VIEW: Asian Americans in Rural America

Hailing from a fusion of rural Minnesota, and Bangkok, Thailand, Benya is the co-founder of Lead For America, and has returned to Waseca to headquarter Lead for Minnesota. She works with over 20 rural and tribal communities statewide on community renewal efforts.

I often get asked, “What is it like being Asian American in rural America?” 

The question is asked with good intentions, though I often find that there is an expected answer they are looking for, followed by a pitied look, or a response commenting upon my “bravery.”

It is a hard question to answer because I feel trapped between answering as a human being who is deeply loved by and enjoys living in a rural community, and being a spokesperson for an Asian American identity that — as we have seen with the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta this week — has experienced a 130 percent increase in anti-AAPI violence in the past year alone.

In the seconds when I pause to answer the question, I think of my Thai mother who worked for 10 years in a massage center as a holistic healer, and who could have had the same fate as those women in Atlanta.

In a year where we have had politicians label a global pandemic the “Chinese virus” (which has killed, and has been spread by, people of all ethnicities), I think about how nervous my mom gets when going to the grocery store now because she notices the increased suspicion, and sometimes aggression, she receives.

To not speak to this heartache feels like an offense to myself, my mother, and to my Asian American community — especially during a time when awareness of this violence, and combating it, is literally a life and death situation. 

Yet, the question is not just, “What is it like being Asian American?” Rather, the more weighted emphasis seems to be on the latter: in rural America. 

When I think about my rural identity, I think also about my white neighbors who stay long after church to chat with my mother and me in the pews, business owners who offer up their commercial kitchen for a Thai pop-up night to introduce our cuisine to the community, family who flew to Thailand to help my mother with her newborn child, and friends who try cilantro for the first time because of us. 

As I think about how my Asian American and rural identities fit together, I turn to the film Minari

Nominated for six Oscars, it is also one of the most resonating representations of these two identities held together for me. The film follows a Korean family who moves to rural Arkansas as chicken sexers and with a father’s dream to farm. There is a scene where the family, looking for a social community, attend church where they are the only non-white family in the pews. At the snack reception following service, the camera pans to two white adult women talking with the Korean mother, Claudia, excitedly telling her that they would teach her English.

As the mother walks away, the women giggle together and comment on how “cute” she is. You don’t see these women and Claudia together again for the rest of the movie. Immediately after, the camera focuses on the Korean son. A white boy around his age comes over after staring at him during the entire service. “Why is your face so flat?” he asks. “It is not,” the son replies. The boy shrugs, and invites him to a sleepover. We see them again later in the film, as friends, impersonating cowboys, and playing Korean card games together.

I love that church scene because it reminds me of exact scenes from my early childhood: a curiosity for why I smelled like fish sometimes, and then a playdate to make sushi out of Thai sticky rice and fish sauce omelettes.

How sad it is to realize the rarity of this kind of honest, fully human, and fully reciprocal relationship as adults. It seems that as we mature, we grow to lose our sense of curiosity for people different from ourselves. We learn to downplay difference out of politeness, but then subconsciously attach a values-judgment, or inferiority, to the things and people that are dissimilar to us.

The two women at church in Minari had no intention of teaching English (or learning Korean in exchange), but they were quick to reduce Claudia to a pejorative, perpetual foreigner “cuteness” that offers no sense of curiosity for the fullness of her humanity, or what they could learn from her — or most meaningfully and transformatively, a friendship.

Without a curiosity to really know one another, we risk perpetuating stereotypes. When we prefer to restrict our relationships to those who look and live like us, it is easy to forego a sense of personal responsibility for the wellbeing of those with whom we have no substantial social connection.

For example, you may know of your Asian neighbors, but how truly deep is your desire to know about our personal gifts, our cultures and histories, our immigration stories, and how hard our grandmothers worked to make a life for us?

At its worst, this lack of meaningful proximity and shared friendship is replaced with blame, hateful assumptions, and threatened entitlement — some of the forces driving the most recent (though not new) waves of anti-Asian violence happening across our country. 

The violence in Atlanta is heartbreaking because of the lives it took and the fear it has stoked. When we do not know our neighbors, it is safer — and necessary — to put our guard up, using past personal experience, what we see on the news, and the fickleness of U.S. immigration and foreign policy to inform what, and who, is safe.

My mom has been calling me almost every half hour to make sure my doors are locked. Our moms are doing this all over the country — urban and rural alike. 

But to return to the question: What’s it like to be Asian American in rural America

I am, indeed, a racial minority in my rural community. There is no pho place a block away, or Thai loy krathong festival on our lake every year. But the thing is: there is an opportunity for real proximity, to have your landlord be your bartender, your police officer do downward dog at yoga with you.

If we choose to drown out the fearful media and politics, we can deploy a childhood curiosity that turns our rural proximity into transformative relationships: the kind that sees and values difference, with an affection so profound that we cannot realize our own humanity without fighting for yours as well. 

This week, let us check in on our Asian neighbors and find ways to learn, listen, and support. But next week, and beyond, let us do the work of restoring our childhood curiosity, getting proximate to our Asian neighbors in ways that transcend “cuteness” and into the kind of playdates that wrap your humanity with mine. 

Related Reading: Racism and Anti-Asian American Violence (The Conversation)