ASIAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP REFLECTION: YIMING FU
ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP REFLECTION
By Yiming Fu
When I arrived in Evanston, 18-years-old, Massachusetts-raised and ready to kick off my college career, one of my first thoughts was — “where are all the Asians?”
At home, I knew the places to be. For a haircut, I would stop by my favorite one-man hair salon in Allston. For steaming hot tteokbokki or budaejjigae, I know any place on Allston St. will knock it out the park. And for groceries, pastries, dim sum and spicy noodles that make your tongue dance, I know Chinatown always delivers. These places were all second homes to me, with the pump of EDM radio stations, honking cars and fragrant smells. Coming to Northwestern, I felt like I had to start over. And there wasn’t much to work with.
Evanston is about 10% Asian, the 2020 U.S. Census reports. And while Boba Tea joints hold a vice grip on Downtown Evanston, and various Chinese, Thai, Indian and Japanese restaurants stand on street corners, I didn’t feel like there was much of an Asian “community” in the city. But, that might’ve been from a lack of listening. While I do have my reservations about what an “Asian community” looks like and who it naturally includes and excludes, I also know nothing is more important than finding people and spaces that feel like home.
This summer, I tried to listen to those who have been here. Those who found this mid-sized midwestern city, and made it a home. With the funding from the fellowship, I worked with Melissa Raman Molitor at Kids Create Change, an Evanston nonprofit that uses art to uplift marginalized voices and advance social justice issues. With the Evanston History Center, I interviewed local Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islanders as part of a placemaking effort to establish an Asian American historical and living archive in Evanston.
Melissa is an icon. I met her last year at Evanston’s first Asian South Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month Arts Festival, now known as the annual Umbrella Arts Festival. Aiming to create a community space where the local community members could show up and show out for each other, she planned the event almost entirely on her own. She runs her own art studio, Studio 3, in Downtown Evanston and is also an art therapist and professor.
I had the privilege of helping out in the art studio, hosting gallery openings for local artists and open studio workshop days for kids. I organized snack tables, sorted supplies and participated in print-making workshops. Each day inspired the inner child in me who wanted to learn how to draw Pokemon, make friendship bracelets and design clothes. I loved it.
Ultimately, I found the interview project most fulfilling. I talked to around 10 Evanston community members through video and audio interviews that each lasted between an hour and 90 minutes. The questions were wide-ranging, touching on topics such as family history, opinions on Evanston, and current events. For me, these conversations helped the city come alive.
I didn’t know, for example, that Evanston had a vibrant Filipino community in the 1970’s. Many of the immigrants were nurses who came to work for the AMITA St. Francis hospital, after the United States government relaxed racist immigration restrictions and sought to open their borders to Asian people to fill labor gaps. And they banded together, creating joyous environments at church, at dinner parties, or fishing along the lakefill.
I also didn’t know how unkind Evanston is. I talked with many residents who came to Evanston, attracted by its reputation as a city that welcomes diversity with open arms. Many told me it seemed like an ideal place to raise their kids. After all, Evanston, sometimes known as “Heavenston,” boasts one of the country’s first local reparations initiatives and a top-performing school district that aims to center diversity in its curriculum. However, many residents said they felt Evanston ultimately promoted “drive-by diversity,” a type of diversity that white people were able to marvel at, feel secure in and be proud of, but ultimately doesn’t seek to actually support and uplift people of color. Many people I talked to said they felt unsafe in Evanston. Some said they felt like “the other” and were assumed to be a babysitter when picking up their own children. Some said they experienced anti-Asian hate crimes directly, such as being called slurs from a car window. Many said they were scared to be. My blood boiled.
But most importantly, I was grateful to meet the people who are working to make Evanston a kinder place. I talked to the owner of a local coffee shop who brought ube drinks and Southeast Asian pastries to the forefront and encouraged all employees to abandon the “customer is always right” mindset and call patrons out for racist behavior. I talked to a brilliant business owner who makes spice kits that make cooking Indian and South Asian dishes more accessible, and I talked with a Bollywood dance instructor and children's book author who created her own safe spaces in her dance studio.
This summer whirled with highs and lows, tears, anger, joy, pride, confusion, rage, exuberance all stitched together, pulled apart, expanding, shrinking and coming back together again. Hearing everyone’s stories was validating. Empowering. After each interview, I thanked my sources profusely. Thank you for sharing your time with me, thank you for trusting me, thank you for being so open and so generous with your story. A million thank you’s that I couldn’t even begin to articulate. I thanked them for the parts of their stories that resonated with me, and shared parts of their stories that aligned with other people’s, hoping to foster a sense of connection and community. Thank you thank you thank you. I learned that journalism is community building. And at its core, its power lies in its ability to unite, to make people feel scene, feel heard, feel a sense of belonging on the page. Because most of all, I learned that in Evanston, I was not alone.