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Joining Pulaski Days: Why Asian Heritage Month needs to be celebrated in West Michigan

Neri Mendoza, left, and Sam DeYoung, right.

 West Michigan's Asian American community is a thriving and vibrant one with a history that spans nearly a century and a half. Despite the deeply rooted community, there is often a lack of awareness about Asian Heritage Month, or the area's Asian American culture in general — which is something area residents aspire to change.
Becky VandenBout is a Grand Rapids-based freelance web developer and writer with a degree in electrical engineering. She was adopted from Seoul, South Korea. Her cultural heritage has been a lifelong a source of pride for her, and inspired her to write the following article about the strong Asian American community in Grand Rapids, and how we as a society can do more to celebrate its history and contributions to the city. Describing her own background, VandenBout writes:

I was adopted from Seoul, South Korea through Bethany Christian Services to my parents, a small yet outspoken blonde woman from Alpena, Mich. and a funny German man who immigrated to the U.S. when he was eight years old from Stutgart, Germany. I was about three months old when I arrived here, and we still celebrate my arrival day as if it were a second birthday. Instead of hearing "when we were at the hospital" stories, I hear "when we were at the airport" stories, which makes me unique. My sister, who is a little over two years younger than me, is also adopted from Korea, but we are not biologically related.

I've always known I was adopted, and, in fact, when I was younger I used to brag to people that I had three moms; my birth mom, my foster mom and my actual mom. I've never really had the desire to find my birth family, although I know that my birth mother was a factory worker and my birth father was a college student. However, I do want to visit South Korea one day and am very proud to say that is where I come from.  As a child, my family belonged to an adoption group where we would get together every couple of months and hang out. All of the kids were about the same age and all adopted from South Korea, so it was nice to meet others like us since we lived in a mostly Caucasian area. We would go to Korean cultural events as well and learn about the Korean culture.

In college, I was the public relations officer for the Asian American Association at Kettering University, and we held events such as a Chinese New Year Celebration, complete with dragon dance, staged combat fighting and a traditional fan dance, sushi rolling classes, a fashion show of traditional Asian attire and a Ramadan feast. We also helped to host the annual International Food Festival.

As a new mom, I have hopes that my baby daughter, who is half Korean and half Caucasian, will grow up in a world that will treat her as an equal, and that we are able to teach her the importance of diversity.

May is known for many things in West Michigan: festivals, farmers' markets and bike paths, to name a few. However, May also happens to be Asian/Pacific Heritage Month, a month-long cultural celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders living in the United States and Canada. In West Michigan, we have many ethnic celebrations: Tulip Time in Holland, the Danish Festival in Greenville and, of course, Pulaski Days in Grand Rapids. It is a much more culturally diverse area than many give it credit for, but there is room for improvement. For example, how many people in West Michigan are even aware that Asian Heritage Month exists?

According to The Right Place, in 2015 just over two percent of the West Michigan population was Asian, and, in Grand Rapids, there were 2,694 people in 2013  who identified as Asian living in Grand Rapids — about 1.9 percent of the population, according to federal statistics. While those numbers may not seem particularly large, the Asian American community in our area is a thriving and vibrant one with a history that spans more than a century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Hindi were all in the top 10 most commonly spoken languages in the area, with Vietnamese being third on that list. In Michigan, the Asian American population is one of the fastest growing groups of people with one of the most diverse ethnic compositions, including representing more than 30 countries and seven religions, as well as countless languages.

The Asian American community can trace its history to the Grand Rapids area to the 1870s, when a small group of Asian immigrants began moving here. The influx of a couple dozen residents at that time occurred not long before the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country. The city's first Chinese residents were three men who worked in the laundry business around 1875: Wau Lee, Ah Tun, and Lung Sam, according to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission. The Grand Rapids Press writes in 1902 of the city's "Chinatown," which featured a number of businesses owned by recent immigrants, including four Chinese restaurants, the first of which, the Hong Far Lo, opened just after the turn of the 20th century at Pearl and Monroe, on the second floor of where Mojo's Dueling Piano Bar is now located.

Following the Korean War in the early 1950s, the city's first Korean residents began to move to Grand Rapids, primarily as the wives and children of U.S. military personnel who had served during the war. A couple decades later, in the 1970s, West Michigan welcomed a large number of Vietnamese individuals as refugees, and soon after there was an influx of individuals from such countries as China, India, and Pakistan once immigration law made it easier for skilled workers to move to the United States.

With the area's deeply rooted Asian American community, it is not a lack of diversity that dissuades awareness regarding Asian Heritage Month, but the issue is more about accessibility.

From Asian language classes and markets to networking events and ethnic cuisine, you can find it all here, but where, exactly? And how many people know about all of this? The West Michigan Asian American Association, local universities, and many Asian-owned businesses are doing their part to expand people’s minds and experiences to include different aspects of Asian culture. Some folks, like Chantal Pasag, owner of Pasagraphy, photography project manager at Envoy Platform and a Los Angeles native, go searching for cultural enrichment. “It’s interesting how I’m seeking diversity now, instead of it just being this thing that exists in my world," she says. "I can see how easy it could be to say, 'It’s just Michigan, it’s just Grand Rapids, but I really do see West Michigan offering much more than that.” Sam DeYoungOthers, like Sam DeYoung, who was adopted at the age of two from South Korea, use something they enjoy doing, such as a sport, to meet different people. “I think diversity is out there, you just have to look for it. I have played on a Latin-American soccer league and an all-Asian soccer league. They weren’t something I would have normally run across unless I put myself out there for those experiences.”

Asian Americans are a group of people who tend to get stereotyped often, and months like Asian/Pacific Heritage Month are there to educate people of the differences that exist in people’s backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs, and to encourage a more thorough understanding of a specific set of cultures. Each Asian American who grew up in West Michigan has unique experiences, the same as any other race.

"As a child I faced challenges explaining to others about racial differences, helping others understand what it means, and also in defining it for myself," says Claire Rose, an academic advisor at Grand Valley State University.

Katie Mollhagen, an office manager who was adopted from Calcutta, India, describes her childhood in West Michigan, saying, “the only experience I had that my friends at school did not have was going to culture camp. It was sponsored by the adoption agency I came through with the intention of giving us adoptees some exposure to the Indian culture.” Sin Chun, stylist and owner of the salon Sin Republic was made fun of. “My sister and I were the only non-adopted Koreans in our school," he says. "The first thing I remember was getting on the school bus and this kid made the Chinese eyes gesture to me.”

Among older individuals, the experiences and challenges faced as a minority can continue to be discouraging, especially when they stem from others’ lack of empathy. Xinyi Ou, a software developer and recent graduate from Grand Valley State University, describes the disappointing discussion with her fellow business law classmates regarding the UCLA student responsible for the viral video complaining about Asians on campus. “In a class of about 12 of us, I was the only Asian person, and everybody else had this opinion that it wasn’t racist because you can’t really be racist against an Asian person," she says. "They said that it’d be different if it were comments about being African American or Jewish, and that it was more funny and not discriminatory. It’s interesting how the perception is different when you talk about Asians, and I think that is true when applied to many different areas. Like when people say, ‘You did this well because you’re Asian.’ Even though that’s a positive stereotype, it takes away from your own merit.” When people turn a blind eye towards the value in diversity, when a person is discredited because of a stereotype or when a child makes a racist joke, it isn’t harmless or funny; it’s systemic of the problem.

Understanding leads to empathy and empathy leads to unity, so to move forward in unison as a community, our many cultures must strive first to understand each other.

“I’m from China to everybody,” says Chun, who is from South Korea. “One of my clients, a little kid who is a big 'Star Wars' fan asks me why there aren’t any Asians in the new 'Star Wars' movie. What do I say to that?” Why not use the strategy of every single 'Star Wars' movie, and go right to the source
which, in this case, is education.

Pasag dives deeper into this. “I think it really has to go back down into the school systems and what we’re teaching our kids about diversity," she says. "What kind of programs do we have that are encouraging kids to be curious and explore the world around them?” Chun elaborates even further by suggesting that the school system should offer more intensive programming surrounding Asian American history and culture.

West Michigan has a large population of residents who have never lived outside of these beautiful bike-pathed and brewery-lined walls, so as students get older it’s even more important to explore. Rose encourages her students to study abroad in Asia. “When you come back you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much bigger the world is outside of West Michigan," she says.

Celebrating Asian/Pacific Heritage month is a start to a broader, more well-rounded understanding of Asian culture, but there is so much more to celebrate. Ou suggests starting with something most people have heard of, like the Chinese New Year. “There is a lot of good food surrounding it, and you could hold workshops on how to fold dumplings, provide skills or do a dragon dance," she says. "That is something that families would come out to see.” Parents in West Michigan are extremely involved in their children's’ lives. Just take a look at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, which would be an excellent place to hold an event like this. She goes on to say, “There’s this weird divide between Asian societies and organizations in the area because there’s an expectation from both sides that there isn’t an interest in attending these events. One side says we don’t want to open it up to the public because they won’t come anyway and then the community who thinks that these groups just want to do their own thing. I think it’s important to have those social communities, but also open up the more cultural activities to others.”

Neri MendozaNeri Mendoza, a software developer from the Philippines who now lives in Grand Rapids, talks about more ways to celebrate Asian culture. “By learning and sharing information, starting from ourselves and projecting that there is Asian in us, we are showing our pride of being one," Mendoza says. "I am thankful to know that there is an Asian Heritage Month. This gives us awareness that Asian minorities are welcomed. Great places make everyone feel that they are included.”

West Michigan does have a rich, Asian American culture, albeit not always the most obvious. What is on the wish list for the future of this community in West Michigan? What ideas are out there to move forward? Individuals interviewed for this article cited such ideas as less fragmentation within the Asian communities, to move the communities forward as a team rather than individual ethnic groups and that the existing Asian-owned businesses stop competing and start uniting in their quest to share their heritage.

Mollhagen suggests that people “make an effort to learn more about and respect the different Asian cultures. There are many different countries represented that are all unique in their own way.” DeYoung reminds everyone that “there are lots of restaurants and stores in West Michigan owned and run by Asian Americans that have a wide variety of things you may have never had or heard of. Search them out and don’t be afraid to try something new.” Chun shares another way to provide more diversity in the area, noting that, “in West Michigan you don’t see any Asian-owned clothing, electronic, comic stores, It’s all restaurants, nail shops and dry cleaning. Why? Because they’ve seen other Asians be successful in it, so we need to branch out and set examples for others. Grand Rapids is great; it’s a great place to grow as a business owner.”

Finally, there seems to one common wish for the West Michigan Asian scene: more authentic Asian restaurants, please! “People love to eat; it makes people curious and happy and it bridges gaps. It’s something you can have in common without having any history. Being Filipino, everything we do as a family revolves around food, celebrating life or celebrating death, it revolves around food,” says Pasag.

Mendoza concludes with one last hope for the future of West Michigan. “As a community, we should continue to recognize that everyone has something to offer, regardless of race. We are talented individuals and we shine through our hard work and achievements. We also can encourage each other, build a support system, offer a hand. I am hoping that the Asian American community will grow and that we will continue contributing to the success of West Michigan while always striving to be good representatives of our origins.”

There are many ways you can get to know Grand Rapids' Asian American community better. Here is a list of some of the places and services that are available in our community:

Organizations and Clubs

Chinese Association of West Michigan
West Michigan Filipino-American Association
West Michigan Bengali Cultural Association
Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance
Vietnamese American Association of Michigan
Western Michigan University International Student Organizations
Grand Rapids Community College Asian Student Union
The Sikh Society of West Michigan

Family Resources

Bethany Christian Services
West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center

Martial Arts

West Michigan Martial Arts and Holistic Health (Kalamazoo Area)
The Aikido Center (Grand Rapids: Garfield Park)
American Martial Arts Institute (Cedar Springs)
Mirandette’s Martial Arts Center (Kentwood)
Standale Karate and Fitness (Standale)
Grand Rapids Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu (Wyoming)
Lakeshore Taekwondo Academy (Grand Haven)
Triumph Training Center (Grand Rapids)
West Michigan Budokan (Kalamazoo)


Asian Gala Night (WM-AAA)
Asian Networking Event (WM-AAA)
Free Empowerment Workshop for Asian Immigrant Parents (WM-AAA)
Grand Valley State University Global Laker Event
Grand Valley State University Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration
Grand Rapids Public LIbrary Celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month


Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple and Zen Center
Grand Rapids Chinese Christian Church


Chinese Language School
Grand Valley State University Study Abroad
Grand Valley State University Division of Inclusion
Kent ISD Diversity Initiative
Grand Valley State University East Asian Studies Programs
Calvin College Asian Studies Programs
Grand Rapids Community College Foreign Language Courses


Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park: The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden

Asian Markets and Shopping

Asian Delight Market (Kentwood)
Spice of India (Grand Rapids: Downtown)
India Town (Wyoming)
Saigon Market (Grand Rapids)
KB’s Oriental Supermarket (Wyoming)
Kim Nhung Super Store (Kentwood)

Restaurants (Indian)

Curry Kitchen (Grand Rapids: Eastown)
Palace of India (Grand Rapids: Downtown)
Bombay Cuisine (Grand Rapids: Eastown)

Restaurants (Japanese / Sushi)

Kobe (Grandville)
Ju Sushi (Grand Rapids: East Paris Area)
Maru (Grand Rapids: Eastown)
Downtown Market Hall: Sushi Market
Sushi Yama (Grand Rapids: Downtown)
Noodle Monkey (Plainfield Area)

Restaurants (Thai)

Thai Fusion (Rockford and Kentwood)
Bangkok Taste Cuisine (Grand Rapids: Downtown)
Lei Thai Kitchen (Grand Rapids)
Erb Thai (Grand Rapids: Eastown), Erb Thai XPress (Grand Rapids, Downtown), Erb Thai Cafe (Standale)
Angel’s Thai Cafe  (Grand Rapids: Downtown)
Rak Thai Bistro (Grand Rapids)

Restaurants (Korean)

Kobe (Grandville)
Seoul Garden (Kentwood)

Restaurants (Vietnamese)
Pho Anh Trang (Grand Rapids)
Golden 28 (Wyoming)
Pho Soc Trang (Kentwood)

Restaurants (Chinese)

Wei Wei Palace (Grand Rapids)
First Wok (Kentwood, Cascade and Walker)
Rice Wok (Grand Rapids)
Tea Garden (Grand Rapids)

In addition to being a freelance web developer and writer with a degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University, Becky is also a new mom, fashion blogger and an aspiring entrepreneur. In her free time she enjoys eating noodles, shopping for clothes and doing complicated math problems. Check out Becky’s portfolio and resume here and her blog here. You can reach her via email at beckyjoon@gmail.com.
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