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(Mis)perceptions of the Midwest

By November 8, 2010 4 Comments

By Joyce

New Organizing Project blogger

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@Joyce:  Man, Midwesterners got whack ideas about New Yorkers…

@Friend: And vice versa.

@Joyce: I guess, but I don’t think New Yorkers really think about the Midwest…

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The Midwestern States

The above is a short twitter exchange I had with a New Yorker friend of mine. To be honest, it really annoyed me. I feel like this snippet of a conversation is very indicative of the perceptions people have of the Midwest. Many people I’ve spoken to who hail from either coast seem to have this notion that people from the Midwest aren’t as ‘hip,’ are perpetually behind in pop culture trends, that there isn’t anything to do here, that there aren’t any crowds of note but a bunch of ultra-conservative, super-Christian white people… you get the point. The preconceived notion that really ticks me off is that there is no semblance of any kind of Asian American community/resources in the Midwest so why would anyone, specifically Asian Americans, willingly go or stay there?

But the fact is, we’re here and we’ve been here for quite some time. An Asian American movement

Rally for Vincent Chin

does exist here: think of the various student-driven pushes for Asian American/Ethnic Studies at Northwestern University, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Illinois at Chicago (and at Urbana-Champaign), the creation of the Midwest Asian American Student Union, the influx of multiple pan-Asian and ethnic specific non-profit organizations like the Asian American Institute and the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center (both in Chicago) just to name a couple, and so on and so forth.

Now, our Asian American movement is probably not developed to the extent that it is on the West coast per se, but for some reason I feel like people seem to gloss over it or don’t acknowledge it and that’s not only annoying, it’s not right.

The Midwest, like any other region, has its own set of histories and experiences related to it’s cultural environment. St. Paul, Minnesota has one of the largest Hmong populations in the U.S. It is also the relocation site of thousands of Japanese Americans after internment. And does anyone remember the murder of Vincent Chin? His tragic murder was one of the most politicizing events in Asian American history, and it happened in Detroit, Michigan.

U.S. Census Bureau Demographics of Asian American populations

Now, I’ll admit, I only have a fairly limited scope of understanding about the Midwest. I was born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, went to college in Chicago and have stayed here ever since. So all I’ve really experienced of the Midwest, with the exception of a few Midwestern conferences here and there, is Chicago. And I believe there is a certain kind of privilege that comes with living in the city; many more Asian American resources are in the city, higher density of ethnic enclaves, etc. But growing up in the suburbs, I remember the feelings of isolation, restriction and frustration that came with living in an area where I was oftentimes one of the few Asian faces in my classes or among my friends.

Due to settlement patterns in the Midwest, Asian Americans are much more spread out and the notion of Asian Americans sometimes being the only Asian American or person of color in a town is often true. This definitely makes it more difficult to do more collaborative organizing work or to even connect with other Asian American communities from around the region. But I think this difficulty and the fact that I was born and raised here is what makes me want to stay to continue my activism and professional career.

To me, the Midwest has this Catch-22 syndrome: Asian Americans leave because they feel like there aren’t enough resources here to support what they want to do, i.e., entertainment, ethnic studies and even the sense of community itself. And maybe that’s true to a degree in comparison to the coastal regions. But no one really stays long enough to build capacity. I know now that I want to stay and be a part of this growing movement because if I don’t, who will?

To be honest, I’d never intended to stay in the Midwest. As soon as it was time to apply for college, I was ready to leave and find some semblance of ‘community’ on either of the coasts. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan and I ended up staying in Chicago. And in hindsight, I’m grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained and the people I’ve met here. It’s weird because whenever I go to San Francisco to visit my family that recently moved out there, I feel so disconnected. I would have figured that I would have felt right at home because there is such a history of Asian American activism there and that there would have been a ton of like-minded people but instead, I felt really…awkward. I’ve come to the realization that I relate much more easily to Midwestern Asian Americans which is no big surprise — shared experiences bond people together.

Chicago and the Midwest in general is where I want to be right now. I want to help address the unique regional issues within this dispersed and disconnected community. And to prove the (mis)perceptions about the Midwest wrong.

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