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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: The Ba Zhang Diaspora

By Albert Tsai, MD

I recently invited a person to my home and was enjoying a wonderful dinner with him when he started telling my family and me more about his background. He said his family was a part of the "Cajun Diaspora that came originally from France, then to Nova Scotia and eventually displaced by the British and ended up in Louisiana..." It's not that I found him uninteresting, but I found myself bemused by the word "diaspora." This word was not something I typically came across in a casual dinner conversation.  

Diaspora was a word that I personally had a hard time grasping when I was younger. I think I came across the word on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), or I swore it was voiced by Alex Trebek as a daily double answer on "Jeopardy." I think I also heard the word numerous times when I was an undergraduate freshman at UC Berkeley. My Sociology 3 class, taught by Harry Edwards (a Distinguished Teaching Award winner who was a leader of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s), spoke about the African Diaspora. I think the word came up when I took Political Science 2, taught by Distinguished Teaching Award winner Ken Jowitt, where the professor referenced the Jewish Diaspora. In my undergrad small discussion groups, I pretended to understand its meaning as I was too embarrassed to admit that I was obfuscated by its meaning.   

According to Dictionary.com, Diaspora is "any group migration or flight from a country or region, or any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland, especially involuntarily." 

Back at my dinner table, my friend, a professional musician and music major, talked about his grandfather's musical roots in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and how he had acquired a love for folk music. He identified as Cajun and noted his ancestors did get dispersed numerous times throughout history and now had a niche in Louisiana that was rich in food, music, and cool accents. 

I started to think about the analogies section on the SAT: Cajun is to French Nova Scotians as Jewish is to Israel. Or Cajun is to Baton Rouge as African American is to South Fulton, Georgia (the city with the highest percentage of the population reporting as Black, according to the 2020 census).   

I began thinking about these diasporas or ethnic enclaves in North America. I wondered why I hadn't come across this word more to describe the countless other diasporas from Asian countries. My SAT mind continued: Cajun is to Baton Rouge as Canadian Afghans are to Toronto; as Hmong is to St. Paul, Minnesota; as Filipino is to Daly City, California. 

It dawned on me that my parents, born in the 1940s in Taiwan, were part of a diaspora as well. When Chinese Communists led by Mao Tse-Tung won a bitter civil war against Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949, the Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan. Chiang set up a government of "enlightened authoritarianism," and his strict anti-communist stance led to harsh paranoia and consequences against anyone who even thought of supporting the ideology of communism.  

My mother had told me that when she was a child in the early 1950s, my grandfather had been given books and pamphlets about communism by a friend. My grandfather had not been a strong believer of communism and had barely even read the materials as he and my grandmother were trying to raise my mother, uncles, and aunties.  

At some point, the local Nationalist authorities discovered this communist propaganda, and my grandfather subsequently spent 16 years in jail for the offense of supporting the Chinese communist party. My mother was only eight years old when her father was taken away, and my grandmother was left with economic and psychological struggles in raising five children alone.  

My oldest aunt helped the family by sacrificing her education to cook and sell Taiwanese Ba Zhang,  a glutinous sticky rice dumpling stuffed with different fillings (straw mushroom and pork are common)  and wrapped in bamboo leaves. My mom used to tell me that my aunt would wrap this through the night in their garage and sell them the next day just to make ends meet. Ba Zhang, along with Boba and Xiao Long Bao, are probably the three best Taiwanese foods I can think of. This tireless work from my oldest aunt allowed the three middle children to focus on paths to become financially stable – by getting an education. My second aunt went to grad school to obtain a Ph.D., my uncle obtained an M.D., and my mother went to a program to become a registered nurse. 

My mother once told me that she had dreamed one day of supporting her mother when she became financially stable working as an ICU nurse. In the same year she obtained her R.N. degree, my grandfather was released from prison. As hope was starting to grow in the family, there was a cruel twist. My grandmother fell ill and passed away. My mother was only 26 years old.  

I can only imagine my mother's struggles growing up in a single-parent household and with resentments about the government stealing away her father. These events likely played a role in her motivations to emigrate to the United States. The doors opened for her and countless other east Asians in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act. This ended 83 years of discriminatory immigration practices against east Asia, and finally, immigrants from places other than northern and western Europe could more easily emigrate to the United States.  

Both my parents instilled in me the values of hard work, and like many East Asians who emigrated to the United States from the 1960s to 1990s, instilled the value of education to become financially stable. It was fortuitous that the laws in the U.S. changed in time for my mother and father to emigrate to the United States and allow my brother and me to experience the melting pot that was California.  

The Seattle and Bellevue areas are also a great resource for east Asian and Taiwanese foods. I know Xiao Long Bao and Boba have become more of a commercialized venture popularized by businesses like Din Tai Fung and ShareTea. But I'd be overjoyed if you spend this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month trying some Ba Zhang at small mom and pop shops. This might support a hard-working Taiwanese Aunty and put their family through school!   

Written by

Albert Tsai, MD

Al Tsai, MD, is a ABPN certified psychiatrist, at the Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Program in  Washington State.   Dr. Tsai  has previously worked at Overlake Medical Clinics…