An artist talk and listening circle was hosted alongside the exhibition of Nancy XiáoRong Valentine’s watercolor ink and rice paper scrolls depicting the story of her maternal grandparents’ experiences as Chinese immigrants was held at the Otter Tail County Historical Society on Wednesday.
Valentine’s exhibit, “The Audacity to be Asian in Rural Minnesota: we owe you no apologies” and the listening circle presented the opportunity for Valentine and fellow speakers to share authentic and educational insights on their experiences as Asian-American citizens growing up in conservative, mostly white communities.
Valentine, along with Conor Lee and Katherine Dachtler, discussed their experiences as Asian people living in rural Midwestern communities. They shared their stories along with ideas and hopes for the future, evoking emotions all across the spectrum — from humorous to heart-breaking.
“There is power in numbers, in small things,” shared Valentine. “Connect with the people you can have these hard conversations with, where the relationship is still and still will be strong, even if you don’t agree. Keep pushing. Don’t shut it off because of the disagreement. Your power lies in yourself — connect, reflect and let it ripple out.”
Valentine provided a set of questions to Lee and Dachtler, who built their content for the listening circle around those questions — specifically, what was it like growing up in Fergus Falls as a person of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) descent, what is it like now, and what can be done to make positive steps toward a better future?
“It’s important for community members to hear how we became aware of our race and how a different set of assumptions and expectations were pressed upon us while growing up,” explained Lee, who was moved by Valentine’s work and by the diverse age range of community members in attendance.
“I think that Fergus Falls and our rural culture deserves more than ‘good enough,’ I think we deserve our best,” Dachtler expressed. “My hope for my hometown is that you continue to lean into the uncomfortable — even when every fiber in our Minnesota-nice bones revolts against it,” she stated, sharing that we won’t be able to fully value one another and the diverse ways the community makes rural America great if it is met with refusal to acknowledge everyone and their differences.
“I encourage us all, myself included, to be brave and create brave spaces in which we show up genuinely and authentically to ask questions, make mistakes, take responsibility for them, and learn to be better humans together,” Dachtler said.