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​The Allure of Asian and American Super Market

Culture | March 21st, 2024

By Annie Prafcke

annieprafcke@gmail.com

As an elementary school kid in the early 2000s, Kristy Tran didn’t start her day the way most kids do. Instead of rolling out of bed to go straight to school, Tran and her parents went grocery shopping.

Nearly every morning — or sometimes after school — the Tran family got in the car to drive to Asian and American Market. At the store, Tran’s dad waited in the driver's seat with a cigarette or a cup of coffee, while her mom made the grocery run. Asian and American Market was one of the few Asian groceries in her hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, so it was an essential stop for the Tran family and many other Vietnamese-American families in the area.

Her mom searched the market’s densely packed aisles for eggroll wrappers, fish sauce, noodles and papaya, while Tran hunted for her favorite Japanese snacks: Calbee shrimp chips, Meiji YanYan biscuits with their sweet, creamy dips, and chocolate-filled Hello Panda cookies.

Tran’s descriptions of Asian and American Market evoke strong memories for me as well. As a Chinese adoptee raised by a white mother in the early 2000s and 2000-teens, few spaces existed in my small, heavily Norwegian-influenced city where my dark hair and almond shaped eyes didn’t make me stand out. Asian and American Market was one of those places.

Today, Asian and American Market (or A and A) looks different than it did during Tran’s and my school days. In January 2023, the grocery store rebranded to Asian and American Super Market, reopening at a new location that is less than half a mile away from the old store but about three times larger — nearly the size of an Olympic ice hockey rink. John Huynh, who owns the store with his sister Sarah Huynh, says customers drive in from across the state and even neighboring South Dakota to shop at his grocery. A and A’s success reflects demographic changes in North Dakota, as well as an Asian food hype across the nation.

North Dakota’s Asian population is not large. Only around 13,200 Asian people live in a state of roughly 779,000. Fargo, North Dakota’s most populous city, has an Asian population that is closer to the national average. Just over 4% of Fargoans identify as Asian alone, whereas 6% of the total U.S. population identifies this way. Yet, between 2000 and 2019, the number of Asian people in North Dakota grew over 200%, making North Dakota the U.S. state with the fastest growing Asian population.

While the city is becoming more racially diverse, Asian grocery stores weren’t always cool in Fargo, nor was being Asian. Tran, now 29, felt ashamed of her Vietnamese heritage as a kid. Most of her friends were white. Her classmates teased her about the shape of her eyes and her short stature. She remembers her parents bringing custard-filled Euro Cakes from Thailand to her birthday parties and wishing they would just bring cupcakes instead.

These days, Tran owns Saigon Kuisine, a catering and pop up business specializing in Vietnamese food, which she runs with her mom, along with the help of her dad, her cousin and her boyfriend. She told me she thinks attitudes toward Asian food in Fargo have changed from when we were growing up. Kids in her school cafeteria once made fun of her for bringing fried rice. They jeered, “What’s that smell?” Now, people request her Vietnamese egg rolls and bánh mì at graduation parties, and Saigon Kuisine sells out nearly every time they attend Red River Market, downtown Fargo’s largest farmer’s market. “People are loving Vietnamese food,” she said.

A and A has been in the Fargo community for decades, but its history is murky until the late 1990s. A and A’s former co-owner, George Ley, told me he bought an Asian grocery with his then brother-in-law around 1997. The store he bought had previously been through a few name changes but he remembers it being called something like Hong Oriental Market at the time of purchase. The two renamed the business to Asian and American Market and moved it from its original location to 1015 Main Avenue about a year later. The Huynh siblings then took over from that location in 2016.

Newcomers are often surprised Fargo has an Asian grocery store with an extensive selection of goods. Customers from as far as California and New York who are visiting family in Fargo say they can find things at his supermarket that they can’t find back home, John boasted. He knows how important it is to have access to foods that represent one’s culture. As a Vietnamese immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 21, John remembers traveling about 50 miles to Fargo from his home in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, to find Asian food in the mid 1990s.

“Some people even from far, far away … they say they cannot expect in Fargo they have this kind of store,” John said.

Bigger Asian supermarkets have succeeded in the U.S. The National Retail Federation listed popular Asian supermarket chains H Mart and 99 Ranch Market as two of the fastest growing retailers in 2020. Yet, international grocery stores still only make up about 7 percent of the over $653 billion grocery store industry. But not all areas of the country have access to these chains. The closest H Mart to Fargo is over 600 miles away in Schaumburg, Illinois.

A and A is also not the only Asian grocery in town. Staff at FM International Foods and Lotus Blossom say they sell Chinese and Indian products. Himalayan Grocery specializes in South Asian products. Fargo Fresh Groceries is an Indian and Middle Eastern market. Tochi Products, a natural food store that has been around since the 1970s, has long carried a few Asian goods as well. But A and A was one of the first grocery stores selling primarily Asian products, and for many people who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was the main market they visited for its extensive selection of Asian foodstuffs.

TJ Edra, 41, who owns northern Thai restaurant ThaiKota with his wife Gina Edra, says when his family moved from Hawaii to Fargo in 1999, his dad struggled to find ingredients to make the Filipino and Pacific Islander food of their heritage. A and A was the place they could get those ingredients, he said. The grocery’s long standing legacy in the community has kept TJ a longtime customer. He told me he and Gina shop at A and A at least five times a week, both for their restaurant and for their home kitchen.

Fargo-based teaching artist Chelsea Steffes grew up in a Filipino and white family in Farmington, Minnesota, a small city within the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area. She said she spent most time with her dad’s side of the family, all of whom are white, but she remained connected to her Filipino roots through her mom and her maternal aunt who lived with her and cooked often. Steffes, 27, has fond memories of making lumpia, which she describes as a “Filipino egg roll,” with her mom, aunt and two sisters.

Living within close proximity to a major city, the Steffesfamily had access to Asian grocery stores, but when she moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area to attend school at Concordia College, Steffes didn’t expect to find an abundance of Asian markets. She first went to A and A via her all-white friend group who were on a quest for “fancy” ramen.

When she first stepped inside, Steffes felt like “a kid in the candy store,” excitedly pointing out the familiar products to her friends.

Steffesdescribed her college campus as “pretty dang white” during her first years as an undergraduate, but now, four years out of college, she is auditing a class at Concordia and notices more students of color. She sees more Asian people in the community, although she said this might be because she is more involved with Asian events in the area.

Steffesdidn’t always feel connected to her Asian identity. She told me she grew up connecting more strongly with her white side because more of her dad’s relatives lived near her. Steffes didn’t know many other Asians growing up, and people often mistook her for Latina or Native American. In college, she started to explore the nuances of her racial identity and became interested in anything and everything Asian.

Like Steffes, I was not enthusiastic about exploring my Asian heritage as a kid. My mom nevertheless made an effort to shop at A and A during Chinese New Year for frozen dumplings and red envelopes. We also occasionally shopped there for lychee fruit, baby bananas and spices like curry powder.

My strongest memories of this grocery store, however, are with my younger sister, who is also a Chinese adoptee. During Fargo’s warmer months, we’d bike to A and A, scouring the shelves for ingredients that looked exotic to us as small city Midwestern kids raised in a white family. We’d bike home, plastic bags filled with unfamiliar vegetables, fragrant spice bottles –and once, I believe, black squid ink pasta. At home, we would challenge our mom to come up with dinner for us on the spot. Part of the fun was the novelty trying new foods (and messing with our mom), but I think I also liked going to A and A with my sister because, while studying Chinese language or celebrating Chinese New Year made me feel like a cultural outsider, doing the mundane act of shopping for groceries made me feel like we were a normal Asian family.

John Huynh sees more Asian people in Fargo than he did in the early 1990s, but he also told me a large portion of his customer base is composed of recent African immigrants, as well as white people seeking Asian products. Among the best selling merchandise are Pocky biscuit sticks, Hello Panda cookies, matcha-flavored KitKats and a spicy Korean ramen called 2X Buldak from Samyang Foods. The popular Taiwanese drink, boba, is hard to keep on the shelves.

The popularity of these products follows a national trend favoring Asian food. Six of the eleven most popular cuisines in major U.S. cities are Asian – Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai – a 2023 study from Grand Canyon University reported. Asian American cuisines are also some of the most popular on social media. Michelin’s coverage of Chinese restaurants, Japanese restaurants and Korean restaurants in New York City has also increased, with reporting on Chinese restaurants doubling between 2006 and 2022, according to forthcoming research by Krishnendu Ray, director of the Food Studies PhD Program at New York University and author of the book “The Ethnic Restaurateur.”

Which international cuisines are deemed hot, versus not is tied to patterns of immigration, race, class and geopolitics, Ray told me. As countries such as South Korea and Japan gained wealth, and immigrants from those countries achieved higher class status in the U.S., Japanese and Korean food has gained prestige, leading to the upscale sushi and Korean barbeque joints we see across the country. A similar trajectory occurred in American history during the mid-nineteenth century with German food and between 1880 and 1920 with Italian cuisine, Ray said.

“These were all considered different foods, because white people were not one unified racial category,” Ray said. “What you're looking at is absolutely a fascinating story about how global transformations and national demographic transformations lead to cultural change.”

It may be a fortunate time to own a store that stocks Asian food, but in addition to providing popular products, some attribute Asian and American Super Market’s success to its strong presence in the Fargo-Moorhead community.

Tran said nearly everyone who regularly shops at A and A seems to have a relationship with the owners. Her mom is so comfortable with the staff that she has been known to walk straight to the back doors and snag fresh bean sprouts from whomever happens to be stocking at the time.

“It's like a small, tight-knit type of community feel,” Tran says of the store.

Nancy Ngo’s parents also feel more at ease with A and A staff than they do with employees at other Fargo grocery stores. A and A’s current owners are Vietnamese, and although Ley, the former owner, is from Cambodia and of Chinese descent, he learned to speak Vietnamese (along with some Arabic, Chinese and Kurdish) so he could communicate with his customers. Ngo, a 27-year-old customer success manager in Fargo, said her parents and her grandma felt more confident asking questions in their native tongue as first-generation Vietnamese immigrants with limited English.

“When we went to other stores, I felt like I was their translator,” Ngo said. “But in Asian [and] American Market, I could just run in, and then we would separate. I would go straight to the chip and candy aisle on the left when you walked in. And they would go right to the right to the vegetables.”

Ngo also has fond memories of attending an annual Lunar New Year celebration hosted by North Dakota State University’s Vietnamese Student Association, where Ley handed out money-filled red envelopes to kids. Ley told me he special ordered $2 bills from the bank to put in the envelopes, a tradition he carried out for about seven years.

Tran has observed another change that may have added to A and A’s success; she sees the Fargo community becoming more accepting of Asian culture. Her niece and nephew, who are both in elementary school, don’t seem to have any of the embarrassment Tran felt about being Vietnamese American. They ask their parents to pack them Asian food for lunch at their West Fargo school.

“Kids at school would be so jealous, and it's like, ‘Oh my god, you get fried rice for lunch?’” Tran said. “It's great to see the narrative kind of change.”

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