FARGO — Annie Prafcke of Fargo is about as upper Midwest as you can get. She eats lefse at Christmas, wears cozy Norwegian sweaters every winter and makes her family’s favorite German recipes — ham balls and raisin stuffing. Still, as she travels across the country, she sometimes catches people off guard.
“I might not be the image you have of someone from Minnesota or North Dakota,” she said. “I know when I was in California, people were surprised that I was the one from North Dakota.”
But Prafcke and dozens of other Minnesotans are hoping to help change expectations and perceptions through “Moving Lives Minnesota,” a public history initiative from the state's PBS stations that work to tell the history of immigration and origin in the state of Minnesota. (While Prairie Public Television is in Fargo, because it serves a portion of Minnesota, it is part of this project.)
Kevin Yang with “Moving Lives Minnesota” says part of the project is to encourage those with a story to tell — whether they’re first-generation or fourth-generation American — to write it down in a letter that starts with “Dear Minnesota."
“It comes really out of a belief that we can learn a lot of history from experts from books and places like that. But we can also learn a lot of history by gauging conversation with our neighbors. And this letter-writing campaign is a way in which that can happen,” Yang said.
Prafcke decided to write the letter after her mother, Carol Prafcke, saw an ad on Prairie Public TV about it. Prafcke adopted Annie from China and brought her to Fargo where Annie says she had a “really good childhood” surrounded by neighbors and friends. Nonetheless, she sometimes felt “out of place” among her blonde, blue-eyed classmates.
“I knew they saw me as different, too,” she writes in her "Dear Minnesota" letter. “In grade school, peers teased me for my almond-shaped eyes, and strangers frequently asked me where I came from ... originally. Just a few months ago, a group of teenage boys in my neighborhood cruelly shouted ‘Do you eat bats?’ as I walked down the street.”
She says while she was learning how to make her adopted family’s German recipes, she didn’t take the time to learn about her Chinese culture.
“I resisted learning Mandarin as a child because I didn’t want more reasons to stick out,” Prafcke said.
While Prafcke says she hopes her letter detailing some of these “typical immigrant” experiences will be relatable to new Americans, she also recognizes that, as an adoptee, her immigration comes with “immense privileges,” including “a free pass to American citizenship” before she could even say her name.
She says through working with refugees and immigrants in both Fargo and Minneapolis and going to school with international students at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minn., she’s heard “countless stories” of the hardships of leaving your home country and loved ones behind and starting over in a new place with unfamiliar people.
“I feel guilty that they have to navigate a complicated bureaucratic system, sometimes waiting with uncertainty for years to obtain work visas and green cards while my citizenship was virtually handed to me on a silver platter,” she said.
Yang calls Prafcke’s letter “powerful.”
“It spoke to a lot of the different intersections between her Asian-American identity, her identity as an adoptee, her relationship to the city of Fargo, figuring out her identity as a bicultural, multicultural person and trying to navigate the contradictions,” he said.
Yang says Prafcke’s letter also points to the larger story that immigration stories aren’t happy and triumphant all the time.
“We have to understand the legacy of the United States of America often involves moments in which folks have dealt with racism, have dealt with xenophobia. And how do we come to terms with that with all the other parts of our identity?" Yang said.
Prafcke, who is now 24 and pursuing a career in journalism, says she now regrets her attempts to disavow her ethnicity and is actively finding ways to reconnect to it.
“Although I've only begun to explore my Chinese heritage, I've enjoyed learning about the rich culture and history of my homeland, attending Chinese New Year parades and learning new recipes from my Chinese friends, instead of despising the aspects of myself that set me apart. I now see them as assets,” she said.
Prafcke says, growing, up she didn’t really feel like her ethnicity and identity were things she could really talk about, so she welcomed this opportunity to share her story and hopes that others can relate and share their own stories.
Yang says through the years — long ago and still today — immigrants have helped shape Minnesota and along with the native population, made the state what it is today.
“There are so many important stories that we need to tell about immigrants, about Native folks, about the history of immigration and being able to connect all of the history together, and ultimately using that as a way of building empathy among everyone in our region,” Yang said. “And I think this project is a really strong reminder that, arguably, all of us have a piece of history that's worth telling.”
For more information about “Moving Lives Minnesota” and “Dear Minnesota” visit: Movinglivesmn.org.
As part of the project, Prairie Public Television is producing a documentary called “From Harvest to Home: The Hispanic Migration to the Red River Valley.”