The Audacity to Be Asian in Rural America


Nancy XiáoRong Valentine. Photo Nedahness Greene

I was born in a small town. Like many folks who are raised in rural places, after I graduated from high school, I hightailed it out as fast as I could — only to find myself rebounding back when the angst of my youth had run its course through college.

“Family” and “Fergus Falls” are now synonymous to me, thanks to my mother.

In the early 1990s, my mother was living in Lanzhou, the capital and largest city of the Gansu province in northwest mainland China. During the previous decade, China had imposed and ruthlessly enforced their one- child policy — a form of population control. At that time, my mother had a son from her first marriage. After her arranged second marriage to my father, an “illegal” second child was conceived: me.

My father, an Air Force veteran, had relocated to China from Minnesota. After learning their child would not be allowed to make it to the third trimester, he returned to the one-bedroom cabin he owned on Wall Lake, just outside the city limits of Fergus Falls, and began to generate piles of paperwork. Proverbial mountains were moved, stars aligned, and, finally, my mother landed on U.S. soil with her firstborn child at her hip and me in utero. It was ten days before my Chinese government– appointed abortion date.

Three and a half years after I was born, my father lost his battle with alcoholism, which left my mother a widow in the western diaspora.

After being widowed, my mother rose to the challenge of raising two young children by leaning on the retired “church ladies,” who we came to know as Grandma Janet and Grandma Nancy. They taught my mother the language of the locals, and also the customs of American culture and the meaning of “chosen family.” These ladies were dedicated to their faith and lived out their values. They also helped my mother’s parents navigate the immigration system, supporting their efforts to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Growing up biracial meant I was afforded privileges that my family was not. My mother and older sibling endured actions of hatred from some of the locals. I saw what it was like to be senselessly hated for being Chinese, which included having the rear windshield smashed on our 1995 Ford Windstar during a family outing to the West Otter Tail County Fair.

Along the way, I developed an attitude that being Asian was something to be ashamed of.

Throughout adolescence, my desire to assimilate created a wedge between my mother and me. It wasn’t until I attended college at the University of Minnesota Duluth that I began to recognize the impact of the internalized racism I was carrying.

After graduation, I set out on a journey of racial reconciliation that included a month-long stint in China, where I spent time with my maternal aunt’s family in Lanzhou. During that visit, I learned to see with fresh eyes. Through cross-country travel, I absorbed the beauty of the landscape, both natural and industrial, and the cultural norms of people in a country that had more than four times the population of the U.S. I started to realize that behaviors I had once described as my mother’s quirks were actually a deeply ingrained way of life rooted in history. I began to realize that my mother was not “weird” — she was simply living an Eastern way of life in a Western community, despite the pressure to assimilate.

I began to develop a personal connection to my own Chinese culture and feel deep gratitude for the Chinese side of my biracial identity.

If Not Me, Then Who?

On March 16, 2021, a racially motivated mass shooting took place at a spa in Atlanta. Eight workers were murdered, six of whom were women of Asian descent. I was living in Fergus Falls again by then. When I turned to lament with my community, I was largely met with confusion and dismissal. There were a few folks who understood my pain and offered messages of comfort, but the truth is, most of my community hadn’t even heard of the massacre, and the few who had didn’t understand why I would be looking for empathetic allyship.

Most people I knew in my hometown could not grasp why I cared so much about six Asian women murdered in America.

Around that time, Springboard for the Arts put out an opportunity called “Artists Respond: Equitable Rural Futures.” I applied with the notion of “if not me, then who?” I was awarded $2,500 to create a series of artwork.

Using water sourced from the nearby Long Lake in Otter Tail County, I activated dry pigments for a series of 12 watercolor and ink scroll paintings on rice paper, using the animals of the Chinese zodiac to share the stories of my family’s experiences of immigrating. I titled the series “The Audacity to Be Asian in Rural America: we owe you no apologies.” I took the scrolls on tour across Minnesota.

The series was originally created as a response to the Atlanta shootings and was a call to action for folks in rural places to acknowledge the dignity of Asian peoples in the western diaspora. At every exhibition, I used artist talks as bridge-building through storytelling. I invited audience members to ask questions in order to prompt dialogue. Most of the questions were about my Chinese culture — questions I sensed they might not feel comfortable asking in other environments. I used my artistry as a form of advocacy.

After connecting with audiences of people who were more curious than critical, I started to understand my artistry as an agent of personal healing too. I create my paintings with traditional Chinese artist brushes, inks, and papers. When I use these materials, I feel connected to memories of watching my grandpa practice Chinese calligraphy. Nostalgia soothes.

When I paint large scale and without restriction, I feel connected to my maternal ancestors. As the ink dries, prayers are carried beyond the veil. Creation is a spiritual practice.

When I’m invited to share my work with audiences across Minnesota, I pay emotional reparations to my mother — the woman who endured the most damage from my adolescent rejection of Chinese identity. I help folks see the humanity of the Chinese American human in front of them. Being heard is healing.

Some scrolls from “The Audacity to Be Asian in Rural America: we owe you no apologies” exhibit at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, 2022

My artistry is more than painting. It’s a channel that deepens my cultural connections to and between my Chinese heritage and Midwestern roots.

Artistry alchemizes my trauma, and trespasses into conceptually complex visual stories woven with nuance and symbolism. My artistry has helped me dismantle internalized racism, healing what could have become a generational curse.

Today, I can say with conviction that I see my Chinese-ness as something to be proud of. I cherish my cultures, and I cherish the rural place that grants me the space among nature that I need to paint and process.

I live where I love, and I love where I live. I’ve made the decision to make slow-cycle change in my hometown, motivated by that same notion of “if not me, then who?”

As I learn, I share my understanding with others so they may learn too. I understand that racism isn’t dismantled in one day, but rather one day at a time. I’m here for the long run.

Nancy Valentine (she/her) was often referred to as “the creative kid” throughout her childhood in Fergus Falls. She was in her mid-twenties when she launched a creative career., @nancyxvalentine