“I try to keep that humanizing conversation going," says Helen Quin of Mason's Creamery. "And it works, because people are usually more pleasant with ice cream.”
In Cleveland, Ohio, a small ice cream shop beckons potential customers with the words "Come Over All The Time" painted on one side in multi-colored letters, as if a five-year-old had drawn them with sidewalk chalk. A rainbow flag marks the entrance and glass windows offer a peek at the counter inside. It's been an ice cream shop for 60 years, but has only been Mason's Creamery for two. Opened in 2014 by Jesse Mason and Helen Quin, the shop specializes in flavors as diverse as the couple that creates them. Cleveland Whiskey, Black Sesame, Vietnamese Coffee, and Taro represent Mason and Quin's roots. "We both love traveling," Quin says. "We met in LA, Jesse's lived in New York, and I was born in China. A culmination of everything we've eaten, we like to turn into ice cream."
Recently, the shop has begun serving more than scoops, operating as a platform for Quin to share her story as a Chinese immigrant. Shortly after Donald Trump signed the executive order imposing restrictions on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Quin took to the Mason's Creamery Facebook page to share her immigration story. "We came here only in search of a better life," Quin wrote about her father's decision to leave China in 1990 on a student visa. Two years later, Quin and her mom joined him in Houston, Texas.
"I was six years old and went to school in first grade, I knew very little English, but my mom didn't want me to go into an ESL program. 'I want you to learn English as fast as you can, assimilate as quickly as you can,' she told me," Quin recalls. She explains that during that time she may have felt different—kids on the bus teased her by asking if she ate rice every day—but she never felt like an immigrant. That feeling came much later, after she earned her citizenship at the age of 20, and after Trump was elected president. "I always felt that, even if certain people didn't like me or my family, the government was there for me. That was the first time I thought the government does not like us, regardless of party, and that was disheartening."
Quin admits she is fortunate to have come to the country when she did, and although the process took her 14 years and thousands of dollars, it was relatively easy to become a citizen compared to today's standards. Becoming an immigrant businesswoman was more the manifestation of her parents' dreams. Both work white-collar jobs and live in Houston. The running joke among the family is Quin's father—a truck-driving, gun-owning, steak-and-beer Texan—is more American than any of them. "The way they see it, they were able to come to this country and work for The Man, but their child was able to grow up in this country and be The Man—as a very, very small woman—and I think that makes them feel very proud, and, well, American."
Mason's Creamery started with an ice cream maker that Mason gave Quin for her birthday—neither of them are big drinkers, so dates were often spent at ice cream shops. The machine went unused until Mason started playing around with all-natural ice creams. They moved to Cleveland in 2013 and started selling ice creams at markets and festivals. A series of fortunate events led them to the recently vacated shop that now houses Mason's Creamery. Since then, they shop has expanded to ice cream sandwiches, housemade waffle cones, bubble waffles, as well as seasonal ramen pop-ups. All the while, Mason's embraces unusual flavors and uses them as a gateway for customers to experience different cultures. Allowing the shop to take a stance on immigration was a logical next step.
For now, the couple's activism is truly grassroots: starting conversations with their customers about immigrants and what they mean to the fabric of America. Quin and Mason also privately donate to pro-immigrant groups and hope to hire a refugee through a church program on Cleveland's West Side. But they believe that simply talking about the immigration issue is key to fomenting change.
"All I want to do is say, 'Look, the people who are being turned away from the airports—people with green cards and permanent residence—they belong here. The people who are refugees who are coming in—they were vetted for many years—they belong here.' I want to clear up any misconception that there are people from Syria just buying a plane ticket, showing up at the airport, and being like, 'Let me in, I'm here,'" Quin says. "I try to keep that humanizing conversation going, and it works, because people are usually more pleasant with ice cream."