How a small bakery in the Midwest gave me the Asian community I’d been searching for
My parents relied on this connection, and dinner time was sacred in our home. Around seven p.m. each day, the scent of jasmine rice would begin spreading throughout the house as my mom would fill the table with Thai green curry or an Indian paneer dish. I would race my sister to the kitchen, ready to tell stories of what had happened at school that day. We spoke loudly as we ate, switching between Thai, Hindi, and English, knowing we would be understood regardless of which language we needed to best express our feelings at the time.
When our stomachs were full, we would sit back and discuss how good our dinner had been that night, which would launch us into a discussion of what we were most excited to eat the next time we went back to Thailand. This, to me, was home.
So when I arrived in Columbus to attend university as a seventeen-year-old, I was faced with a loss of home all over again, while still seeking to learn and understand what my ethnic identity and my identity as an immigrant meant to me. While I was finally finding others that shared similar backgrounds and experiences through clubs and student organizations, I had essentially gone from one predominantly white space to another, slightly more diverse one.
I was once again surrounded by a new batch of people who could not yet care for me in the way I needed, and so my longing for home continued to swell. I was re-contextualizing what I was searching for: Was it community in the sense of people? Was it comfort in eating the same dishes my mom often cooked? Or was it just the safety of having a space outside of the bubble of my college town where I could learn to navigate all of my identities that I didn’t quite understand yet?
This yearning was a hunger, and I was desperate for something, anything, to satiate my need.
I found myself at Belle’s Bread often—not just when I was sad and yearning for home, but any time I felt like I could use an extra bit of joy that day. On happy days I would crave the strawberry cream cake—its freshness, lightness the perfect complement to a good mood. When I was sad or homesick, I needed something more indulgent—a slice of blueberry cheesecake, just like the ones that my grandpa would bring home for me and my sister from S&P Bakery back in Bangkok. The cure for the despondent mood that accompanied a failed organic chemistry exam was actually just a matcha cream roll.
It was more than the food at Belle’s that made me feel at home, though. It was also the community that came with it.
In this space was a display of a strong and thriving community at its finest. Here was a place outside of the confines of my college town, embedded in the city itself, where people could come and not only share food that was familiar to them, but they could also comfortably speak in their native languages in a public space and gather with friends and family safely without being perceived as foreign for once.
The parts of my own identity that I felt needed to be kept behind closed doors both where I grew up and on campus were being expressed openly here, without judgment and without fear. I was hesitant, but hopeful. While other cities throughout the US may have plenty of spaces like this, this was such a rarity in the Midwest, which made it even more extraordinary in my eyes. How was it that, surrounded by nothing else like it, a place like this had come to exist here at all? This level of comfort, this escape from the perpetual foreignness that is so often imposed upon immigrants and non-white people in Midwestern America, was what I truly yearned for.
It seemed like I had found the home I was looking for in this bake shop. And regardless of what sweets were on my plate on any given day, I consistently found myself daydreaming of one day being in a place where I could have all this, and more, all at my fingertips.
Imagining Elsewherewasn’t new to me. In the small Ohio town where I grew up, I could really only ever dream of matcha rolls and taro buns. The rural area didn’t have much else to offer me in terms of comfort. The town, schools I attended, and the surrounding communities were all predominantly white, politically conservative, strictly Christian, and often hostile to anyone who existed outside of those confines. My family and I fell outside of all of those boxes.
I’d always thought of living in the Midwest, a place perceived as being devoid of culture or difference or opportunity, as existing in a state of Nowhere. Nothing important ever happened there, and everyone in Nowhere had spent their whole lives there with no plans of ever leaving. Navigating my hyphenated identity (ethnically South Asian, but an immigrant from a Southeast Asian country, and somehow still American on top of it all) made existing and coming-of-age in Nowhere amongst people that did not understand me or my family feel isolating.
The Elsewherethat I dreamt of was always a huge, densely packed city that had the Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and Thaitowns I had only ever visited shortly, where I could get not only the food that I dreamt of, but the comfort of navigating a space without being automatically othered by those around me. I craved the sights, smells, sounds, and the momentary reprieve from what generally accompanied existing in a racialized body that could transport me to the other side of the world, just like the first day that I walked in to Belle’s Bread.
I knew this experience wasn’t unique to me, and that many people of color and immigrants were facing the same isolation across various parts of the US. So I held tightly to the idea that I would one day escape Nowhere and find the place where I felt at home. All I had to do was get there.
When I moved to New York City, I was suddenly in the Elsewhere I had spent my adolescence pining for. I explored the ethnic enclaves that had fascinated me for years, reveled in the living proof of the ways that immigrants from so many different countries throughout the Asian diaspora had built their neighborhoods from the ground up.
Jackson Heights, a predominantly South Asian area, was like a street in Delhi had been picked up and dropped in Queens. I had always been especially consumed by this specific neighborhood from afar as a South Asian person growing up surrounded by whiteness. There, I stuffed myself with one of the biggest dosas I had ever seen. In Chinatown, I found myself in a Malaysian and Singaporean shop called Kopitiam, where I stared at a spread of countless small plates occupying the entire table in front of me. There, I slurped down a bowl of fish ball soup to warm up after an unexpected summer downpour, and had some kaya toast that rivaled what I had once tried in Singapore.
I held tightly to the idea that I would one day escape Nowhere and find the place where I felt at home. All I had to do was get there.
A few blocks away at the small, and always packed, Chinese restaurant Shu Jiao Fu Zhou, I splashed white vinegar over a mountain of buckwheat noodles covered in creamy peanut sauce. In Koreatown, the food court Food Gallery 32 became a staple, because I could never resist a quick pit stop into The Gochujang stall to grab tteokbokki for the subway ride home. In each of the places I visited, I remained enchanted by the evidence of how Asian immigrants in this city had created communities so fortified that they became woven into the fabric of the city itself—all to ensure that their families and neighbors had the means to survive.
Finding all the foods, snacks, and desserts that I missed growing up was easier than it had ever been in my life, barring only the times I was actually back in Thailand or visiting another Asian country. Despite this, I found myself constantly comparing each restaurant or bakery to Belle’s Bread. In each new restaurant I visited, I searched for a familiar face, someone else who was also relishing in what it meant for us to be in this space together—because in our small towns where we didn’t have entire neighborhoods, sometimes that space was all we had. Somewhere along the way, my desire to escape gave way to gratitude for what existed in the place that once suffocated me, and the tenacity of those who created it.
In the Midwest, even being elected to one of the highest offices of government in the country doesn’t allow immigrants to escape their perpetual foreigner label. I’m reminded of this every time Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar (representing Detroit and Minneapolis, respectively) have their Midwesternness, and in turn their Americanness, challenged despite being elected to serve a Midwestern constituency. The invisibility of immigrants in the region becomes dangerous beyond just the isolation it makes us feel personally. Yet we persist.
We will likely never have a Thaitown in rural Ohio—but we will always have the small Thai grocery store in Akron that my family drives fifty miles to a few times a year, whose owner always remembers our favorite flavor of instant noodle no matter how much time has passed since our last visit. We probably won’t have a Little Tokyo, either—but we will always have Tensuke Market in Columbus that will have a line out the door during a blizzard because their miso ramen is necessary on the coldest winter day.
It is these small communities, rather than our dreams of Elsewhere, that stay with us regardless of where we find ourselves next. Because sure, the taro buns in New York are good, but nothing beats the ones back home in Ohio.
Vandana is an educator and writer whose work focuses on creating equitable and culturally responsive environments for learning and development. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY but is grounded by her roots in Bangkok, Thailand and the Midwestern U.S. You can find her on Twitter @vandanaiscool.