SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Think of the Mississippi Delta, and you might imagine cotton fields, sharecroppers, blues music. Well, it's been all that. But for more than a century, it's also been a magnet for immigrants. On her road trip to the Delta, NPR's Melissa Block hears about one group with a long and surprising history.
GILROY CHOW: Hi, come on in.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: How are you?
We've come to the home of Gilroy and Sally Chow. They live in Clarksdale, Miss., a mostly African-American town known as the heart of the Delta Blues. Tonight with friends and relatives, the Chow's are preparing a feast of Chinese comfort food.
CHOW: We're going to cook the shrimp with a little ginger, a little garlic.
BLOCK: Gilroy tosses fried rice on a huge wok outdoors. Inside, there's a flurry of chopping. Everyone here describes a common experience. When they travel, jaws drop as soon as people realize they're Chinese and from Mississippi. Here's Frieda Quon.
FRIEDA QUON: Then they ask you, what are you doing there? And - because I guess they just have this idea that it is black and white.
JEAN MASKAS: The Chinese face with a southern accent throws people off.
BLOCK: Jean Maskas chimes in.
MASKAS: I was at my daughter's school, and we'd taken some friends out to eat. And they all said, I just can't get used to talking your mother. It's like an identity theft.
BLOCK: To understand the Delta Chinese, understand this - it's all about grocery stores. Everybody around this table - their parents owned groceries. We'll get back to that dinner in a few minutes. But first, let's pay a visit some 70 miles south to Greenville, Miss., and Raymond Wong.
RAYMOND WONG: We had probably as many as 50 Chinese grocery stores, and I was raised in a grocery store.
BLOCK: Raised literally. The Wong family lived - all six of them - in a couple of rooms at the back of the store.
WONG: I'm sure as soon as we could count money, we had to work in front.
BLOCK: We head out to Raymond Wong's old neighborhood.
WONG: There was a Chinese grocery store right here. Right here was another grocery store right on this corner.
BLOCK: So there were two grocery stores just on the same block basically?
WONG: Oh, yeah.
BLOCK: The Chinese started immigrating to the Delta soon after the Civil War, and the pace picked up by the early 1900s. They came from the province of Canton or Guangdong - came to work picking cotton. But they quickly soured on farming and turned to grocery stores. Most of the Chinese groceries we drive by have long since closed, but the store Raymond's family ran is still going with different owners.
WONG: This is the place right here.
BLOCK: Well, let's go in.
WONG: Yeah, let's go.
BLOCK: It's now the Kim Ma grocery store.
CINDY MA: Thank you. See you later.
BLOCK: Cindy Ma runs the store now with her husband.
So how's business?
MA: It's OK. It lag kind of slowly to me because a whole lot people move out.
BLOCK: A whole lot of people moved away?
MA: Moved out. Yeah.
BLOCK: Moved away from Greenville.
MA: Greenville slow.
BLOCK: Greenville may be slow but with this business, the Ma's have managed to put their two sons through college and graduate school. That's been the story of many Delta Chinese - work hard, send your kids to college, watch them move away.
CHOW: OK, let's pray. Father in heaven, we just thank you for this day. We just thank you for being an awesome God.
BLOCK: Back at that dinner in Clarksdale, Gilroy Chow says the blessing.
CHOW: And I ask all these things in Jesus' name, amen.
BLOCK: And the feast begins - beef with cauliflower, whole fish with fried ginger, roast pork with a honey-hoisin glaze, lots more. The group is trying to make the dishes their mothers used to cook, trying to recreate flavors they fear are getting lost.
SALLY CHOW: Why didn't I ask mom how she did that?
BLOCK: All of the eight people gathered around the table are the first generation born in America. They grew up speaking Chinese at home. This is Sammy Chow. Sally's brother.
SAMMY CHOW: When I first started school, I had a difficult time in the first grade because I couldn't speak English.
BLOCK: But now, few around this table can speak Chinese. Frieda Quon says the more she's traveled, the more she's come to realize how unique this Mississippi Chinese community is.
QUON: We are all connected. The other states are not like that, truly. We knew Chinese from Memphis to Vicksburg.
BLOCK: As outsiders, they stuck together. They all remember driving for miles to dances that would draw Chinese young people from all over. Their children's generation doesn't have that. They're more assimilated, more accepted and their future - it's probably not in the Delta.
SAMMY CHOW: When my son came to me - he was in high school at the time - said, Dad, you want me to take over the drugstore when you retire? I said no. I want you to do better than me.
SALLY CHOW: I think people realize - all of this generation realize that opportunities are not here.
SANDRA CHOW: I don't think it bothers any of us. We're happy that our children are doing well and enjoying life and have their own families and experiencing a lot of things that we didn't get to experience because of being in small towns.
BLOCK: Sandra, Sally and Sammy Chow part of the dwindling Delta Chinese community talking in Clarksdale, Miss. Melissa Block, NPR News.
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