YouTube video
“The Asian Experience in Appalachia” by Jade Ruggieri, via the Deesmealz on YouTube.

According to NBC News, anti-Asian hate crimes in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities increased by 339% last year compared to the year before. With labels of Covid-19 as the “China Virus,” the Asian community was highlighted in the media, but what was not emphasized was the experience the community was facing.

As a student at West Virginia University (WVU) and an Asian American myself, I wanted to explore how hate continues to affect the Asian community of Appalachia. In the video above, I sought to highlight the complexities of culture and identity within the Asian community, mentioned in mainstream media but rarely squared with actual lived experiences.

Beginnings and Behind the Story

I started by focusing on how hate had affected Asian restaurateurs. I met many challenges along the way, and, ultimately, the story led to places I never would have anticipated.

As a WVU student, I wanted to find stories from the larger Asian community in Pittsburgh beyond the college town bubble of Morgantown. But when I ventured out, I was met with countless “no’s.” Almost all of the restaurateurs did not want to be interviewed.

I am sure that many of them, understandably, didn’t feel comfortable speaking out, but there was a part of me that wondered if it was because they felt that I was not Asian enough. Perhaps I didn’t seem like someone they could trust. Alice Wu, who works at Café 33 Taiwanese Bistro in Pittsburgh, was the only person from the food industry who was willing to share her story. She grew up in China for the first 20 years of her life and has likewise now resided in the Pittsburgh area for 20 years.

Some of the people I visited were courteous enough to say, “I don’t feel like my English is good enough,” but others had a look in their eyes as if I was too American and promptly shut me down. Amid this blend of two cultures, I am either too Asian and not American enough, or for others, too American and not Asian enough. Wu explained in an interview later on that the Asian culture is reserved and predominantly focused on one's own families, which is why the community may not speak out on hate crimes as a whole.

As someone who was adopted from China when I was just a year old, I understand the difficulties the American and Asian communities face, but often feel like I have one foot in each door. When I moved to rural, western Maryland in eighth grade, I was bullied for my skin color, with names ranging from “wonton” to “eggroll” and “sushi roll.” With my type of humor, I thought, “if you’re going to bully me, at least get my ethnicity correct.”

Although I have been raised in America, and that’s the only culture I’ve ever known, I could not understand why my peers did not see me as the American I am on the inside.

I had never been ashamed of my identity as both of my parents always supported me, including the one year when I discovered a fried rice recipe in my elementary school library and made fried rice at least three times a week. Always one to crack a joke, I brushed off statements about “being a bad driver” or “surprisingly not good enough at math” with a laugh because, like all stereotypes, not everyone is defined by one characteristic.

With these thoughts in my mind, I went back to the drawing board and consulted with my professor, Jim Iovino. Out of that brainstorm I shifted my focus on how Asian students at WVU felt about the rise of Asian hate during the pandemic.

The more I interviewed, the more I realized that beyond being stigmatized due to a virus outside of their control, they also had conflicted emotions about their identities. All three of the individuals I spoke to are equally Asian, American, and Appalachian.

That was when I found the unexpected story, one that couldn’t have been more familiar to me.

Jade Ruggieri is a senior at West Virginia University, pursuing accelerated track bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism. Jade has worked with the school newspaper, the West Virginia University Foundation, served as a teaching assistant for a sports broadcasting class, and is a summer intern for The Dominion Post. In her final year at WVU, Jade will intern with WBOY-12 News and serve as a graduate assistant for Dr. Elizabeth Oppe in the Reed College of Media.

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