Black artists bringing #Blackjoy to Utah

Story by NINA TITA

Utah Black Artists Collective is a nonprofit of professional Black artists from across Utah who are building a community of acceptance and love for their art. The Collective includes graphic designers, poets and classical ballerinas.

Jayrod Garrett, co-founder of UBLAC, said the mission is to create Black space, a place where Black people are the majority.

“Things I learned as we went about putting this together, I found out that I was not alone in that idea that I felt isolated as a child. Many of the Black people I’ve spoken to who live here in Utah felt isolated because the state’s 2% black,” Garrett said in a Zoom interview.

Working as a teacher full-time, poet and storyteller, Garrett’s passion is about sharing stories of the lived human experience. His written collection of poems titled, “Being Black in White Space,” captures the essence of what Black artists have gone through. Garrett is aware of the difficulty his audience has relating to the Black experience.

“You can go up in front of an audience and share like one of these really vulnerable poems that talks about what it feels like to be Black in that space and then afterwards you get superficial clapping because they’re like ‘we don’t really know what you just said but this what we’re supposed to do right?’” Garrett said.

Garrett founded UBLAC in July 2020 at the start of the pandemic when organizations were forced to move to virtual platforms. Black artists are using the opportunity to share their work and collaborate on social media, such as Instagram. The current project Garrett is directing is titled #BLACKJOY, a means of breaking barriers.

UBLAC artists gather in front of art that inspires them to continue to showcase their talents and bring #BLACKJOY to the community. Photo courtesy of Jayrod Garrett.

“We started talking about the idea of what Black joy sounds like and what does that look like. Is that praise community the only place you see Black people in joy? And it’s not, but like that’s the only way people seem to think about Black people having joy, is in that faith-based community,” Garrett said.

Changing stereotypes has been a challenge other Black artists are passionate about. Daney Lin, an acrylic painter, recalls being the only Black American in his class growing up in Ogden, Utah.

“Being a Black American in Utah, I feel like we are bound to a certain stigma, let’s break down those barriers, let’s knock them down. Let’s be everything, let’s be bank owners, let’s be grocery owners,” Lin said in a Zoom interview.

As a teenager, Lin found art to be his comfort while he was trying to pursue an athletic career in basketball and track and field. He struggled with his mental health and said he was diagnosed with bipolar, ADHD and depression.

“[Art] helped me relieve my stress, it helped me relieve my depression and kind of just showed it in different ways I couldn’t speak it,” Lin said.

He also struggled with the fear of getting better and losing his artistic ability, he said. Utilizing therapy and medication, Lin discovered his talents were not dependent upon his mental health, but provided him relief from stress.

After submitting his artwork on a whim to UBLAC, Garrett immediately saw all of Lin’s potential. Inspired by colors, peace and love in Japanese and Chinese cultures, Lin’s paintings capture emotion.

“I find myself feeling colors,” Lin said.

One of Lin’s paintings in currently on display at the Hogle Zoo’s World of the Wild Art Show. He cried when he saw it in the gallery. “Growing up I didn’t know any Black artists,” Lin said. Now he is honored to have his art out for all to see and be inspired by.

“I want other Black artists to not be afraid and not feel like they have to live up to a certain stigma. You don’t have to be an athlete, you don’t have to be a rapper, you don’t have to be a singer,” Lin said. “If that’s what you do, hey hats off to you, do it, please do it, strive to be better.”

Schkyra Morning, known as Wynter the Poet, co-founder and executive manager of UBLAC, echoes Lin’s sentiments, acknowledging how racial stereotypes can be detrimental to artistry.  “Being an artist can already be challenging at times because you are asking someone to essentially love who you are and what you are creating. So that can already be a lot. You’re a Black woman and an artist and it kind of makes things a little harder,” Morning said in a Zoom interview. “It makes the road a little harder for you, and that’s OK, I’m not afraid of hard work.”

Morning said that many of the UBLAC artists are fueled in their work by racial injustice that is being seen across the country. Her recent poems are about her personal experience of having police guns drawn on her.

It fuels me. The things that I go through fuel me to write about them to share my experiences with other people who are probably going through, who may not even know how to even express it,” Morning said.

UBLAC artists have started to collaborate on projects regarding racial injustice and rewriting what #BLACKJOY looks like. Lin, Garrett, Morning and other artists created their first YouTube video dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, which will be posted to their YouTube Channel soon.  

Looking forward, UBLAC is expanding its community impact with youth mentorship programs. The goal is to provide Black youth of all ages with Black role models in the artistic industry to help cultivate talent.

“It’s being able to be in Black space on a regular basis,” Garrett said.

The UBLAC community is excited for the future of the organization. There are plans for in-person galleries, more social media artist collaborations and #BLACKJOY art pieces coming.

Filipinos confused about where they belong

Story and photo by MCKENZIE YCMAT

Logging into to view the results of a DNA test, Robert Ycmat wasn’t quite sure what he was going to discover. Once he got the results, they confused him even more.

“The results were interesting,” Ycmat said. “Everything seemed pretty standard, but what confused me the most was how they defined me as South Asian/Pacific Islander. I always just considered myself Asian!”


Robert Ycmat at home in his study.

This question is one that many have wondered themselves. Are Filipinos considered Pacific Islanders?

Even when searching for Filipino news on the Pacific Citizen website, hundreds of articles appear talking about politics, food and even Hollywood news in the Philippines.

Rumors have spread that the U.S Census Bureau has officially decided to classify Filipinos from Asian to Pacific Islanders, but according to the Census Bureau’s official website, “The Census Bureau has no current plans to classify Filipinos outside of the Asian race category.”

According to the Bureau, the Philippines are legally concerned to be a part of Asia. So doesn’t that answer the question?

The Philippines consists of 7,000 islands and it was Spain that officially tied them all together into one country in the 16th century. The islands start from the north, by Asia, and slowly slant downward toward the east, closer to the Pacific Islands.

Because of this odd gathering of the islands, many Filipinos from the north classify themselves as Asian, whereas those who live in the southeast islands will sometimes classify themselves as Pacific Islander.

“Although I always considered myself Asian,” Ycmat said, “Filipinos have created a culture that is much closer to the traditions of the Pacific Islanders than Asians.”

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said, Pacific Islanders consist of Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Chamorros, Fijians, Marshallese and Tongans.

What really brings all these different nationalities together are the unique cultures of the Pacific Islanders.

“We believe in the tradition of family,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “Sacrifice yourself for the good of the family.”

Ycmat agrees with the fact that family was always a staple in the Philippines growing up. It’s one of the main reasons that he decided to learn more about who he is through the services of

Although Ycmat only lived in the Philippines through his childhood, moving to the United States in his teen years, he remembers his mother holding onto family traditions throughout his life.

“She always put herself first for our family,” Ycmat said. “Our father was no longer involved with me and my siblings once we moved to America, so my mother put it on herself to keep us close and to keep the traditions alive.”

Just like with most cultures, Filipinos hold onto their traditions tightly. They can find ties in their traditions with Asian culture but also with the Pacific Islander culture as well.

Ycmat’s oldest daughter, Danielle Jansson, recently lived in a small city within the Philippines called Iloilo City for a religious mission.

Jansson discussed the importance of the Filipino culture through food, family and tradition. After some reflection, she finally came up with an answer regarding her thoughts on how Filipinos would identify themselves.

“Probably Asian,” Jansson said. “But, they don’t care and they don’t ask. They just know that they’re Filipino.”

Jansson said the Philippines have taken a lot from the Pacific Island culture like their belief of family and celebration of food. They’ve also taken values from Asians such as individuality and their sense of independence.

“They care about their family, but they also want to take care of themselves,” Jansson said. “They have a personal dream and they want to accomplish it on their own, not just for their family. They’re known for being hard workers and they have no shame. They’re just Filipino.”

Religion plays a big role in culture for both Filipinos and Pacific Islanders.

“Religion, especially the Mormon and Catholic church, teach values of pride and family,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. “We naturally gravitate towards these religions because of the teachings of love and community.”

According to the Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project, “Catholicism has been the cornerstone of Filipino identity for millions in the Philippines. Catholicism rapidly spread during the early years of Spanish colonialism.”

After a bloody war called the Philippine–American War in the late 1800s, Americans migrated to the Philippines and even pushed their way through to the Pacific Islands. Because of this, the teachings of the Catholic Church became a common belief among these two countries.

“I kind of like that there’s no clear answer to this question (about identity),” Ycmat said. “It makes Filipinos even more unique than they already are. It almost describes Filipinos perfectly — we do what we want because we want to do it, not because we belong to either.”

Kirby Araullo, who is the program coordinator for the Asian American Studies undergraduate department at the University of Califonia Davis, discusses this question, “Are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders.”

Originally raised in the Philippines, Araullo found that this question was only asked in America. He answers by saying, “It’s up to you. We the people have the power to define and redefine ourselves, as long as we respect each other. ”

Food trucks serving up a crowd in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by DAVID FISHER

See what food trucks are serving up on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Korean barbeque, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, slow-roasted barbeque and delectable cupcakes are only a few of the options available during Food Truck Thursdays at The Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Hundreds of customers rally in from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. between 200 and 300 South every Thursday afternoon to purchase endless amounts of street food during a weekly local gathering of food trucks.

Creating a social scene, food truck-goers interact with one another as they wait in line for their food. This is a unique dining experience; the diversity of the dishes and the à la carte style of eating is not something that can be found at a typical sit-down restaurant.

Three years ago, food trucks were required to follow a strict set of laws that prevented them from gathering within private properties of Salt Lake City. However, in April 2012 this law was changed to permit food trucks to gather in these areas and serve a wide variety of customers. This has created a totally new scene, and a plethora of newly successful businesses on wheels.

What started as only four food trucks in 2012, has increased to more than 40 trucks that roll through the streets of Salt Lake City.

One such food truck is Cupbop, a truck known for its Korean food in a to-go cup. Beef, spicy pork, chicken, or a meat combo are options available for customers to enjoy over rice, noodles and vegetables. All meat is slow roasted and marinated in a delectable homemade sauce that owner Junghung Song learned to make on a church mission he served for three years in South Korea. Each cup is covered in a savory sauce that ranges from mild to spicy. Song uniquely named the mild seasoning “baby spice” (level 1 spicy). For those who like a spicier dish, he recommends the “melt your mouth spice” (level 10 spicy).

Cupbop’s motto is “Shhhh, just eat,” which Song describes as not asking what Cupbop is, but rather just trying it for yourself.

Song went to a Salt Lake City restaurant convention in spring 2013 and noticed there were not any Korean food restaurants. This was when food trucks were starting to appear within the city. He wanted to start his own unique Korean barbeque food truck to serve his homemade recipe to customers.

Song quit his job working for an advertising company and decided to pursue running his own local business on wheels. It only attracted a few customers at first, but now Cupbop is one of the most popular food trucks in Salt Lake City. A large line of customers always gathers up the steps of the Gallivan Plaza every Thursday afternoon.

Waiting in line for food can be boring, but Cupbop makes it an experience.

Song is known for having his employees who work within the truck come out and sing and dance with the people waiting in line. Korean pop music echoes through the plaza as customers attempt to sing along to tunes that they are hearing for the first time in a language they may not understand.

“If I’m not having fun, I cannot smile to my customers,” Song said. “A bad experience would make you want to leave, and never want to come back. This is your lunch break. I don’t want you to stress out during an already busy day.”

Song always serves Cupbop with a smile, and hopes to bring a smile to all of his customers’ faces. He wants them to come back for more.

“Sometimes the other food trucks find us annoying because we are so loud,” Song says while laughing.

Song communicates with all of the other owners of food trucks because they are beginning to become their own community. Song runs and operates Food Truck Underground, which allows people to vote on locations for food trucks to gather. Food Truck Thursdays at the Gallivan is just one of many gatherings that occur throughout the week.

One truck that participates in Food Truck Underground is Heidi Cakes Utah, a food truck specializing in gourmet cupcakes made from scratch with fresh ingredients. Known for the eye popping, spotted bright pink motorhome, Heidi Cakes Utah has been serving customers for a little more than two years.

Owner Janine Lestwich wakes up every morning at 4 o’clock to start baking hundreds of her cupcakes in the commercial kitchen attached to the back of the motorhome. All cupcakes are loaded and ready to be sold for $3 apiece by 9 a.m.

What started as a bake sale to raise money for an annual anti-drug and alcohol rally is now a large-scale business. Ten percent of profits that Lestwich makes from selling her cupcakes is given to, which educates youth about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

With sales and donations combined, Lestwich has raised more than $10,000 toward since the start of her business.

“We are one of the few food trucks which only sells desserts and donates profits to a good cause,” Lestwich said. “We have no competition. Our customers want to keep coming back to support the cause and my business. I really appreciate everybody coming together.”

When the Heidi Cakes Utah truck is not at Food Truck Thursdays, it can be found in downtown Ogden or at local car dealerships.

One of the biggest challenges that both Cupbop and Heidi Cakes Utah face is when the truck decides not to work. This includes engine failure or oil leaks and problems within the kitchen.

“Truck issues are extremely difficult to deal with,” Song said. “It can completely shut down our business and decrease profits, especially in the winter. But it’s worth it because it creates a challenge.”

Both Cupbop and Heidi Cakes Utah inform customers of these problems through social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Because both trucks do not have an official website, this is their means of communicating to the public.

For Heidi Cakes Utah, Lestwich posts a daily menu and schedule on Facebook and Instagram as to where her truck will be located and what she will be serving that day. She listens to her customers’ words. If they are requesting a specific flavor of cupcake or for her to be at a certain location, she will respond.

“I share a lot of my personal life on my business Facebook,” Lestwich said. “People don’t get angry when I have to take a week off from my truck because they know I am visiting one of my daughters in Tennessee or Texas. Sometimes you just need to put family before business.”

Lorna Balfour, 21, is a customer of Heidi Cakes Utah who has been following the business for the past few months on social media platforms.

“I try to come down to Food Truck Thursdays as much as possible during my lunch break,” said Balfour, who works at the University of Utah. “It’s a place where the community comes together to try new foods that they may not have tried before. I go to Heidi Cakes because of the cause she supports and her red velvet cupcake.”

Balfour follows a multitude of food trucks on Instagram and Facebook so she can stay up to date as to where they are located. Sometimes she posts photos on Instagram of the food she gets from the truck and her friends always ask her about where she got the food in her photographs. She describes it as being a part of a community that is unique to Salt Lake City.

Song explains that with Cupbop, most of his new customers come because they saw social media posts from friends of theirs. Free Cubop is offered to customers who share images of their food on social media to an abundance of followers or give a great review. It is a type of reward that Song likes to give as a thank you for marketing for his truck.

The food truck community within Salt Lake continues to grow as more food trucks are beginning to gather in public places. This creates a village of a melting pot of different styles of food for customers to enjoy. There’s always something new to enjoy, and a new favorite food truck to be discovered.

Interracial marriage acceptance is on the rise in the US

Story and photo by ALEXA WELLS

Anti-miscegenation laws were laws that enforced racial segregation with marriage and intimate relationships by criminalizing interracial marriage and sometimes also sex between members of different races. According to Wikipedia, these laws were first introduced in the United States from the late 17th century by several of the 13 colonies, and also by many states that remained in effect in many U.S. states until 1967. Since this law against interracial marriages was repealed, acceptance has been on the rise.

Fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s couples were interracial in 1970. However, from 1970 to 2005, the number of interracial marriages nationwide increased from 310,000 to almost 2.3 million, or about 4 percent of the nation’s married couples, according to U.S. Census Bureau.

“Utah, like many other states, had a law at one time that prohibited interracial marriages. It was passed by territorial Legislature in 1888 and it wasn’t repealed until 1963,” said Philip Notorianni, director of the Division of State History in an article from Deseret News.

Fitzgerald Royal was born and raised in Salt Lake City and met his wife, Sandra Naybom in 2006 during a Christmas party at Sandra’s neighbors house. Royal is African American and his Naybom is white. They have a 3-year-old  daughter and moved to Los Angeles for work in September 2010.

“My family was very accepting of me marrying a white woman, but her family was not happy with it at first. They thought that I was not worthy of their daughter because of the stereotypes that follow. I think that they have warmed up to me now because of our daughter being in their lives,” Royal said over a phone interview.

With Utah being only 1.3 percent African American, 13.2 percent Hispanic, and 2.2 percent Asian, it is not as likely to have an interracial marriage than in other states with higher diversity.


Patricia and Peter Cho with their daughter Nicole.

Peter Cho was born in Hong Kong and moved to London on his own for high school. When he graduated, Cho came to Salt Lake City to attend Westminster college, where he graduated with a degree in computer programming. While he was at Westminster, he met his wife, Patricia Cho, and has now been married to her for twenty five years. Patricia Cho, who was born and raised in Mexico City, also moved to Salt Lake City to attend college and now works as a reservations agent for JetBlue Airlines.

“We like to make sure that our children learn about both sides of their heritage by keeping up with family traditions that we both have experienced from childhood. Traditions such as Chinese New Year and Cinco De Mayo are a big deal in our household,” Peter said. “We travel and visit family in Mexico and Hong Kong quite often because of Patricia’s flying benefits. It gives us the opportunity to show our children where we grew up and learn about their nationality.”

Patricia often feels stereotyped for being in an interracial marriage. “I think that people still have a long way to come on accepting interracial marriage. I get strange looks and judged because I am married to an Asian and I am Mexican. My friends at work ask me why I married Peter, but I don’t see him as being any different than me. I don’t care because I love him and our family that we have made together. I wouldn’t change it if I could.”

In an NBC News story, “Interracial Marriage in US hits new high: 1 in 12,” Daniel Lichter, a sociology professor at Cornell University, said, “The rise in interracial marriage indicates that race relations have improved over the past quarter century. Mixed-race children have blurred America’s color line. They often interact with others on either side of the racial divide and frequently serve as brokers between friends and family members of different racial backgrounds. But America still has a long way to go,” he said.

Fitzgerald Royal and Sandra Royal with their daughter. Photo by Sandra Royal.

Fitzgerald and Sandra Royal with their daughter. Photo courtesy of Sandra Royal.

According to Pew survey data of social and demographic trends, about 83 percent of Americans say it is “alright for black and whites to date each other” jumping up from 48 percent in 1987. With these statistics on the rise, the US society is building its acceptance. The US has come a long way since slavery and black segregation, and the statistics are improving year by year.

“When I look at someone, I don’t really notice their race nor do I care,” Sandra Royal said. “I am just concerned about what type of a person they are. Race does not matter to me at all.”

Taiko, the heartbeat of Japan

Story and multimedia by Tauna Lynne Price

Watch Kenshin Taiko perform at Utah Valley University


The thunderous beat of a taiko drum echoes through the air. The pounding fills up the empty space in your lungs and consumes your body.

Taiko means “fat drum” in Japanese, according to a Web site dedicated to taiko resources. Tracking the Japanese taiko has proven extremely difficult. “The oldest physical evidence of taiko in Japan is a haniwa clay figure of a drummer that dates from the sixth or seventh century,” notes the Web site.

Taiko is a percussion instrument that performers strike with a pair of bachi. Drums have heads on both sides of the body. The heads, usually made from circles of rawhide, are soaked and stretched at least twice to ensure that the heads are properly shaped and that the tension is uniform on all “sides” of the drum.

Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion, had this mindset when making the taiko. “Because we are taking the life of a cow, we have to reconcile with that spirit and understand we also will be communing with that spirit and then with the tree itself,” said Matthew Stevens, a member of the Salt Lake City group Kenshin Taiko. “We are bringing in nature to make music with us, it is to be celebrated.”

After the tree is cut, a 10-year process begins for one drum to be made. The tree is hollowed out, allowing for the manufacturer to make several drums from one tree trunk. Stevens said the wood must be dried carefully and gradually.

Taiko is used in religious, ceremonial and festival performances. These lines have all assisted taiko in continuing to branch out. Taiko has made its way to America, forming its own legitimate branch on the tree, Stevens said.

It’s not just the beating of a drum; there is a therapeutic connection to the taiko. “And then you spend a moment … with taiko and when you go back, you might find that those problems don’t seem so weighty anymore,” said Stevens, who accesses culture through taiko, helping with the two-way conversation of American taiko and Japanese taiko.

Besides positive therapy results, the taiko also has a very religious connection. Taiko has a spiritual element, which gives many players the feeling of being closer to God. The Japanese Christians share their faith many ways, especially through taiko, said Gordy King, a member of Kenshin Taiko.

Taiko initially was used to define the limits of a village. A villager would beat a drum and runners would go out to the edge of the sound, and that was the limits of the village. People who heard the sound of the drum were part of the village. “We kind of incorporate that in our church,” King said. “We play at the Japanese Church of Christ. When the sound resonates and outsiders hear us play, we are inviting them into our family. If you’ve heard the sound of our drum, then you are part of our family now and you’re welcome to come,” King said. “Our small eclectic group has all different kinds of faiths and races.”

He added: “It’s not just about doing things on stage, it’s about being a community that enjoys making something beautiful together and that’s something really amazing, to create something wonderful for people.”

Taiko introduces musicianship. “Being involved in taiko, [it] very quickly and wonderfully sucked me into a very deep and compelling thread and vein of people,” Matthew Stevens said. “This is a visceral enjoyable fun thing. It’s great to see people look at it from the outside, look at it as shades of impossible, then you find yourself sucked into performing.”

Kim Correa, an active member of Kenshin Taiko, said, “I first saw Taiko performed at a Japanese Village in California when I was a child.”

During the summer of 2009, Correa took her kids to a Kenshin Taiko performance at Red Butte Garden’s Family Night. She found the taiko presentation amazing. Her children, ages 7 and 9, along with other children from the audience swarmed the stage. The performers allowed the children to play the drums. The kids loved it, Correa recalled.

Correa struck up a conversation with Ron Boisvert, a member of Kenshin Taiko. He encouraged her to take advantage of the free lessons the group offers on Mondays and Fridays. The following Monday, she and her children went to the Japanese Church of Christ, Correa said.

“I wasn’t the only person to bring kids along, and although my kids didn’t take an interest in drumming, they made new friends and enjoy playing in the courtyard and sometimes helping out in the kitchen,” Correa said.

She had previous experience on a western drum kit, but she found taiko completely different.

“I fell in love with drumming right away,” Correa said. “I learned songs and rehearsed for a couple of months, then the group, especially Laura Olson, encouraged me to do my first performance.”

Correa made the International Gardens Peace Festival in the summer of 2009 her first stage appearance. Despite her nerves, she completed two songs and had a profound experience.

Correa said taiko became an amazing way to connect with people, feed her artistic side and acquire friendships among a diverse group of people. With any group, there is conflict. However, the Kenshin performers work through their issues, and that has helped Correa strive as an individual.

“We build lasting relationships because not only do we rehearse twice a week and perform often, but we also do group activities like going out to eat, celebrating birthdays, going to plays and local festivals and more,” Correa said.

The appeal, the broad spectrum, use and the charm of Taiko, is wonderful for many different reasons, Matthew Stevens said.

“First, you have a form of music and it comes with all the things that music comes with. Expression, composition, it’s a form of tradition, so you can tap into that long tradition and continue to grow that tradition forward,” Stevens said.

Culture and communication also are important, he said.

“Last is the friendship, a social aspect, you come together as a team, you have social interaction with a very strong tie and almost a very, obviously, physical level and mental level, it reverberates very deeply. You can feel it,” Stevens said.

TOP member says he will be a gangster for life

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Story and multimedia by KENDRA WILMARTH

According to the U.S. Census, the population of Salt Lake is roughly 180,000 people. As with any metropolitan city comes a variety of people. With such diversity, large cities like Salt Lake all face a similar problem, gang control.

Gangs first became recognized in Utah as a problem in the early 1990s. Around 3,000 documented gang members are in the Salt Lake Valley, as reported by the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit. For the past 20 years this unit has been working to minimize gang activity.

The SLMGU devised the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. The Project is composed of police chiefs and administrative personnel from agencies that participate in the project. It was designed to identify, control and prevent criminal activity. The Project also provides youth with alternatives to gang life and helps to educate communities about the destructiveness of the gang lifestyle.

“If someone said, ‘Hey you know what … don’t worry about school the rest of your life, let’s party, have sex, do drugs,’ what kid wouldn’t join a gang as a 16-year-old kid?” said Rick Simonelli, a detective in the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit. “They think it’s pretty cool and start hanging around the older kids and they’re drinking, they get to hold a gun and they’ve never held a gun before and they think they’re pretty cool and macho.”

Simonelli has been working for the past six years to help solve the gang situation.

He says Utah has around 25 well-known gangs on the streets right now. Tiny Oriental Posse, or TOP, is one of these gangs. This gang can only be found in Utah and is known as one of the state’s most violent gangs. TOP has been operating primarily out of West Valley City, where most of the members are located in Lake Park, a lower-income apartment complex.

TOP is a Southeast Asian street gang with members of Laotian or Cambodian descent. In 2009, the “big guys,” as Simonelli refers to them, were put in jail under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. In summary, the RICO Act prosecutes offenders in the federal court with the same act they were charged with in state courts. This means their time is doubled and the offenders are sent to federal jails throughout the nation.

“Since the RICO, it’s been pretty quiet because the majority of them have been locked up,” Simonelli said. “There’s only been one shooting done by TOP that we know of for the past couple years.”

Although the gang may not be at large, one member from the Salt Lake area says he will be a TOP gangster for life. D, who asked not to be identified, comes from a moderately wealthy Cambodian family. After his father disappeared and left his family in 2008, D, now 18, moved to Utah with his mother from Southern California.

Within a few weeks of being in Utah he was approached by a group of kids. With one question — “Do you party?” — and a simple “Yes,” D’s life changed significantly. D spent the next couple of months getting drunk after school and skipping classes to get high with his new circle of friends.

“My friends and I went to a party in Salt Lake one weekend. I was pretty drunk and got in a fight with some kid. The next thing I knew I woke up in another house with a bloody mouth,” D said in a phone interview.

D was abandoned by his friends at the party. He woke up a few hours after the fight on an unfamiliar couch. The couch was owned by a 21-year-old attendee of the party who introduced him to the TOP gang.

“I knew we’d be close after that morning,” D said. “ He showed me a new kind of family, people I could trust. I’d do anything for them and they’d do the same for me. We’re not blood, but we’re family.”

D took the UTA bus line to Salt Lake every day after school for the next five months. After being kicked out of his mom’s house, he dropped out of school and moved south from Woods Cross to Salt Lake.

Within months D officially joined the TOP gang. He said carrying around a gun for the first time felt comfortable and made him feel more secure.

“I used to go shooting with my dad, so I knew what I was doing with a gun,” D said.“ I never carried one around though, but I knew I needed it for protection.”

D said most members in TOP own guns, carry guns or at least know where to find a gun if they find themselves in trouble. But how are gang members getting their hands on guns? Simonelli says the Internet makes it easy.

“A lot of them get their guns off of,” Simonelli said. “ People buy them easier off the Internet because they don’t have to go through a dealer and fill out paperwork. By federal law sellers off of sites like aren’t responsible for who they sell their gun to, but a gun dealer is.”

Now, D’s gun is a crucial part of his life. After his first encounter with a drive-by shooting he says he will never let his gun leave his side. Gangs are well-known for this type of criminal activity. Simonelli said they use this tactic to gain power.

“That’s why they do these shootings and assaults. They want people to fear their gang,” Simonelli said. “That’s how they earn their respect.”

TOP is known for crimes like robberies, aggravated assaults and drive-by shootings. These crimes mainly transpire between gang rivalry. Members of TOP are rivals with another Asian gang called the Oriental Laotian Gang, or OLG. It’s a war between white and blue. TOP members distinguish themselves with white bandanas while their enemy is dressed in blue.

“All those gangs, even though they’re Asian they still fight each other,” Simonelli said.

Members of gangs also get tattoos as a symbol of their loyalty. A popular one among Asian gangs is the dragon tattoo. “It shows a part of their heritage and for them it’s like a sense of power,” Simonelli said.

TOP currently has only about 25 to 30 members, so it is not considered active by the police. However, Simonelli said Asian gangs are harder to track down and operate somewhat differently than most gangs.

“Asian kids won’t snitch on each other,” he said. “ They stay tight with their own and Asians really stay together as compared to other races.”

Kenny Dorrell is the director of Project 180, a prevention and intervention program designed to help kids stay away from gangs. Dorrell said in a phone interview that members of TOP also tend to be more structured. This organization helps them to stay out of jail and off of police’s radar.

Simonelli said although TOP isn’t at large right now, it’s important not to discount them as a violent gang.

“You’ll see the generationals in the gang. It will be really quiet and low-key in the gang one year and then a few years later there will be a few kids that pop up and now the gang is committing all sorts of crimes and becoming active again,” Simonelli said.

While D won’t mention any of the activities TOP is currently involved in, he says TOP is “unstoppable.” D claims he has found a true family on the streets and his loyalty won’t ever die, even if that means taking his own life in the name of TOP.

“I’d give my own blood for my family,” D said. “That’s what we do.”

Master Lu’s Health Center: Northern-style Kung Fu and Old Yang-style Tai Chi

Story and multimedia by LAUREN CARTER

Take a brief tour of Master Lu’s Health Center in Salt Lake City

Master Lu’s Health Center teaches Northern-style Kung Fu and Old Yang-style Tai Chi to students of all ages in Salt Lake City.

“Every student is taught the same way,” said Matthew Stratton, who teaches Northern-style Kung Fu at the center at 3220 S. State St. “There is no belt system so the school has sustained over time by having a type of little brother-big brother and little sister-big sister environment.”

Kung Fu is the practice of external martial arts that involves free hand movements and movements with different types of weapons. Kung Fu is made up of sequences of fast movements called forms. It can take up to two minutes to complete one form. This is because one form can have around 16 movements within it, said Tyehao Lu, who teaches Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi. He also practices traditional Chinese medicine involving acupuncture and Chinese herbs at Master Lu’s Health Center.

Master Lu’s curriculum involves learning 30 forms before being able to test to become a master. This curriculum takes about seven years to complete. After achieving master status, students learn a new set of forms.

“I don’t believe in teaching fast,” Stratton said. “If I teach them slowly they will learn correctly.”

Some of Master Lu’s curriculum involves learning choreographed two-man fights. These fights take several nights to learn and are checked stance by stance to make sure the students are doing the moves correctly before being taught the next move, Stratton said. These forms are important because they use both offensive and defensive stances, involving a mix of blocks, ducks, kicks, punches and more. The lessons taught in these forms are used as building blocks for more advanced forms. This pace allows students to “throw a little bit of art and style into it but you have to develop it yourself,” Stratton said.

Tai Chi also uses the term form, but it has 108 movements that take about a half hour to complete because they are done more slowly, Lu said. Tai Chi is considered an internal practice of martial arts.

“Kung Fu helps develop muscles first and the outside body, whereas the internal martial arts builds up the spirit first,” Lu said. “Children and adults do more of the Kung Fu because it’s faster and more martial, while more seniors do Tai Chi because it’s low impact and more meditation.”

Bagua and Xingyi are two other forms of internal martial arts. Bagua involves circular movements and is based on the feng shui mirror that has eight trigrams. According to one source, the trigrams are “an ancient Chinese arrangement of eight binary symbols comprised of solid or straight (yang) lines and broken (yin) lines that represents the unity of Heaven and Earth and the blessings that acrue from allignment with natural virtue.”

Traditional Bagua involves walking around the mirror for eight full circles and then doing one hand movement. Practitioners then walk in the other direction eight times and do the hand movement. In all, the routine is repeated eight times.

“That’s some serious walking,” Stratton said. “Here we do eight steps then one hand movement and then go the other way around for eight steps and do the hand movement on the other side.”

Stratton continued, “Xingyi revolves around the elements fire, wood, earth, metal and water.” Xingyi involves straight-line movements and is a very aggressive yet powerful form of martial arts.

While Bagua and Xingyi have only specific directions of movements, Tai Chi does not. Tai Chi has movements that go in every direction, Lu said. The practices of Bagua, Xingyi and Tai Chi are unique because they can all unlock each other’s secrets so students should really study all three, Stratton said.

“For students that are really dedicated you should probably learn Tai Chi first, then Bagua and Xingyi last,” Stratton said. “It’s more than just doing the different forms, it’s studying the movements involved in each form.”

Master Lu’s Health Center encourages students to practice Kung Fu and Tai Chi together to keep balance of their internal and external energies, which is represented by the yin and yang symbol. “The balance has to be there to keep the mind and body sound, they complement each other,” Lu said.

The practice of martial arts has been shown to improve strength, flexibility, general health and memory skills, Lu said. It also works to reduce stress and can calm the mind while improving a person’s sense of discipline.

“If you practice for a while and then stop practicing, those things you learned are still within you so you can take the morals and principles and use them for your whole life,” Lu said.

Stratton believes people who try to learn martial arts with the intention of hurting other people with it will not last very long. He admits people can achieve a certain level but does not believe they can reach the maximum level. But if students just practice for themselves or for self-defense, Stratton believes they can make it to a higher level with the use of patience.

Master Lu teaches several principles to his students that they use in everyday life. Some of these principles are generosity, diligence, righteousness, kindness and loyalty. Instructors also strive to teach students that patience is very important to achieving internal happiness, which is the ultimate goal.

“Martial arts is a way of living,” Stratton said. “If you give back and live right you will get back and be happy.”

The majority of lessons taught are positive, but Stratton is also realistic when it comes to the real world and self defense. “I have to teach that society is not nice anymore,” Stratton said. “When I was a kid I could go play outside all day and my parents wouldn’t have to check on me. Now you can’t leave your kids playing outside without checking on them constantly.”

A key point Stratton stresses in self-defense is situational awareness. Students are taught to be aware of people and places around them and follow the movements of an attacker. So, if an attacker starts to move in a circle, then the student would move in a circle as well, Stratton said.

He also suggests that people don’t scream the word “help” because it won’t attract attention. Instead, they should scream “fire,” because everyone will stop to look for the fire. His advice to his students is to stay calm and be patient in any situation and the things they have learned will come to mind and help them out of the predicament.

Stratton has never had to use his martial arts against anyone. “I don’t look forward to the day I have to use it,” he said. “It would be a very bad day.”

Stratton said Master Lu has inspired him to remain a practitioner of Kung Fu and Tai Chi. However, Stratton dreams about opening his own martial arts center one day. “My goal is to teach teenagers how to communicate with adults and provide leadership for a community,” Stratton said.

Master Lu’s Health Center does more than offer Kung Fu and Tai Chi classes. It also treats patients using Chinese medicine. This medicine includes the use of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicines and Chinese medical massages, known as Tui Na.

In addition, instructors at the center teach and perform the lion dance, which is a more traditional dance for Chinese New Year. In the lion dance performers do jumps, stacks, double stacks and rolls.

Pending Chinatown in South Salt Lake anticipates fall 2011 grand opening

Story and multimedia by CHLOE NGUYEN

Read the proposal plan for South Salt Lake City’s new Chinatown

Chinatowns have become a major part of the American culture. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 4.6 percent of the American population was of Asian descent in 2009. Utah’s Asian population was 2.1 percent of the state’s total population of 2.7 million. Since 1952, when Utah’s first and only Chinatown was torn down, there have not been plans for a replacement. But this changes in fall 2011. South Salt Lake City will be the home of Utah’s new Chinatown.

Salt Lake City Chinatown (SLCC) will be replacing the Rocky Point Haunted House, located at 3390 S. State St. For now, a billboard on State Street that announces the project is “coming soon” is the only thing that informs the public of the Chinatown.

The $15-million investment, initially proposed by Chinatown Investments Inc. in 2005, is headed by Hong Kong developers Yue So and Wai Chan. They had hoped to complete construction in December 2007, with a grand opening scheduled for March 2008. Plans called for transforming the area into a tourist attraction, with ceramic tile roofing, paper lamps, granite flooring and Asian-style fountains. But in late 2007, the country’s financial crisis stopped the production process. Banks were unwilling to lend money to business owners and potential clients of the project, according to Andrew So, 26, the project’s manager and son of Yue So and Wai Chan.

So is a graduate of New York University. After completing his degree in economics, So moved back to Utah, where his parents resided while plans for SLCC were in progress; the family is originally from Hong Kong. So says his parents have had their eye on a Salt Lake City Chinatown for about 10 years. He says his role as the project’s manager is his first partnership with the family business. And although So’s Chinese accent can sometimes cause minor barriers when conversing with people in English, he says language isn’t a problem most of the time because the majority of his clients speak in Chinese.

It has been two years since So actively promoted SLCC, but now the project is finally under way once again. “We paid attention to the market and believe now’s the time,” So said. “People are still very interested.”

To a majority of Utahns, SLCC will be their first introduction to a Chinatown in the state. More than 80 Chinatowns are spread across the country, and many are anticipating the day when Utah will be added to the list of states that have a Chinatown. But, actually, Utah was on that list a century ago.

During the 1900s, Plum Alley was the location of Utah’s first Chinatown. It ran north and south, dividing Main and State streets and crossing at 100 and 200 South. Nearly 2,000 Chinese immigrants resided there in 1907, according to KUED. Plum Alley served as the center for Chinese culture in Salt Lake. Chinese people developed a community with grocery and merchandise stores, laundries and restaurants.

The Joss House, an informal place of worship, and the Bing Kong Tong, which helped members of the Asian community find jobs and legal services, were also a major part of Plum Alley. It was a richly textured community.

But with the racial segregation happening during the time, white residents of the state tended to view Plum Alley as a center for widespread vice and illegality, with presence of gambling and opium dens, according to KUED.

In 1952, Plum Alley was torn down and the Regent Street Parking Terrace was erected in its place. Visitors who walk by the location will notice a brown plaque that stands by the street sign labeled as Plum Alley. The location marks Salt Lake City’s Tour Stop #11; the plaque was installed there in 2002 by the Utah Heritage Foundation for the Utah Travel Council. The plaque is the only public reminder of what used to be Utah’s first Chinatown more than a hundred years ago.

Now, over a century later, Utah will once again have another Chinatown.

Unlike the Chinatown in some other well-known locations, such as New York or San Francisco, where the community occupies an entire neighborhood and features street-front stores, SLCC will be similar to an Asian-style plaza, or mall. However, a similar feature will be the gate to the Chinatown and a temple for worshiping the Asian gods, such as Tsai Shen Yeh, the god of wealth, and Guan Yin, the Asian version of the Virgin Mary. Chinatown Investment Inc. has previously opened two successful Chinatowns in Orlando and Philadelphia that carried out the same structural plan.

The project will be a 5.7-acre parcel that will include the structure of the Rocky Point Haunted House and some accompanying undeveloped land. The 63,000-square-foot haunted house will be converted into 48,000 square feet of retail space. The space behind the building will be transformed into an 8,000-square-foot formal Chinese restaurant. The project also aims to have representations of a variety of Asian cuisines. “No two restaurants will have food from the same geographic area,” said So, SLCC’s project manager.

So hopes to include vendors from all parts of Asia, including those from Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea and the Philippines. He says the retail space will include beauty salons, Chinese herbal shops, acupuncture, karaoke rooms, boutiques and massage parlors. The northeastern corner will be used as office space for Asian merchants, such as dentists and attorneys, and retail space for gift shops and smaller convenience restaurants. The project will contain about 30 separate spaces.

So and his family plan to open a 30,000-square-foot Asian market, the largest in the state. It will offer Asian goods, as well as prepared Asian dishes, traditional barbeque and bakery items. Fresh seafood will be available.

SLCC will be a gathering place for Utah’s Asian community. Its parking lot will be used for cultural festivals, such as Chinese New Year, spring and moon festivals. Common areas in the development will be open to community groups. Wi-Fi and public computers will also be available for those who want a place to sit and relax with friends, similar to a coffee shop, So says.

The Chinatown will be a part of the city’s commercial revolution. The project is in a perfect location, according to a 2007 press release by the South Salt Lake Council and Planning Commission. It will be built between State and Main Streets, across from fast food and coffee franchises. The project will be a three-minute drive from Interstate 15, and a short walk from the UTA Trax station, located on Main Street.

SLCC will be the first Chinatown permitted by the Utah legislature, according to Chinatown Investment Inc.’s proposal plans. The project will be completed without public funding and will add to the city’s tax base, which will bring in new high-end customers, according to a report by the city’s Council and Planning Commission. The development team hopes to attract people who are also visiting Yellowstone National Park and other southern Utah parks, So says. It will aim to become a tourist destination for Utah.

“I see it as a community gathering place where the local community can come together,” said former South Salt Lake City Mayor Bob Gray in 2005. His comment was included in Chinatown Investment Inc.’s proposal. “It will be the only development of this type in the western states,” he added.

The project’s production will start up again in February or March 2011, after being placed on hold since 2007. SLCC is expected to hold its grand opening in the fall of 2011.

But So says he has not started marketing the development yet. “We don’t want to lose the confidence from other people in the project,” he said. “Last time we didn’t make it happen as we promised. This time, we want to make sure everything’s ready to go before we actually start the promotional marketing.”

Even though official promotion for SLCC hasn’t started, people are already showing interest in the project.

Tong Zhou, 19, a study-abroad student from China at the University of Utah, is looking forward to having a place to communicate with other Asians. “I am really excited,” he said. “I like to see Chinese be a group and help each other. Chinatown will not only be doing business, but also spread[ing] Chinese culture.”

So says the goal of the project is to create an Asian cultural hub. “There are Asian people scattered everywhere in the state, in different counties,” he said. “We tried to create a center, a place that they can gather and celebrate some Chinese festivals.”

But the Asian community is not the only targeted patron of the project. The development team hopes to draw in non-Asians as well. “It’s a place for non-Asian communities to know more about Asian communities,” So said.

So acknowledges that the majority of Utahns are not of Asian descent, but believes the Chinatown will invite these non-Asians to explore and learn more about the culture of Asian people. A few restaurants and shops are already in the area, but So hopes SLCC will become the place everyone will think of when it comes to Asian culture, markets and cuisines.

Brandon Harker, 21, a U student studying international relations, says the project will be a great way for Asian and non-Asian groups to come together. “I think it will be fun to have something new around that will serve a growing community within Utah,” he said. “It’s always fun to be able to experience a less filtered view of a different culture and experience the cuisine.”

The project is definitely going to happen, So said. He anticipates a majority of the construction will be finished by the grand opening date, so at least some shops and attractions will be open to the public while the remaining construction, if any, continues.

“It’s going to be something really unique for the valley. We’ve never had a project like this before,” said Mike Florence, South Salt Lake City Planner, in a phone interview. “We hope it will be a place that everyone will like.”

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Luxury and relaxation at The Kura Door Holistic Japanese Spa

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Photos courtesy of The Kura Door Holistic Japanese Spa


On the corner, in a quaint neighborhood surrounded by brick homes typical of the Avenues neighborhood, sits a lovely stucco-style building surrounded by trees, bushes and vines; an outdoor patio completes the peaceful picture. A solid wood door establishes the entrance to The Kura Door, a holistic spa located at 1136 E. 3rd Ave. in Salt Lake City.

The massive door is an actual Kura door. In Japan, they are used in the family’s treasure house. Inside the treasure house are several chambers and the Kura door is used for the innermost chamber, which safeguards the family’s most valuable treasures from typhoons, fires and theft. This door was considered very important to the family.

According to the spa’s description of its services, “Our own entrance is adorned with such a door, a door that stood in protection over 150 years ago in Japan and stands again here today as a symbol of the integrity with which we guard our most important treasures – our guests.”

The woman at the front desk checks in guests and offers them comfortable sandals to wear instead of shoes. This helps reduce noise and dirt as guests walk on wood and bamboo floors through the two-story spa. Also, it is customary in Japan to leave one’s shoes in an entrance hall to distinguish the home from the outside environment.

It is very peaceful inside the spa. From the moment a guest makes an appointment to the moment she (and occasionally he) walks out the door, each guest is treated like royalty. A personal locker, showers, sauna and steam rooms and scented, organic lotions are just a few of the amenities that leave guests feeling as if they are a part of the Kura Door family.

A passerby, smiling and looking to the ceiling as if it held the answer, described the atmosphere saying, “There is just something about the Kura Door.”

And for those who have jumped on the green movement, the Kura Door is right up their alley. The spa is a completely green building, with insulation made from old denim, chemical-free paint and state-of-the-art water and air purification systems. In fact, all of the water in the building is recycled using an osmosis process.

The spa was started for a cause. Ali Kulmer, 35, and her husband Mark Kulmer, 37, began the business to help people find a way to heal naturally by finding their inner beauty and making their body better from the inside. Ali Kulmer’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and after several different types of natural treatments, she is now cancer free. She was a driving force behind the creation of the spa.

The Kura Door sees many cancer patients as well as those just looking for some relaxation. Guests don a thick, white kimono and relax with a cup of organic herbal tea while they wait to be called for their treatment. The spa is really about one’s well-being and the health of the body, rather than vanity. Consequently, guests won’t find a hair salon or technicians applying acrylic nails. The Kura Door does, however, offer a very wide variety of options to spa.

The Web site features a “How to Spa” page that advises novices to hydrate the body in advance and arrive about 20 minutes early to avoid feeling rushed. This will allow the body and mind to take a break from its busy day. An array of massages are offered, including Seisei, ShiatsuSamurai, Japanese Stone Massage and Four Hands Massage. The most popular treatment is the Kura, what the spa calls its “signature massage.” The unique massages range from 30 minutes to two hours in length.

The Kura Door also offers three body treatments to suit each guest’s needs: the green tea and ginger sea enzyme body wrapancient volcanic ritual and the traditional Javanese lulur body ritual, which “was originally designed as a ritual to prepare a bride for her wedding day.”

In addition, 12 different facial treatments, five different pedicures and six types of body enhancements are offered. Guests can pick and choose the treatments that sound appealing, or consult the Kura Door’s experts for suggestions.

Andy Lynner, 41, is a licensed massage therapist who has been working with the Kura Door since the spa opened in 2003. “It’s not just that we hand them [guests] their robe, let ’em wander around, fend for themselves. It’s really about making sure that they know where everything’s at and if they need anything, they can ask us for that,” Lynner said.

Amanda, 27, director of guest services, has been with Kura Door for more than two years. She said “it’s not just about coming in and getting a service; we really try to create an experience for them (customers), from the moment they step in the door.”

Amanda had been working at a spa in Park City as a massage therapist, when she came to the Kura Door and received a Thai massage. She realized that if she were going to work anywhere, it would be at the Kura Door.

During her visit, she said she was able to sense the spa’s “good energy” and employees’ happiness. She also observed that the spa “was very aesthetically pleasing but still felt warm.” Amanda said that combination can be difficult to achieve. “Either everything looks really perfect, but kind of feels cold, but here they’ve kind of figured out how to do both,” she said.

The Kura Door’s staff take customer satisfaction very seriously. Co-owner Mark Kulmer said, “We want someone to come in here and feel like it’s their house.”

The Kura Door has even won awards from City Weekly, such as “Best Day Spa” in 2008 and “Best Sake Soak” in 2009. As well, Salt Lake Magazine recognized it for “Best Pedicure” in 2010.

Unlike most businesses, the Kura Door’s gift certificates never expire. And, to ensure that customers are satisfied with their purchase, Kulmer said the spa keeps track of every certificate that is sold just in case it is misplaced or stolen. In November, the spa began offering weekly specials, such as a discount on a specific type of pedicure. When gift certificates valued at $100 went on sale for $90, Kulmer said the spa sold 25 certificates in just 15 minutes.

Business picks up around the holidays and during the fall and winter months. The Kura Door also is usually very busy on the weekends, so the best time to visit can be a Monday or Tuesday. Kulmer said the spa has between 500 and 1,000 clients who come at least four times a year.

The Kura Door has 61 employees and the establishment can do 15 appointments at any given hour. Kulmer said if an employee decides to leave, she usually goes away for a sabbatical and then returns. Those who do not come back to the spa stay in touch; the spa works like a business but staff interact like a close family.

Kulmer used to hate to work; he dreaded every day that he had to go in to work for someone else. “When I get home from vacation, I can’t wait to get to work,” Kulmer said, describing his newfound passion, his business, which is the Kura Door.

Being Muslim in Utah

Story and multimedia by DANA IGO

Take a tour of the Khadeeja Islamic Center

The terrorists who brought the World Trade Center down on Sept. 11, 2001, had been Muslim extremists. Because of this, Muslims were thrust to the forefront of American society and found themselves at the receiving end of hatred and intolerance. As a minority group in the United States, Muslims weren’t well understood, nor would they be for the next nine years.

In her book, “Mecca and Main Street: Muslim life in America after 9/11,” Geneive Abdo wrote about campaigning door-to-door in 2003 with Maad Abu Ghazalah, who was then running for U.S. Congress in San Francisco. Though he was politically liberal, the reactions he received were lukewarm at best. Without considering his political stance, one man said to Ghazalah, “With this name, I would say this guy doesn’t have a chance.”

If people in one of the most liberal cities in the United States can’t see past religion and ethnicity, what hope would there be for Muslim-Americans in a conservative area like the Salt Lake valley?

Roni Choudhury, a doctoral student in computer science at the University of Utah, said he hasn’t faced discrimination for his beliefs. Choudhury, 29, was born in Boston, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants who had come to the U.S. to pursue the American dream.

Roni Choudhury on campus at the University of Utah

According to Choudhury, his parents have assimilated into American culture, especially as their children have grown. They are involved in his 13-year-old brother’s schooling through the PTA and although they were apprehensive to let Choudhury attend sleepovers as a child, they’ve relaxed and let his brother stay with friends.

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, Choudhury’s family reacted as any other American family did. “After 30 years in the country they feel like this is their home,” he said. “My mom was devastated seeing the images of the towers coming down.”

Yet, public opinion of Muslims has only gotten worse since the attacks. A poll conducted in August 2010 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that favorable opinion of Muslims has fallen from 41 to 30 percent since 2005.

Choudhury’s parents have worked to defend their faith against the negative perceptions that have come from Muslim terrorist attacks. His mother had a co-worker from Bosnia, a country that experienced a lot of Muslim infighting in the mid-1990s. His mother explained that while there are some violent Muslims in the world, most aren’t.

Choudhury says his religion was never a point of contention with people he knew in Boston, nor in Chicago where he went to college for a bachelor’s degree. He said Salt Lake City is no different. “I’ve been impressed by how nice and polite people are here,” he said. “I haven’t been harassed. I’ve had a good time in Utah.”

Choudhury thinks it’s harder to be a Muslim in the Middle East than to be one in the United States. Muslims in the U.S. don’t have to worry about being Sunni or Shiite. In Iraq and many other parts of the world it’s a different story. “I think you’re in far more danger in certain parts of the Middle East being the wrong kind of Muslim, than you are being any kind of Muslim in America,” he said.

His ethnicity, rather than his religion, has been more of a problem. People tend to assume things about him based on the way he looks. “When you see someone who looks like me you don’t assume they’re from Bangladesh, you assume they’re from India,” he said. He’s had people greet him with “Namaste,” a Hindi greeting used mainly in India and Nepal.

People also assume he’s foreign based on his looks. “Why not just listen to my voice and assume that I’m from around here?” he said. At the grocery store a woman told him how nice it was that he could immigrate to study in the United States.

Salman Masud, an anesthesiologist at Shriner’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, has experienced a more extreme kind of racial and religious profiling.

Salman Masud (photo courtesy of the Masud family)

Two years ago Masud, 55, was put on the Transport Security Administration’s (TSA) “No Fly List,” which was created to prevent terrorists from boarding airplanes. Though the TSA has not publicly announced the figure, the ACLU claims tens of thousands of names are currently on the list, which prompts Masud to wonder how effective it is. “It just upsets people. It’s against their constitutional rights,” he said.

“I’m a U.S. citizen but my place of birth is written and immediately I’m singled out for an extra pat-down,” Masud said. Once a TSA agent spotted Masud’s birthplace on his passport and drew his supervisor’s attention by shouting, “Born in Pakistan, born in Pakistan.”

He can’t do an electronic check-in because he has to get special clearance to fly. He hasn’t missed a flight yet, but he’s come close. He said this happens every time he goes to the airport.

He’s spoken with both the TSA and the FBI about his inclusion on the list, but has not received any word on whether flying will become easier for him in the future.

Although Masud has had trouble flying, he hasn’t faced discrimination in his home or work life. He’s very open about being a Muslim. “People generally are inquisitive because they have not come across a Muslim,” he said. “They ask a lot of questions, which I enjoy answering. Diversity strengthens a society.”

The people whom Masud works with are accepting of who he is. One of Masud’s co-workers even attended a prayer service at the Khadeeja Islamic Center to learn more about Masud’s religion.

He wants to tell them about the positive aspects of his culture and religion, because he says people often have negative perceptions.

In France, a new law has gone into effect banning religious clothing in public — including the headscarf, or hijab, worn by some Muslim women, because of fears that it made them subservient. Masud’s daughters only wear the hijab during prayer, but he says the hijab is a symbol of modesty and respect, not one of oppression. “Modesty is in the person, the clothes are an outer expression of that,” he said.

Both Masud and Choudhury are happy to live in Utah and haven’t experienced any contention between neighbors or friends. Being Muslim doesn’t make them less American; in fact, it embodies what this country is about. In a nation of immigrants and varied faiths, Masud and Choudhury fit right in.

“You can be from anywhere in the world — all you have to do is adopt the American way of life,” Choudhury said, “which includes a lot of freedoms to do things your own way.”

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