I was with my dad and uncle when we escaped Vietnam in the late 1970s, on a small boat designed for river travel. We wandered on the open Pacific Ocean for a while before being rescued and taken to refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Of course, back then, the concept of a tropical paradise like Bali was beyond our comprehension. We spent years in these camps until finally being sponsored to a new life in the North Carolina town of Kinston, located in Lenoir County.
The good people of Gordon Street Christian Church came to our aid there. My family and I still pay our thanks by visiting those who assisted us back then; in fact, my major de facto grandmother is my parents’ English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.
Faith Pearson is her given name. My identity as a Southern woman is largely due to her and the other strong women in my life.
Due to my prior exposure to the inflections of diacritics in the Vietnamese language, my ears could only understand the English language through the lovely drawl of these women and the stretching out of their vowels. The women’s patience with me was a highlight. There was never any pressure for me to act in any way that wasn’t natural to me.
It was like being wrapped in a blanket of safety. Those women also gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in Southern American culture by taking me to the “fiiiiiive and diiiiiime dowwwwwntowwwwn to get iiiiiice cream,” enrolling me in swimming lessons at a day camp, teaching me how to play checkers, and taking me to see E.T. at the local movie theatre.
My love of sugar, caffeine, and everything grilled and doused in ketchup and vinegar may be traced back to my time spent in Kinston with Faith and Stanley, who introduced me to coffee-flavored ice cream and King’s BBQ.
Who knew that one day I’d be a culinary and travel writer covering topics like Viet-Cajun cooking? To me, Vietnamese iced coffee, or cafe sua da, is as interchangeable with chicory coffee as tendon pho is with a tri-tip sandwich.
To this day, I can’t think of a North Carolina picnic without hushpuppies and pulled pork with coleslaw. When I was a kid, my family and I took a trip to Atlantic Beach, where the Pearsons ran an ice cream business, and I had my first taste of warm, crisp hushpuppies there.
There was so much excellent food all around me on the shore of an ocean that wasn’t the one that brought my family to the United States. We had crossed the snowy Pacific Ocean to reach the United States.
You can image how North Carolina felt after our freezing first experience in our new country. That summer was the first time I really let go and enjoyed myself. It was then that I realised it was possible to honour both my native culture and the one to which I had been exposed.
After fleeing to Los Angeles in the wake of 9/11 and being unable to return home due to financial obligations, I spent many years away from the South and didn’t return until I discovered how much I missed its food, hospitality, and compassion.
When I moved away from the South, I gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of seemingly insignificant traits, such as good manners.
I’ve done my fair share of living in megacities, where no one will strike up a conversation with you without first checking to see if anybody of higher status is there. Real conversations and close friendships seem to be more valued in the South. Each of our experiences is important to us.
Andrea Chen, New Orleans
In 2018, I attended a seminar in the French Quarter where I first heard Andrea Chen tell her tale. Chen, who was born in Canada to parents who emigrated from Taiwan, began teaching English to high school students in New Orleans in 2004.
She still considers New Orleans home even though she no longer works in the public school system there. At this location, she oversees Propeller, a social innovation hub that helps budding business owners gain experience and education.
We shared a common bond from the start. Chen is an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, so that people from all walks of life have the chance to see their ideas flourish and receive financial backing. I started #StartWith8Hollywood to give underrepresented women a chance in Hollywood.
I felt like I could relate to Chen when she talked about being an Asian-Southern lady and how easy it is for her to blend the two cultures.
Her Asian heritage and her adoptive Southern culture get along swimmingly in the kitchen, thanks to her more than a decade spent among some of the best food in the world.
She goes to the Hong Kong Market in Gretna for Asian produce, tofu, condiments, snacks, and some of the greatest banh mis (Vietnamese po-boys) in town, in addition to knowing how to prepare a roux and cook collard greens.
The Athens, Georgia native Jiyeon Lee
Jiyeon Lee, a Georgia native now living in another region of the South, has a passion for barbecue so great that she was a finalist for “Best Chef Southeast 2020” at the James Beard Awards.
When it comes to our mutual love of Southern barbeque, Lee and I are a perfect match. Lee’s optimism that it’s never too late to make a fresh start is something I wholeheartedly agree with.
The former pop singer, who was born and reared in South Korea, has released four studio albums. The smoke rings, however, managed to overpower the spotlight. Lee learned to cook at the Cordon Bleu in Atlanta after moving to the United States.
She felt liberated to begin a new chapter in her life after the dissolution of her first marriage at the age of 36 and focus on her passion for cooking. She recently remarried and is living the good life in the kitchen.
To Quote Jaya McSharma of Shreveport:
Jaya Sharma, now known as Jaya McSharma, was born in Alexandria, Louisiana to Indian immigrants. She has recently relocated to Shreveport. With her new husband’s last name, McGarry, she formed a new surname.
She’s a doctor, a screenwriter, an actor, a wife, and a self-proclaimed foodie, and I like her confidence that anyone can have it all. “Identities and civilizations change,” she explains. “And we ought to.”
Cajun-Masala is a cooking style that McSharma has taught her spouse. She raves about how he uses Indian spices in all of his dishes. “No day goes by without some form of turmeric, cumin, or cardamom.
One day I’ll have a BBQ, and the next I’ll participate in a Holi or Diwali festival. The love of food, the importance of community, and the recognition that nothing is more important than family are all shared values between Indians and Southerners.”
Thao Le Thanh Ha, Austin
Thao Le Thanh Ha is often seen in burnt-orange regalia at University of Texas at Austin commencement exercises and giving the two-fingered “Hook ’em, Horns” gesture when the Longhorns assault the football field when she is not working behind the camera or at her desk.
As with Ha, I tend to spend the colder months yelling at my TV in anticipation of March Madness: “I mean, seriously?! It was a penalty there!” The main difference is that I am more interested in college basketball at the Division I level.
New Orleans’s Cynthia Lee Sheng
Please refer to her as Madam Parish President. As of 2020, Cynthia Lee Sheng, the first person of Asian descent to hold the office of Jefferson Parish President, has been in office. She was used to being the centre of attention because she was the only person of colour in her 1970s elementary school of around 800 students.
That she was elected gave many people hope, she says “During the campaign, I saw the possibility and thrill of that through the eyes of other people, including Asians, women, men, and members of the Black and Hispanic communities.
When I think about how much they are counting on me, I have to work even harder.”