May 20, 2013

Pacific Rim fest a treat -- and maybe a lesson in long life

Through a combination of factors including diet, joy, family and faith, Asian Americans live longer than any other Californians, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Noel Coward once sang that only "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun," but he never attended the Pacific Rim Street Fest, where more than 10,000 visitors poured into Old Sacramento on Sunday.

They lined up in a sunny 86 degrees for tofu, sushi, curry, pho, egg rolls, Thai barbecue, salmon poke and other delicacies that may or may not hold the key to long life.

Through a combination of factors including diet, joy, family and faith, Asian Americans live longer than any other Californians, enjoying an average life expectancy of about 83 years compared with 80.5 years for Latinos, 78 for whites and American Indians, and 72 for African Americans, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

California's South Asian Indian women top the charts at 88, followed by U.S.-born Chinese of both genders at nearly 87, Vietnamese women at 86 and Korean, Filipino and Japanese women at 85.

Interestingly, Chinese Americans born here live longer than those from China, whose average life span is about 84 years.

"I just went karaokeing and dancing with Mr. Chan, a 97-year-old man from China," said life insurance agent Ashley Hill at her booth on Second Street. "He sang in Mandarin, danced the electric slide, and ate a family-style Chinese meal of duck, chicken and tofu soup."

"When asked his secret, he said, 'Having a good time.' "

Calvin Chiu, 23, said his grandmother from China is a healthy 84.

"Her secret is being in love with my grandpa. They've been married for 60 years," Chiu said.

The couple work together in their garden and eat a lot of vegetables: Chinese broccoli, spinach, tofu, and very little meat, Chiu said.

At the Organization of Chinese Americans booth, Mamie Yee agreed.

"It's the food – bok choy, water chestnuts, bitter melon," she said.

That diet helped her grandmother get to 100 years, and her mother is going strong at 87, Yee said.

David Low said his 86-year-old dad combines a vegetarian diet with a daily four-mile walk.

Tom Bhe added that his father-in-law, 88, keeps his mind sharp by playing the Taiwanese stock market.

Tina Lee, a translator, said her great-aunt broke 105 by following a strict vegetarian diet.

On Front Street in Old Sacramento, a Russian American band played and sang gospel music in memory of its orchestra leader, centenarian Nikolai Syakov, who conducted the Christmas program at Independent Baptist Church and sang a solo. He died in January after fulfilling his promise to live to 100.

"He was singing, playing trumpet, quoting verses from the Bible, living on his own and making his own fresh juices," said Mark Puzankov, 17.

"He never wore glasses and never needed a cane," said Abner Verhovetchi, 10.

"And he had no hearing problems," added John Puzankov, 10.

While Chinese Americans born in the United States live longer than those born in China, Samoans who come to the mainland die off faster, said James Letoa and Nia Kotobalavu of the Office of Samoan Affairs, which represents about 15,000 people of Samoan ancestry in the Sacramento area.

They and other Pacific Islanders who have seen a radical change in diet are struggling with diabetes, high blood pressure, gout and obesity, Letoa said.

"My great-grandmother in Samoa lived to 106 and only passed away because she slipped in the bathroom, and my grandma is 95 and still strong," Letoa said. "They ate taro, breadfruit, bananas, fish, pork and cabbage, but here we eat processed food. I'm 26, 6-foot-1 and weigh about 380, but back home Samoans are really skinny."

Kotobalavu, who comes from Fiji, said the introduction of white flour into the Fijian diet – especially through inexpensive bread – has turned many Fijians into "ticking time bombs starting to die in their 40s."

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini. The Bee's Phillip Reese and researcher Pete Basofin contributed to this story.

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