This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Natalie Keng '90 with her mother Margaret. Photo courtesy Natalie Keng.

Meet the Chinese Southern Belle

“Ni Hao, y’all!” With her signature greeting, Natalie Keng ’90—who calls herself the Chinese Southern Belle—succinctly sums up her life’s experience, which has largely been about blending two very different worlds. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride.

Born to Taiwanese parents and raised in a town outside of Atlanta, Georgia, Keng’s childhood was imbued with both Eastern and Western values. The family spoke only Mandarin Chinese at home. Keng’s parents taught her to respect her elders. They also embraced a more American lifestyle—fishing, boating, shooting a BB gun, water skiing. Keng did gymnastics, ice skating, dance, and sports. Her mother even rode a motorcycle.

The two cultures—Chinese and Southern—came together on the dinner plate: Southern catfish prepared Hunan style, Rice-A-Roni stir fry with pepper steak, and Chinese spaghetti with BBQ sauce. At the family's restaurant, both egg rolls and sweet tea were on the menu.

Yet, hers was the only Asian family in school and the community. They got stares—at the Winn-Dixie supermarket, walking around town. With older sisters who had moved on to college by the time she reached high school age, Keng was left wondering, “Where do I fit in?”

As college loomed, “I decided I would escape the South and go to the enlightened North,” Keng says. She chose Vassar based solely on its reputation, without ever visiting the college. The first time she arrived on campus was for the start of her freshman year. “I came to Vassar thinking I’d never look back,” she says.

At Vassar, Keng faced new and different challenges surrounding her identity as Asian-American. “Back at home, I was made fun of. I stuck out, but I was also special. I was a novelty. I was different and special,” Keng explains. “At Vassar, I wasn’t special anymore. They have a whole association for Asians? There’s more than me? It was uncomfortable, awkward.” When Keng first arrived on campus and met other Asian and Asian-American students, she didn’t know what to do; she hadn’t experienced that before. And so she avoided them initially. Keng also found new stereotypes, only this time she didn’t stick out. She blended in. “We all look alike, right?” Keng mocks.

Chinese Southern Belle Video


But then, an Introduction to Women’s Studies course “changed my life completely,” Keng says. Her final paper for English professor Karen Robertson, her mentor, brought it all together—gender, race, class. Keng started taking Chinese language classes (she could speak it, but not write it). She became an Asian Studies major. She did her thesis on a banned Chinese documentary. She made Asian friends. And she got involved with the Asian Students’ Alliance, and later, with the Asian Pacific Alumnae/i of Vassar. 

After Vassar, Keng followed a varied path … working variously for a city council, with a social justice nonprofit, in the corporate sector. She also earned a Master’s from Harvard. But as a trip around the world—in part a pilgrimage to her parents’ homeland—came to a close, unexpectedly, something inside called her home. “I never thought I’d return,” Keng says. “I thought I’d left the past behind.”

Yet she ended up back in Atlanta, where—ready to fully embrace her heritage—she launched Chinese Southern Belle, a business in which Keng serves as a kind of cross-cultural ambassador, “bringing people together, using food as a bridge,” she says.

Keng offers Chinese cooking classes (such as "Spring Rolls Three Ways," "Dumplings," "Sushi Rolling," "Tofu Mythbusters for Vegetarians"). She hosts Asian market tours. She blogs, posts videos, does freelance writing, and gets invitations to MC events, including Taste of Atlanta’s Global Flavors International Stage. And she does it all with a distinctly Southern charm.

“I’ve come full circle from hiding my heritage to teaching people about it,” Keng says. “This has become my passion.”

– Peter Bronski

January 2012

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