Detroit Diaries: Being Hmong, a Woman and a Chef

One of the first things I did after finishing our two-day Feet in 2 Worlds orientation at the end of September was to start a group chat with my fellow fellows. It’s been a source of wisdom and joy over the past few weeks as we share GIFs that express our highs and lows and our own tips and tricks for where to find story ideas. Whenever we encounter a problem in the reporting, editing, or any part of the process, we know we can count on each other to offer support or suggestions.

Part of a series of essays by journalists in the Feet in 2 Worlds food journalism fellowship at WDET.

What I truly appreciate is that it’s a safe and supportive space just for us (most of us have print and digital backgrounds, with most of our experience working with text and not WAV files) to share our frustrations and successes. In just a few weeks we have taken every opportunity to uplift one another. Nargis and Serena came to my pop-up fundraiser for the Asian American Journalists Association Michigan chapter in October, and Brittany and I contributed to Tostada Magazine’s fundraiser video. Together our voices are louder.

Interviewing businesswoman Genevieve Vang

This is one of the amazing benefits of being a part of this talented group, which is made up of all female journalists. As women of color we are our own worst critics. For me, to have a supportive group (as well as everyone at Feet in 2 Worlds) has been transformative. I’ve worked in several newsrooms where I’m often one of the few people of color. Not only did I have to struggle with being the token Asian at times, but also battle feelings of impostor syndrome as I progressed in my career.

I thought about this again after interviewing Genevieve Vang at Bangkok 96 Street Food. During our second interview, I was surprised to hear Vang tell me that despite all of her successes — opening two restaurants, a line of frozen meals and products, being on the Food Network — when the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce wanted to give her a leadership award, she didn’t want it. As she recalled that experience, she said during our interview: “You should give [the award to someone who belongs] to this city, who is American and who [can] do a better job.”

She explained that she felt she wasn’t ready and that she doesn’t do enough. Even though she rejected it, she said they still gave it to her.

She then talked about what it’s like to be a Hmong woman chef.

“To be Hmong and an Asian woman and a businesswoman … it’s not easy. …[It’s a] struggle. No matter how hard you work or how successful you are that’s something against you because the [Hmong] culture say the woman cannot be too successful.”

As a radio reporter trying to understand and represent the immigrant food entrepreneur community, I thought about what it must’ve been like for Vang to build Bangkok 96 from nothing. It’s hard enough being a female chef in the male-dominated restaurant industry, but to be a Hmong woman chef is another story. White male chefs don’t have to worry about cultural norms that say they have to stay at home and tend to the garden.

As women of color, do we ever feel like we’ve done enough? Feet in 2 Worlds and my fellow radio reporters have helped me overcome those debilitating feelings of self-doubt and really embrace the opportunity I’ve been given. Is there a similar program for immigrant female chefs? If not there should be.

Support for the fellowship comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) and through matching gifts from station donors, The International Association of Culinary Professionals’ foundation, The Culinary Trust, and its Growing Leaders Food Writing program. The Food Writing Program is funded with the support of the Boston Foundation.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

AboutDorothy Hernandez
Dorothy Hernandez is a Feet in 2 Worlds Food Journalism Fellow at WDET.