We explore how centering experiences of food, cooking and communal spaces allows for the fostering of culture and healing in San Diego, a city that is home to diverse refugee communities. Sonia and Kwong, who are part of the San Diego refugee community, share their stories and experiences in the city and how cuisine is a staple for their cultural grounding in San Diego.
On April 30th, 1975, Kwong left his hometown, Saigon, on the Truong Xuan, a boat that carried approximately 4000 Vietnamese refugees. During its trip, the boat’s engine failed, leaving them stranded in the middle of the ocean. Fortunately, a container boat rescued the passengers and took them to the Hong Kong harbor. Kwong is Vietnamese-Chinese, so upon entering the Dodwell Ridge refugee camp, he became an interpreter and helped many get registered to the camp. Spending approximately three years and 10 days in Hong Kong, he was sponsored by some of his friends and attended the University of Hong Kong to get a degree in Fashion Design. After finding a Catholic service group that helped him get sponsored to the United States, he came to San Diego on May 14th, 1978. He began as a dishwasher at the Barbecue Pit in National City, and a Chinese grocery. Later, he began working as an assembler for Sanyo, where, with the help of classes at Mesa college, he worked from the bottom up to IT, where he currently works. On February 29th, 1982, he was able to sponsor his family; his parents and seven siblings.
When I left in 1975, I didn't even think that one day I would be able to see them again, basically just no. I got a one way trip, you go and can never come back. Just like people from the Mexico border, right? They cross the border and know they can’t go back. You never think that you are able to see them again. I'm really lucky to have my whole family with me. It’s almost impossible but, I think that when you dream for something you have to do it.
When I came to the United States, that's the time I learned how to cook. It's, well, terrible cooking, but you know, you need to. San Diego was a small city, so there weren’t many places to eat. If you wanted to buy something you needed to go to LA Chinatown. I remember the first time I made a trip to Chinatown, my friend had a small motorcycle, like 300 CCS. We meet with a backpack, we go to Chinatown, buy a roast duck and put it on the backpack, go home to share with everybody.
Right now in San Diego you see a lot of Asian people, but when I first came in 1978, I wouldn’t see a single Asian soul where I lived. When you saw an Asian person, it was very valuable, people would come and give me a hug. And they have Asian stores now, but before there were no stores that sold you bone to make pho. None of the butchers stocked bone. They threw them away. Somehow somebody told us he asked for the bones at the store and they asked him what he needed it for, he said; “oh I give them to my dog”. So they gave him a whole big box. The big bone, like the leg. Yep, they gave them to us for free. Then we brought them home, washed them up, put them in a big pot, and boiled the water. Cook them for a day to get a broth out of them for the pho. People were probably saying, “Why the hell are all the Asian people coming over? They all have dogs?” Now, you need to pay to get them because they realised they could get money off of it. No more free bones for us.
For Kwong, building a community that is of his own in San Diego has been rooted in his passion and interest in exploring new cuisines and being part of spaces where familiar food fosters culture.
Woo Chee Chong, I love that store because the owners choose workers out of their own. And they were family owned, their children worked at the store too. Every day at lunchtime the store owner's wife, Mary, actually cooked lunch for everybody. It’s true that the family runs everything, that's the one thing I never forgot.
Sonia is a first-generation daughter of Afghan refugees. In the 1980’s, Sonia’s family on her mom’s side fled Afghanistan on foot and arrived to Pakistan, where they lived undocumented in refugee camps.
My mom told me that her shoes broke in the middle of their walk and she was walking barefoot and how she's still impacted by that. She told me how difficult it was and how everyone was losing it. It was just really mentally exhausting.
During Clinton’s presidency, they were granted Temporary Protective Status to eventually become citizens in the United States. While they attempted to settle in Brooklyn, they instead lived in Rochester, NY, and in Virginia. Sonia’s grand-uncles, who had been in the United States for longer, had established themselves in California, so her grandparents followed them to San Diego in the late 80’s. Sonia is the first grandchild to be born in the United States, and one of the oldest in the family, which at times makes her feel survivor’s guilt, but has also allowed her to acquire higher education. She studied Public Health at UC San Diego, and is currently getting a Master’s in Public Health at Cal State LA, where a lot of her work is on refugee health.
When my grandma passed away, it made me angry and made me want to work for Afghan elderly to prevent what my grandma went through. By then I had lived in places like La Jolla, and I hated it because it's so bougie and full of rude people. I also saw people older than my grandma and how healthy they were, how they got to live their lives and gorun around with their grandkids. If my grandma didn't have to go through what she went through as a refugee she would still be here today. If she didn't have to go through poverty and war. This is what made me help come to terms with things. Since this, around 2018, that's what I'm trying to do. It makes me so mad, but I also have to remember who and what it's for.
My grandma is why I'm so connected to my Afghan culture. My parents worked a lot, so my sister and I were at her house all the time. She was like our second mom. She used to make fresh Afghan bread every weekend. My sister and I would help her, play around with dough and sometimes she would let us make little random designs. It took me a lot of unlearning within public health to really embrace my cuisine and bread is such a big staple in my culture. People eat bread with eggs, bread with cheese. I love bread.
She had this recipe for it, Naan bread. There's no measurements, of course. All purpose, flour, yeast and a little bit of baking soda, put some salt and then you mix it all up. I would say one cup of all purpose flour. A spoonful of yeast. A little bit of baking soda and salt and then put half a cup. Pour until there's a dough-like consistency. Then let it sit for 40 to 45 minutes. Then you make little balls and then you can either use the roller or your hands and flatten it out on the pan. Put it in the oven for 350 degrees and leave it there for 10 to 15 minutes. Afghans also like to do this thing where they put creases within the dough and my grandma liked to put black sesame seeds over the bread. Some people put olive oil in it, but my grandma had to be a little careful because of her health, but it's really simple and really good. I like to eat it with honey. I've also eaten it with some butter and it gives you that salty taste, but if you want a sweeter taste, some honey is enough.
For Sonia, her culture is embedded in her day-to-day life, either by preparing breakfast, helping her family members translate government documents, or by being part of grassroot organizations that focus on promoting health resources among the elderly Afghan refugee community.
I want to improve and hold accountable the programs that do happen for refugees because there are some issues; I speak Farsi, I'm clearly Afghan, I'm the child of refugees, I know if anyone is going know some things, it's going to be me, but I've noticed that my positionality was always been overlooked. Then when I would go back, I would see that they would hire a white person and they would tell me, “come be a volunteer!” but I am trying to get paid, I need the money, and I have this skill set. I am hoping to one day be able to hold those organizations accountable, to make sure they hire employees that reflect the community.