Women leaders of Asian background connect others with their heritage in Kalamazoo

After a surge of anti-Asian violence earlier this year brought attention to ongoing incidents of Asian hate experienced by many, we found these words of wisdom. "It's not just stop Asian hate. It's celebrate Asian joy. It's uplift Asian artists. It's support Asian businesses. It's protect Asian communities. It's recognize Asian accomplishments." (From the instagram feed of @cryrusvyessi.)

In that spirit, Second Wave interviewed women of Asian heritage who are leading the way across all aspects of community life in Kalamazoo, from business and philanthropy to education and the arts. The best thing we can do as a community right now is to follow their lead. 

A supportive community

Lynn Chen-Zhang is smart, quick, and responds promptly to questions with a businesslike efficiency. She doesn’t have a lot of time to spare in her busy schedule as the COO of Portage’s successful Zhang Financial, but it is clear from speaking with her that when it comes to giving back to her alma mater, Western Michigan University, and the Kalamazoo community in general, she can always find the time. Along with her CEO husband Charles Zhang, the couple prioritize giving back to WMU through both extensive volunteer work and financial contribution. “I always just view myself as any other member of the community,” says Chen-Zhang, and it’s “my firm belief that no matter where you are, you have to be a contributing member of the community,” she says.

Lynn Chen-Zhang is COO of Portage’s successful Zhang Financial. Lynn Chen-Zhang is COO of Portage’s successful Zhang Financial. Photo courtesy of Lynn Chen-Zhang.Zhang Financial is a nationally recognized fee-only wealth management firm based in Portage, Mich., which currently controls around $4 billion dollars in wealth, according to Chen-Zhang. Although the couple now enjoy the financial successes of their business, Chen-Zhang recalls how she originally came to Kalamazoo “with 500 bucks in my pocket” to attend school after being offered a scholarship at WMU, and says that moving here essentially meant starting her life over from scratch. At the time of her arrival in the U.S. “I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have any relatives here,” says the now mother of two, who first made the move to the Midwest from the bustling metropolis of Shanghai. 

Chen-Zhang has gone on to volunteer her time extensively at WMU, and currently serves as chairperson of the WMU Board of Trustees and president of the WMU Foundation’s board of directors. As the COO of Zhang financial, she along with her CEO husband, Charles Zhang, have contributed to other projects at the university as well including the construction of the Charles C. and Lynn L. Zhang Legacy Collections Center, a recent addition to the university that opened in 2013 and now houses the WMU Archives and Regional History Collections, according to WMU’s website.

Chen-Zhang notes that while she is aware of the increase of unfortunate incidents regarding anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic have taken place around the nation, she says that she and her family have not had any exposure to those prejudices. “I think this community welcomed us with open arms 30 years ago” and she says, “it’s a blessing that we live in such a welcoming and loving community. Everyone has just been wonderful and been very supportive.”

Building and maintaining relationships

Although she has held many different positions throughout the course of her distinguished career, Dr. Ying Zeng is currently serving as the Director of Asian Initiatives, the Timothy Light Center for Chinese Studies, and the Michitoshi Soga Japan Center at Western Michigan University’s Haenicke Institute for Global Affairs. Among her other duties at the University, Zeng works to connect her adopted hometown of Kalamazoo with the cultures and peoples of the Asian world.
Zeng, who was born and raised in China has spent the last 18 years living in Kalamazoo where she worked previously as the principal of the Kalamazoo Chinese Academy before moving to WMU. In her current director role, Zeng’s responsibilities include coordinating language and school programs, organizing conferences, speakers series, and cultural events, and developing and maintaining institutional partnerships in Asia. 

As an accomplished academic and educator, Dr. Zeng hopes that the work she and others are doing at the Institute can help to strengthen multicultural education and understanding in Kalamazoo, and will have a positive effect on the community as a whole.

“Building and maintaining relationships with both the local and global community is incredibly important in a time where the world is growing more and more interconnected,” says Zeng. “By facilitating these connections I am able to ensure WMU and Kalamazoo as a whole are able to benefit from these informational and cultural exchanges.” 

“In organizing cultural events locally I help create spaces to celebrate heritage and culture. These events along with the language and cultural programs also provide connections and a global education for the greater community of Kalamazoo. Now more than ever we need this kind of understanding,” says Zeng.

While acknowledging that Kalamazoo is “generally welcoming, there is still room for improvement [...], she says, and adds that the best way for folks to support the local Asian American community here in Kalamazoo is by “taking advantage of the opportunities myself and others are working to create in order to learn more about the Asian and Asian American experience.” She continues by saying “among other things, this will help to overcome negative stereotypes and images that are so prevalent in the media today.” 

Zeng suggests two ways to do that for anyone who wishes to learn more are to join: Friends of Asian Arts and Cultures by signing up here. To find information about local events and opportunities visit here.

A way to spread Asian culture

When Xin Wang decided to quit her job as an underwriter for JP Morgan Chase to open Pacific Rim Foods along with her husband Anson Lieu, she says that the idea of opening up a small business relating to food had always been in the back of her mind. “I got tired of wearing suits to work every single day, and learning about sports,” she adds as further explanation for her career change.

Xin Wang decided to quit her job as an underwriter for JP Morgan Chase to open Pacific Rim Foods along with her husband, Anson Lieu.Pacific Rim Foods, which Wang and Lieu opened together in 2008 is a premium Asian market located on Kalamazoo’s Whites Road that carries a wide variety of quality Asian food, groceries, and other market essentials. Nestled comfortably in one corner of the market is the aptly named Cravings Deli. At first glance, the unassuming food counter might not look like much, but under Wang’s careful guidance, the Cravings kitchen team serves up mouthwatering homemade pan-Asian fare which has attracted a loyal following of customers from both Kalmazoo’s Asian and non-Asian communities alike.

Wang has lived in Kalamazoo for about 15 years now after her family immigrated from Shandong province in eastern China in 1992. “My parents left China to chase the American dream for their children,” she says, recalling how her own father worked as a chef in Grand Rapids at a restaurant owned by his brother, Wang’s uncle. However, Wang says, her parents envisioned a different path for her, and instead encouraged her to pursue a white-collar job in the corporate world. After years of working in the buttoned-up financial sector, she began to think about taking a break. “In the back of your mind you’re always wondering... you always want some freedom,” she says. 

The opportunity for that freedom came in 2008 when the couple decided to leave their jobs and embark on a new entrepreneurial enterprise together. Given Wang’s family history of working in a small business in the food industry, and the influence of her husband who was a driving force behind helping to actualize the vision of the store, “we just kind of fell into it,” she says, “and we’ve been going ever since.”

One of Wang’s favorite things about the Pacific Rim is that she is able to help spread Asian culture in Kalamazoo. “When we first moved here there wasn’t an Asian market” and she says that the couple are pleased to be able to fill that niche and help expand Kalamazoo’s culinary horizons. “We feel like we’re changing the food culture in Kalamazoo, so there’s more meaning behind it,” she says, explaining the couple's passion for the work. 

Despite the difficulties that have faced many small business owners over this past year and throughout the pandemic Wang says that rather than being ostracized, the couple behind Pacific Rim have felt embraced by the city of Kalamazoo and its residents. “We have always felt welcome here,” she says.

Going forward Wang says she hopes to continue to acquaint the people of Kalamazoo with Asian food culture and is looking forward to introducing more home cooks and curious culinarians to Asian food and cooking techniques when cooking classes start back up again. The classes have been on hiatus at Pacific Rim since the beginning of the pandemic. Wang says the couple are also working hard to open up a second Cravings location, slated to open soon in Texas Corners and will feature a slightly different menu of equally flavorful, cravable cuisine. 

Education can build inclusion

Inja Cho says that at first, she never wanted to move to Kalamazoo. Cho, a Korean born artist and painter who has called Southwest Michigan home for the last 15 years says she was initially reluctant to leave the community of friends and family she had built for herself in Ann Arbor, the first city she lived in after immigrating to the Midwest from Gwangju, Korea 15 years ago. 

Inja Cho, a Korean born artist and painter, has called Southwest Michigan home for the last 15 years.Now, Cho says she “feels blessed that I moved here,'' because the fresh start encouraged her to finally realize her dream of becoming an artist. Cho, who worked briefly teaching kindergarten in Korea, then transitioned to graphic design when moving to Ann Arbor, decided to enroll in art school when she came to Kalamazoo in 2008, following her husband who was transferred here for work. 

Always, “my goal was being an artist,” she says, a goal which she soon realized by graduating magna cum laude from Western Michigan University just a few years later with a bachelor of fine arts with an emphasis in painting.

As a former educator and Asian immigrant, Cho says that the best way to build a culturally inclusive society is through education. Sometimes people “are so used to hearing it in society, that they don’t realize it’s not cool,” says Cho, in reference to damaging stereotypes such as the model minority myth, a trope that holds Asians up as the gold standard of hard-working immigrants, while simultaneously pitting them unfavorably against other minority or immigrant groups. The myth of model minorities “has to go,” says Cho. “As an Asian American in this city, there should be more education and more talks for everybody to attend, not only the minority groups,” she suggests. “To make this America great,” she says “to me, it’s not your country, it's not my country, it’s our country.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Cho says she was regrettably forced to close her studio located in downtown Kalamazoo’s Park Trades Center. Since then she has been working out of her basement to create new and exploratory work. Cho says she has been playing around with her materials and processes, finding new inspiration, and working on a series of creations that involves creating bowl-like shapes, and filling up and emptying out her canvases with paint, to explore the themes of the fullness and emptiness of life which she says have been on full display during the pandemic.

To view some of Cho’s work for yourself visit her website here

The Kalamazoo Chinese Academy

For Kalamazoo residents wishing to learn more about the Chinese language and culture, there is a resource waiting to be discovered at the Kalamazoo Chinese Academy. The academy, also known as the KCA, is a local nonprofit weekend school that teaches “both heritage and non-heritage students who wish to learn about Chinese language and culture here in Kalamazoo” according to the school’s principal, Elaine Lui. Lui works in partnership with Mei Lin, the vice principal at KCA, and a small but dedicated network of volunteers, to promote cultural understanding and spread their passion and knowledge of Chinese language and culture to Kalamazoo residents of all backgrounds.  

Elaine Lui is the principal at the Kalamazoo Chinese Academy. Photo courtesy of Elaine Lui.KCA offers language and cultural classes to students in grades K-12 as well as collaborating with other organizations including Western Michigan University and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo to help put on cultural events around the city such as the Chinese New Years Celebration, which takes place downtown in the wintertime and includes bright decorations and performances of dance, music, and Chinese yoyo performed by students from the school.

Lui, who grew up in China, moved to Kalamazoo from Hong Kong over 20 years ago, and graduated from Western with a Master's degree in statistics, initially began her involvement at the KCA as a volunteer before eventually becoming the school’s principal. She says that her goal is to “give the children who attend classes at the Kalamazoo Chinese Academy the chance to learn the Chinese language” regardless of their cultural background. “We are the only Chinese school in the Kalamazoo area, and we are glad that we can provide this unique experience to the heritage and non-heritage families who want to know the Chinese culture,” she says. 

Although the school primarily caters to elementary-aged children, they do offer language classes for students up to 12th grade and they encourage interested learners of any age to find out more about how to participate in their programs by visiting their Facebook page here

Mei Lin The school’s dedicated vice principal Lin, has a master's degree in information systems and a decade of previous experience working “as an IT guy,” and says she first began volunteering at the KCA by using her computer skills to make the school's website. Then her involvement quickly turned into “teaching language there, teaching Chinese” and then finally “becoming a board member, and then at the end doing the vice-principal job.”

Lin, who relocated to Kalamazoo from Rochester, Minn. with her husband in 2008 then became a stay-at-home mom for their three boys. She says, “we are glad to be in a position to be able to unite all of these people and communities together so that we can present the Chinese culture and add that diversity to the community.”

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Caroline Bissonnette.

Caroline grew up in the Winchell neighborhood and graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 2011. She got her start in journalism in Second Wave’s On The Ground community correspondents program as a contributor for the Vine neighborhood. By shining a light on the people working to implement solutions to local issues she hopes to amplify important voices in our midst which are often overlooked.