Food Is A Language of Belonging For These Asian-American Southern Women

When I was born in Can Tho, Vietnam, my parents had no idea that any of us would turn out Southern—that we would one day wholeheartedly adopt "y'all" and become NC State and UNC basketball fiends. It's one thing to be a "Third Culture Kid"—someone who straddles the identities of their biological heritage and the place where they were brought up—and it's another to be Southern as well. I'm one of the fortunate ones who can say that I'm Vietnamese-American and also Southern on top of that. There's nothing else I'd rather be, maybe because it wasn't easy to get here, but also because there's something about the South that I connect with and always have. Living any place else just makes me appreciate it more. It's where I feel the most myself, the most at home. I'm comfortable with people who appreciate a good literary heritage, hearty cooking and hearty laughs. I'm a born river and swamp rat—from The Mekong River to marshes of southern Maryland all the way to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.

Jiyeon Lee, Thao Le Thanh Ha, Andrea Chen, Cynthia Lee Sheng, and Jaya McSharma

In the late 1970s, after escaping Vietnam on a small boat meant for river travel, my parents and uncle and I drifted on the open Pacific Ocean until we were brought to refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. Of course then we couldn't really fathom what a vacation spot like Bali could be. After years in those camps, we were sponsored to a small town called Kinston, North Carolina, in Lenoir County. There we were aided by the congregation of Gordon Street Christian Church. My family still goes to visit people who helped us back then, and my parents' English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher is my primary de facto grandmother. Her name is Faith Pearson. She and other Southern women in the community are the reason I, too, am a Southern woman.

The wonderful drawl of these women, how their vowels are stretched out, was the only manner in which my ears knew the English language after being used to the inflections of diacritics in the Vietnamese language—the only one I had been exposed to before. What I relished is how these women took their time with me. I never felt rushed to be anything other than myself. I felt warm and enveloped and protected. Those ladies also afforded me a deep dive into Southern Americana: going to the "fiiiiiive and diiiiiime dowwwwwntowwwwn to get iiiiiiice cream," taking day camp swimming lessons, learning to play checkers, and watching E.T. in a local movie theater.

Faith and her husband, Stanley, introduced me to coffee-flavored ice cream and King's BBQ in Kinston—which might explain my penchants for sugar, caffeine, and all things grilled and smothered in ketchup and vinegar. Who knew I'd grow up to write travel and food articles about things like Viet-Cajun cuisine? For me, cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) is just as interchangeable with chicory coffee as tendon pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) is with a tri-tip sandwich.

Hushpuppies and pulled pork with coleslaw are part of my DNA because of my North Carolina youth. The first time I remember having warm, crisp hushpuppies, I was on a trip to Atlantic Beach, where the Pearsons had an ice cream shop. I was surrounded by so much deliciousness there on the edge of a completely different ocean from the one that brought my family to America. We had come to the U.S. by way of the West Coast—in the winter, in the snow. After that chilly introduction to our new country, you can imagine what North Carolina felt like. I guess you could say that was my first carefree summer. It's when I started to see that I could celebrate both the culture I came from and the one I had come to.

I don't think I realized how much I had embraced Southern food and hospitality—and I would add to that compassion—until I left the region for many years, having taken haven in Los Angeles after 9/11 and then getting stuck there because I was earning. Being away from the South made me value, more and more, simple things like basic good manners. I've spent plenty of time in megalopolises where people can't talk to you without looking over your shoulder to see if there's someone more important in the room. I think Southerners are more interested in real interactions, in forming genuine bonds with each other. We care about each other's stories.

Andrea Chen of Propeller

Andrea Chen, New Orleans

I first heard Andrea Chen's story when she spoke at a 2018 conference in the French Quarter. Born in Canada to Taiwanese immigrant parents, Chen moved to New Orleans in 2004 to teach high school English. Though she no longer works in the public school system, she calls NOLA her home. It's where she runs Propeller, a social innovation hub that provides aspiring entrepreneurs with opportunities to learn and expand their knowledge bases.

From the beginning, we had something in common. Chen believes in equity and inclusion in the business world so that all kinds of people can see their ideas grow and get funded. I founded #StartWith8Hollywood to help women of color get a foot in the door in the entertainment industry.

When I heard Chen talk about her life as an Asian-Southern woman—particularly how comfortable she is with merging the two cultures—I felt a connection. Having spent more than a decade around some of the best food in the world, she has some serious chops in the kitchen, where her Asian roots and her adopted Southern culture get along just fine. "In addition to knowing how to make a roux and cooking collard greens," she says, "I also regularly shop at the Hong Kong Market in Gretna to get my Asian vegetables, tofu, condiments, and snacks—and some of the best banh mis (Vietnamese po-boys) in town."

Despite the harmony in her kitchen and her city, Chen says, stereotypes—both negative and positive—remain an issue. Take, for example, the notion that Southern and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) entrepreneurs are not "investment ready" or "business savvy," that they don't have what it takes to create tech and high growth companies. As an argument to the contrary, Chen points to companies that have raised millions in venture capital and have reached a national scale. "We actively work to tackle biases," she explains, "through our communications, programming, and amplification of the long history of successful entrepreneurship—especially Black-owned and immigrant-owned businesses—in New Orleans."

Chen's devotion to her city runs deep, and one of the things she loves best is the tight-knit community in New Orleans. "I love walking down the street, going to the bayou, sitting at a coffee shop," Chen says, "and always running into a friend, a former student, a neighbor, a Propeller entrepreneur, someone from church, etc. This is an everyday occurrence, which I hear is highly unusual from people who live in big cities in other parts of the country."

Jiyeon Lee of Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta, GA

Jiyeon Lee, Atlanta

Calling another part of the South home is Jiyeon Lee, who is, at heart, a Georgia gal in love with barbecue—so much so that she was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for "Best Chef Southeast 2020."

Lee is a woman after my own heart because I, too, am obsessed with barbecue and all its Southern variations. I also share Lee's belief that you can start over at any age and reinvent yourself.

Born and raised in South Korea, the former pop singer has four albums to her credit. But somehow, the limelight couldn't compete with the smoke rings. After she immigrated to the U.S., Lee attended cooking classes at the Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. At 36, the end of her first marriage became her restart button, giving her the sense of freedom to pursue a career in food. Now she's a happily remarried chef.

"With my Korean heritage, my husband, Cody Taylor, and I created a new style of cooking at Heirloom Market BBQ," she says. "I call it 'Atlanta style' because Atlanta is a melting pot of the South."

Lee was shocked by the mass murder of Asian-American women on March 16 of this year, right there in her city. "This horrible crime happened in my neighborhood and to my people," she says. "It is devastating. Even though the over 3,000 reported incidents of hate toward Asians mostly happened outside of Atlanta, now people think the South is the worst because of the shootings, but it's not true. Racism is everywhere in every city, every country. I believe that stereotypes come from not knowing. My best friend is Kenyan. I didn't know about Kenya at all before I met her. We cooked at the hotel St. Regis in Atlanta together. We can start knowing our neighbors and classmates, co-workers—where they came from, their culture, food, and more. It will make a big difference."

Lee has been in the South for 21 years and has no plans to leave. "My life journey at this moment," she says, "is that I am living and aging in the South."

Jaya McSharma

Jaya McSharma, Shreveport

Jaya McSharma was born Jaya Sharma to Indian immigrants who raised her in Alexandria, Louisiana. She now lives in Shreveport. She created her own surname by combining hers with her husband's, McGarry. I like her refusal to be pigeonholed and her belief that all of us can become any kind of "slashie" we like—in her case, M.D./screenwriter/actor/wife/food enthusiast. "Identities and cultures shift," she says. "So should we."

McSharma has taught her husband the ways of "Cajun-Masala." "He integrates Indian spices into all these meals," she says. "We don't have a day without turmeric or cumin or cardamom in our lives. I'll go to a barbecue one day and celebrate Diwali or Holi the next. There are so many similarities between Indian culture and Southern culture—a love of food, a love of togetherness, and the understanding that nothing tops family."

Louisiana not only gave McSharma her Southern accent, but also taught her the importance of what she calls "cordiality and congeniality."

McSharma is unapologetic when it comes to her wins. "I was the first Indian-American screenwriter and actress to make the top 20 of the coveted Louisiana Film Prize here in Shreveport in 2018. I've been a vocal pro-masker since the onslaught of the pandemic as a frontline hospitalist and try to share (authentically) on social media all the ways we celebrate my Indian heritage on a regular basis. When I see other women like me doing this, it emboldens me to continue. I would hope that when other women like us see me doing it, it emboldens them."

Thao Le Thanh Ha
Miracosta College

Thao Le Thanh Ha, Austin

When she's not in front of the computer or behind the camera, you might find Thao Le Thanh Ha in her burnt-orange regalia at graduation ceremonies for the University of Texas at Austin or delivering the two-fingered "Hook 'em, Horns" salute when the Longhorns charge the gridiron. Like Ha, I often spend my cooler months screaming at television sets until March Madness: "Are you kidding me??!!! That was a foul!!" The difference is my thing is Division 1 NCAA basketball.

Like my family and me, Ha and her parents came to America after fleeing Vietnam. She was 18 months old when they left. They settled in Houston in 1978. Ha earned a doctorate in sociology from UT-Austin and became a college professor.

One of her notable projects is Seadrift, a documentary about the racial violence and KKK intimidation that erupted in the 1970s against Vietnamese-American fisher-people in a small Texas town on the Gulf Coast. Ha is an associate producer of the film.

Traveling to the East or West Coast in the 1990s, she frequently heard, "Are there Asians in Texas?!" (Yes, there are.) "I am Vietnamese, I am American, and I am Texan," she says. "In terms of blending my identities, I would say I love Viet-Cajun food. I will accept any eating challenge when it comes to boiled crawfish from Cajun Kitchen in Houston and Gulf Coast oysters from Acme Oyster House in New Orleans. I blend my Southern hospitality with the joy of cooking Vietnamese food. I love hosting meals of homemade pho, bun rieu, or bo nuong vi." (But, she adds, "No matter where I am, if chicken fried steak is on the menu, I'm ordering it.")

Cynthia Lee Sheng

Cynthia Lee Sheng, New Orleans

Yes, you can call her Madam Parish President. Since 2020, Cynthia Lee Sheng has been the Jefferson Parish President—the first ever with an Asian background. Used to standing out, she remembers being the only non-Caucasian student among 800 or so in grammar school during the 1970s. Her election, she believes, gave lots of people hope: "During the campaign, I could see the prospect and the excitement of that through other people's eyes—not only Asian people and women, but also men, as well as people in the Black and Hispanic communities. It just makes me work even harder because I don't want to let them down."

Sheng was born in the New Orleans area and returned after several stints away. Her grandfather moved there around 1917, and her father worked in public service for three decades. "My grandfather started several businesses down here and in 1959 opened a large three-story Chinese restaurant where we lived. It was many people's first taste of Chinese food! I was away from home for a decade, in the Washington, D.C., area and in New Jersey, and you don't appreciate where you come from until you move away. There is no place like the South—the people make all the difference. They live life out loud in a very authentic way and it reveals itself in our music and culture . . . plus our food is the BEST." (Her recipes include Chinese dumplings with crawfish filling.)

Sheng can name many reasons why she has no plans to live anyplace but the South. "Where I live in Jefferson Parish," she says, "within a 20-minute drive you can be in an old fishing village on the bayou, then an urban and dense downtown environment, and then a quiet residential neighborhood—just like that. And in that 20-minute drive you will pass a multitude of restaurants with delicious food offerings, from boiled crabs to aged steak to sno-balls to great Italian food."

Somehow it always comes back to food. It's how we embrace all that makes us unique—the cultures of our forefathers and foremothers—as well as the commonalities that bind us here in the South—our love of food and family, home and hospitality, and our compassion for other people. Our favorite way to express all of the above? With offerings from our Southern kitchens.

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