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A family settled in Philadelphia in the '60s — the only Asians in the neighborhood

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Deborah Wei's parents came to the U.S. from China in the 1960s. They settled in the Philadelphia suburbs, becoming the only Asian family in the neighborhood. Wei came to StoryCorps with her daughter, Kaia Chau, and recalled how her mom began to feel at home.

DEBORAH WEI: My mom, she was a really good cook. She was pretty amazing, 'cause I think all of the stuff was either memories from back home or just self-taught, you know? Like, what can I find in this new place that I can use and improvise? She would learn how to make Hungarian goulash, and it's like how she learned English. And I came home from school one day, and she gave me something to eat, and she said, how is it? Is it groovy? And she said, I heard it on TV. I was like, OK.

She liked to garden, but she didn't believe in flowers. Like, there was no utility, so it was always vegetables and fruits, and she had some beautiful tomatoes growing in the back. I remember we came back once, and all her tomatoes had been pulled off and thrown against our house, and so I remember that was one time where she just really broke down.

I know that for my mom, when we moved here to Philly, it was very isolating for her. There were kids that used to just, ching chong, and pull their eyes, and my parents didn't like to talk about being Chinese. We didn't grow up speaking Chinese, but we'd go every week down to Chinatown and buy groceries. I know that when they went there, their shoulders went down. Like, this is where we can find the things that are familiar to us and that no one's going to laugh at us.

I even remember once, my mom had tried to buy a cleaver 'cause we use that a lot in Chinese cooking, and people thought she was a mass murderer or something. And she could not find a cleaver anywhere, but in Chinatown, it's like, well, here's 2,000, which one do you want? And so I think for my mom, Chinatown was like having a sense of roots.

KAIA CHAU: I also think about how Chinatown was such an important place to your mom. And even though I never met her, I feel like I have a responsibility. It's a very Chinese value, to feel that you have a responsibility to your elder that you haven't ever met but to, you know, sort of preserve it for her. If I ever have kids, I will instill that into them. I really hope to pass on your mom's story and teach them about how hard their ancestors worked to, like, get them to where they are and lead their life thinking about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUR BEST AMERICAN GIRL")

MITSKI: (Singing) Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me.

FADEL: That was Deborah Wei with her daughter, Kaia Chau, for StoryCorps in Philadelphia. Their conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kayla Lattimore