Two Asian-Americans On Growing Up In The Midwest vs. Chinatown

Jessica Prois
Phillip Cheng, left, and Kai Ng, right, share many similarities as Chinese-American immigrants, but grew up in contrasting communities. (Courtesy Phillip Cheng Kai Ng)

Welcome to The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience”? It depends where you look. 

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Many Asian-Americans can point to a time of feeling culturally conflicted. 

And that tug between dual cultures can feel uniquely different depending on where your family makes their home ― whether it’s a small suburb or an ethnic enclave ― and how you fit into your respective community.

We talked to two sons of immigrants from China about how their Asian-American experiences were impacted, in part, by regional differences in the U.S.

Phillip Cheng, 24, grew up in the Midwest, where his dad still works in the Chinese restaurant business and his mom is a blackjack dealer. Cheng was one of only a few Asian-American students in his school. He is also gay, and talks about feeling like an outsider on multiple levels. 

Illustrative of a wholly different upbringing, 33-year-old Kai Ng’s family immigrated to Chinatown in Manhattan, where his parents worked in factories and his classmates were all Chinese-American students.

At their core, Cheng and Ng have very similar experiences: They were both the first in their families to graduate college, both experienced racism, both men and their families made sacrifices like sleeping three people to a mattress and living apart from family members, and they both grew up in a dual culture eating cuisine from Hong Kong and Shanghai ― along with McDonald’s chicken nuggets. 

Yet the backdrop of the Midwest and the East Coast created lives for both men representative of two completely worlds — yet all within the same country. Below the two share how their respective upbringings have shaped them today. 

HuffPost: What’s your parents’ backstory? When did they come to the U.S. and where do you fit into the picture?

Phillip Cheng (Illinois): My parents came to the U.S. separately in the 1980s from Shanghai after the Communist Revolution. They met in Connecticut. My dad owned a takeout Chinese restaurant in New Haven. My mom worked for him and he was going to fire her ― but then they ended up getting married! My mom now works as a blackjack dealer in a casino and my dad is still in the restaurant business. I was actually born in Flushing, New York, which is primarily Asian. But we moved to the Midwest when I was a couple years old so my dad could help a friend open a restaurant. 

Kai Ng (Chinatown, New York): My parents met in Hong Kong and moved us to New York in 1988. They worked in the garment industry in Hong Kong and also in New York ― working in factories in Chinatown in Manhattan. When we arrived, my parents, two siblings and I moved in with my grandparents at the intersection of Grand Street and Mott Street in Chinatown in 1988. I was 4 years old. 

What was your life at home like growing up? Can you share some of your earlier memories?

Phillip (Illinois): I grew up outside of St. Louis, Missouri ― in a suburb that was technically in Illinois but considered to be in the St. Louis metropolitan area. We lived at the end of this street in one of the more modest houses. It was mainly white families and elderly people. I had a foot firmly planted on each side, culturally. I was very much immersed in the culture of Chinese food because my mom cooked it regularly. But I also ate American food at friends’ houses and, of course, things like McDonald’s. And I spoke Mandarin with parents, but I now jokingly call it Chinglish.

Kai (Chinatown, New York): In our Chinatown apartment with my grandparents, my brother, sister and I all slept on onemattress together for a couple years until we moved to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. I’m not sure how long we had that mattress, but I don’t remember shopping for new beds. At home, I would talk to my parents in Cantonese. I grew up eating egg tarts and milk tea. I appreciate those experiences so much. 

What did your school look like in terms of demographics?

Phillip (Illinois): I was one of two Asian kids in elementary school. And I had to have an English tutor. In elementary school, it was the first time I was in “white America.” And then I went to a high school of 2,600 kids, and I remember pretty distinctly there were only three or four Asian kids.

Kai (Chinatown, New York)I went to elementary school in Chinatown, where there were maybe five to 10 kids who weren’t Asians. I definitely didn’t feel like an alien. But then in middle school in Manhattan, I went to school with more white and black kids. And then once I got to high school, it was this realization that it wasn’t just East Asian, black and white ― it was suddenly kids from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Poland. It was truly a melting pot. 

Was there a moment you become aware of your “Asian-ness” and felt different? Or even experienced overt racism?

Phillip (Illinois): Yeah, every once in a while there was a fried rice joke or a joke about squinty eyes. I vaguely remember a kid telling me to go back to China. But I actually feel it more in dating as a gay man now today than growing up. It’s not the same level of discrimination the black community faces, but racism is overt in the gay community. There is a stereotypical tag line on dating apps, for example: “No fats, no fems, no Asians, no blacks.” What’s difficult is sexuality is a personal thing so people use that excuse ― it’s a sexual preference. 

In 6th and 7th grade, you start comparing yourself in terms of height and athleticism. I was different, you know ― Asian genetics. I didn’t start puberty as soon as some of the other boys did. I felt more boyish. Kids started talking about dating and who you’re going to take to a dance. I became much more aware of my Asian-ness and otherness. 

Kai (Chinatown, New York): Yeah, I grew up with people calling me “slanty eyes” and being called “rice cakes.” There was also this issue with the word “Asian.” I had grown up where everyone knew the distinctions in nationalities, and now suddenly everyone was called “Chinese.” I had Korean friends and a Tibetan friend, and they were all called “Chinese.”

What was considered “normal” while you were growing up? Did you feel like you fit into that mold? 

Phillip (Illinois): In terms of race, the norm was to be white. In terms of sexuality, the norm was to be heterosexual. The deepest time of feeling isolated was around the age of 14 or 15. I buried myself, keeping myself as busy as possible. There was nobody else who was Asian who could really understand that sense of otherness. In terms of sexual identity, it’s overcoming a lot of stigmas being labeled a certain way.

I was a conductor for my marching band, in show choir, in every theater production, on speech and debate team. I didn’t have much time. But the moments I did have were sitting in parking lots before I would go home. I’d kind of wallow in a sense of ‘What am I doing?’ I felt frustrated. It was more this sense of frustration because I didn’t know who to reach out to or connect with.

Kai (Chinatown, New York)For Asians at the time in the 90s in New York, “normal” at my school was to be in or aligned with Asian gang culture. I would refer to it as the “Gangster’s Paradise” movie era. And when it came to how you actually looked, you wanted to be what you saw. The options were basically black hip hop culture or white Abercrombie culture. That’s what you should shoot for. You should look like both. But not Asian. Nobody wants to be Jackie Chan.

Did you feel like you were culturally straddling lines?

Phillip (Illinois)Culturally I felt like I was straddling a line between American-ness and Chinese heritage. But also being attracted to guys ― that was abnormal. I was exploring my sexuality and identity probably my last year of middle school. The sense of identity and Asian-ness and sexuality were really intertwined. I couldn’t separate why I was feeling othered ― how or why I was searching for my sense of identity.

Kai (Chinatown, New York)Most of my friends are Asian and Chinese-American, specifically. I also feel like that’s part of growing up in New York, too. You have people who look like you and speak like you and you feel comfortable around. All the Korean people who hang out together will be in Flushing. All the Filipinos will be Elmhurst, Queens. All the Chinese will be in Chinatown, Manhattan.

Do you ever have any child-of-an-immigrant guilt? How does it manifest itself? 

Phillip (Illinois): I never felt like my problems were my parents’ problem to deal with ― that’s definitely an Asian thing. My parents were first-gen immigrants and I saw how hard they were working. When you’re out having a social life, say, there’s always that first-gen guilt. My parents sacrificed X, Y and Z for me to be on this rooftop right now.

The first time I saw my mother in an environment with three suburban white moms, I was standing next to them observing. There was this sense of exclusion because my mom didn’t understand the nuances, the coding, the way they joked. It felt there was a deliberate exclusion. That really left an impact on me because I saw what my parents went through for their entire existence in America.

Kai (Chinatown, New York):  When I was younger I didn’t feel bad. For my immigrant family, there was not story time. There was “hustle time.” There was “go-get-to-work-and-bring-some-money-home time.” I didn’t appreciate what my parents did because I didn’t know. But now yes, I have more appreciation for the hustle.

Did you feel pressure to be friends with other Asians-Americans ― or conversely, that you wanted to distance yourself from other Asian-Americans?

Phillip (Illinois)My friend circle kind of looked like a stereotypical history textbook. I was the token Asian friend, and we had a token black friend. And then all white. I was in a micro-community because I was part of the honors school inside of my high school. I do think being the only Asian in high school, it felt like you were cast into a role, and there was only room for one. If another Asian kid came into the group, it was like, ‘Is there room for both of us in there?’ There was this one other Asian kid in high school I felt that with, but I don’t think we ever really connected. I was artsy and theatrical. He was taking AP calc. We didn’t cross paths too much. 

Kai (Chinatown, New York):  My friends were mostly Asian, and I’m still friends with my elementary school friends. But yes, it was important to be as American as possible. You didn’t want to be that Asian kid with no American friends. I think I did feel some Asian pride being friends with Asians. I was friends with Asians but also a lot of people because I was on the basketball team. 

You were both first in your family to graduate from college. Tell me what that was like. 

Phillip (Illinois): I went to Columbia College in Chicago and got scholarships and grants. I always loved film, and I knew I wanted to go into it. My parents went to my plays and shows, so it wasn’t a big surprise. There was talk about me being a lawyer ― you know, a typical career that makes parents “proud.” And my mom would say I was so good at arguing. Even my last year of college, she brought it up good-naturedly. And I was like ‘Mom, we’ve kind of spent a lot of money here.’ But I never felt like I was disappointing them or anything.

There weren’t a lot of Asians at Columbia. I did make some Asian friends. I talk now with some of my Asian friends who grew up in predominantly white communities. We joke about, ‘Oh did you make good Asian friends before you moved to the city?’ I remember my first Asian friend I made once I moved to a city. We joked, ‘Are we our first Asian friend?’ 

My friends in Chicago ― one of my best friends was an international student from Guatemala. Another friend was a first-gen student from Guyana. I had a childhood friend who had just come out as trans. I think it wasn’t necessarily a search for other Asian friends. It was just the fact I ended up in a place with so many people from so many different backgrounds. It mattered more that you were a great human being.

Kai (Chinatown, New York): For me and my family, it was never like, ’OK kiddo, just pick anything you love as long as you love doing it.′ There were other struggles, like I think I was good at art, but there was pressure to go into a business degree. Who is to decide? It was more of a priority to make money and help out my family at the time. But it wasn’t all on my parents or anything. High school kind of caught me off guard, so I wasn’t completely sure about college. I didn’t like everything being taught. I didn’t like all the electives and didn’t get who got to choose them and why. For instances, why couldn’t you take Chinese history? Maybe it was surprising to me because I had gone to school with all Asians before ― maybe it was a number of factors. 

I did need more time to decide on college, but I ended up going to LaGuardia two-year college in Queens for business and finished in 2005. It’s, of course, very diverse there. Some people are all excited to go away. It wasn’t necessarily like that for me. 

And what was being at college like for you?

Phillip (Illinois)There weren’t a lot of Asians at Columbia. I did make some Asian friends. I talk now with some of my Asian friends who grew up in predominantly white communities. We joke about, ‘Oh did you make good Asian friends before you moved to the city?’ I remember my first Asian friend I made once I moved to a city. We joked, ‘Are we our first Asian friend?’ 

My friends in Chicago ― one of my best friends was an international student from Guatemala. Another friend was a first-gen student from Guyana. I had a childhood friend who had just come out as trans. I think it wasn’t necessarily a search for other Asian friends. It was just the fact I ended up in a place with so many people from so many different backgrounds. It mattered more that you were a great human being.

Kai (Chinatown, New York): I did need more time to decide on college, but I ended up going to LaGuardia two-year college in Queens for business and finished in 2005. It’s, of course, very diverse there. Some people are all excited to go away. It wasn’t necessarily like that for me. 

Where are you today in terms of the cultural pride continuum? And how have your experiences influenced that?

Phillip (Illinois)When I was younger I was constantly becoming more invested in my culture. I loved to go to a Chinatown and have Shanghainese food. And I would want to bring friends with me. That’s still the same, and luckily now I work in advertising, which is progressive, and I live in New York. The assumptions about race don’t exist in the same way. It’s more about relationships now. 

I also don’t necessarily resent any of the experiences in the Midwest in a super homogenous white community. I was in-between two cultures, and maybe it’s been easier to branch out from there compared to other people. For example, when I was younger, my parents would kick me out of the house and put me on a plane to go visit my aunt and uncle in Shanghai and say, ‘You know how to get there, right?’ Now I’m not scared to just up and move to Chicago or New York or London or China.

I also think, and this goes for most people of color, that when you have been othered you are more sensitive to others. When you have been in a room where you have not been considered the standard, you consider other people’s experiences more. As someone who works in advertising and film now, the act of feeling othered is something that definitely influences your work. 

Kai (Chinatown, New York):I said it before, but I really learned to appreciate the hustle from my parents, and now I’m trying to fulfill my dream of working for myself and launching a fitness startup. 

I also have this appreciation from my parents’ experiences and this certain perspective now: When my friends and I are talking about kids, I wonder if I want to raise them here in the U.S. because I want them to know more than I did. The issue is American education — what is in our textbooks. Everything is just about how great America was and everybody else should respect America. There’s a lot out there that was not in my textbooks. I did not find any Asian pride or anything to be proud of in American textbooks. 

I normally keep a lot of my own history to myself because I am embarrassed, but I really opened up because I think Asian people need to be heard.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.