyun Yoon is simply Paul Yoon in email. But if you dig a little deeper, like, say, on the UVM website, where he works, you notice this longer middle name with a hyphen: Suk-Hyun.
Paul: So, in Korean culture, names are given to a child by somebody typically outside of the family. Here in American culture you might call them shamans, or I guess, you know, astrologers I guess in some way — you know, there isn't the cleanest of translations (laughs). And I think that, at least according to my mother, there's something along the lines of quote-unquote, Prince that's in it."
Myra (to Paul): So, basically, I'm speaking with a prince … is what you're trying to say? (laughing)
Paul (laughing): Something like that, yeah, yeah.
Myra: To put it mildly, Anna’s question is Paul’s jam. He could talk about it forever.
Paul: My primary job is that of a Senior Advisor for Inclusive Excellence at the University of Vermont, specifically within the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Myra: But getting to the heart of Paul’s own Asian American experience is a little harder. Personal stories can be a tough get with DEI experts, who typically work to create safe spaces for others to share their stories. But Paul eventually opens up. He tells me he and his wife moved to Burlington in 2013 … He had a cool job, and it was close to Boston — where they’d lived before. And it was also pretty idyllic.
Paul: It was, like, a very, for me, kind of, like, dreamlike, TV-like experience.
Myra: Paul’s parents are first generation Korean-American. His wife is white and her parents are from here. So if you follow the thread from work to family, Vermont made sense. And it suits him. If Paul is moving mountains by way of his work life, he is certainly chillin’, Vermont style — in his personal. He reminds me that “Asian American” doesn’t always look like an exact mix of “Asia” and “America.” It’s its own thing, with a lot of ups and downs.
Paul: My son has had both positive and negative experiences. For example, one time in preschool, he brought seaweed — Kiun — which is the Korean word for seaweed to school. And some people were like, “What is that?!” You know, and he's like, “It's Kiun, it’s seaweed. It's, like, normal, whatever.” And actually, some of his classmates who are white, were like, “Yeah, man. Like, we get this stuff from Costco. Like, it's awesome.” And they just started, like, eating it, like, you know, a potato chip. And so he's had, like, those types of experiences, like, unexpected in some ways, and other experiences where you know, definitely people, I think have kind of told some very not so, right, positive things, whether it's about, like, food jokes, he's definitely had people do the squinty eye thing at him.
Myra: Food, as I’m learning, is both a point of pride and pain, in most stories of the Asian American experience. As easily as food can be a gateway to cultural appreciation, it’s also a gateway to taunting.
Paul: Wouldn't it be great if, you know, those types of things didn't happen? Absolutely. It's why I consider this kind of line of work my life's work, so that hopefully, the sting of those experiences are not as acute or felt as acutely for both of our children and our family. And that, you know, other families and other future generations, right, don't experience life quite that way either. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to get to the quote-unquote promised land.
Myra: And food, in some Asian American homes, is a gateway to self-preservation and the preservation of tradition.
Paul: You know how, like, some people really want their quote-unquote comfort foods when they're sick. That's all I crave is, typically, Korean food. But, like, now it's Vietnamese Pho because we have such an abundance of fantastic Vietnamese restaurants here in the greater Burlington area. And, you know, yeah, I really wish I could go and just get … my favorite food is this dish called Sundubu-jjigae 순두부찌개, which is a soft tofu stew and, like, just a bowl of rice would be all I need to get better.
Paul: The good news is that there are actually quite a few at least here in Chittenden County, I would say really good Asian markets. And particularly in the Burlington area, lots of other types of markets from African markets to halal meat markets to other types of things that I know have been really, really important. You know, one person said, like, “life-giving places” where they can go and get the foods that make them feel part of home here in Vermont.
Myra: When we come back, a tour in one of South Burlington’s Asian markets, my epic fail at making dim sum, and a teacher with a capital T.
Myra Flynn: Welcome back to Brave Little State. I’m Myra Flynn. Today, I’m talking with some generous members of the Asian American community in Vermont who are willing to share their life stories with me because of a curiosity we received from a Californian-turned-Bay Stater, Anna Costello. She wants to know more about the Asian American experience in Vermont.
(sounds of getting out of the car)
Myra (in scene) Hello!
Hiroka Nakahira: What! You bring the whole thing?
Myra: Yeah! This is, this is my microphone.
Hiroka (into microphone): Hello. Hello. Good morning. Good morning! So fancy! I like it!
Myra: Hiroka Nakahira is hard to describe. And I think she likes it that way. I know her. We used to sling rags together at Old Gold, a vintage clothing store in Burlington. If I were to try to describe her, I guess I’d say she’s like a walking piece of art. She grew up in Harajuku, Japan, a place that is often described as the street-fashion capital of the world. And even today, she shows up dressed in an oversized campaign hat, an 80’s jumpsuit and two giant gold earrings she’s hand-sewn.
(Myra and Hiroka enter a store)
Myra (in the store): Will you tell me some of the stuff you buy here?
Hiroka: I was just here yesterday…
Myra: Hiroka is showing me around an Asian market called “Always Full” in South Burlington. And when we are there, it is, in fact, full. The shelves are stocked, the freezers are packed and I can barely see the cashier who is almost hidden behind boxes of fresh taro and red bean buns.
Myra (in store): What's that?
Hiroka: This is bok choy, like the kimchi guy.
Myra: Do you make kimchi?
Hiroka: I don't make kimchi because I'm not Korean.
Myra: I know but … what do you do with this then?
Hiroka: This, I just eat them…
Myra: Hiroka is Japanese. But this market is serving Asia writ large, though they are billed as an “international market.” There’s Indian food, frozen bao, stuff to make dumplings, and produce that looks similar to your local co-op but isn’t quite the same
Hirok (in store): Cauliflower is creepy. I never buy it. And like big.
Myra: The cauliflower is creepy? What's creepy about it?
Hiroka: I don’t know. It's not, like, dense. It's, like, too loose. (laughter) Do you buy cauliflower?
Myra: You know, I’m more of a broccoli person.
Hiroka: Do you go grocery shopping?
Myra: Well, yes. (laughter)
Hiroka: Then you will hear it. It's, like, so loose. I think cauliflower has to be tight.
Myra: Hiroka walks me through a few tight aisles with loose vegetables — some of her staples — and shares with me some of her hacks when it comes to things that are hard to find. Like eel.
Hiroka (in store): And these are eel, which I don't … I love eel but I don't buy eel from Asian market. I buy from Maine.
Myra: You buy it from where?
Myra: In Maine?!
Hiroka: There’s a company called American Eel. And then they just deliver it. They send it, like, in 48 hours, like, frozen.
Myra: Wow …
Hiroka: Like the whole eel.
Myra: Mind blown.
Myra: We stop in an aisle with packaged ramen.
Hiroka (in store): I think these are better than many of them in ramen store in Burlington.
Hiroka: Because they suck. (laughing) Because I think they don't have enough competitor so they can do whatever they want.
Myra: The ramen restaurants, you mean?
Hiroka: Yeah, they don't have to improve it … because there’s nobody to fight.
Myra: Well, I feel like good ramen is all about the broth.
Hiroka: Yeah, but I heard that if there is, if the restaurant has more than, like, three flavor then they are not making soup. Because it's like so much dedication there's no way that, like, one restaurant can make more than three.
Myra: We walk past pigs feet, buckets of octopus, chips flavored like crab and shrimp and many containers with pork blood. But in this store, one brand stands out to me for sure.
Myra (in store): That says Vermont curry.
Hiroka: Yeah! These are the number one brand since like 60s or 70s.
Hiroka: We have no idea.
Myra: Is that in Japan?
Hiroka: They, if you, if you ask for Vermont in Japan, like 98% of people will say, “Oh, Vermont curry!” Because I grew up watching commercials.
Myra: Did it have, like, the state of Vermont from the U.S. in the commercials? Or where are they getting Vermont?
Hiroka: I have no way, I still haven't figured it out. I was gonna call them, but then I was like, no I think I'm gonna try to figure it out … Apple?
Myra: Apple honey. Apple honey curry…
Myra: Our next stop is the Asiana Noodle Shop. We sit down for some lunch.
Hiroka (in restaurant): What did you … What are you gonna get? I'm gonna get … wait, what's the curry today?
Server: Today's the yellow curry.
Hiroka: Oooo, is it spicy?
Server: Yeah a little bit. Not too much.
Hiroka: I want spicy…
Myra (in restaurant): What's your take on Japanese food in Vermont?
Hiroka: Well, I only know in Burlington. So I can't really, I don't really know in any other … Brattleboro might have something good. But Burlington, it's not very good. But I wouldn't expect that.
Myra: Why not?
Myra: Why wouldn't you expect it?
Hiroka: ‘Cuz this is, like, a population of, like, what, 500 people town?
Myra: I think you might be a little off on those numbers! (big laugh)
Myra: After we order, I’m able to finally lay Anna’s questions on Hiroka. And she has some questions of her own.
Hiroka (in restaurant): Am I Asian American though?
Myra: Well that’s the thing, I don’t know, right? Like, I don’t know? Does everybody identify like that?
Hiroka: Yeah, because I wasn't born here. I'm not like a refugee or anything in, like, hard situation.
Myra: Like immigrant?
Hiroka: Yeah, I didn't have to, like, give up my own country or anything, you know what I mean? It's just kind of, like, oh, I'll go to school in American. And it’s just kind of like a … I just feel like I’m not serious.
Myra: You have like an American imposter syndrome?
Hiroka: Well, on paper I'm not American. So that's that.
Myra: Hiroka is married to an American, which means she’s classified as an “immediate relative” and has a green card. And a Japanese passport.
Myra (in restaurant): When did you come to Vermont?
Hiroka: Like first time? ‘96.
Hiroka: Because I went to this stupid school.
Myra: Hiroka is talking about Goddard College in Plainfield.
Myra (in restaurant): What made it stupid?
Hiroka: Well, because they they accept me but they didn't have anything! They didn't have any English class... They knew how bad my English skill was because I had test score, I submitted test score! So they didn't have any support…
Myra: This test Hiroka is talking about is a thing. It’s called an English Language proficiency test. It’s meant to determine if international students will be able to participate in American college effectively. Hiroka says she had a pretty low test score, but they accepted her anyway.
Hiroka (in restaurant): First semester, I only lasted ‘til October. So I had to go home.
Myra: When Hiroka left school in 1996, she went back to Japan but didn’t stay away too long. She returned to Goddard in 1997 and graduated in 2002. During that time, she met her now husband, Chris. They live in Burlington.
Myra (in restaurant): Being married to a white man, do you feel, like, a battle of trying to hold on to any of your traditions or sense of self?
Hiroka: No. Because Chris is, like, white man, but it's not … Like not, like, patriotic man or those, like, macho truck driver or, like, Wall Street guy or anything like that. So… he speaks Japanese, we speak Japanese in the house, kind of. So it’s not hard at all.
Myra: That’s awesome. So he learned Japanese for you?
Myra: Hiroka and Chris visit Japan twice a year to see her family. And, as for Vermont and our, quote, “500 people,” she’s into it.
Myra (in restaurant): What do you think about Vermont food? What do you think about…
Hiroka: Vermont food?! … Ah I don't know. Like, a burger? I think I have no idea. Like burgers with, like, some maple syrup. Oh chicken, waffle, maple syrup stuff.
Myra: That is so southern!
Hiroka: Oh it is? (laughter)
Myra: That is really Black actually.
Hiroka: Oh it is! Oh burger… I don’t know.
Myra: Burgers though totally…
Myra (in interview): You said earlier that you kind of had a romantic notion about Vermont. Has Vermont lived up to the romance?
Cynthia Reyes: (laughter) Well, romantic … yes. The Green Mountains, woods, love being outdoors, incredibly beautiful. Yeah, especially during the fall. I probably did romanticize it a little bit (laughs).
Myra: Cynthia Reyes is an Associate Professor in Education at the University of Vermont, and recently became the Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs. She moved here 20 years ago from Chicago.
Cynthia: I would identify myself as a second generation Filipino American. At the time, it's interesting … I didn't really understand what was meant by “predominantly white institution.” I mean, I understood, but I didn't realize that the state — around 600,000 — was predominantly white. And, so when they offered me the job, I just got along with everyone, I just thought this would be a great opportunity to grow. And so I took the job.
Myra: Cynthia is a teacher, with a capital T. And more than anything, she values language. She has a Ph.D. in Reading, Writing, and Literacy, an M.Ed. in Educational Studies/Instructional Leadership and a B.A. in Spanish and Communications. In short — words matter.
Myra (in interview): I have a Filipino friend who always identifies as Filipina. What's correct?
Cynthia: Ah, OK. Well, I have identified you know, self-identified as Filipina American. I usually use Filipinx. But that's sometimes that sounds really strange when I use that with my parents. They're like, “What is that?” And so I try to explain you know gender, why it's so important to use, what what the x represents, especially in a place where we need to be really mindful of non-binary gender and not think mostly in terms of male or female. So I go by Filipinx. I think if you spoke to different Asians and Asian Americans, depending on the generation, you probably would get really different answers. Because you know, the Asian American diaspora is huge.
Myra: The Asian American diaspora is huge and I’m glad Cynthia said it. I’m finding that it is also huge in Vermont. Huge and connected, and busy and strong, but it is quiet. There are no pats on the back for this community. If it uses a hammer to crack open friendship, policy, social justice and yes — create a booming food scene in their spare time — that hammer … is velvet. Soft, and felt, and persistent. And that work still, is not devoid of pain.
Cynthia: You know, I understood, because I saw my parents going through that — what it meant to be an immigrant in the U.S. to what it means to be a child of immigrant parents. What it means to assimilate to a culture where you need to learn English as a second language. And I also experienced a lot of things where I saw people treating my parents in horrible ways, saying horrible things to them. And I grew up experiencing some of that same language and some of the ways in which I felt like I didn't belong when people looked at me different, or people expected me to not speak English because of the way that I looked.
Myra (in interview): Have you experienced that in Vermont?
Cynthia: Well, I, it's interesting, because I work in a university. And so I feel, because I am an academic, I feel like I live in this really safe, well quote-unquote safe, small world. But I have experienced that actually, in the university. I mean, I remember the first two years that I worked there. I remember someone who no longer works there, who was helping me with my computer — someone who was I.T. — and so they were reading something that I wrote, and they said, “I just thought I would correct you on your grammar, you know, just in case English is not your first language.” I don’t, I don’t remember how else we talked about it … I was shocked.
Cynthia: I was just shocked that anyone would even comment on something that I had written, that a stranger would comment on something I had written, that wasn't even for his eyes…
Cynthia: I said something to him. I said “Why would you say that? Why would you assume that?” And I think we did take some action on it. And I didn't really want to meet with this person. But eventually I did and he was very apologetic, but I'm not really even sure that he thought that what he said was wrong. Even though it still lives with me today.
Myra: So what do you do with that stuff? Racism that is. Where do you put it? Or as I sometimes ask myself, where is the lesson? But Cynthia knows, even in moments this ugly, sometimes there isn’t a lesson to learn. Sometimes, those moments make you make the lesson. Sometimes racism can give you a reason to teach.
Cynthia: Those are some of the things that you hear, and then you try to figure out what do you do beyond that? How do you, how do you go back to teaching and how do you, how do you talk about it in a way where you can heal, but also the people that you're teaching can learn? I mean, I had a teacher who once said “To teach is to choose to be in a challenging world constantly.” So I do choose to teach. I choose to do that.
(sounds of a restaurant)
Myra (in restaurant): Is this the flower tea?
Myra: What’s in it?
Speaker: Eh, I don’t know its name. (laughter)
(sounds of a restaurant)
Myra: Sam Lai doesn’t really care about my microphone or my need to physically record him in order to capture his story. He just wants me to eat his food.
Sam Lai: You don't want the food to be cold. They taste good when they're hot. I’ll be back with a couple more bao, those bao that we just made…
Myra: We meet in the kitchen of his restaurant, Cafe Dim Sum, in Burlington, two days before its second opening. Sam opened it once before in October 2021, but he says the then 20-seat eatery went from busy, to overwhelmed, to out of control. So, he shut it down, knocked out the wall next door and expanded. Cafe Dim Sum now seats 58 people and has an additional 54 hot pots where guests can cook their own shabu shabu at their table. Sam is trying to teach me how to make dough for shrimp dumplings. I’m failing.
Sam (in the kitchen): You can’t roll the dough like that because they're really sticky. They're very fragile. So, if you don't know what you're doing, you basically just every time you wrap it, you throw it out because they will break…
Myra: We have to move pretty quickly while making these. Because, as we’re making them, they're rising. So Sam is teaching me how to do this, while letting me interview him, while making about 50 before my eyes.
Sam (in kitchen): I know the problem for me is that I can't get chef. I will still only be the only chef. But I can get, like, helps to help me wrap a little bit of dumping. But I still gotta be the main guy here. So…
Myra: So you live here now?
Sam: Well, I live here. Yeah. I live in the store now. I have to spend about 100 hours a week, even though we close two days a week, but I'm still doing 100 hours a week here. I'm gonna make you a couple more things to eat. We're gonna get going and sit down. OK? I don’t want your food to get cold.
Myra: Sounds good. Alright, I'll pick this back up in the dining room.
Sam: OK, yeah.
Myra: In Sam’s house, it’s Sam’s rules. Before this visit, I spoke with Sam on the phone to ask him how he describes his restaurant. He said it’s “authentic Chinese food,” unlike the usual pan-American Chinese food that we are more used to around the state. He says he opened an authentic Chinese restaurant here because there are finally enough Asian people around to appreciate the difference. And about that secret menu, I had to ask…
Myra (in restaurant): Is that true? Can you confirm?
Sam: So, menu is only for business. Cooking, there’s no need menu. If you’re an actual chef, just one same piece of meat, I can make 30 dish out of it, based on my experience. So, yes, if the restaurant is not busy, if the chef or owner is very friendly and has the same habit as me where they like to see people smiling and happy when they eat, I will be more than happy to make something that's off the menu for you to try. Yes, there's such thing.
Myra: Sam, for what it’s worth, is a tough guy. Not just in physicality, or the way he pounds dough, or the way he forces me to eat instead of interview. He seems to eat each of my questions skeptically, and with a welcomed challenge. He’s kind of brilliantly intimidating.
Myra (in restaurant): I'm curious, like COVID was COVID. COVID was already hard on restaurants, right? Obliterated the industry. But COVID was also really hard on Chinese people, in particular. And there was a lot of, like, anti-Asian….
Sam: Crazy. Crazy.
Myra: There was racism … did you experience it?
Sam: I didn’t. Um I've been around, I’ve been around in Vermont for quite a while. I know quite a few people around too, and I'm not one of those, like, guys who will take shit from people, sorry. (laughter)
Myra: But if you get out of Sam’s way, he gets out of his. You can’t really just ask him to open up about his experiences. Like his food, it takes time. He’s in there.
Sam (in restaurant): I don't look for troubles. But if trouble comes, I will accept any trouble. Just don't come to me. You know, I don't take advantage of anybody. I don't … make fun of anybody. Nobody should do it to me either. But when I was younger, when I went to elementary school in New Jersey, yes. Even the teacher was racist, making fun of me with, you know, doing the signs of “twinkie” eyes, making all that funny Chinese talking, which is, he doesn't know what he's talking about. And that's my teacher! This is American school, English school. And I can't understand one word you said. What am I going to learn? So I dropped out of school when I was, like, 14. I know you can't drop out of school when you're 14, but I did. I can't stand it. I just told my, my principal I'm moving out of the country and going back to my country to go finish out my school. Not just the teacher, but my classmates also racist. I got beat up all the time. I was the only Asian kid in the school. If you ask my personal experience, yes there’s quite a few racist people around in this country. Because I run into quite a bit. But I don’t make it as a statement. You know, it is what it is. I am an outsider. I'm a foreigner. If people think that way, then I'm always that way. There's nothing I can do about it. It's only them that’s struggling, not me. If I walk away, I live my happy life. I do my food. I do my business. That's my thing. If I think about that all the time, then I'm just going to wind up fighting this kind of issue all the time. It's pointless. I want a happy wife, happy life, happy everything, you know.
Myra: Happy customers.
Sam: Happy customers! I’m happy, very happy.
Myra: Me too…
Myra: In all of my interviews for this episode, I outed my confusion as to why no one questioned the gaze of Anna’s questions the way I did when I first heard them — why everyone who responded to her winning question met me and my emails, or my intrusive microphone, with an eagerness to share and a willingness to tell me about the guts and gore and glory in their lives. Why they let me be privy to their communal space. Why no one seemed fetishized. I think if I’m honest, I’ve been asking, “Why aren’t you having the Black response to these questions? And, please, share with me how you do that.” Because I think I am — jealous. HaQuyen Pham, who we heard from earlier, told me off the mic that so often the conversations about race live within the binary of Black and white. So, if you’re not either, you’re left out entirely. She says she doesn’t mind sharing because, quote, “Nobody ever asks about us.”
An earlier version of this story also omitted the last name of Linda Lai Nga Li.