Across from Seattle’s city lights, there is a small, maritime town called Bremerton. Even on a sunny weekend, Bremerton remains quiet and sleepy. Like other small towns in Washington, the Asian Pacific Islander population is minute. According to city-data.com, Bremerton has over 36,000 residents, but only 4.9 percent of them are Asian.

What brought APIs to small towns like Bremerton to live and work?

Ning Yon Li – Owner of China Wok Restaurant

Ning Yon Li, a single mother to three children, came to Seattle from Vietnam 20 years ago. After a divorce, Li found herself in poverty and unable to support a family.

“I did not want to take government assistance,” said Li. “In Seattle, I worked [in] customer service. It’s not easy to find job. It’s not enough money. I have three kids.”

Her brother, who doesn’t speak much English, needed help running a restaurant in Bremerton. Although Li felt uncomfortable starting over in a brand new place, she took a leap of faith and bought China Wok restaurant from her brother.

At first, the restaurant struggled. Even in a small town like Bremerton, there are more than a handful of Chinese eateries within a few miles of each other.

“After I moved here, many restaurants closed,” said Li. “I needed to pay a lot of money for advertising.”

To avoid tragically failing like the others, Li works day and night at China Wok. To boost business, she’s always greeting the customers and asking them for feedback.

“How was your food?” She’d travel from one table to another. “Do you need anything else?”

Often, with returning patrons, she would sit for a chit-chat before tending to other important tasks.

Besides early morning grocery shopping in Seattle for the restaurant, Li spends her entire day at work. Even though her life revolves around the business and doesn’t allow time for other activities, Li doesn’t mind.

“[I] had some friends [in Seattle],” confessed Li. “I don’t know anyone [in Bremerton]. I just have some employee [to hang out with].”

Finding Asian employees, which Li prefers for her restaurant, is nearly impossible. Due to the low API population in Bremerton, Li must hire Caucasian servers who are often expected to explain Chinese food to a mostly American clientele.

“[There are] not much [Asians] in the town,” said Li, “even hiring people…I [have to] hire American.”

For a more Asian staff, and to save cost, Li asked her teenage son to help out as a waiter. But he feels less than thrilled about spending all his free time in a restaurant.

“They don’t want to work here,” said Li.

Despite a lack of friends and social life, and slaving at work all day, Li expresses no regrets about moving to Bremerton and changing her lifestyle. After five years of hard work, China Wok restaurant has sustained good business through tough competition, giving Li all the reason to stay. Also, with the low cost of living in Bremerton — according to city-data.com, median house prices are $219,254 versus $287,200 in the state of Washington — Li was able to get out of debt and save money. For Li, giving up the life she knew in Seattle meant finally becoming financially stable.

“[There is] not much here, [but] I need to live here for the job.”

However, Li has sacrificed the most important thing to her children at this time – a social life.

“My sons have no fun here,” admitted Li.

Cody Tran – High School Student

Li’s son, Cody Tran, is a teenager two years away from graduating high school. He was born in the United States, and speaks perfect English. When he’s not going to classes, Tran helps out at his mom’s restaurant as much as he can. In whatever spare time he has left, Tran resorts to the Internet, and sometimes goes out with friends.

“I’m usually on the computer, or I’m hanging with friends,” said Tran. “We either go to Sitsap Mall or take the Seattle ferry [to the city] and walk around.”

Growing up, Tran enjoyed Seattle’s busy lifestyle, and spoke very fondly of his childhood in the city.

“When I was in Seattle, I probably had more Chinese friends. Over here, there is a lack of culture. It’s sort of boring … yeah … I think small towns are really boring. People don’t know it exists, and events never happen around here.”

To help his small town classmates learn about his culture, Tran often introduces various Chinese traditions. For example, he and a few Asian classmates in school would make a point to celebrate Chinese New Year.

“Whenever it’s Chinese New Year, we give each other red pockets at school,” said Tran. “Sometimes, just for fun, we even speak Chinese.”

Tran also engages his culture by introducing his classmates to different types of Asian foods.

“They are always interested in Asian food.”

But Tran also dealt with discrimination.

“It was probably in seventh grade … by a bunch of troublemakers. I was hanging out with my Chinese friends and [the troublemakers] were saying ‘Ching Chong…’” said Tran. “We just ignored them and walked to the library.”

Despite that unfortunate incident, Tran has had mostly positive experiences in a small town. For one, making friends was easy for him.

“I got here and people pretty much just started talking to me,” said Tran, who also became friends with other Asians.

“[I have] just a few [Asian friends] … like two or three. Two of them are Chinese and the others are half Japanese.”

With the friendly, open small town environment, Tran enjoys going to school and learning.

“I’m pretty sure I’m getting the same quality [of education in Bremerton as in Seattle],” said Tran. “When I was in Seattle, it was harder for me to learn. But here it was easier. In Seattle, it was hard to cooperate with people. Probably [because] in Seattle, kids are not friendly.”

However, the benevolent, small town atmosphere cannot keep Tran in Bremerton forever. The 15-year-old feels that at his age, there is more to see in the world.

“I prefer big, crowded cities like New York,” confessed Tran. “I just feel like the bigger the city, the more you are entertained, unlike here. Maybe after graduating, [I’ll be] moving back to Seattle and going to a university.”

Luna Laoharoj – Former Card Dealer, Waitress

North Bend is a small town just 30 miles east of Seattle on Interstate-90. It was made famous in the 1990s by David Lynch’s popular TV series “Twin Peaks.” The town offers year-round recreational activities such as skiing, hiking, kayaking, fishing, and backpacking. It is also known as the home of Snoqualmie Casino.

A job opening at the casino is what attracted Luna Laoharoj, originally from Thailand, to this small town of over 12,000 people. Laoharoj, 33, moved to North Bend in 2008 for a position as a table card dealer. Before that, she lived in Las Vegas.

One might assume that Laoharoj misses the excitement of Vegas lifestyle, but such is not the case. Laoharoj has grown to enjoy and appreciate small town living in the past three years.

“I like small towns better,” admitted Laoharoj, who quit her job at the casino not long ago, and is now a waitress at a local Thai restaurant.

“It’s quiet,” said Laoharoj. “People respect each other. There are not a lot of criminals.”

Also, Laoharoj finds North Bend full of fun things to do. In fact, according to her, there hasn’t been a dull moment yet. When she is not at work, Laoharoj is either enjoying the active mountain lifestyle or participating in community activities.

“It’s a quiet town, [but] there are a lot of things to do,” said Laoharoj. “[There is] skiing. [There are] activities and community projects.”

By keeping herself out and about, including volunteering and taking advantage of public facilities, Laoharoj easily met new people and made friends.

“If you go out [and participate] in activities, you will have a lot of friends,” advised Laoharoj. “[I go to the] library, [I volunteer at] the food bank. I help with food bank a lot.”

For a town with an Asian population of only approxiately 3 pecent, North Bend has been surprisingly easy for Laoharoj to date as well.

“To me, it’s easy to date,” said Laoharoj. “[However,] I work a lot.”

Laoharoj said she has not experienced discrimination.

“To me, I don’t see discrimination at all,” said Laoharoj, who notices very few APIs in the city. “I see mostly white people and Spanish people.”

Despite a lack of Asians, Laoharoj finds North Bend, as well as small town living, pleasant and fitting for her middle age.

“I like to relax. I [like to] clean house, walk the dog,” said Laoharoj. “People here are friendlier and relaxed … [also, small towns have] cheap living.”

Wen Jiang and Shugo Iwasaki – Exchange Students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg

Wen Jiang and Shugo Iwasaki are exchange students at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, a town of over 17,000 in population, with 5 percent Asians. Both of them are in Ellensburg specifically for school.

Iwasaki was born and raised in Tokyo, which has nearly 30 million residents. Somehow, Iwasaki still claims that Tokyo is a small city. He has been in Ellensburg for the past five months.

“Ellensburg is not small,” insisted Iwasaki, who has enjoyed his stay so far, “[I dislike that there is] no sea and boring, [but it’s] easy to find friends [in Ellensburg].”

In a vibrant school environment, Iwasaki made plenty of friends, despite being a shy exchange student. Living in the dorms has especially helped his social life.

“Because Japanese are so shy, we don’t introduce each other. But I [made] a lot of Japanese friends, [and] also a lot of American friends,” said Iwasaki.

When he is not at school – Iwasaki is currently studying politics – he is often out with friends.

“[in my spare time], I go to downtown to meet friends. [I go to] stores or restaurants.”

Because of the small town atmosphere and friendly peers, Iwasaki has adjusted well in a new environment. He has mostly positive things to say about living in a small American town.

“I like Ellensburg,” revealed Iwasaki. “Ellensburg is quiet and not so noisy. I like American culture — big houses, big stores. Of course [I miss Japanese food], but I like hamburger.”

Jiang feels the same way about Ellensburg and small town living. However, although he enjoys the peace and relaxation, Jiang finds the place a bit boring. Jiang came from Hang Zhou, China, a city with a population of over 6 million. It is one of the busiest tourist attractions in China, and often crowded on any day of the week.

“I like environment,” said Jiang, “I dislike a little boring here.”

The fact that he doesn’t know much English makes him feel a little isolated.

“I think the most difficult thing is conversation with American. I [cannot] understand what they speak at first.”

Jiang is trying to help the situation by enrolling in ESL classes.

“I’m studying ELS program, I will graduate after one quarter from ELS. [Then] I will be a regular student.”

Even with communication problems, Jiang appreciates the friendliness of a small town.

“It’s a small town, people are friendly.”

In fact, even after graduation, Jiang plans to remain in Ellensburg.

“I like small town, so I plan to remain.”

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