What is it Like to be an Ethnic Minority in a Place Where There are None?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

By Alecia Li Morgan, American of mixed heritage

It's a test of character and personal strength.

While I wouldn't say Grand Forks, ND, had "no" ethnic minorities, I would say that it had very minimal minority representation in its population. I also would be guilty of prejudice if I were to state that what I'm about to say applies to all or even most of the people I met while there. It applies only to a small amount - however, that amount was far greater than the amount I'd met previously while living in Davis, California, or San Jose, California. Most of the people I met in Grand Forks were welcoming, friendly, and actually OVER-eager to show me how "okay" they were with ethnic diversity. The majority of the people I met and worked with were perhaps not as familiar with other cultures, especially Asian ones, but they were very interested and eager to learn. They also gladly answered my questions (I learned a lot about Norwegian and German cultures, especially!). And once we started talking, I was able to feel like they saw past the differences on the surface and began to accept me for the person I am.

But in relation to the few that were NOT as open to diversity, it was:

  • Confusing - As a born-and-raised American first and foremost, I found it confusing to be greeted with and viewed as a "foreigner" and hints of prejudice. I self-identify first as an American, specifically, a Californian. I  speak only English fluently (I'm not proud of this, but it's a fact). I was born in Pasadena, CA, and grew up in the Bay Area. I went to a Catholic school growing up, and I was a member of a year-round USS swim team for over ten years. I also grew up with cultural heritage pride from both my parents - I'm Chinese, Native American, and German by heritage. As a child of mixed ethnicities, I think it's quite normal to feel at war sometimes internally with how to identify. But in an area with very, very little ethnic diversity, that confusion is tenfold. I felt conflicted - should I respond with the theme that I am NOT foreign - I AM American? Or should I "stick up for" my cultural heritage and emanate cultural pride and self-identification? It felt like a three-sided battle in which I felt equally drawn to fight for two sides.
  • Gastronomically boring - Try getting good ethnic cuisine somewhere where there aren't many ethnicities represented. Agggggh! OH, how we ATE when we came "home" to visit!
  • Hurtful - Any time you meet with prejudice, racism, or any sort of hate, it's hurtful. But when you're in a vast minority, it's hurtful in a new way - it makes you feel alienated...misunderstood.
  • Impersonal - I felt like I wasn't being viewed or seen as ME, Alecia, but that "foreign" person. When they looked at me or spoke to me, I felt like the first person they were speaking to and seeing was the one of mixed race, not the mind behind the face, so to speak.
  • Humbling - What I learned was that while I could see blatant prejudices being aimed at me, I also could see the prejudices that were aimed at THEM by some of my friends and family who came to visit me over the years. It opened my eyes to BOTH sides of prejudice. (More about this later)
  • Obvious - this seems like a stupid one to list, but in the Bay Area, walking around as an American of mixed heritage is no big deal. Walking around in Grand Forks, I felt pretty glaringly obvious. I knew that when my customers walked into my store, some of them knew right away who I was because of what I looked like. (Before it seems like I'm just being overly suspicious, let me say that some of my customers later TOLD me this, as we got to know each other more)
  • Shocking - I have dealt with many instances of racial tension in the past. I have dealt with being a minority in the past (I went to a Catholic school with an ethnic population very like Grand Forks). As an adult though, I have had very few instances of direct ethnic prejudice aimed at me. However, my first week in my new store in Grand Forks, I had a customer pull me aside and tell me off for "taking a job from a good, hard working American" - I was boggled. I stammered as I expressed my confusion: I am an American. Moreover, I had worked for Starbucks for three years already, and I had worked up from barista level to attain the store management position. I wasn't just handed the transfer to this store; I had flown to North Dakota a few months prior and interviewed for it. Her confrontation with me was followed up by a very angry letter to my district manager elaborating on the same theme. Clearly, our discussion had not left any impression on her beyond the fact that yes, my last name was, in fact, "Li" and I was not a Grand Forks, or even North Dakota, native. I was shocked.
  • A Big Responsibility - to be a representative of another culture, state, company, anything, is always a big responsibility. Being the ethnic minority in a place with very few others is definitely a big responsibility. Not only do you have the burden of living a moral life (that every human has), but you have to do it for the ethnicity you represent (or are perceived to represent). I learned again about being humble, being open, and always taking the high road. I learned about assuming positive intent. I learned about not only being an ambassador of my cultural ethnicity but also an interested learner for theirs. I learned that cultural PRIDE is not the key, but cultural curiosity is.
  • Normal. The biggest lesson I learned here is that while the contrast is greater in a place like Grand Forks, the issues are everywhere. They are normal. And they are EASILY reversed. There are tensions everywhere - some places better than others, but still there. The biggest piece is how you let yourself act and behave. While I experienced a far larger concentration of prejudiced acts and words there, by no means were they the only ones I'd ever faced (the first "racist" remarks I remember were when I was a five year old in Disneyland sitting waiting for a parade with my paternal grandparents. They were speaking to me in Cantonese, and a young Latina girl near me looked at me, pulled her eyes to be "chink" eyes, and told me "Chinkies, go HOME!" - it boggled me. I was home! I'd been born and raised thus far in Pasadena!).

It'd be so easy for us to look at Grand Forks and places like it with a lens of disgust and holier-than-thou ethnic knowledge and awareness, but that'd put us in the exact same boat as the few "bad apples" in the GF barrel. And unfortunately, I did see friends/family come to visit us and act like the North Dakotans were second class citizens simply because of where they lived and chose to live. Being from California does not make you BETTER than someone from North Dakota. What makes you a better person is...if you are a better person! I look at my time there like I looked at working at Starbucks there - the building of a Brand. Starbucks in California at the time I moved to GF (2007) was well-established already. It had a known brand, culture, and following. Starbucks in North Dakota was fairly new. ND was the second to last state to even get a Starbucks (South Dakota being last). Starbucks had been established there only four years when I moved there. It was a new, fairly unknown brand. It didn't really have the cult following that Starbucks in CA did. I viewed my role as a Starbucks store manager as an ambassador of the brand, and I tried to teach and instill that same idea to all my partners (with varied success). I was excited and passionate about the company (still am), and my store was my chance to influence for the positive. The brand was not well-established yet, and my actions, decisions, and leadership would help shape it in this city. The same goes for being a member of "an ethnic minority in a place where there are none" - it was my responsibility to build the brand - while staying true to what the real message was - we're all PEOPLE. We're humans. And we all need to treat each other as such. No better, no worse.

And for what it's worth, my hugest complaints about the four years we spent in Grand Forks are these:

  • Cold weather.
  • Cold weather.
  • Distance from my family.
  • Cold weather.
  • Cold weather.
  • Distance from a Costco.
  • Mosquitoes.
  • Distance from a 99 Ranch.
  • Cold weather.
  • Lack of diverse cuisines.
  • Cold weather.
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