The founder of Memphis’s AAPI Heritage Month is also a professor, radio host, author, and noodle lover
We met SunAh Laybourn in April just as she was launching the first ever Memphis AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Heritage Month. She reached out about partnering with us on a Hungry Tiger Food Tour. The tour took us to 10 different locally owned Asian restaurants throughout the month and was great fun. And it definitely made us want to know more about this amazing woman!
Edible Memphis: Tell us a little about yourself. You know, like, where did you go to high school?
SunAh Laybourn: Ahhh the quintessential Memphis question! This is the question that separates the transplants from the folks who were raised here. So let me give you my Memphis credentials! I attended Memphis City Schools from K through 12, graduating from Raleigh-Egypt High School. Let’s go, Pharaohs! As a bonus, I attended the University of Memphis for undergrad. And, in a full circle moment, I am back at the University of Memphis. Not as a student this time. I’m an assistant professor in the sociology department.
We hear you have a show on WYXR. What’s that all about?
Memphis is so lucky to have a community radio station, WYXR 91.7FM Memphis, and with our city’s long music history, how could we not! I’m on air every Monday at 11 a.m. with my show Let’s Grab Coffee. Each week I chat with experts from across the country who are investigating our most pressing social issues and common curiosities. For example, have you ever wondered why people commit fraud? I chatted with Kelly Richmond Pope, author of Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories, and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry, to find out, and the reasons might surprise you. One of the conversations that I still find myself returning to is with Dr. Marisa Franco. She wrote the book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends, and wouldn’t we all benefit from learning how to be a better friend?
And you wrote a book too, right?
I did! I still can’t believe it. It’s surreal. My book Out of Place: The Lives of Korean Adoptee Immigrants (New York University Press) will be out in January 2024. As a Korean adoptee myself, in many ways, this book has been a lifetime in the making. Of course, it’s not just about my own experience. I talked with, surveyed, and hung out with hundreds of Korean adoptees across the US and in Korea to understand how adoptees create their own communities of belonging despite prevailing beliefs of race, family, and citizenship that position them as out of place.
What folks often don’t know is that since the 1950s over 150,000 Korean children have been adopted to the US, primarily to white families. Despite being legally adopted, many adoptees are vulnerable to deportation, and in fact some have been deported. Even though they were legally adopted, their adoptive families did not ensure their US citizenship. This was before the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 granted US citizenship to international adoptees. In the book, I examine the policy failures and the attitudes about race, immigration, and citizenship that made Korean children adoptable orphans and then later deportable adults and what that tells us about belonging.
And you launched the first ever Memphis AAPI Heritage Month, which was a smashing success. What’s your secret?
I’m not afraid to do the work. That, and being relentless—some would even say delusional—in bringing a vision into life. I simply don’t believe something’s not possible. AAPI Heritage Month is a good example of that. Just because something hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
And as we saw, a month-long celebration of AAPI Heritage Month was something the city wanted and needed.
I had so many people come up to me throughout the month and say that they had been looking for something like that. They had been looking to see themselves represented and to find community. I’m already planning for next year!
We’re definitely going to do another Hungry Tiger Food Tour, right?
No doubt about it!
You know my life revolves around food! And there’s so much good food here!
Plus, I need another excuse for us to hang out and eat more! Having you partner on the Hungry Tiger Food Tour was a dream come true.
We see you lifting weights and jogging on your Instagram—is it so you can eat more noodles? Tell us your top five noodle dishes and what makes them special.
Is it that obvious?! Now that you know my secret, I guess I’ll share some more. Here are my top five noodle dishes in no particular order:
- East Meets West — Braised beef noodle soup. You might remember this one from our Hungry Tiger Food Tour! When I think about comfort food, this is it. The broth is so, so deeply fragrant and rich, the beef is super tender and plentiful, and the noodles! They’re thick and chewy and make the perfect partner to the braised beef.
- Asiana Garden — Japchae. Speaking of comfort food, a dish that’s familiar is Asiana Garden’s japchae. It’s simple, yet so good. Japchae is clear sweet potato noodles. These springy noodles find a tasty home stir-fried with vegetables and marinated beef. Japchae is light, which means you can eat more. That’s how that works, right? As you might imagine, I find japchae to be an ideal accompaniment to other delicious menu items, like bulgogi, mandu, or pajeon.
- Global Cafe — Somali spaghetti. Spaghetti and plantains. Need I say more? I only wish I would have known about this savory and sweet combination sooner.
- Emerald Thai — Khao soi noodle soup. Their menu is extensive so I won’t be surprised if you haven’t had the khao soi noodle soup (or the similar khao poon noodle soup), but you gotta try it! It’s a coconut milk and red curry broth that is creamy, spicy, and packed with so much flavor.
- Petals of a Peony — Sauerkraut fish soup. Memphis is so blessed to have a Sichuan restaurant. This is another big-menu restaurant, and your tastebuds will be delighted because everything is so, so good. But we’re talking about noodles, so let me get to it: sauerkraut fish soup. Pickled vegetables, poached fish, a broth that is velvety, zesty, and honestly a dream, and rice noodles. I did not expect the rice noodles but lucky for us because this selection is the perfect way to close out my top five noodle dishes!