STORIES THAT FEED US
Photos by Jeff Sykes
Yong “Lee” Yi used to gaze out of his childhood home to see vegetable plots and the lush South Korean landscape. He never imagined that he’d look up one day and see Greensboro.
Mahamed Abdelaziz, originally from Egypt, was born several thousand miles from the restaurant he owns on Tate Street. His daily vista now includes a university campus.
For many Americans â€” particularly those without overseas connections â€” it is hard to grasp how shifting global realities move in next door. What happens “over there” is often no more than 40 seconds of headline news.
How Lee and other immigrants arrive are factors of earth-sized geopolitics and, sometimes, multigenerational quests for opportunity.
America is possible because stories in other places fall apart.
Here are two stories that ended up in Greensboro.
Lee is a tall man and he towers over the grill at Grill-N-Pho U located inside the Super G grocery store on West Market Street. Shopping carts are lined up against one wall while customers wait for their orders of Hibachi, Pho or Banh Mi sandwiches.
Eight years ago, Lee lived in Los Angeles. He stood at the brink of ruin â€“ or total transformation.
He was about to lose everything: his business, the house, the cars.
Lee didn’t know what to do or where to go.
Someone suggested Greensboro, two thousand miles from California.
Lee had started over before. The first time was the journey from South Korea to California. What was the difference of a few more thousand miles if it offered a clean slate?
Lee doesn’t remember much about the details of 1970s rural South Korea. He knows that his family did not have rice patties like the wealthier villagers. Instead, they cultivated vegetable plots, and they struggled to have enough food to eat.
“It was pretty tough to my best recollection,” Lee shares.
He explains that one could determine wealth by shoes. ” Usually we’d wear shoes made out of rubber. If you were poor, you had dark rubber. If you were middle class, light rubber. If you were fairly well off, you’d have tennis shoes.”
Lee wore dark rubber soled shoes.
During the winter, he doesn’t remember having socks to wear.
His family, however, had a way out of South Korea. Lee’s aunt had married an American service man. She was part of the “war bride” generation created by the 1951 Korean War. In turn, her citizenship allowed her to sponsor others and started a slow trickle of family to the United States.
The U.S. Immigration Act in 1965 abolished national-origin quotas and further supported family reunification. Economic and political conditions in South Korea encouraged Koreans to seek opportunities in America. In 1975, Lee’s family joined the rapidly growing South Korean population in Los Angeles.
He was 11 years old the night his family arrived in the United States. “Some people might say I’m discriminating, but I thought when I came to America, I would see only blue-eyed and blond hair people. And the streets would be spotless streets.” Lee admits his arrival in multicultural L.A. was a shock, a world vastly different than the South Korean countryside.
His parents quickly found work in a garment factory. “Back then, the Korean community had a term for those who work in clothes manufacturing,” he says.
That kind of work was called “stepping three thousand miles.”
The term developed because employees spent their shift tethered to a sewing machine. Three thousand miles is how many steps his mother took every day, foot-to-pedal, to make a life.
Lee enrolled in public school knowing only five things in English, “I learned how to say ‘thank you,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ and how to count to 10.”
He received only one hour of ESL instruction a day.
Despite the language barrier, threethousand-mile-steps brought security to his family. “The biggest joy is that we had finally enough to eat,” he remembers.
Lee grew up in Echo Park, a short walk from Dodger Stadium, a fact he is proud to point out. He graduated high school and had plans.
“I did spend a little time at Fort Jackson, but I wanted to go to college, or to ROTC to become a military officer. Or a police officer with the L.A.P.D., but I got sidetracked and never made it.”
The 2006 fiscal crisis hit Lee and his family hard. He was managing several restaurant businesses with family in Los Angeles when his world changed.
“During the so called real estate burst, we lost everything,” Lee reveals. “At the time before we moved, we were living in the outskirts of L.A. We lost our house, our business, and the vehicles were repossessed.”
Korean contacts pointed toward North Carolina. Lee’s wife is a beautician. A friend suggested starting over in Greensboro. “There are Koreans in Greensboro but not that many doing hair,” Lee was told, and he sensed an opportunity.
His family arrived in Greensboro seven years ago, leaving behind the bustling urbanity of L.A. for a quieter existence. Lee is active in the Korean Methodist Church and quickly found support through his congregation.
Armed with friendships and hope, he started over again for a second time in his life.
North Carolina hosts one of the fastest growing Asian-American populations in the country, with 2012 estimates of 285,000 individuals who claim to be of Asian-American heritage, a 109 percent spike since 2000. As immigrant communities grow, news spread about business opportunities, and this brings more people to places like Greensboro.
Asian Americans are good news for North Carolina’s economy. Nationwide, Asian immigrants own 1.5 million businesses, according to the most recent Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners.
They also hold the fastest growing buying power of any ethnic or racial group in the nation, based on studies conducted by the Selig Center at the University of Georgia’s Terry School of Business.
Lee joined that demographic when he arrived in Greensboro. However, he didn’t want to launch another business. That was the case until prime restaurant space became available in Super G, which is the largest international food market in the Triad. Super G is located in a shopping center on West Market Street called Fanta City. Different languages float down the aisles and past items unavailable at Harris Teter. It is where Greensboro meets the globe.
This was a perfect place for Lee to start anew â€” at the intersection of many cultures.
West Market Street is a part of town where one will find a collection of businesses and restaurants targeting various immigrant communities, and it is an area unfamiliar to many in Greensboro. West Market Street, as well as parts of Gate City Boulevard, is considered an immigrant corridor. These enclaves are filled with potential economic growth and stories that tether the city to the world.
Greensboro-based Donovan McKnight wishes more people would seek out these spaces. He is Co-Director of Ethnosh, a group he founded with partners Triad Local First and Bluezoom Advertising. Ethnosh organizes NoshUps at local ethnic restaurants. Participants pay less than $10 for a food tasting and a chance to meet the owners.
The idea germinated partly from an artist residency McKnight held at the flea market in Super G, just a few steps down from Grill-N-Pho U. The experience encouraged him to think about the impact of immigrant economic corridors on cities.
“I grew up in Greensboro,” McKnight explains. “The way I remember, places like West Market Street were like sought after areas of town where higher profile businesses wanted to be. Over several years, those businesses left. That left a kind of vacancy, but it also created an opportunity, especially for new businesses in need of cheap rent.”
Immigrant-owned businesses moved into empty storefronts, revitalizing the retail corridors. McKnight points out that all along West Market Street immigrants and refugees live in apartment complexes and single-family homes, making that side of town a particularly dense immigrant area. Grocery stores, halal markets, and bakeries are all in walking distance.
Lee knew the restaurant was in a perfect place right inside Super G’s doors. Plus, he wanted to give back to Greensboro. He talked to his wife and she agreed that they should pursue the opportunity.
“We had received so much so why not start one to help others. That is one reason we decided to start this business,” Lee said.
Lee looks down at the table, his voice humble, when he reveals that Greensboro probably saved his life. “With the situation that I went through, if I still lived in L.A., I don’t think I’d be here at this moment. I was at that very low end where a lot of people might have been…”
His voice trails off. “I am very blessed that we moved out here. I thank the Lord for leading me to here, for giving me the strength.”
Lee assumed the restaurant two years ago, and he has maintained a menu similar to the restaurant that had previously occupied the space. However, he tweaked a few things to offer more fusion-inspired dishes. His aim wasn’t to appease only Asian eaters. “I was not trying to do the business of targeting Koreans since the main focus isn’t Korean food. Since taking over the place, lots of Vietnamese say it isn’t to their authentic taste,” Lee said. “We do see a lot more Caucasian and other nationalities coming in besides Asians.”
The menu, like Lee, is a bridge between multiple experiences.
Manhattan Pizza and Subs is on Tate Street across from UNCG campus. The main drag for students isn’t considered an immigrant corridor even if peppered with several ethnic and immigrant owned businesses spaced between a bar and a few coffee shops.
The sub shop sits at the end of restaurant row and is marked by signage advertising “Spartan Special.” The establishment is quintessentially American in presentation: a low-key campus hangout offering the kind of food popular with college kids, and right in the heart of student life.
Yet, it wouldn’t exist if a young Egyptian man had not witnessed a major 20 th century political event.
Mahamed Abdelaziz arrived in New York City in the early 1980s. He got off the plane and found his way to Times Square where he worked at a bodega, a convenience store.
His voice is soft, and his face supports a well-trimmed grey beard. He laughs as he remembers his first visit to America.
“Well, I went to New York. I noticed the whole world was here. I could see all kinds of people: Japanese, Indian, Pakistani people. This was a surprise for me. I didn’t see America. I saw the whole world.”
Arab immigration to the United States increased during that decade. Some were fleeing the Lebanese Civil War. Others wanted to escape the conflict between Iran and Iraq.
Abdelaziz, however, came because of a peace deal.
He was a teenager during the October War in 1973 when Egypt and Syria led a coalition of Arab States against Israel. The war lasted only a few weeks and resulted in an uneasy ceasefire. However, the events led to the 1978 Camp David Accords, which brokered a historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
One result of the Camp David Accords is that Egypt loosened travel restrictions on citizens. Now, Egyptians could easily go abroad. Abdelaziz had witnessed regional conflict and wanted to avoid serving in the Egyptian army.
Instead, he ventured to the United States.
Sure, one can order a gyro or falafel at Manhattan Subs â€” food Abdelaziz added long ago because he knew the items appealed to the open-minded campus community. He has found a formula that works, however, and one that after 20 years has endeared him to customers: pizza, subs, and short order grill food.
Abdelaziz, who is in his 60s and carries a gentle smile, said that his customers are curious and polite. They recognize him as Arab and Muslim, and they “are interested to experience different cultures and people, you know.”
That is what he has come to expect from Greensboro. “Basically Greensboro is like that. There are four or five colleges, so Greensboro itself is like a big campus.”
He doesn’t dwell on the angst of being between two cultures or in the politics of exile. He stood behind the counter at Manhattan Subs and watched the TV on the opposite wall as the Arab Spring erupted in his hometown of Cairo. It is a surreal thing to watch history happen to your country while standing six thousand miles away. He talked to his siblings and mother often. “They were excited. They thought things would be wonderful. Between day and night.”
Abdelaziz held a different opinion. “I felt that the country was going down. I was thinking that this was bad, that things might get worse. That is what I thought at the time.”
He has a nuanced appreciation for the political process after being in the United States for so long. Abdelaziz said that building a new Egypt couldn’t happen from a few protests. Or even from establishing a different government. “For me, I can see the people in Egypt trying to turn the table upside down, and it is going to be a long time to collect these things again. No way, after 30 or 50 years, you can’t just be a new person.”
He says, “If you put the same system there as over here is good, but you have to have people believe in the system.”
It is the system in America â€” the entrepreneurial way life â€”that made Abdelaziz possible. After New York, he returned to Egypt for a brief time to complete his studies at Cairo University. He came back to the United States to establish a restaurant in Dublin, Virginia, a rural community so small that his arrival meant something.
In a town with less than three thousand residents, they asked him, “Why are you here?” He was there to build a life by following a trend of Arab-owned businesses in the rural South by way of small pizza shops and convenience stores.
Abdelaziz was managing in small town America while raising a family with his wife. In 1996, an Arab friend tuned him into a restaurant for sale in Greensboro. Abdelaziz wanted to open a business while continuing his education and felt Greensboro held the right opportunities.
The location rested at the edge of the UNCG campus and served as a metaphor for Abdelaziz’s life: a place at the intersection of different communities.
The first Gulf War with Iraq had taken place a few years earlier. CNN’s 24-hour news broadcast of the conflict â€” the first war covered live, around the clock, and with embedded reporters â€” had brought the Arab world into the nation’s living rooms. Americans were increasingly curious about all things Middle Eastern, even those who ran sub and pizza shops.
Abdelaziz put “Manhattan” in the name to honor where he first landed in America.
Life happened, and Abdelaziz never got around to continuing his education. His daughter, however, graduated from UNCG. Twice. She received her Masters degree in 2014. His son remained in Dublin, Virginia and is a police officer.
“He is completely happy there,” says Abdelaziz. “He doesn’t want to be in a big city.”
Lee and Abdelaziz say they feel connected to the culture of their birth, but they see the future in their children who belong to America. Lee indicated that he could go back to South Korea to live if he had to, but it would be “different.” He has no plans to do so. His aging parents are in L.A. and his siblings are spread throughout the country. His life is here.
One day, he hopes to go to Bible College.
He doesn’t want to become a pastor, but this is a personal goal, something he’d like to do for himself.
“It has been in my mind for last 10 years or so.”
Abdelaziz feels at home on the corner of Tate and Spring Garden streets. He has no plans to return to Egypt, even though he knows retirement is inevitable. He wonders about what he will do because he can’t sit still for more than an hour or so. He enjoys being part of campus life, and says his faith, Islam, teaches that “my neighbors have certain rights over me,” meaning the right to his hospitality and kindness.
Modern technology like Skype and smart phone apps make the distance less when it comes to communicating with his mother and siblings in Cairo. It isn’t like before when one had to wake up at 2 am to make an international phone call to account for the time difference. “And,” Abdelaziz admits, “calling rates were cheaper at that time of night.”
Lee and Abdelaziz demonstrate that immigrants impact many aspects of Greensboro life â€“ sometimes in unexpected ways and in unexpected corners.
Abdelaziz went home for 10 months more than three decades ago to finish his studies. When he told his family that he planned to return to America a second time, they understood what it meant.
“America is going to be your destination,” is what he was told. From that point, Abdelaziz looked forward, and forward meant a new definition of home.
Now, he explains, “Egypt for me is like the land for parents and grandparents. The U.S. for me is for children and grandchildren.”
He puts his hand to his face and smiles. “I am the link between the past and the future.”
Last year, Our State magazine hosted an online survey that asked readers to reflect on several aspects of life. One question centered on regular interaction with immigrants. A whopping 70 percent expressed that they had no personal connection to someone from a different country. For many in North Carolina â€“ including that 70 percent â€” eating in ethnic restaurants is routine; a way to mark oneself as a sophisticated “foodie.”
Immigrants feed us in many ways. Food can serve as a bridge between people.
In November 2015, Donovan McKnight compiled a Buzzfeed article celebrating several immigrant owned restaurants in Greensboro, therefore announcing the area’s eclectic palate to the world.
Stroll through the selections listed and one realizes how much of the world is gifting a new identity â€“ and stories â€” to the “Gate City.” !
DEONNA KELLI Sayed is a writer, storyteller, and podcast producer of global proportions. She is the author of Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits. Learn more at dksayed.com
Editor’s Note: The next Ethnosh Noshup is on April 25 th at Taste of Ethiopia from 5:30-9:30 pm. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Visit Ethnosh.org to learn more, and follow them on Facebook for current happenings.