Column: Adventures in Multicultural Living

The challenges, advantages of being a minority in the Midwest
Frances Wang

Frances Wang (Photo courtesy of Mark Bialek.)

It all started when my husband first asked me to marry him.

I said, “Under one condition, that we never live in the Midwest.”

I knew from experience how hard it can be to grow up as a minority, and I knew I wanted my children to grow up on the West Coast or in Asia so that they would not have to grow up as minorities, and so that they would not always be “the only one.” I hoped to spare them the angst of wrestling, as I did, with who they are, what they are, and how they fit in, and make sure that they develop a strong sense of identity, culture, and pride.

He agreed. We got married in my parents’ backyard in California in front of 200 relatives and friends, and off we went on a four-year adventure doing anthropology and international development in Kathmandu, Nepal. Upon our return, I thought we would be heading for Berkeley, California, as planned. Imagine my surprise when he insisted that we return to Michigan “for only two, at most, three years,” while he wrote up his dissertation.

We have now been living in Michigan for 19 years.

So what to do with the children? How to raise them so they do not feel like minorities? How to help them understand their culture and heritage in a place where there are not so many Asians? How to let them see that the world is a much bigger place than this small town in which we happen to live? None of the hundreds of parenting books I have read ever talk about this. I had to come up with my own plan for Raising Children with Culture(s) and Pride.

Because I have surrounded them with many types of people, my children do not yet know that they are minorities. Images of people that look like them are reflected in their books, dolls, videos, and television-watching. My children think it is “normal” to speak two or more languages, because everyone they know does – Italian, Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Farsi, Thai.

My children are well-educated in not only their own cultures (Chinese, Greek, American), but many cultures. We have watched Cambodian dance, played the gamelan, pounded mochi, blown a shofar, learned Thai dance, listened to stories in Arabic, performed Chinese Lion Dance and Chinese Yo-Yo, attended the symphony. We have eaten barbeque in Texas, Mexican food in California, falafel in Dearborn, dim sum in Vancouver, kalua pig in Hawaii.

With a strong sense of self and ethnic pride, my children are surprised rather than crushed whenever they encounter racist stereotypes and discrimination. They laugh, “How come those people do not know what Chinese people are really like?”

With this column, I invite you to walk with me and my four children as we go about our “Adventures in Multicultural Living.” These columns will include explorations of multicultural events and cultural practices, thoughts about raising children with cultures, visits with colorful personalities straddling different cultures, stories of cross-cultural clashes, and moments of resonance that cut across cultures and move us all.

Come walk with us.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village and a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Her column for The Ann Arbor Chronicle will appear on the second Sunday of each month. Check out her website at She can be reached at


  1. By Benno Wang
    February 3, 2009 at 3:06 pm | permalink


    The one who read this first article can not wait to read the next and the next and the next write ups. Good job. You are a real writer now.

    Love, Dad

  2. By Reema
    February 8, 2009 at 10:41 am | permalink

    I can’t wait to read more! Raising children to be open minded and appreciate other cultures is something that will help them for the rest of their life. I am always looking for ways to help my children feel proud of their own cultural background and not feel embarrassed. Unfortunately, the arab culture is not represented in the media in such a positive way, and we really need to reach out to our community, which includes many relatives, to help our children feel a sense of pride. Thanks for your contributions, Francis. We can all use support with this matter.

  3. February 9, 2009 at 1:08 pm | permalink

    I am all for having a sense of history and am all for appreciating wonder of cultural diversity, but it sounds from the above as if you have short-changed understanding the history and values of the society in which you are actually living.

    It is great to understand Cambodian dance, the shofar, etc., but it is also important to understand, for example, just why America’s history of Protestant and Puritan protest against government abuse has contributed to America’s high degree of religious tolerance. How much do your children know about the U.S Constitution? How much do they know about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment? Without those things, there would be no rainbow diversity in the 21st C USA.

  4. February 10, 2009 at 10:33 am | permalink

    Mr. Zimmerman,
    Who says my children and I do not know about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment? Puritans and Protestants? American history and the Constitution? Why do you assume that learning about America (and Europe), and learning about the rest of the world are mutually exclusive? My ninth grader is reading Romeo and Juliet right now. My seventh grader is reading The Odyssey. My fourth grader can tell you the names of all the US Presidents in order—can you? My kindergartener wants to be President when he grows up, but he knows that he has to wait until he is 35 years old. We go to the DIA and the Symphony. Of course they know about American history and culture, how could they not? It is all around us.

    The real question is how do you define “the society in which you are actually living”? Your neighborhood? Your town? Your country? Your world? In this modern global society, it is shortsighted to xenophobically limit ourselves to the history and culture of dead white guys or mainstream television. Besides, where do we do all these things anyhow, but in Ann Arbor, with our neighbors and friends? The Jewish Community Center is as much a part of Ann Arbor as Blimpy Burgers. Maya Lin’s Wave Field on UM’s North Campus is no less American for having been designed by the child of immigrants. Tread carefully. It follows from what you are saying that all of our Jewish, Asian American, Hispanic American, African American, Native American, and Arab American neighbors are not a part of American society and do not belong here. I do not think you really want to say that.

    America is a multicultural place and always has been. Asian Americans, for example, have been here since the 1500s, built the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad that allowed for the settling of the west, developed much of the agriculture in California that feeds our nation, and are important players in the fight for civil rights. Did you know, for example, that it was the case of US v Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that established that all people born in the United States, regardless of race and ethnicity, are natural-born US citizens under the 14th Amendment? That we may not have been taught about the contributions of ethnic minorities (and women) in school does not mean that they were not here. Learning about all of our histories and cultures is the way to not only raise stronger and prouder children, but to build a stronger and richer America.

    Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

    ps Voltaire read Confucius.

  5. By Pei Huang
    February 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm | permalink

    Kai Hwa,

    Keep them coming. It is wonderful to have a jewel like you to remind and provide us with your experiences. I agree with you, our children (14 and 6) don’t feel they are minorities yet because of our diverse environment in Ann Arbor, our Asian social circle, and our frequent trips back to Asia. But I have strong anxiety about their future when they apply for colleges, when they walk in the campus in a small town who-knows-where, when they apply for jobs, when they meet with their non-Asian husband’s families, etc, etc. The list can go on in their life. It is a challenge to strengthen them while not scaring them in the same time. Thank you for your contributions. I look forward to reading more.


  6. By Steve Bean
    February 10, 2009 at 4:51 pm | permalink

    Pei, you’ve made your children inferior in your mind even before they’ve lived their lives. There’s no need to do that or for your anxiety over it. Seek out The Work of Byron Katie and you’ll learn how simple it is.

  7. February 11, 2009 at 1:31 pm | permalink

    Dear Ms. Wang,

    thank you for your thoughtful note, which was refreshing and civil in that it acknowledged my point that “traditional” culture is important too. It is indeed difficult to talk skeptically about cultural diversity without coming across as bigoted, racist, or nativist, and I appreciate your reasonable response.

    I suspect that at bottom we share a similar concern, i.e. passing along cultural meaning, participation, and understanding, without seeing it denatured or alienated, but that we start from a different set of experiences and priorities. For better or worse (and I would not disagree that it is often for worse), the global society we live in today, the American constitution that governs our national politics, even our local culture here in Ann Arbor, all are directly descended from the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, European, Anglo-Saxon, Renaissance, Enlightenmnent “tree.”

    It is simply incorrect to say, for example, that the current rules of international law, or the educational organizational of the University of Michigan into lectures and seminars, or the legal rationale decision in US v. Wong Kim Ark are descended from Confucian, Ottoman, Swahili, Aboriginal, cultures, or anything other than the culture of “dead white guys” like Grotius, Thomas Aquinas, and Blackstone.

    We live in an enormously complex, densely overgrown “forest” of cultures ( identifies 6,197 living languages), nations (193 members of the United Nations), societies, traditions, disciplines, organizations, religions, movements, and what have you. My point is that not that I oppose learning about the rest of the forest, but simply that we remember that we do in fact live on one particular tree.

    To be sure, the “tree” which is American civilization has become enormously more complex and intertwined over the last century, with vibrant strands of renewed and revised and revived multiculturalism adding themselves to it, and that is a good thing — but we all still live here, embedded in this one particular nation, state, city, not somewhere else. I like it when people write as if they remember that–which is exactly what you did in your response.



  8. By Jeff
    February 15, 2009 at 9:42 am | permalink

    Dear Frances,

    Thanks for your columns. You write with a magical, mystical observant pen. Community, sense of place, all can be defined narrowly and broadly. For me adding the broad view is the healthiest one, both as individuals and for America and the world.

    I’m glad you made it to the Midwest. Our cultures are vibrant, thinking, clashing challenges to the world we live in and the greater world we need to participate in. We can be myopic in the winter, but in the spring and summer we do change and blossom. Nourish those later seasons. I’m glad you’re trying to figure out how to teach multi-culturalism, but sad that it is needed.

    As you and others demonstrate “we are who we have been waiting for,” yes, we can change the world, beginning with ourselves and our surroundings.

    You and your kids, because of your ages, grew up outside of the civil rights fights of the 50s and 60s, Viet Nam, and the Kennedy wider world view. To your generations they are written history rather then living history. This presents in some ways an added challenge. Your teen and early adult years didn’t involve direct participation in the country-wide passions of our times.

    President Obama may again place us into the world we are a part of, with all of the responsibilities, opportunities, curiosities and challenges that it presents. He will light up and inspire new passions for our times. Hopefully, this time we will re-enter the world more wisely and with compassion and respect.

    Keep up the fight and the faith. If we all can work together, WE can make it happen. We are the people we have been waiting for.


  9. By Linh Song
    February 15, 2009 at 5:25 pm | permalink


    How thrilling to know that your work will now reach a wider audience through the Ann Arbor Chronicle. For years you’ve generously contributed your thoughts on raising multicultural children to the Asian American and adoption communities (not to mention King School!). I hope that Chronicle readers will come to appreciate your perspective as being appropriate for the times and not only for specific ethnic or cultural groups. We are after all, neighbors.

    I am however troubled by some of the comments that you’ve received and assumptions that have been made. Is celebrating one’s history and culture such a terrible threat to the majority culture? How sad that you have to explain that your children are literate in American culture and history when you’ve stated that your family has been in Michigan for 19 years. You do not share how your children are generations removed from being immigrants, but even if they were not, it wouldn’t escaped them that they are Americans….even though strangers will question this. That constant effort of asserting themselves, ourselves, as Americans makes this comment even more disappointing:

    “My point is that not that I oppose learning about the rest of the forest, but simply that we remember that we do in fact live on one particular tree.”

    The problem isn’t that we don’t know or have forgotten who we are and where we are, it’s that people feel the need to remind us even after being in this country for a couple of hundred of years. Sir, we helped grow the tree.

    I think of my family, refugees from the Vietnam War, and this statement becomes all the more ridiculous. You don’t risk your life, leave behind loved ones and everyone that you know, to start over as janitors in the freezing Midwest without fully appreciating what this country has to offer. And we know that the freedoms we enjoy were crafted by “dead white guys.” (Honestly, everyone should take the citizenship test to understand this.) These sages created our system while their own janitors or slaves tilled the land and sharpened their goose feather pens. Thank goodness for them, too.

    Which reminds me, if this piece was written by an African American navigating the complexities of race and say, celebrating pride in Black or Creole cultures, would anyone have had the gall to remind them that they are Americans? Would anyone have admonished them for giving their children inferiority complexes if they worry about the realities of being a minority? I looked up Byron Katie. Interesting.

    Seriously, we don’t need a guru. We need community members to understand that multicultural living is not done in isolation or by non-white folks. It’s done out of necessity, celebration, and love for what is possible in this country.

    - Linh

    PS A shout out to Ghandi and his influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Another shout out to Islamic and Arab scholars who preserved Greek texts (including almost all of Aristotle’s work), and who also influenced Aquinas.

  10. By Roland
    February 19, 2009 at 12:01 am | permalink

    Your multicultural living column is splendid. Appreciating and experiencing our mosaic of cultures present in our locale makes life interesting. It is certainly as relevant to understanding who we are in a diverse, pluralistic America, as my kids having to memorize the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the states they came from.

    I look forward to many more multicultural living columns.

  11. By Robert Black
    February 28, 2009 at 4:35 pm | permalink

    After having read your article and after sitting with you in the coffeeshop today, I am inspired by your courage to stand – through your words – for a much broader awareness of and for deeper principles of our collective, historic humanity than was espoused by a couple of your recent detractors. For human beings to share any hope into our collective, soon-to-be-historic evolving futures, we must teach ourselves about our utter interdependence – this being at once cultural, biological, technological, and spiritual…the essential web that sustains our lives in this location or any co-existing location on this planet. Such principle of a living network is being demonstrated to us in the very distribution and reception of this message, and, more and more each day, in the breakdown and re-synthesis of our archaic and separatist “historical” systems of finance, manufacturing, science, health and wellness, religions, and un-sustainble architecture. These “cultural” attributes of our collective history can be accessed from any point on the system today – and, in fact, are the basis, in my opinion, for the necessary understanding of the multi-cultural web in which we are all currently entwined. Perhaps this just may have always been the case throughout our collective histories. It is good that we teach this new understanding to our children. After all, it is our responsibility to prepare them for the future that they will create and inhabit after us. Thanks again and keep the words flowing. -RB

  12. March 13, 2009 at 9:00 pm | permalink

    I am pleased to announce that this fall Nimble Books will be publishing BORN AMERICAN: A CHINESE WOMAN’S AMERICAN DREAM by Sasha Gong. As always, I am interested in all perspectives. Please learn more and comment at: