Young and Asian in Detroit

For several Detroit high school students a recent tour of the city was a real eye opener, though what they experienced doesn’t immediately standout as remarkable. They visited a senior citizen housing project, a park where they show movies, a fountain by the river and a playground. But to children of Hmong refugees from the Vietnam War, many of whom have been sequestered in a small ethnic enclave on the northeast side their entire lives, seeing parts of the city for the first time revealed to them a bigger picture of community in Detroit.

The tour of Detroit was part of the Detroit Asian Youth (DAY) Project's summer program, an annual, month-long cultural immersion program designed to bring young Asians out of their adopted neighborhood. Most of the Hmong — an ethnic-Asian minority that originated in southern China then migrated into Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — live east of City Airport on residential streets near Conner, Gratiot and McNichols avenues.

There are about 4,000 Hmong and other Asian immigrant families living in Detroit. They generally come from the lower income strata and lack many of the amenities that suburban Asian kids enjoy. Their social life consists of school activities at Osborn High School and family functions. Now in its fourth year, the DAY Project takes high school students out of their neighborhood and into Detroit’s wider-ranging cultural life.

Intangible identity

Many young Asians in Detroit have difficulty identifying as Asian-Americans, much less Detroiters, says Michelle Lin, coordinator of the DAY Project. “They think of themselves as Hmong. They think of themselves as Asian,” Lin says. “‘Asian-American’ is something more intangible that they can’t really grasp.”  

Lin says that many Asian immigrants don’t view themselves as being part of a pan-ethnic community. “Koreans thought that they were Korean, different from Chinese, different from Vietnamese,” she says. “We have no commonality; in Asia those are different countries, different nationalities. You don’t have a shared experience over here,” says Lin, a native of Taiwan who is a community development specialist at the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp.

The Hmong in Detroit are largely unaware of this experience. Yet the young, like Dia Shia Yang, find it in the DAY Project. She spoke about the importance of understanding history at the DAY Project’s summation program held in August. In her poem, “The Voice of Detroit,” she writes, “Detroit has a history/A history that made history.” It’s a history inclusive of young and old, black and white, and the “baddest to the best.” The voice of her poem speaks to the trauma of this history in which “People built cars and roads on me/making my back ache. More people moved in/stepping on my face.” She plaintively asks the questions: “Why do you hate each other? Can’t you just get along?”

Yang believes that while she looks at Detroit history from a distance and sees it as traumatic, she also sees herself as part of a history that’s unfolding. “I think I fit in. I was born in Detroit.” While feeling alienated from black, white, and other Asians in the suburbs, Yang says she has several black friends and considers Detroit her home.

Raising awareness and inspiration

The goal of the DAY Project is to develop leadership skills and raise awareness of social justice issues by understanding Detroit and its Asian-American community. It was established in 2004 as a result of the conference, “Bridges to the Future: Asian Americans and Community Organizing.” Support for the DAY Project was provided by the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Asian American Center for Justice, Detroit Summer, and the Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup.

The DAY project was inspirational for Mai Ka Yeng Moua. Born in Thailand, Moua has lived on the eastside for 11 years and graduated from Osborn this spring. When there was no school, there was nothing to do, she says. On the other hand, during the DAY Project’s field trip, she felt like a tourist in her own city. “I’ve never really gone down there (downtown),” Moua says. “My parents work. My mom doesn’t really know this area. We don’t normally go down there, unless it’s for business.”

Like Yang, Moua is troubled by the way people look upon Asians living in Detroit. In one of the DAY Project’s field trips to the University of Michigan, students there were surprised to find out that Moua lived in Detroit. “They started asking questions like, ‘How do you get around on the street?’” Moua responded matter-of-factly: “I just walk. I walk with somebody, I don’t just walk alone.” And, like Yang, she has black friends and likes her neighborhood.

A shy person, Moua found that the interpersonal aspect of the project helped bring her out of her shell. “I’m not used to being around a lot of people,” she says, “just my family.” Mentors working in the DAY project — older Asian young people, including Lin — were individually supportive, Moua says. “They made me feel really comfortable. I didn’t know a lot about Detroit. Even though we go to Detroit Public Schools, they don’t talk about the history of Detroit, or how it came to be. Sometimes you wonder: ‘Why is it like this?’ You never really know where to look for an answer. … It seems like you live here, but everything is new to you.”

Becoming a community person

Despite the hardships of her life in Detroit, Moua believes she’s better off for the experience. “I wasn’t given everything handed down to me. I had to make my way through it. It gave me a sense of who I am. It made me appreciate my life … and my community more.” Like Yang, she says she’s a Detroiter, “but not like a downtown person. I’m more like a community person. I (just) wish that they would build gardens and playgrounds for kids.”

Moua talked this summer of her plans to study optometry at Ferris State, although she also has an interest in social work. Will young people like Moua and Yang leave Detroit forever once they go to college? Both feel a sense of place in Detroit and plan to return after school. “If a lot of people move away from it, the city is just going to go down,” Moua says. “I want to come back. For me, there wasn’t a lot of help around. I know how that feels. I don’t want to leave youth behind. I want anyone who lives in the community to have a future too.”  

Lin sees sufficient potential for young people to develop their lives in Detroit. “It’s in the city,” she says. “It’s up to us to find potential within us. Maybe we need support outside the city to jumpstart that. I think all of the resources, the knowledge, and the passion is within the city right here. Maybe people don’t see it (because) it’s not on the news. But it’s already happening.”

To learn more about the DAY Project, which has an after-school program running this fall, click here. You can also watch their "commercial" on YouTube and contact them at [email protected].


DAY Project Participants

Osborn High School

DAY Project Volunteers

Dia Shia Yang

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.