When writer and artist Jack Cheng first met community home builder Paul Pham at a mutual friend’s house in Detroit in 2021, he took notice—mainly because he didn’t often encounter many other Asian people in the city. That meeting would be the first step towards forming their friendship.
Jack, born in Shanghai, China, spent his childhood growing up in metro Detroit. Paul grew up in a small Vietnamese community in Oklahoma. Both had moved around to big cities — places like Seattle and New York for their careers — before separately deciding to call Detroit and the Midwest home.
After getting connected and talking more, they realized they had more in common. They both had a deep appreciation for design, and both were in the process of renovating their houses and began to trade ideas. These conversations about their homes eventually led to more in-depth conversations about their identities as Asian Americans.
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Throughout their time getting to know each other, each sensed the other was open to having conversations that reached beyond surface-level subjects. They were also at a stage in their lives where they finally felt ready to unpack their experiences being Asian American, experiences they hadn’t yet shared with anyone else before.
For One Detroit’s AAPI Stories series, Cheng and Pham met up to talk about the common thread that brought them together. They share how their friendship has allowed them to introspect about their own lives, their creative pursuits and their parents’ lives, what being Asian American means to them, and their definition of home.
Part One: First meeting
For writer and artist Jack Cheng and community home builder Paul Pham, becoming friends could not have come at a better time. Meeting at a mutual friend’s house in Detroit led to a friendship rooted in introspection about their similar experiences — experiences that they hadn’t talked about with anybody else before. Jack describes their first meeting, and they talk about what it’s like to deal with the intersection of cultural expectation and toxic masculinity, and what it’s like responding to stereotypes.
Part Two: Being Asian American, being in-between
Friends Jack Cheng and Paul Pham talk about how their personal definitions of being Asian American have changed over the years, and how it can often feel like a state of in-betweenness and trying to find familiarity in an unfamiliar place.
Part Three: The Intersection of Asianness and pursuing creativity
Friends Jack Cheng and Paul Pham talk about how growing up as Asian American sometimes presented friction between finding stability and exploring creative pursuits. Both talk about their parents’ creative lives when they were younger and how they returned to their creative hobbies in their later years.
Part Four: Our parents’ pasts
Paul shares the story of how his parents met on a Vietnamese refugee camp on Wake Island after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. Jack and Paul acknowledge the hard choices their parents made to make it in the United States after escaping from hardships in their home countries.
Part Five: Choosing where to call home
Paul shares about what brought his parents to Oklahoma; Jack talks about what motivated his dad to choose Detroit as a destination and retracing the cross-country bus ride his dad took to get there, which influenced one of his books, “See You In the Cosmos.”
Part Six: Defining home
Paul talks about a memorable night in Detroit that convinced him to move to the city from New York City in 2020. Jack shares an influential trip to Nepal that answered his question of what home can be and how much home is dependent upon us. Paul offers a complementary view.
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