Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month - Perspectives from AAPI Waco Small Businesses
By Jaja Chen
The month of May marks Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.
Throughout the years, my perspective on what it means to be Asian American - Taiwanese American specifically - has expanded. As a child of Taiwanese immigrants growing up originally in Norman, Oklahoma, I was often one of a few children in my school that identified as Asian American. I dreaded bringing the food my mom would cook for lunch at school as I wanted to be like all the other students in my classes - eating sandwiches, chips, and “American food.”
Eventually my family moved to China and Taiwan and I spent the latter half of my childhood in East Asia. There I learned to connect with my ethnic heritage and culture for the first time in my life, including the delicious food we always had at home. I saw what it means to truly celebrate my culture and to be proud of where I come from.
I know many Asian Americans and immigrants resonate with the same experiences I had as a child. Many have their own “lunchbox moments” at school and have felt shame regarding their roots. It has been interesting as an adult for me to see how the food that children would make fun of me for before are now the very foods that make up our business and menus at Waco Cha.
According to New American Economy’s 2017 American Communities Survey, 1 in 5 entrepreneurs in the country are immigrants. In fact, immigrants are more likely than non-immigrants in the nation to start up and run a small business. This testifies to the deep gifts and resiliency immigrants bring to our communities - especially as many seek to give back and share their culture with others. Celebrating our diverse cultures, heritages, and backgrounds is such a joy and as a small business owner in town, I wanted to hear from fellow AAPI small business owners to gain insights to what it means for them to be AAPI.
I first spoke with Ning, one of the owners of Curry Up and Wok This Way - a Thai pop-up tent at the Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market. Curry Up and Wok This Way will soon open a stand at Union Hall.
As Thai-immigrant entrepreneurs from the city of Hatyai in the province of Songkhla, Thailand, to Ning being an AAPI means “that we have the opportunity to expand our traditions and culture while at the same time learning and adopting new traditions.
We are proud to live in the United States and we are thankful…[to be able] to express ourselves in our own way as a drop in the melting pot of the beautiful society that is the Asian American population of the US…”
I then spoke with Linta Ali of Saffron Waco - a Pakistani-Indian food restaurant in town.
Linta Ali - one of the team members and a part of the family business of Saffron - shared that their family is from Pakistan and that is where the delicious flavors from Pakistan and India come from in their Saffron recipes.
For Linta, “the gifts and joy that the South Asian community brings to our community is family love and acceptance...when customers come into our restaurant we like to create a family environment and to offer a meal that will bring comfort and a smile to their face...We love to incorporate our culture and to open gates to diversity in Waco...and to encourage others to learn more about the Asian community!
Last but not least, I spoke with Rochelle “Sao” Heikkila, owner of Hands Down Waco, offering to-go Pacific Islander cuisine. Rochelle is from Waipahu, Hawaii and identifies as both Filipino and Chinese and was born and grew up in Hawaii. To Rochelle being an AAPI means “to celebrate the inclusion of all races, generations, cultural practices, and the livelihood of those that have worked hard to get to where we are now.”
Growing up, Rochelle was taught Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese in school and through friendships, learned about many other diverse AAPI cultures, including Polynesian and Micronesian culture. Rochelle shared with me that coming to the mainland of the United States was a completely different experience as many did not know anything about the Filipino Chinese American or the Hawaiian culture.
Previous celebrations and commemorations of holidays that the many other cultures Rochelle grew up celebrating in Hawaii shifted to celebrating only a few holidays a year once moving. Rochelle shared, “Who was I in America? It took me many years to figure this out but overtime, I have come back to my roots...I am AAPI. And I continue to celebrate this by incorporating it in my family and having the privilege to share these things with the people I come across especially in what gathers people around the table...delicious food.”
I resonated with what Ning, Linta, and Rochelle each shared because to me, being AAPI means creating spaces where I no longer need to assimilate or change my culture to belong, but where my culture is celebrated and part of the work I do day in and out. Being AAPI to me means being Asian and American. Teetering between the bridge and worlds of the East and West. Both/and.
I loved how Ning shared how to her, being AAPI means to be rooted in tradition while also learning and adopting new traditions as well. Linta’s reference to how their family business helps them to share their culture and to be a gate of diversity is part of why we do what we do as well as small business owners. I know many immigrants and AAPI in our communities who resonate with bridging cultures.
I am also so excited to have spoken with Rochelle and to hear more about the story behind the Pacific Islander cuisine Hands Down Waco provides to our community. Oftentimes when we discuss the experience of being AAPI, emphasis can be given more so by media and organizations to East Asians. Being AAPI, however, is not a monolith and the diverse ethnic heritages, cultures, languages, and backgrounds of AAPI communities is extremely expansive.
I hope that as you learn from our fellow small business owners, that you too can start to see how diverse the AAPI population is and how each individual and family’s experience is unique. While I spoke specifically with small business owners in the food & beverage industry, as I am a part of this sector, there are immigrant-owned businesses and AAPI leaders in all sectors of society, not only in our industry. May we take time not only in AAPI Heritage Month, but throughout the year, to meet people from diverse backgrounds and to learn from and grow in depth, diversity of understanding, and cultural awareness.