These days, it’s common to see a sushi joint on the same street as a McDonald’s. In the past century, Asian American and Pacific Islanders have transformed the American palate. Yet many of these businesses face steeper financial hardships because of the pandemic, economic uncertainty and rising anti-Asian hate. “They suffered tremendously,” said Min Zhou, director of the Asia Pacific Center at UCLA.
Traditionally, many Asian American and Pacific Islanders found work in restaurants because they faced discrimination in other fields. “That was the only thing that they could do,” said Justin T. Huang, a University of Michigan professor of marketing whose research on anti-Asian racism in the pandemic found that Asian restaurants’ revenue declined more than others. While just 7 percent of Americans identify as Asian, the Pew Research Center recently reported that 12 percent of the country’s restaurants serve Asian food.
A new generation is looking to do more than just survive, said Huang, who added that his grandfather’s work in a restaurant enabled his dad to be a physicist and him to become a professor. “They have a message” to offer, “and they want to now express themselves through food.”
Ki KoKo Farms
“When they came here, they didn't speak any English,” said Taeh Paw Gaw, of her mother and aunt. “They didn't have any money.”
The sisters, Beh Paw Gaw, 64, and Pay Lay, 57, fled their country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1997 to a refugee camp in Thailand for a decade, and were resettled in the United States in 2007. The next year, they participated in a farming program for refugees and bought their own 2.5-acre farm in the middle of a Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood in 2011. They named their farm “Ki Koko,” which means “two sisters,” in Karen [pronounced “KN’YAW”], a distinct language and ethnic group.
They’re “just the sweetest people ever,” but also the “most hard-working and resilient,” said Amanda Lindahl, who worked for the farming program with the Gaw sisters.
Nowadays, the two sisters are up by 5:30 in the morning and work 12-hour days, fueled by the joy of selling both Western and Asian vegetables at the local farmer’s market, said Beh Paw.
It is all to “build a better life,” said Beh Paw, who is thinking about passing the farm to two of her seven children.
The goal, she said, is to “be independent, live a good life, help the poor, be a good role model and don’t forget where you come from.”
Hyundai Korean Restaurant
When Lee Shotts was figuring out her next act, she realized that “if there was an economic downturn, we still needed to eat.” Twenty years ago, she opened a Korean market near Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Soldiers from the base, who had served on tours in South Korea, started asking, “Ajumma [Korean for “aunt”], I want some Korean food. Are you going to cook?”
Those pleas convinced Shotts, who emigrated from South Korea in 1981 to marry an American soldier, to open an adjoining restaurant in 2006. Inside a nondescript brick building, she serves everything from Korean pancakes with kimchi to marinated beef short ribs.
“A lot of guys are meat and potatoes,” said Vickie Nichols, a former customer who has worked with Shotts for the past 10 years. But “food is the universal language. Everybody understands food, and it brings people together.” She’s seen Shotts build a community, as she takes care of her great-grandson, and gives away food to the sick and homeless.