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Dilemmas of An Unexpected Invitation to Tour the Mississippi Delta in 2008

Posted by John Jung on February 26, 2012 at 8:00 PM

       In researching background material for writing Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton, a social history of Mississippi Delta Chinese grocers, I used several different types of material ranging from academic scholarly work, other accounts about the Delta Chinese grocers, interviews, and a small set of oral histories from the Delta State University Archives recorded back in the 1970s or 80s. The latter material came from interviews of about 20 Chinese from grocery store families. The transcripts provided rich details of the daily lives of Chinese family life not only in store operations but also about the social interactions, relations, and community ties among this small population of less than 1,000 Chinese living miles apart from each other in numerous small delta towns around the middle of the past century. I wanted to include direct quotes from some of these documents in my book, and to make sure that I had not misinterpreted them or taken them out of context, I contacted the respondents so they could examine the materials I attributed to them.

     One unexpected outcome was some concern among a few respondents that these never edited transcripts contained some mistakes and that the conversational nature of the comments might make the respondents come across as poorly educated and inarticulate. Some even asked if they could "revise" the transcripts even though they were based on interviews from well over 20 years back. I tried to reassure them that no one expects conversations to contain polished statements, free of grammatical flaws, repetitions, hesitations, etc. And, I insisted that it would not be suitable for my research if they were to now re-write or edit what they had previously said over 20 years ago.

      Frieda Quon was one of the individuals who was most engaged in this negotiation. Frieda was an about-to-retire librarian at Delta State University who grew up in her family's grocery store in Greenville. She had read my memoir, Southern Fried Rice, and had very positive conviction that I could relate to and understand the lives of Delta Chinese, even though I had grown up in Macon, Georgia, where my family was the only Chinese in town, and we ran a laundry rather than a grocery. Frieda, along with Blanche Yee, Shirley Kwan, Gilroy Chow, and Audrey Sidney, among others, spearheaded a plan to invite me to 'tour' the Delta so I could meet Delta Chinese in person and get to know about their grocery store lives better than I could from reading documents and books.



 Frieda Quon and John Jung

    I was torn about accepting the invitation. Clearly, on one hand, it would be invaluable to visit the Delta in person even though I was at a stage in my thinking and writing about the Delta Chinese where I felt I had a firm understanding. A visit, however, might show me that my views were not correct and I'd have to rewrite my book. That was a risk that I'd have to take, and was willing to do, but there was a greater risk that I feared. Suppose I went down to the Delta, and while receiving 16 days of 'Southern hospitality' as house guests in towns up and down the Delta, I only got to see and hear the 'good side' of the Delta Chinese experience. Would my trip bias me toward seeing only the good images that the hosts might display? And, then if I wrote anything the least bit unflattering about the Delta Chinese, might they feel that I had betrayed them?

     Fortunately, my worst fears were unfounded. The visit basically validated the conceptions I had formulated before my tour. I did have a few disagreements about discussions on the sensitive topic of racial attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs between Chinese and the whites and blacks. I think I was able to persuade those with objections that any historical analysis of Delta society that ignored racial issues would seem seriously flawed even if the main goal was to depict Chinese family life.


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