Originally published in Hyphen Magazine
Some say that Asian America began in Louisiana. In the late 1700s, Filipino sailors escaped Spanish galleons and started shrimping the hot, humid Gulf Coast, where the weather reminded them of Southeast Asia and the water teemed with oysters, lobsters, scallops, crab, crayfish and shrimp. After the Vietnam War, new waves of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants settled in the area, indelibly shifting the region’s mix of food, culture and history.
But neither history nor affinity could protect New Orleans-area Asian Americans from the multiple disasters of the last six years. Neighborhoods were just beginning to recover from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010. Fishermen watched the news nervously, hoping the spill would be contained quickly. It wasn’t. The oil — between 55,000 and 62,000 barrels a day — flowed for 87 days into the gulf before it was capped.
For the Vietnamese Americans in the area whose labor — fishing, cleaning, sorting, packing, cooking and selling — makes up about one-third of the gulf’s seafood industry, any hard-won stability after Katrina suddenly vanished. But this disaster presented no riveting Superdome, no wrenching images, to engender sympathy and assistance — only an ongoing series of setbacks and recalculations for this community that has been so central to the ocean economy for decades.