Welcome to Lake Wobegon: gateway to Southeastern Michigan?
Postcards from the Midwest | photo Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
When we both were accepted at midwestern universities for graduate school, we thought we were headed to Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” I bought the sweatshirt around then, with a “Lake Wobegon” crest, the town’s motto “Sumus Quid Sumus” (“We are what we are”), images of Norwegian bachelor farmers, an old-timey radio microphone, and rising above it all, a mighty Powdermilk Biscuit, which gives “shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done. Heavens, they’re tasty and expeditious.”
I was so excited the first time I saw lutefisk and lefse in the grocery store and told my Minnesotan housemate Andrea. She laughed and explained how Swedes from Sweden and Norwegians from Norway are actually baffled by why Swedish Americans and Norwegian Americans would hang on to those horrible foods through the generations. “Those are the foods they ate on the boat coming over because there was nothing else to eat,” she told me.
I even bought a book from the Prairie Home Companion folks, How to Talk Minnesotan, so that I would be able to speak the language when I arrived.
You can imagine the blank stares I received when I showed it to my professors to show them how prepared I was for graduate school in Michigan. “But we’re not in Minnesota.”
Much the way that people without a lot of experience with Asians and Asian Americans sometimes think that Asians are all the same—cannot speak English, are math whizzes, are experts in karate/kung fu/whatever, all eat with chopsticks—I had no idea that Michigan is not Minnesota. I thought the Midwest was all one place. I thought it would all be the same. I was expecting miles and miles of cornfields, like what I saw from the vantage of airplane windows flying cross-country. I knew nothing of autumn leaves, University of Michigan football, the auto industry, or even the complexion of Detroit.
It is the memory of this naivete that embarrasses me now, that always embarrasses me.
I am still figuring it out, still struggling with how much I do not know about anything, still learning how things look different on the ground. Stories like Garrison Keillor’s are a great entryway to another people and place, but those stories are just the beginning.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at email@example.com.