Wing Young Huie searches for Asian America

Wing and Tara
Wing Young Huie and Tara Simpson Huie in their Minneapolis studio.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Wing Young Huie is the youngest of six kids, and the only one not born in China. As such he had a question.

"You know, growing up in Duluth, we were the only Asian family in our neighborhood," he says. "And I always wondered what I would have turned out like if I had grown up somewhere else, in Chinatown for instance, or even the more remote areas, like the deep South."

Wing and Tara
Wing Young Huie and Tara Simpson Huie travelled for 9 months aross America, Canada and Mexico on a photography trip.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

So in 2001 Huie and his wife Tara loaded up their green VW bug and headed off to see what they could find.

They make a striking couple: he's tall and wiry with close-cropped hair and a booming laugh. She's Caucasian, from the Twin Cities suburbs -- although Wing says she knows more about Asian culture than he does.

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They went from Duluth, across the Great Plains to California and then Hawaii. They went north to British Columbia, and south into Mexico.

"What I realized on this trip was my ethnocentric filter is assumed," he says. "People look at me and they think whatever they are going to think. You know, I must eat rice, I probably am into kung fu, probably pretty good at math, not very good at basketball, which may or may not be true. But they are assumed. They are assumed of me that they would not be assumed of others. But I realized that my true ethnocentic filter is white. How could it not be?"

After all he says, he grew up with Snoopy and Mary Tyler Moore.

Connie, Beulah N.D.
To hear the story behind this picture please click on the "Connie" audio link on the right hand side of this page
Image courtesy Univerity of Minnesota Press

They didn't have a real plan, things just happened to them, like when they stumbled across a demolition derby in Baker, Montana.

Tara says it seemed to have attracted the entire town.

"Wing and I walk in, in front of all these people, and there's nowhere to sit, nowhere to go and we feel pretty conspicuous - I feel pretty conspicuous. He feels 'This is great let me loose in here'" she laughs.

"And then you found a seat," Wing says "And you sat next to a guy, a cowboy, he had a cowboy hat on and he was telling you all the intricacies of how demolition derby works."

Meanwhile Wing took off and disappeared into the crowd.

"Just about the time when I am starting to wonder "Where is my husband?" he shows up with the only Chinese guy for about three hundred miles," Tara says.

"Actually I think he was Cambodian," Wing laughs.

Demolition derby
Demolition derby, Baker, Montana. To hear the story behind this picture click on the "Demolition Derby" audio link on the right hand side of the page.
Image courtesy University of Minnesota Press

Wing Young Huie pulls out the picture from that day which made it into the book. His new friend stands alone in front of the packed grandstand.

"And to see him with the backdrop of the town almost all white. Sometimes when I look at it, it seems like he's almost Photoshopped in. Which is kind of how I feel sometimes."

Wing took photographs. Tara handled the videocamera. Together they interviewed the people they met along the way. Young people, old people, people willing to talk about their lives and their stories.

They returned with 7,000 pictures and 40 hours of video tape.

It's taken five years to edit the video, select the pictures, and write the essays for the book, "Looking for Asian America."

What's surprising in looking at the book is the number of non-Asians in the book. For Wing Young Huie, though, it's all about perspective.

"As an Asian American, I'm not just interested in Asian American things, I am interested in a lot of stuff. But as it turns out you come back with all this material, you spend several years editing and trying to figure out what it is that you have, and what we came up with was a look at America where Asian Americans are in the majority," he laughs.

Wing Young Huie stresses he doesn't offer interpretations of his pictures. As he found on his trip, interpretation is up to readers, and whatever filters their culture have imposed.