Diverse and Dispersed:
Asian Residents of Rockbridge
By Matt Kaminer, Keenan Willard and Nuoya Zhou
Suparat Prapong darts through the kitchen of Napa Thai Cuisine, her restaurant at the corner of Lexington’s Main and Henry streets. She barks orders, in a mix of English and Thai, at her parents, who are cooks, and the young waiters in her restaurant.
Known to customers as Napa (pronounced Nah-paw), Prapong, 32, immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand in 2009. She graduated from The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok in 2007 with a degree in economics before coming to America with her parents and husband.
She worked in several restaurants in Northern Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.
But what she wanted was a place of her own.
She found it in Lexington, which did not have a Thai restaurant.
“We looked in more than ten locations,” she said. “We looked at New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia… but we decided on Lexington because we’re thinking, ‘If this town has two colleges, and they don’t have a Thai restaurant, maybe we’ll do good.’ We didn’t want to do it in a big city.”
The Asian population in Rockbridge County has grown 50 percent since 2000 and 33 percent in the past six years. Source: U.S. census data
Over the past two decades, the Asian population in Rockbridge County has increased by 50 percent practically
unnoticed by people who have grown up here and others who are more recent arrivals. Prapong is one of several residents who emigrated from such places as Thailand, South Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines.
They say they are so consumed with their businesses and families that they are isolated from one another.
They soon lose track of the holidays they once celebrated and lose touch with the lives they once lived. Their religions are so diverse that it is difficult for the Asian members of Rockbridge County to worship together.
They are a population without a sense of community. But they have one thing in common: Many say they face race discrimination often enough that they are reluctant to form a cohesive Asian community.
'I'm too busy'
Asian residents of Rockbridge County fill many different roles, including business owners, hairstylists, physical therapists and students at the local colleges and high schools.
Prapong and most of the people interviewed said they first moved to the county to start a business or to find a new job.
Ruby Liwag remembers waiting in the Philippines for over a year after getting certified as a physical therapist. She finally received an offer from Stonewall Jackson Hospital.
She decided to visit Lexington before taking the position. She said she wanted to live near other Filipinos, but was surprised at how few she saw when she arrived.
“When I came to Lexington, it was a shock on me at first,” Liwag said. “I remember myself walking in town and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I think I'm the only one here who has black hair.’”
She still went to work at Stonewall Jackson because she wanted a safe neighborhood with quality schools for her two children. But she said her family once considered moving to an area with a more vibrant Filipino culture after they settled in Lexington.
“We keep asking our children if they want to move, and they like it here, so that’s the reason why we stay,” she said. “[Having other Filipinos] was huge for me before, but now that my family and I adjusted, it really doesn't matter.”
Yanhong Zhu, who grew up in Shanghai, is one of many Asians who come to America for education. She did graduate work at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and earned her Ph.D at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“It’s probably every [Chinese] family’s idea that if you could pursue a degree in America, that’s better than being in China,” said Zhu, who is a professor at Washington and Lee University. “And because it’s so difficult to come to the United States, pursuing a degree would seem to be the ideal way for young, aspiring kids to change their lives and live the American dream.”
Young-Suk Jung, owner of Virginia Gold Orchard in Lexington
She said she hasn’t attempted to interact much with other Asian residents who live out in the county, in part because she considers the East Asian Studies program at W&L as her community.
“I don't really have any close relationships with people other than my colleagues here at W&L, so I don’t really know much about the Asian community within the city,” Zhu said. “Over the years we had more and more Asian faculty who came to W&L to work, so we were kind of expanding the community a bit more on campus.”
Running a business or taking on a new job can make it hard to find time to meet other people from Asian
countries and interact with the Rockbridge community, says Hwacha Steenburgh, a Korean immigrant who owns L’Orient Styling Salon in Lexington.
“Personally, I think immigrants like me, we’re too busy making a living,” she said. “We don’t have the time.”
Prapong said she barely leaves her restaurant during the day and doesn’t have time outside of business hours to meet
other people from Asia. She said the Asian residents work in Lexington and live in distant parts of Rockbridge County, which makes it more difficult to make those connections.
“Asian people here, you’re separate.” Prapong said. “They’re not close to each other. There are Asians in Lexington, but Asian people living in Northern Virginia or D.C., they’re close to each other because they work together in the same area. But for here, people live so far, no one has time to come to join each other.”
Young-Suk Jung, a local South Korean pear farmer, said she has felt less of a desire to seek out other Asians as she has spent more time away from her home country.
Yanhong Zhu, professor at Washington and Lee University
She first emigrated to the U.S. from Korea in 1979 and settled with her husband in New Hampshire. Her first few years in the U.S. were difficult because she had no driver’s license and spoke limited English.
“I was going crazy really, just culture shock,” she said.
The couple moved to Lexington in 1990 to open the farm, and she’s since adjusted to American life. She says she doesn’t
have as much time or desire to find other Asians as she did in her first few years in the U.S.
“At that time, I was young,” Jung said. “So of course, when I see Korean people I was always so happy to see them. But now it’s kind of changed. So many years have gone by, and I’m kind of oriented here. And because of my job, I’m a farmer, and here I’m too busy to be, kind of, meeting with Korean people like that.”
Many Asian residents of Rockbridge County have lived most of their lives in the United States and don’t connect as much with their families’ native cultures.
Lai Lee, who co-owns High Meadow Strategies, a consulting firm in downtown Lexington, has lived in the United States since his family emigrated from China when he was 7 years old.
He said he doesn’t have much of a Chinese identity, which makes him less inclined to socialize with other Asian residents.
“We got used to not being in an Asian culture, a Chinese culture,” Lee said. “I know there are Asians [in Lexington], particularly Chinese, but I haven’t really [sought] them out. Nor did they seek me out either.”
Several Asian residents in Rockbridge County have taken steps to stay connected to the cultures, religions and lifestyles that they left behind in their home countries.
Adhering to the lunar calendar instead of the Western calendar is one way they attempt to stay connected to their native cultures. But many of them say their busy schedules do not allow time for much cultural observance.
Zhu said the Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, two of the most prominent holidays in Chinese culture, are all that she celebrates now.
Traditional Lunar New Year is celebrated by people from six different East Asian countries, including Japan, China and Korea. The lunar New Year celebration last 15 days. The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates harvests and is observed by Chinese and Vietnamese people. It is held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar.
Family members are supposed to eat meals together during both holidays, but Zhu said her celebrations are mostly restricted to students and faculty.
“My mom spent some time with me here, so we end up being able to celebrate Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year almost every year together,” Zhu said. “But all the other festivals, I sometimes forget, I lose track of what exactly it is for the festival, and then my friends or family remind me.”
Prapong, the owner of Napa Thai, said she is disconnected from her culture.
“So, for me, I don’t celebrate, I just do it later,” she said. “We just go to temple, and go pray.”
Prapong said she had to make several cultural adjustments in starting a Thai restaurant in Lexington. She said learning to speak English instead of Thai with her American employees was one of the biggest hurdles.
“Thai people don’t like to change,” she said. “They don’t want to learn another language. Most of the chefs, they’re old … It’s hard for them to learn the English language. That’s why all the kitchen has to be all Thai people.”
Many Thai restaurants give tests to American chefs to determine whether they can communicate in Thai, Prapong said.
Prapong also said generational divides can play a role in how disconnected people from Asia might feel from the cultures of their home countries.
“For me, [I don’t feel disconnected], because I’m young, but my mom and my dad [feel disconnected], yes,” she said.
Other Asian immigrants said physical distance can influence their sense of cultural alienation.
“I cannot celebrate [Lunar New Year] at all,” said Young-Suk Jung, owner of the Virginia Gold Orchard. “Sometimes I cook a New Year’s dinner. But in the Korean community it’s much different here … I’m so far from the Korean community.”
That means that many Asian residents can use food to observe their holidays, but don’t gather together in religious ceremonies as much.
Suparat Prapong, owner of Napa Thai Cuisine in Lexington
The wide variety of religions that Asians residents in Rockbridge practice prevents them from having one religious center in the county.
Rockbridge County is unique among counties in the South, which is predominantly Baptist. In contrast, Rockbridge County is largely Presbyterian, a reflection of its settlement by people of Scots-Irish descent.
Buddhism is a predominant religion among the world's Asian populations. But it is practiced in many different ways. There are two Buddhist temples in Rockbridge County. Bodhi Path Buddhist Center in Natural Bridge specializes in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Forest Dhamma Monastery is a Thai temple 16 miles southwest of Lexington.
The Bodhi Path center was founded in 1997 by a Buddhist religious figure called the Shamarpa. It offers a meditation hall for worship, a traditional Buddhist shrine called a stupa, and several Buddha figures for prayer.
Chris Fang, a board member at Bodhi Path, said the center offers weekly meditation sessions but also includes programs to teach Buddhist values to local people.
Several Asians who were interviewed said the Bodhi Path Center is the most prominent Asian religious option in the county, but said they had either attended it only once or never at all.
“We worship Buddha only during the Lunar New Year,” said Yan Li, owner of Canton Chinese Restaurant in Buena Vista.
Li said she considers herself Buddhist but does not attend Bodhi Path because it is not associated with Chinese Buddhism. She said Bodhi Path does not offer the necessary resources for her to practice traditional Chinese Buddhist rituals.
Religion isn’t the only way Asians are losing touch with their heritage.
Younger generations increasingly can’t speak the languages of their grandparents.
Lai Lee’s daughter Maggie, a senior at Rockbridge County High School, said she was never taught to speak Cantonese because her father has limited use of the language.
Maggie Lee said the language gap prevents her from communicating with her father’s parents when she visits them in New York because they only speak Cantonese.
“I do wish that I had learned to speak a little bit of Cantonese just simply because my grandparents don’t really speak much English,” she said. “My grandmother knows enough English
to make sure I’m not hungry or cold, but I really can’t communicate with her.”
As a result, Maggie Lee said she has become closer with her mother’s family than that of her father.
“I can drive over to my [maternal grandmother’s] house and we can have a conversation, whereas if I want to speak with my other grandmother, I need a translator,” she said. “I need an intermediary.”
The Asian residents who were interviewed also said they routinely drive hours outside of Rockbridge County to find the churches, traditional food and sense of community that remind them of home. Prapong said she closes her restaurant on Mondays so she can go to Washington to buy Thai ingredients.
Ruby Liwag, a physical therapist from the Philippines, said she does not have many opportunities to taste her favorite native dishes, unless she cooks them. She also enjoys Filipino cuisine at an annual gathering in Staunton that she attends each Christmas.
One of her favorite restaurants is Jolibee, a popular restaurant chain in the Philippines.
“This is our McDonalds,” she said. “I grew up with this one.”
Liwag knew immediately where her family would go on vacation when Jolibee opened a franchise in New York in 2016.
“When they had it in New York, I told my husband, ‘We’re gonna travel to New York just to eat at that one,’” she said.
Discrimination 'is just part of my life'
Jamie Goodin, a Lexington resident adopted from South Korea when he was six months old, said he has faced race discrimination.
“This is just part of my life,” Goodin said. “I’ll be just walking on the street going home on a weekend, and I’ll have a big pickup truck, four dudes, who would just start barking at me loudly as they drive by.”
He graduated from W&L in 2010 and works for the university as its digital engagement manager.
Several Asian residents said they have either experienced racial discrimination or have witnessed it against others.
It was in the middle of the night in 2002, when Gloria Smitka, a Lexington resident who immigrated from the Philippines, received a phone call.
“It said, ‘You have a surprise. Look out your window,’” she said.
She saw a sign in her front yard that said, “N***ers, two for $1.”
Gloria Smitka, Lexington resident
Smitka said she called police who took away the sign. The police also suggested she call the phone company to identify the caller.
“That was the beginning of my seeing that it’s for real,” she said. “I think there is discrimination, and it’s not just misunderstanding.”
Smitka moved to the U.S. in 1971 and worked as a nurse. She lived in Philadelphia and New York before she moved to the Rockbridge area where her husband, Michael Smitka, became a professor in W&L’s economics department.
Li, the owner of Canton Chinese Restaurant, said she also has received nasty phone calls. But callers ask if her restaurant serves cat or dog meat.
She said she just disconnected the call.
“I see it as a joke,” she said in Chinese. “What else can I do? Bringing a lawsuit for this? I don’t have enough time to take care of things like this, so sometimes I just let it go. It’s futile to explain things to this type of people.”
Liwag said she hasn’t experienced direct race discrimination. But she used to notice when patients gave her strange looks and asked her odd questions when she first went to work at the hospital.
Some of her patients asked if she was an intern because she was the first Filipino in the Therapy Services Department.
“It was a challenge on my profession,” Liwag said. “It’s not in a way that they are discriminating against us, but they are questioning us. It’s because they don’t know; it’s their first time.”
The challenge, Liwag said, was to prove herself to her patients that she was competent enough to do the work.
Ruby Liwag, Physical Therapist at Stonewall Jackson Hospital
She said once they started to know her and build a professional relationship with her, “you start to feel like you belong to the community.”
Lee, co-owner of High Meadow Strategies, said he has never experienced racism in Rockbridge County.
“I don’t look for it,” he said. “Whether it’s happened or not, I don’t really know. I don’t really care. I think if you go looking for something like that, you’re probably out to find it.”
“I don't pay attention to that [racial discrimination] stuff, and so living in Lexington is no different for me than living any other place where I have been, either stationed with the Air Force or lived professionally,” Lee said.
Goodin said people have stopped him on the streets of Lexington, asking him where he’s from.
They don’t believe him when he says he’s from Virginia. Goodin was adopted from South Korea when he was an infant.
Lai Lee, co-owner of High Meadow Strategies in Lexington
“No, but where are you really from, boy?” they ask.
“I’d like to assume that these people are not intentionally mean but unintentionally foolish,” Goodin said.
A study conducted by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University in 2017 found that one in four Asians surveyed had been discriminated against based on race in applying for jobs, renting or buying homes.
Jamie Goodin, digital engagement manager at Washington and Lee University
Goodin said his friends of color have also had similar experiences when they have visited him in Lexington.
“They don’t want to come to a place where they are going to feel like they are the only ones or they are tokenized and marginalized and so easily identified,” he said. “The city as a whole, the county as a whole, W&L as a whole, none of these are diverse enough.”
Goodin said the experiences have made him tougher.
“Ultimately, I think it increases my resilience to overall negativity, which I’m grateful for,” he said.
Goodin said people from Asia living in Rockbridge may avoid gathering together to celebrate their culture because they are afraid of calling attention to themselves.
“I definitely think that if I were to hang out with a big group of Asians in public, I would be willing to bet that someone is going to harass us in some way,” he said. “I don’t seek out Asian camaraderie because I don’t know if the benefit will outweigh the cost.”
Published May 18, 2018
About The Project
This website is the product of a senior journalism capstone project in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University. The project requires students to research and report on a topic of significance in Lexington, Rockbridge County or the greater Shenandoah Valley region, using the techniques we have learned to create enterprising, in-depth journalistic work for the mass media.
The project was completed during W&L's Spring Term, 2018.
B.A., Business Journalism
Hewlett, New York
Class of 2018
B.A., Business Journalism
Class of 2018
Raleigh, North Carolina
Class of 2018