Sunday, March 12, 2017

Late Night Microaggressions at the Noodle Shop

Last night I snapped when a customer asked me for a knife.  I own a small mom and pop noodle shop nestled in a charming small town in central Kentucky.  We have chopsticks and Asian soup spoons available to customers, and forks upon request.  Occasionally, someone will ask for a knife to cut their noodles and typically, I’d just gently inform them that we don’t have any non-butcher knives on-site. 

But last night I snapped.

Eight months ago when I first left my 9-5 job and decided to create a space that allowed me to share my family’s recipes with my community, it never occurred to me that it was possible that I could be made to feel like a complete foreigner in my own space.  After all, I spent 20 years of my professional life being the only person of color in the room, trying to fit in, blend in, assimilate, and accommodate. It didn’t matter that it didn’t exist out there in the world, I would create my own beautiful space where people from different walks of life could sit around long family style tables and connect with one another over steamy bowls of noodles.   And since we opened, I’ve managed to do just that - we’ve served up over 25,000 noodle bowls to locals, adventurous foodies, weary interstate travelers, and tourists alike.   And most of the time they are happy.  

Most of the time.

The first time someone walked out of my shop after looking over the menu and failing to find marinara or Alfredo sauce as offerings, I told myself that Southeast Asian noodle bowls just weren’t for everyone.  When several members of the local Chamber of Commerce “passed” on my complimentary noodle samples at the ribbon cutting, I thought that perhaps they just ate and were too full to sample my offerings.  Every day I listen to customers tell me that I need to change my late grandmother’s 100-year old curry recipe by “simply” replacing a combination of 3 different kinds of authentic Thai soy-based seasonings with a single gluten-free one.  I don’t take it personally when people tell me to just give them the “normal” noodles when they want ramen, even though rice noodles are the most commonly used noodles in most Southeast Asian cultures. And when customers ask for “American” utensils when referring to forks, nine out of ten times, I just hand them one.  Even the positive on-line reviews often include the descriptor “clean” – as if we are the anomaly and the standards for Asian restaurants are anything but.  Perhaps the most challenging customer interaction I’ve had was last week when a particularly cranky elderly gentlemen (who had clearly been dragged there by his granddaughter) defiantly told me, “I’ve been to Thailand and there’s nothing good about that place” when I suggested he try our Pad Thai bowl.

This wasn’t the first time someone has asked for a knife.  People always seem flabbergasted that a restaurant, albeit a noodle shop, would not have forks and knives readily available for customers.  Of course they are also shocked when they learn that we don’t keep butter on the premises for their kids who “only eat buttered noodles.”  Somehow, our little noodle shop is expected to either operate like the Olive Garden or the local Chinese take-out joint.  Here are some actual comments I’ve heard in the last 8 months:  What kind of noodle shop doesn’t have cheese?  Doesn’t this come with any bread?  Which one is closest to spaghetti?  I wish you would offer those “crunchy noodles” to sprinkle over my soup.  Do you have hot mustard and duck sauce for the egg rolls (which are really spring rolls because they are made with a thinner, egg-free wrapper and stuffed with a different kind of filling)?   

Which brings me back to last night.  I won’t go into the details of the interaction, but let’s just say there was a general tone of condescension and arrogance in the way that I was addressed, and after quietly trying to accommodate these particularly hard-to-please customers for several minutes, I apparently reached the end of my rope when one of them got upset that I didn’t have any knives available.  And so I snapped. I guess it finally got to me.  My entire childhood consisted of me watching my parents eat their Kentucky Fried chicken with ketchup instead of hot sauce, and rolls instead of rice.  I watched my mom discreetly sneak in tiny Tupperwares of chili-infused, garlic fish sauce every time we went to Ponderosa because the A-1 and Heinz 52 just didn’t cut it for her.  I watched my dad slowly and skillfully learn to master eating with just a fork and knife when we were at fancier restaurants, even though at home he ate all of his meals with a fork and table spoon.  In other words, I spent my entire childhood learning how to fit into a specific cultural norm that wasn’t mine, and an entire adulthood politely following the rules of that norm, but God help me if I have to pretend to appease someone else’s norm in my own home.   

Microaggressions, as you may know, are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”  Like most members of non-white communities, I’m used to experiencing microagressions on a daily basis, but my “home” is usually a safe space.  My home is usually a place where I can just be authentically me:  a second-generation American whose childhood comfort food was a noodle bowl rather than a bowl of mac and cheese.  My home is usually a place where I shouldn’t have to sit back and listen to someone tell me I’m weird, or odd, or strange because of the foods I grew up eating…or the manner in which I eat them.  My home is where my culture is not only celebrated, but is actually the norm.

Last night I snapped when a customer asked me for a knife.  I’m not proud of it, but it was a long time coming.

Note:  For every instance that I’m made to feel like a foreigner in my own home, there are a million instances that customers make me feel like family - by celebrating my mother’s cooking and choosing to join me at my dinner table every week. I am grateful for the 15-year old high school girl who invited ten of her friends to celebrate her birthday with us.  I am grateful for Berea College’s Appalachian Center, who invited us to cater a meal for a renowned Appalachian food critic because we represented the growing diversity in contemporary southern cuisine.  I’m grateful for our city’s tourism department who produced a beautiful marketing video telling our story, and for the urban farm for growing fresh greens for our noodle bowls.  I am grateful for every single customer who makes my home feel like theirs.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Review of the 2017 New Kentucky Project Ideas Conference

Why I Took My First Saturday Off (From My Brand New Business) To Attend.

I’ve been a Kentuckian for 26 years, since I first arrived as a freshman at Berea College back in 1991.  I’ve been a Democrat just as long.  Over the last couple of decades, my political involvement ranged from attending democratic fundraisers, campaigning door to door, serving as a delegate at the 2012 National Convention, applying (but later rescinding my application) to a democratic women’s leadership training program, and finally running for city council myself.  My temperament during that time ranged from  chills up and down my spine when we elected our first African-American president, to supporting the platform but turning a blind-eye to the candidate, and finally in recent years just having enough with state party politics period when I watched some democratic candidates refuse to align themselves with Barack Obama fearing pro-coal, racist backlash from potential constituents, while others defiantly spoke out against immigration, our own governor defending arguments against marriage equality, and pretty much every candidate refusing to go near the issue of mass incarceration and police brutality.  The Kentucky Democratic Party effectively confirmed to me that this was not a party for a brown, daughter of interfaith immigrant parents, who had a gay best friend, and who spent half of her career as a civil rights investigator. 

To say that I was done with politics as usual would be an understatement.   As state and national offices were slowly and steadily getting swept up by Republican candidates, it appeared that others in my state, perhaps for different reasons, also felt frustrated with the party.  So when that first press release appeared on my Facebook newsfeed back in 2016 announcing a new movement and direction for the state Democratic Party called the New Kentucky Project, I was cautiously optimistic but immensely hopeful.

You Had Me at Hello, Adam and Matt.

While the pep-rally-style charges at these things do little to inspire me, the line-up of speakers did catch my attention.  It helped that I wasn’t really looking for inspiration.  I was looking for structure.  A structure through which, I could become a part of effective organizing.  And a structure that perhaps this time, might include a diversity of voices and perspectives.
And so on this cold Saturday morning, over 600 people – that’s 300 over their expected attendance – filed into a banquet hall presumably ready for change.   I had crossed paths with our former state auditor and New Kentucky project founder, Adam Edelen just last year when I served as the executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center.  Adam and his team were instrumental in funding and addressing the rape kit backlog in our state.   I remember being impressed when he visited my center and spent time speaking with my staff as well as survivors, committing resources to implement changes that would address the backlog.  I believed him then, and I desperately wanted to believe him today when he boldly stated that this was a movement of ordinary people willing to speak their truths rather than pedigreed politicians calculating their every move.  I wanted to believe him when he proclaimed that democrats haven’t done enough to build human and intellectual capacity or to rebuild grassroots involvement.  I wanted to believe him when he laid out the core values of the New Kentucky Project:

  1. Every Kentuckian deserves equal protection under the law regardless of age, race, gender, religion or sexual orientation and it is the responsibility of Kentucky’s leaders to protect that opportunity for all its citizens.
  2. The focus of state politicians should be on creating jobs for its citizens and ensuring that all Kentuckians who seek to work for a living can earn a wage that allows them to support their families and live their lives with dignity. 
  3. Education should be our state's top priority and that investment in education for all is crucial for allowing us to compete in the new economy. Because education is the most critical investment we can make in our future, we must strive to create a modern, state-of-the-art educational system that can adapt to meet the new challenges of our global economy.
  4. All Kentuckians have the right to appropriate and affordable medical care in times of injury or sickness and that the goal of improving the health and treatment of all citizens is a top priority. 

By the time Kentucky Sports Radio founder and host, Matt Jones arrived at the podium, it seemed the crowd was ready to rumble.  As a co-founder of the New Kentucky Project, Matt’s style complimented Adam’s beautifully.  His call to action was less Bill Clinton and more Oprah Winfrey.  His heartfelt call to action appealed to the middle, calling for more cooperation between party lines and a commitment to better educate both sides about the issues that matter.

So exactly how were we going to achieve all of this?  Well, initially by having New KY representatives organizing in all 120 counties of Kentucky.  The project’s priorities would revolve around two things:
  • Candidate development – attracting and training every day ordinary, passionate people willing to speak their truths.
  • Unapologetically picking and leading conversations about key issues that matter to all Kentuckians, rather than letting distractions frame elections. 

What I Heard.

The demographics of Kentucky are changing. All growth in Kentucky is due to non-white populations and takes place along our interstates.  More people are dying than are being born.  Males in Kentucky are dying 10 years sooner than the national average.  (Ron Crouch, Kentucky’s leading demographer)

The coal industry is dying.  For every coal job there are three solar/wind jobs.  The majority of power plants in the U.S. are solar and wind based. (Kiran Bhataraju, CEO Arcadia Power)

We have a problem with heroin and incarceration is not a solution. (Steve Gold, Henderson County Attorney)

We need more jobs/training but not necessarily more higher education.  Two-thirds of Kentucky jobs only require a high school diploma.  (Jason Bailey, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy) Kentucky college graduates are struggling with life-time student loan debt and it’s negatively impacting our economy.  (Representative James Kay)

We must be at the forefront of technology in addressing these issues. (Drew Curtis,

We need to fight bad ideas, find a way to finance good ones, and communicate them directly to the people.  (Jason Bailey, Kentucky Center for Economic Policy)

We need to focus on the issues.  We need to choose the issues – education, healthcare, tax reform, living wage, fixing the pension. (Representative Chris Harris and Senator Morgan McGarvey)

We are who we’ve been waiting for. (Everyone)

We are who we’ve been waiting for. (Everyone)

We are who we’ve been waiting for. (Everyone)

What I Was Missing.

While our demographer stated that all future growth in Kentucky will be attributed to non-whites, of the 23 speakers on the agenda, 4 were non-white, and 1 of those was the host.  While the conference touched on issues that impacted all Kentuckians like health care and living wages, there was no mention of recent national legislation that could impact Kentucky immigrants.  While there was talk about the heroin epidemic in our rural communities, there was no talk about issues of drugs and violence in inner cities.   In fact, Representative Attica Scott was the only speaker that mentioned Black Lives Matter and immigrant and refugee rights.  Also, notably missing was any discussion about women’s health and reproductive rights, and only two speakers briefly mentioned issues impacting the LGBTQ community.   The crowd was predominantly white, to the point where one white attendee actually got up and asked, “Why aren’t more people of color here?  Don’t they care?”  Matt Jones quickly and graciously held himself and organizers accountable to creating spaces that are more welcoming and inclusive.  The only person on the agenda that was identified as a “Pikeville native” was someone with a South Asian name - Kiran Bhataraju, CEO of Arcadia Power.  During her campaign, one of the speakers on the stage was vocal about her support for our current President and his policies.  Perhaps in the future, if there were a commitment from the New Kentucky Project to adequately discuss issues that adversely affect people of color, while paying closer attention to unspoken (and perhaps unintended) microaggressions in the form of agenda language and speaker selection, people of color might feel more comfortable entering these historically white and privileged spaces.     

As the conference came to an end, most of us were fired up and ready to organize, but we were somewhat unclear as to what our next steps should be.  As someone who is comfortable steering the wheel, it was easy for me know what to do - offer my reflections to the organizers, thank them for their incredible work in getting this off the ground, and then get in contact with my county coordinator to see where I can be plugged in immediately.  I worry about those who might have needed a more concrete action plan in order to keep this momentum going.

At the End of the Day…

I felt immense gratitude towards Adam, Matt, the executive committee, and all the organizers of the conference.  They planned for 300 and over 600 people showed up on a Saturday morning to talk about the future of Kentucky.  It was an incredible feat to energize a population that has, in recent years and months, been discouraged by the direction of state and national politics.  I think that the organizers are off to a phenomenal start.  I plan to throw my support behind these efforts, knowing that there is plenty of room for all of us to grow into the inclusive issue-driven party that we claim to be, holding organizers to the fire that this movement is anything BUT “politics as usual”.  If this project truly isn’t about elevating the status of any one or two “pedigreed” politicians, but about garnering our collective power as diverse Kentuckians to impact change, I’m all in.  Who’s with me?

Learn how you can be involved at New Kentucky Project.