In the Henrico County strip mall where the Chinese woman owns the Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar and the Turkish man runs a Greek place alongside his Costa Rican wife, the Afghans came and went in a blink of the eye. But their restaurant and market space didn’t stay vacant long.
“We’ve been here about a year,” says Mohammed Irfan Ali, who moved his Bawarchi Indian restaurant between the Japanese restaurant and the Filipino market.
“That is this place,” says Shui Lin, Chinese-born manager of the Chinese takeout place, which is next door to European deli where she likes to buy cake. “Asian, Latino, it’s all mixing up. It’s international.”
So is written a new story of the South. Or, as demographer William Frey calls it: the New Sunbelt. Richmond squarely sits in this belt alongside other Southern cities now seeing what he calls “a diversity explosion” in the country.
It’s the story in which black and white give ground to Asian and Latino. In this New Sunbelt, which includes Virginia, nearly one of five residents are what Frey calls “new minorities” — Latino, Asian and multiracial. Between 2000 and 2010, that population grew by 68 percent.
Some people call this tale of immigration, migration, and rising and falling birth rates an emerging story. But it’s been emerging for a couple of decades now and has just been picking up steam. Ask any public school teacher. Students learning the English language in Henrico County now represent 81 different languages. In Richmond, the number of English-language learners has risen from 5 percent of the student body to 10 percent since 2000.
The Richmond area is still predominately white and black, but you can find census tracts around this strip-malled stretch of West Broad Street where more than one-third of the population speaks a language other than English at home.
- About 30 percent of people living within a mile of Tuckernuck Square speak a language other than English at home, twice the countywide average.
In this landscape, the lowly strip mall is the unheralded signpost of cultural change. Ubiquitous, ever the architectural underachiever, strip malls rarely get the credit they deserve as portals to other cultures, the humble shelters of side-by-side universes or for what they really are: down payments on the American dream.
So sure, this mall, Tuckernuck Square, may be anchored by that cacophonous purgatory of birthday pizza parties, Chuck E. Cheese. But next door, at the Royal European deli, it’s possible to buy mayonnaise from the Ukraine.
“It tastes quite different from American. I suggest you buy some,” says Maria Newby, born in the Ukraine and in Richmond since 2005, who’s shopping with her mother.
And corned beef from the Philippines. “Not at all like American corned beef,” says Mila Fat, owner of Tindahan Filipino market.
And Biryani rice from the aforementioned Mr. Ali, who hails from Hyderabad city, renowned for its version of the rice dish.
Cross the threshold and step into a place where people speak Russian or Tagalog or Mandarin or Telugu or Urdu or Spanish. Where fat sacks of rice sit on the floor and the air smells like coriander and turmeric, where the refrigerators are stocked with Lithuanian cottage cheese and the buffet with Filipino pancit.
The ethnic markets sprouting up in strip malls have become vital places in immigrant communities, particularly to newcomers still adapting to a new way of life.
“Sometimes people call me and say: ‘Tania, it’s Sunday and I need a dentist. What do I do?’ Or: ‘Tania, I need a babysitter. I need a locksmith. Can you help?’ I am happy to help,” says Tania Nikolayeva, the Ukranian owner of the Royal European Deli.
Mila Fat, a couple of doors down at Tindahan, puts it this way: “This store is the recognition. It is the recognition of our culture and our traditions. Recognition of the way we cook our food. Basically, it’s like, ‘Hey, we are here. Please know us.’”
On a recent weekend, a Filipino brother and sister drove in from Chester to celebrate the brother’s birthday with lunch at Tindahan. One of the brother’s Vietnamese coworkers told him about the market a few months ago, and he and his sister decided to check it out.
“We went straight to the back where the hot food is and went, ‘Oh my God,’” he says, “and just stocked up.”
Their Filipino father was a three-time war veteran and he ended up stationed at Fort Lee in Petersburg. They’ve lived here long enough that the Old South crept into the sister’s accent, softening it, stretching out the vowels.
“A place like this for us is about our heritage,’ she says. “No matter how long we have lived here. No matter what our accents are.”
Their parents named her Susanna. She is now Susanna Aquino McDonald. But their father named her brother Filmer Aquino. On this Sunday at a strip mall sitting on the lip of a demographic wave in the New Sunbelt, it couldn’t be more perfect. Filmer. That’s Fil for Filipino. Mer for America.
“You can just call me Fil,” Aquino says, and they go inside to eat.
- Scott Elmquist
Mehmet Akpinar, 46
Owner, Zorba’s Greek Italian Restaurant
Officially, I am one of the oldest tenants in the shopping center and the oldest in the same spot. Some people would know this shopping center as Zorba’s shopping center, not Tuckernuck shopping center. Zorba’s has been here since 1991, February.
At the time, it was totally different. Every one and each one here is different. There was one business as old as me and that was a dry-cleaning Korean couple but they left about a year ago.
In this strip mall, we were the only ethnic food, but we also had burgers and salads and mainly family-style dining. Now in this mall there is Japanese, Indian, the Filipino market, the European deli, but they are not that old. The Indian place has changed twice already. I wish them the best. The Chinese takeout place is on the second or third owner that I know. Sakura is not that old, about six years. It used to be Video 2000. It was the hottest place.
When Short Pump opened about 10 years ago, our business crashed for a year, two years. It was tough. An ice cream store opened and closed here. A hobby shop opened and closed. My dentist is gone.
I was born and raised in Istanbul. It’s one of the largest cities in the world. I lived with my family and my brother in the same 900-square-foot apartment all my life. I shared a room with my brother all my life.
I graduated from the merchant marine academy in 1990 and Richmond is my first land that I have stepped on in U.S. soil. That was in 1989, October. I was a cadet in the Turkish Maritime Academy and later I brought tobacco from Turkey to Philip Morris. It’s interesting, yes?
I moved to the U.S. in 1992, July. I was 22. My plan was to study and then the plan changed. I had to work rather than study and I met Isabel, my wife, that kind of thing. My wife was born and raised in Costa Rica. She was the first Costa Rican person I ever met in my life. I bet I was the first Turkish person she ever met in her life, too. You would have to confirm that with her, of course.
My wife loves to cook and she was working at Zorba’s for the two Greek brothers who opened it in 1991. She always had a dream of owning a restaurant and when the brothers decided to sell, we purchased it in 1998. We have many regulars who have been coming here for years. You can call this maybe Cheers of West End. It is like a family-style Cheers. Not much drinking, but a lot of talking and gossiping.
The demographic of this neighborhood, from Parham Road to Gaskins, it’s changed dramatically in the last five years and I can see every second of it. Back then in the early 2000s, it was all white Americans. Now, good-paid Latinos and Asians are coming in. A lot of African-Americans are coming in. They have good jobs and are looking for good school districts for their kids.
Back then we did not have Short Pump. Short Pump was a cow pasture. We used to be West End here. I don’t know what we are now. Downtown West End? Near West End?
The change, it’s like day and night, I tell you. I couldn’t even adjust that fast.
- Scott Elmquist
Tetyana “Tania” Nikolayeva, 57
Owner, Royal European Deli
I am from Ukraine. For 40 years I live in Odessa. This is north, near the Black Sea. It’s a very comfortable city for life and it’s very, very good. [In 1991] the Soviet Union was broken and the financial situation was very bad. My husband is Valentyn Nikolayev. He is a figure-skating coach and he was the second coach to [1994 Olympic figure skating champion] Oksana Baiul.
It was a terrible time in the Ukraine. Every ice rink closed and a famous coach recommended to my husband that we move to Richmond. A new ice rink, SkateNation, had opened and it was a good contract. On Dec. 17, 1997, me, my husband and our son and daughter, we are coming to America.
I can’t forget what it was like to move here. First, like highways, it’s to me, it was like wow, this is very, very cool, these highways. Big and well paved. But it was like, ah, big shock. My roots were in the Ukraine. It’s like tree, you move from one place to other place. You need time for new roots.
I started working here in the deli in 1999 and the owner, Maria Wroblewski — she was Polish — she was not like my boss, but my friend. She tell me, “I know you can do this.” She was killed in a car accident in 2001. Her death was very hard and her husband tells me, “I want to sell the store,” and that was another shock.
The store was like air to me. So, I know my English is not too good, and I don’t have enough time to work full time and we don’t have money and we didn’t have a credit history. But we had friends. And everybody help us. Most of all, Oksana Baiul. Also my friend from here, his family they have the first Russian store in Richmond. They help me from morning to night. It was scary. It was exciting. It was everything all together. It was my university.
I try to keep stock for everybody, I have Russian customers — I say Russian but I mean Russian-speaking people, like Ukrainian, Belarusian. I have customers who are Bulgarian, German, and many Romanian customers. And Americans. The most important thing here is bread, sausage, fish, cheese, cakes. I have a very good cheese from the Baltic Republic and imported pig salami from Hungary. For Russian people, bread is very important and I was very happy when I saw this bread. It comes from Germany. We just defrost and bake. We have to have a special oven for this. It’s with steam. We have rye, crusty rye, 50 percent rye and wheat, and small, white rolls. German people like small, white rolls. And me, too.
There are many Russian students at VCU and sometimes they come in and say, “Do you have recipes about borscht?” I say, yes, of course. I remember one guy, he was from Georgia, the Republic, not the state, and when he finish his school, he come in and say, “Thank you for everything, you were like my mom.” I cry. He cries. This is my life. It is my baby.
- Scott Elmquist
Manuela “Mila” Fat, 55
Owner, Tindahan Filipino and Asian Market
I am from Cebu city in the Philippines. We first came here to Richmond as tourists in 1999. When we first came here, I don’t have anybody. I don’t know anybody. I came to Richmond because someone from my hometown where I was born was here and I was referred to them. We loved it, but we could not stay because we are tourists, but along the way, we met our future sponsor, and in 2001 I was able to come back on a work visa.
My husband, Celestino, and I came together. It was very tough. I left my children in the Philippines for about two years until I could bring them. I have five children. My eldest was 19 at that time. My youngest was just 5 years old. But my eldest and my second child were very responsible. All of my children are responsible because they were raised, you know, life is hard. They understand what life is at an early stage.
I had a very nice job in the Philippines. I had a business. It was like a cash lending place. When I come to America, I even cried the first time I held a mop because back there, I don’t clean. I only tell people to clean. But I moved here for my children. I saw opportunity here. If you just work hard and be diligent of what you do, there are so much nice things that will happen to you here.
Since I came here, I delivered collection letters, sold vacuum cleaners, worked at convenience store full time as a cashier and then I became an assistant manager. I also worked at the Omni as a security officer for about a year. Now, I am an EEG technician at VCU. I come here after work. My husband works at Coca-Cola and he comes here in the morning.
We opened the store in November 2010. This is too much work, honestly, but we are just enjoying it because people, when they want to meet someone they say, oh, let’s go to Tindahan. I like bringing people together.
I stock mostly Filipino products. We have hot food in the back. The menudo is most popular. I don’t know if it’s like Mexican menudo because I have not tasted Mexican menudo. Ours has pork shoulder or pork butt and it’s cooked with a tomato sauce and mixed with carrots, peas and potatoes. I do the cooking with my daughter. If you are a person who loves coffee, I would introduce you to the galletas. It’s a cookie. We have a very popular cracker here, too, Sky Flakes. This is a very good snack.
Probably 90 percent of the customers are Filipino. The population of Filipinos is highest here in the West End, followed by Chesterfield, Mechanicsville and Midlothian. But I am the only market. Sometimes people walk in the store and they say, “Oh, we never know you are here!”
This store is the recognition. It is the recognition of our culture and our traditions. Recognition of the way we cook our food. Basically, it’s like, hey, we are here. Please know us. S