In partnership with House Of, All the Pretty Birds collected the testimonies of 60+ influential members of the Asian diaspora in the fashion and creative industries to debunk the monolith myth. We celebrate the lives of a community of unique, colorful, nuanced voices that are inadequately represented in the West. As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month comes to a conclusion, we usher in a continuation of diverse storytelling to pierce the performative limitations of one calendar month. All the Pretty Birds and House Of stand in solidarity with the AAPI Community yesterday, today, and evermore.
Sonder: At the Intersection of Action and Empathy
“Sonder is the profound, individual realization that each person you meet is living their own life. Each person has their own personal worries, pains, pleasures, routines, etc. The same as yourself, in a sense, but also as intricate and as different as could be imagined.”
Christina Tung is one of many voices from the Asian diaspora to remind us of the universal individualities we often forget. If ever there were a time to consider the plurality of lived experience, it is reflecting on a year where shared trauma bridged the greater global community. No matter the lens with which we elect to understand the world, we find an equalizer in the year of 2020.
Amidst a global health crisis, many found themselves at the feet of empathy for the first time. Unity came in the form of mourning the lost, to mutuality in the crippling effects of isolation. Those who otherwise have little in common, found themselves akin to the devastating effects of Covid-19.
An unfortunate truth in reflection is that the trauma of last year was not contingent on the pandemic alone.
Our realities were met with the existing strife in our personal lives. In other words, the pandemic did not fill a placeholder for hardship; it forced us into a posture of resilience to endure.
Critical illness, domestic violence, mental health, financial strain, hunger, homelessness, abuse, racism, and racial violence did not make room for us to nurture another burden. There comes a point when asking, “How are you?” feels somewhat offensive. How often do we ask, prepared to respond to the truth and not some variation of a half-hearted ‘good’ to keep the conversation flowing?
Despite being a Black woman in America, I found myself both giving and receiving the social slap in the face this question unintentionally engenders. If I’m honest, my imposter syndrome kicks in even as I write these words, because the terms ‘Black woman’ and ‘Asian diaspora’ are staring back at me. I am painfully aware of the importance of uplifting marginalized voices. Though I cannot fully grasp the Asian American experience, I represent an audience of people who benefit greatly from empathizing with the individual stories that make up an oversimplified people group.
I am encouraged by the leading words of my dear friend and Co-Editor, Christina Tung. The origins of our All the Pretty Birds series, “We Are Not a Monolith” began with a heartfelt conversation sharing in the restlessness of a truthfully addressed “How are you?” Downtrodden, but surviving; accountable to our workplaces while reading about our brothers and sisters bodies in the news.
It is with great empathy and admiration for one another as siblings in the American minority that we amplify the voices of the Asian diaspora on the last day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. We aim to carry these narratives beyond the limitations of a single month to continue celebrating diverse storytelling. We asked our interviewees to tell us about an experience that shaped or defined their identity (within the Asian community at large or as an individual). May their testimonies remind us of the humanity that is stripped away when subscribing to a monolithic mentality.
Voices from the Asian Diaspora: “We Are Not a Monolith.”
Sustainable Fashion Blogger, Photojournalist, Labor Rights Activist
“After 9/11, I became acutely aware of how the South Asian identity became racialized among the rise of xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments in the West; from how the Brown body was seen, to the implications of Sikh identity like the turban.
What came next was the rise of hate crimes against our community. At a young age, I became vigilant about the politics of “othering” a community and the importance of countering this through authentic representation, stakeholder-ship, and reclaiming one’s identity.”
Account Manager at House Of
“Having lost my father at a very young age, the main source of my personal, cultural exploration was through food and Bollywood (although this is Indian, rather than Pakistani). There was a very small community of South Asians in my town and two of the families were very close friends of my father’s.
Almost weekly, we would go to their homes and have a large family meal that included classics like haleem, nihari, samosas, homemade mango ice cream, and a tiny bag of tulsi mixed with candy. We would catch up on our weekly happenings, tell jokes, watch new and old Bollywood films, while learning all the dances to the songs. Every now and then we would stay late and the kids would sneak in horror movies while the parents were having chai.
They would share their experiences growing up in Pakistan and tell stories about my dad. These weekly dinners helped me to understand my culture and helped me to relate to my Pakistani family in ways I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. However, as a person that is ever-evolving, I am actively exploring what it means to be Pakistani, Ecuadorian, Texan, and all-around human.”
Fashion and Beauty Writer, Editor
“Growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Michigan, I recognized that I looked different — that I was Asian — since I was a child. I don’t think I accepted it until I was an adult. I can’t pinpoint one defining experience or moment that shaped my identity, but I will say that finding a close group of friends in college — Asian Americans who share the same lived experience as me — was the first time in my life that I felt like I truly belonged. This year, seeing the AAPI community find our voice, unite, and rally against anti-Asian violence and racism has been unforgettable. I’ve never felt prouder to be Asian American.”
Market Editor at T Magazine
“Moving to NYC and meeting my best friends who I call my ‘chosen family.’ I grew up ashamed of being Asian due to living in a predominately white town. It wasn’t until I was surrounded by their support and love that I felt comfortable in my own skin. Exploring our heritage, traveling around the world and eating a LOT of amazing Asian food bonded us together.”
Content Creator at 9to5chic.com
“My 8 year old self wants to thank the 1990s team responsible for the branding of the UNITED COLORS OF BENETTON. Because it was incredibly meaningful for me to see a face like mine in their store imagery…and it was probably a radical idea back then. Nowadays, using an image of an Asian person is the absolute bare minimum in terms of what you can do to connect and engage with the Asian community, especially today in the face of anti-Asian hate. Representation matters. Stories that convey the richness and diversity of the Asian diaspora are important stories. Thank you for sharing a small part of mine.”
Model, Indigenous Advocate at JAG Models
“Growing up in Laos and moving to the United States at the age of 6 was such a big shift, because my siblings and I could barely speak English. As we were learning how to speak English in school (which we picked up quickly) my parents would only speak Lao to us at home and make us go to Laos School every Sunday.
Every other week we would spend with my Dad’s siblings who moved to the US with him. What my father and his siblings had to go through to get to America really inspired me and shaped who I am today. My parents made the decision to bring my siblings and I to the US because there were more career opportunities for us.”
Partnerships Development Manager at the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America)
“After I moved to New York in 2011, I faced cultural overload and the reality that I’d been living in a silo. I second guessed my identity and place in the world after being raised in the suburbs of Georgia. I often found myself asking, ‘Am I not Korean enough? Am I too Americanized to hang out with Koreans?’ The truth is that I’m still figuring myself out.
At first, I felt ashamed admitting that I never made time to go deeper within to define my identity. I don’t believe that there will ever be a “finish line” in this journey, but at least I can hold myself accountable to be uncomfortable and confident in who I am as a Korean-American; by learning and being more involved in a culture that I’ve felt disconnected from in the past.”
Head of Content & Creator Partnerships at Pinterest
“I loved participating in the coming-of-age ceremony when I turned 20. 成人式, Seijin–shiki marks one’s coming of age (age of maturity), which reflects both the expanded rights, but also increased responsibilities expected of new adults.
The best part was that I got to wear a kimono that my mother wore for her Seijin-shiki! As a lover of fashion, it’s wonderful to wear clothes with meaning and heritage. It was such a special moment for our family.”
Founder & CEO, Ellis Brooklyn
“I didn’t truly experience racism until I was a teenager and started traveling more while playing competitive tennis. It was with this lens that when I was 16 or so I went to Ashland, Oregon for a tennis tournament and experienced it for the first time.
Our group of players were of mixed races—Asian, Fijian, Caucasian—but we are also very much American. We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and the entire dining room went silent. The way the staff treated us and the way the diners looked at us—like bugs on the bottom of their shoes—was disgusting. I was so deeply hurt.
I had thought racism didn’t exist in that way anymore. How much of an awakening did I need? As I’ve grown older, I can recall that feeling and experience with such clarity. It’s not that I am bitter about it, but it’s a reminder there is still plenty of work to do.”
Fashion Model with Marilyn Agency NY
“My interest in gaining knowledge and wisdom on how I can better myself as an individual largely contributes to my identity. I am Korean and I am American, and there are many differences in the two cultures. Above all else I am human, which is what both Koreans and Americans undoubtedly have in common.
I no longer struggle with trying to decide whether I am more Korean or more American. Instead, I strive to learn and practice what I find to be impeccable from both cultures to be a better, compassionate person. I feel grateful to have access to both cultures and blend the two to create my own identity. I see myself as a unique individual and I also see myself in others, loving everyone, because we are all human.”
Designer at AirPop Health
“I didn’t really grasp what being mixed-race meant to me until my 30’s. For most of my life I didn’t feel white or Asian. It wasn’t both, it was neither.
For as long as I can remember my internal sensibilities gravitated towards the Japanese side of my family – admiring the history, the culture of artistry and craft, the food, the films, anime and graphic design – and wanting to feel a part of it. I’m sure I ended up pursuing design because of how affirmed I felt making art early in my life by my Japanese grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My creativity felt like a connection to, or an expression of, my Japanese heritage. It was something I felt on the inside but those outside my family didn’t necessarily know or see.
It wasn’t until I moved to Shanghai, China in 2009 (where I would live and work on and off for the next 10 years) that I understood what it meant to be defined by my whiteness. Some Chinese people I met assumed I was Central Asian because of my features and coloring but most referred to me as Laowai (Outsider, or Foreigner) since I clearly wasn’t fully Asian, but I was fully American.
Being perceived solely as white for those years was a profound reminder, and an invitation, to reclaim my internalized Japanese sensitibilites and externalize them. I am Asian. I am an Asian American.”
SVNR Designer, Founder of PR Agency House Of
“I grew up in New England as a very “tan” Chinese kid, looking and feeling so different from everyone around me. I just felt like I wanted to belong. My first time going to Shanghai to visit family, I was looking forward to being just like everyone else, but once I got there, it was even more obvious that I was a “foreigner”.
Years later, I went to Dharamshala in Northern India, where many Tibetan refugees have settled, not expecting to feel as welcome and at home as I did. I was so surprised to feel such a strong sense of “complexion connection”- a kinship due to our shared coloring- I realized then that where you may feel the most connected is somewhere you least expected.”
Founder of boy+girl, Consultant
“We spend all our time in the kitchen. We love our food, no not just like that, I mean we really love our food. Both of my parents originally hail from Northern China so our diet includes dumplings, buns, noodles, pickled cabbage – all made by scratch. I tumble in and out of the cozy kitchen, taking in the wafts of homemade goodness, listening to my grandma, mom, sisters chatting away in a mix of Mandarin and English while we end one meal and prepare our next meal together. So it begins and so it ends.”
Executive Editor at Refinery29
“Going to a public university in California was the first opportunity I had to be among Asian-Americans with drastically different backgrounds than mine. Until then, I hadn’t really realized how diverse the community was. There were 2nd-gen Korean Americans who grew up in majority-Asian communities, 6th-gen Japanese Americans whose families have been here longer than most white people, mixed Asians, adopted Asians, new Asians, loud Asians, jock Asians, political Asians. There were Asians who had never felt self-conscious about their ethnicity. And Asians who did feel shame, and fought hard to dismantle that shame for themselves and others. It broke apart the way I saw myself, my limitations, my ego, and my own prejudices. It was a humbling and deeply rewarding experience, and I’m so grateful for it.”
Founder and CEO, Senreve
“I’m very proud of my Asian heritage. As a first generation immigrant, I saw first hand how hard my parents worked throughout their journey from China to the US; from graduate students working nights and weekends in Chinese restaurants, to becoming innovative entrepreneurs. Their values of optimism, grit, and perseverance have directly shaped who I am today and have also become core values of SENREVE.”
Freelance Fashion Editor / Gear & Commerce Editor, Men’s Health
“I went to a relatively diverse school, but I didn’t have a sense of my ‘place’ since I was still among the minority in Omaha, NE. It wasn’t until I grew into my post-graduate life and built a community with other Asians—enjoying childhood experiences (particularly those involving food, like dim sum) outside the context of my own family and seeing those as normal, everyday occasions.
After surrounding myself with friends with whom I could share these moments, I began to understand the importance of owning my identity as an Asian American and upholding the Chinese traditions and values of my family. As I get older, I’m increasingly enthusiastic about sharing my background with others and showcasing the beauty in every part of the Asian and Asian American experience!”
“My daughter was frustrated while doing a Self-Portrait. She could not find a crayon that matched her skin tone. I told her that everything we needed was in the box: brown, pink, and yellow. Depending how we layer it, we could closely achieve her skin tone. When the Pandemic hit and Summer began, I started offering free art classes for kids. We would create Self-Portraits and go over basic cross-hatching techniques using brown, pink, and yellow. I was able to share my experience as a First Generation Immigrant, the pride I carry with my brown skin, and being able to connect with children from all over. I hope they know that they brought so much joy and healing in my life and I hope to do it again this Summer.”
Editor/Fashion Consultant at I See
“I moved to London with my sisters and my mum when I was a kid. I spoke no English, my first lesson at school (5th day after arriving!) was French and the only other Asian at the school was my sister. I knew then and there, life was never going to be the same again. My dad always reminded us that we are different and be proud of it because not everyone has travelled as much as we have, or experienced so many different cultures, speak different languages and one day, all this will matter!”
“For more than six years, I thought I always represented the publications or companies that I worked for. It wasn’t until I started freelancing in 2019 that I realized I have to represent myself, and it took me a good year to figure out what that means. As a fashion and culture writer, and a bilingual Korean American, I’ve always been excited to spotlight Asian creatives to a wider audience, but now it’s become more of a professional mission. Through meeting and covering various designers and artists from Korea, I’ve been able to come to terms with my identity, living as a storyteller of my own cultural roots. I’m still in the process of fully grasping the difference between authorship and ownership, however; the discovery of my defined identity and place in the wider cultural conversation will take much more time.”
“I’ve been hustling as an actor since I graduated college in 2009. It’s taken me moving from Texas to Los Angeles, to New York, back to Austin, and now being bi-coastal, in Austin and Los Angeles, to really gain visibility as an artist.
I am grateful for my successes, but most recently, with all of the AAPI hate happening and being shown in the media, I made it a point to bring it to light in a film I just acted in called Erzulie because I believe it’s my job as a storyteller to be authentic and truthful through character and as Elizabeth.
The director of the film, Christine Chen, is a Chinese-American Female Filmmaker, and the film, Erzulie, is about a gaggle of women who summon a mythical goddess mermaid to get justice for past traumas. I thought it was important for my character to bring attention to the fear of what is happening right now alongside trying to cope with her personal trauma regarding a childhood attacker.
Christine and I had conversations leading up to the shoot of the film about how to share and gain visibility in an organic way. In addition to speaking about it in the film, we dedicated a Get Reelisms podcast episode(Christine’s podcast about her experiences and challenges with filmmaking) to discuss #stopasianhate and to share our personal experiences in the industry and on the street.”
Student/Activist, Founder of Intersectional ABC
“This past summer and winter has really shaped my experiences as an Asian American and I believe that is for a few reasons. Firstly, America as a whole has begun to wake up to the experiences of people of color. Secondly, this year as hate crimes against Asian people rose significantly, it opened the conversations up to what it means to be Asian American. In the Fall of 2020, I personally was a victim of a hate crime where an individual approached me and hit me over the head. Luckily, I was okay, but it definitely sparked a fear of going out in public, because it had happened in New York City – a place I considered myself safe.”
Freelance Fashion, Beauty, and Entertainment Journalist
“Honestly, defining my identity as a first generation Chinese American — especially born and raised in a very white Midwestern suburb — is an ongoing experience. Of course, I credit my parents, who did their best to instill pride in me and educate me about our cultural history from as early as I can remember.
Going to college in Boston and becoming fast friends with Asian Americans, who grew up in diverse cities, was the most eye-opening and life-changing moment for me. Seeing and feeling their confidence in their heritage and learning about their backgrounds — we are not a monolith! — helped me find myself. Watching the AAPI communities and BIPOC allies come together this past year in support of each other has also inspired a similar sense of pride and hope.”
Owner, Buyer of LCD Boutique
“I think it’s so important that the diverse stories of Asian Americans be told and be seen so that we can dispel the myth of the model minority, sexy object of fetishism, or harbinger of infectious doom.
My entire life I’ve struggled with the expectation of being a model minority – staying quiet, being told constantly to be “less strong” (my mom’s words!), being told that I need to lose weight. While in some ways I was a “model minority” — I did go to Stanford to my parents’ everlasting pride — I spent most of my career in the art, music, and fashion industries, which was exceedingly frowned upon.
I never lost the weight that complete strangers and close family members have insisted thousands of times would “make my life better.” Maybe they were right – I lost the opportunity to pursue a music career because I was told I had to lose 40 pounds. To be Asian and fat is a daily practice in self-affirmation and strength. To be Asian and fat and in the fashion business feels like a Sisyphean effort; it’s frustrating when I can’t fit into any of the clothes in my own store.
At the same time, I feel like it’s so important for me to continue showing up on LCD’s IG and putting myself out there so folks can see that not all Asians are petite size 0’s. You can be a fat Asian and work in fashion and have a good time too.”
Creative Operations Manager at Katie Keim LLC and Assistant Fashion Stylist
“I was adopted from China in 1995 to white parents in Shawnee, Kansas. There was never an exact moment in time I can recall, where I realized I was adopted. My parents had always verbally told me and everyone around me, “Hattie is from China,” but when I was younger, I thought my mom and I looked the same.
I didn’t ever feel like there was a traumatizing moment of realizing I was adopted because of this. This shaped my identity by realizing that race, genetics, and love should have no boundaries. Although people may always come from different backgrounds, you should never judge a book by its cover, in regards to ethnicity.”
“As an Asian in America, I’ve felt as if my existence was at odds with the world around me. There has always been an undercurrent of uneasiness and tension I could never place, especially throughout childhood.
Over the last year, I’ve realized being first generation allows me the privilege of exploring myself in a way that acknowledges my parents’ trauma while paving a new path forward. Learning their stories has uncovered a sense of purpose within me that cannot be erased by the country in which I live.”
Founder and Creative Director of Bash + Sass
“Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t see many faces or families that looked like mine.
It wasn’t until I lived in Taiwan for a summer, during elementary school, did my eyes tremendously open and I was immersed into my own culture/language/traditions first-hand.
This experience opened a major window into shaping who I am today and how important it is for me to teach/show my own children their roots.”
Filmmaker and Musician
“One thing that I feel most liberated by in my identity, is knowing that no one can actually box me into one label. This understanding has helped me move through different artistic mediums and find my voice through all of them. Even identifying with the term South Asian is interesting to me, because I absolutely know that the experience of being “South Asian” is unique to everyone. Before I felt like I didn’t belong, but now I feel a little freer knowing that my identity is just one tiny aspect of who I am. My identity doesn’t necessarily define me because I am ever evolving.”
“Being diagnosed with Glaucoma, undergoing surgery, enduring side-effects from medications, and experiencing partial vision loss – has largely shaped my identity today. It’s difficult to foresee what things will be like years from now as Glaucoma can be mentally and physically challenging. But I’ve learned to pursue my interests and to take more time to see the world and appreciate my surroundings.”
“One of the most important things that has defined my identity is living in New York City. I grew up in a somewhat faraway town in Texas where my family has lived for many generations, beginning with my great grandfather who came to America from China over a 100 years ago.
All of us in the family grew up amidst a very small Asian population and became accustomed to living our lives as “the only Asian” in most situations.
For me, New York City has saved me from being “the only Asian,” and my life has opened up to a socially and racially diverse world that I don’t think I ever would have experienced had I not lived here. Every person has their story, and I’m thankful I live in a city that has so many.”
Designer and Creative Director of Fashion Label NOT (@not_aligne)
“Growing up in the Bay Area where I was surrounded by a populous Asian-American community, I begrudgingly attended “Chinese School” which took place at our local high school every Friday night. Just this year, I attended a Zoom celebration for this school’s 30th anniversary.
As former teachers, parents, and now-grown kids shared their memories, my eyes were opened to the value of the community this school provided to Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant parents, as well as the long-standing benefits that learning the Chinese language gave to us 1st generation children.
Today as I continue to self-learn through the Pleco app and Youtube channels. I’m even more grateful that I had this base of Chinese language that has helped me connect with my parents and grandparents, and to understand my own heritage. [It furthermore] aided my career communicating with Chinese garment manufacturers.”
Owner and Designer of Joey Baby
“My parents were born in Hong Kong, which they call British Hong Kong, the period during which Hong Kong was under British rule from 1841 to 1997.
It has always been a very difficult topic for me because I was born and raised in Hong Kong when it was still under British rule, but I never felt British and later when Hong Kong came under Chinese rule I would still identify as “Hongkonger”.
When I moved to Japan, a lot of my Japanese teachers and classmates had no idea where Hong Kong is, so they would say that I am from China, but my Chinese classmates also never felt like I belonged with them, because I didn’t speak their language.
I am more open discussing this topic having moved to New York, because it is such an international and diverse city.”
“My father recently retired so I’ve been celebrating his work ethic and how it’s shaped my own identity.
Our household was far from ‘comfortable’ but whatever we needed my father would always come up with a resourceful/innovative way to provide for our family.
It’s hard to explain his impact in 3-5 sentences, but if interested please see my attached poem titled SHOW WORK. :)”
Founder and Designer of KkCo Studio
“Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I often suppressed my Asian heritage in the effort to fit in. However, I also don’t look white — so as someone who is mixed, I was constantly struggling with the feeling of unacceptance. This is something I’ve been dissecting as an adult. I’ve started to understand that there are outside societal standards that create these feelings and pressures. Coming to this understanding has taught me to celebrate every part of who I am and to be proud of my Asian background.”
Content Creator and Influencer
“I didn’t grow up in America. I went to an international school in Seoul, Korea where I grew up around a myriad of cultures and ethnicities. My peers and I considered ourselves third culture kids, identifying with a culture other than that of our birth place or our parent’s birth place. It was like an ‘other’ category where none of us really confronted the idea of race, because we lived in this ‘bubble’ of third culture kids.
It was definitely a privilege, because I grew up around people that looked like me and in a largely homogenous country of people that obviously also looked like me. It was when I moved to New York for school that I was confronted with my Asian-ness in a way that was incredibly jarring and unlike anything I experienced. I feel like I am hyper aware of my identity more than ever, of ultimately being othered and am navigating how to contribute to Asian American empowerment in a way that is empathetic to the Asian American experience for those who were born and raised here.”
Founder and Creative Director, Labucq
“As someone who is half Chinese, I grew up somewhat in between cultures. I could be more Asian at large gatherings with my Chinese family, and more white among my friends at school or with my dad’s family, always quite comfortable in this fluid in-between space. I enjoyed being different and looking culturally ambiguous (I still get asked all the time, “what are you?” and it’s never bothered me).
In 2014 I organized a trip for my mom to join me on one of my factory visits to China. After meeting my colleagues there, my mom and I traveled south to Taishan to see the villages where my grandmother grew up, and where my grandfather’s parents had immigrated from. We would meet family we had never met before, bridging a 40 year gap in communication between the last generation that had visited from the US.
These distant relatives lived in very different circumstances than we did. I was confronted with my whiteness, or my biracial-ness, in a way that I hadn’t been before. I felt anxious – I didn’t speak the language. Would they accept me as their family even though I didn’t look like them? The visit ended up being a profound experience. We were there during the tomb sweeping holiday, and we lit incense for our ancestors together. I felt a connection with my Chinese identity that was way deeper than I had previously imagined.”
Founder of CLE Cosmetics
“When I first tried eyeliner on as a young teen, it was certainly the most defining and pivotal moment of understanding my identity within the community. I guess I never really made the correlation that the makeup how-to’s and tips from magazines were not meant for Asian eye shapes. That was when I had to find my own resources within my community for tips.
After discussing with my parents, I remember going to my local supermarket makeup counter lady for help. She sat me down and as I held a hand mirror, she started explaining to me step by step how to apply eyeliner and eyeshadow.
I wouldn’t say there was one experience or moment that defined my identity as an individual, but if I had to specify a certain time period in my life, it would be my first 2 years in college. [It was] the experience of being away from the comfort of home and living by myself. I felt there was freedom in the ability to create my own rules and boundaries. Through those initial years living in a new city and navigating through new experiences, I was able to really reflect and define who I was as an individual.”
Co-Founder, CMO at FUR
“I co-founded Fur on the core belief that everybody deserves to feel safe and cared for in their body, and the best way I know to foster this is through honest conversation.
In some ways, that’s been harder for me because of the myth that Asian Americans ‘shouldn’t risk speaking out’ or going against any established order, because we’re meant to be the ‘model minority.’
Asian women in particular are expected to be quieter, or more subservient. That’s why I’m proud to dismantle the status quo by being an Asian American woman out to dispel the taboo around body hair.
In high school, all too often people would wrongly assume the traditional Asian American stereotype applied to me. The assumption was that I was good at math (I’m not), studious and quiet (studious yes but not quiet) and focused on music (I’m an athlete).
This common misconception really bothered me as I never saw or heard the same generalizations made to my white friends. As a result, my education and career path has followed a slightly unconventional path because I want to ensure there is no assumed convention for Asian Americans.”
Designer, Project Manager at Campbell Design + Construction
“My parents and two older sisters were amongst the early Korean immigrants to settle in Bergen County, NJ. Together, with a group of friends, they formed a church (shout out KCCNJ) where I spent half of my childhood. Even when my parents became missionaries and I followed them around the world, we always returned to our church family. They truly helped shape, define, and condition me into who I am. I learned how kimchi was made in the kitchens, I saw how we celebrated marriage, mourned death, and prayed from the deepest depths of our souls. I learned how soulful we are as people. And now I’m crying in the subway as I write this. I miss them. Thank you KCCNJ for being the glue!”
Fashion Production Manager
“As a child growing up in Taiwan, I had my Mandarin name spelled in English on my passports and IDs. When it came to deciding what our English name should be, some kids opted for the name of their favorite singer, some the name of a Hollywood star. Some had no idea so they would be given names by the teacher, occasionally old-school classics such as Imogen or Arthur. I went for the name which is my birth month and also sounded similar to “little sister” in mandarin which is what I’ve been called by family members.
Fast forward a few years later, during the US citizen swear-in ceremony, there is a step where I should write down how my full name – first, middle and last – should be shown on the naturalization certificate to make it official. By that time, the majority of people knew me by my “English name” and only close family in Taiwan would still call me by my Mandarin name.
Do I keep the name that most non-Mandarin speaking people cannot even pronounce? Or should I just make my “English name” The name going forward? An episode of identity crisis was playing inside my head right in the middle of the District Court in Brooklyn. It took me a good 10 minutes to decide what my new name should be – my “English name” would be the first, Mandarin name the middle, then my last name.
I want my Mandarin name to still hold a special place in my new identity as an American; despite not having anyone here calling me so, it was the name that was given by my very poetic parents and the name that formed my childhood years that led to who I am right now. When people asked me what my middle name means, I would proudly say, the two words mean “star and feather,” as I believe those are the qualities my parents wish me to have and also just two very pretty words together.”
Founder of AARYAH
“I have always been inspired by my heritage and the stories my family would tell me about India. Being a part of the Indian diaspora has informed every part of my life: from my interactions and self-expression to my work. Even though I was born in the US, the connection I feel to India is strong, and the work ethic and resilience of those who came before me has transferred through time and space.”
“One moment that helped me define my identity took place in the mid 2000s. I was with my (Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican) cousins and “Mírame” by Daddy Yankee was playing on the radio. They were really feeling the song and I was so struck by their enthusiasm because that song samples a Bollywood song called “Eli Re Eli” that I love.
It was amazing to see Asian culture being celebrated in my Spanish-speaking family’s household. It was a very unique kind of joy and that song has been such a vehicle for me to express myself. It’s like a cultural artifact. I even made a DJ mix that pays homage to this kind of fusion.”
Director of Creative Development at Teen Vogue, them. and LOVE Magazine
“Like so many of us, my parents’ love language is food. My mom loves to cook and my dad is a “fruit guy,” as in after dinner without fail, there’s a plate of peeled fruit to be had.
To this day, food tends to be my excuse to call them whether it’s to ask my dad how to pick the right watermelon or to ask my mom for her sesame noodle recipe for the 487564th time.
It’s a cute daily reminder that they’ve instilled a certain kind of appreciation in me…that and, it gives me an excuse to be needy…”
Founder of Modern Theory
“Until the age of 7, I lived in a low-income neighborhood that was predominantly Black and Latino. My next door neighbor aka 24/7 playmate was Mexican and my first best friend was Nigerian. Although I grew up with kids and families that didn’t look like me or mine, I never felt like an outsider and was always treated like an extended family member.
I had a deep connection to my community through our shared experiences. Being exposed to different ethnicities and cultures at an early age gave me an enormous appreciation for diversity and influenced my ability to connect with people of all colors and walks of life.”
Founder, Creative Director at PATTARAPHAN
“I lived in New York for 5 years and, while I was there, people would often tell me: “You speak English so well!” (it sounds like a compliment but doesn’t feel like it and that’s a whole other topic). But, whenever I’m home in Thailand, I usually randomly have people point out: “You sometimes have an accent when you speak Thai” or “Your Thai isn’t very good.”
This often makes me feel out of place, yet I still somehow feel completely comfortable with my Thai heritage and culture. Being born and raised in Thailand, despite having attended an international school since middle school and completing my bachelor’s degree in the US, I’ve always had a profound connection to my heritage. This connection, with or without an “accent” when I speak Thai, is the core of who I am as a person and as a designer and I consciously create my brand using my personal stories and experience.
Since day one, Thai craftsmanship and heritage have been the DNA of PATTARAPHAN. These values are definitely translated into my designs, making PATTARAPHAN jewelry, although far from traditional Thai jewelry, in sync with the time yet intrinsically Thai.
To me, no matter what society tells you, you are the one who gets to define and redefine your personal relationship with your culture and I am very grateful that I get to do so through my work every single day.”
Co-Founder and Creative Director of 3.1 Phillip Lim and More Than Our Bellies
“I have always been proud to be Asian American, however with the rise in xenophobia and assault on our Asian communities it is apparent that there is still a lot of work to be done. Work not only to be accepted, but to have a permanent seat at the table. Today and everyday, I will continue to use my platform to not only share my culture’s beauty but to lend a voice and take a stand against hate towards all communities.”
Co-Founder of YanYan Knits
“I moved around a lot growing up, and I always felt “othered” outside of Hong Kong, but in Hong Kong I would also get comments that I was too Westernized and not Chinese enough. So I am always trying to find my own connection with my culture, and where I fit in in my community or city.“
Founder of Kulfi Beauty
“I moved to Singapore by myself when I was 17, and then to the US when I was 24. These experiences pushed me to be independent in every aspect of my life. From supporting myself financially to building friendships in new environments; how I define success & happiness for myself shifted. Independent thinking combined with seeking and building communities around shared interests have been assets to me as an entrepreneur.”
“Witnessing the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines unfold has defined my identity and politics. It was a four-day demonstration by the common people that stilled the national army and ousted the dictator Marcos. My parents even took me and my siblings to the demonstration on Edsa. Even as a kid, I saw unchecked greed and injustices that the rich and powerful perpetrate against the poor.”
Hatmaker & Sales Consultant at Binata Millinery
“During my first trip to The Philippines, my parents took me aside and shared their dream for me. It was not to become a doctor or a lawyer, but to start a business to help the community – our community. This was the moment everything clicked, and I felt a sense of pride and purpose.
The Philippines has a rich culture and history, but it is often overlooked in Western cultures, especially when it comes to art and fashion. I have made it my mission to merge my passion to help artisans in my parents’ hometowns.”
Founder and Director at Chop Suey Club
“The last Lunar New Year party we had was a defining moment for me. We didn’t expect over 650 people in attendance and it was such an incredible blast. While we were truly celebrating our Chinese heritage, it was also a very harmonious experience for other BIPOC and non-BIPOC people. I think this experience made me see that when we embrace our own heritage and identity, it can be an inspiration to others in forming their own identities.”
“I was born in New York, but I spent the first 18 years of my life in Hong Kong and the Philippines. I identify much more with being Asian than white, but it’s interesting because I feel like I can never fully claim either completely and I’m always an “other”. It’s not a bad thing, just different.
In Asia, I’m always viewed as more white or mixed, but in America I feel like an immigrant despite being born here and have all the privileges of citizenship and whiteness. I feel like my creative work and the people I choose to work with frequently reflect my background: everything is mixed. There are contrasts and tensions between varying styles, and things are never too perfect.”
Creator and Creative Brand Consultant
“I grew up in a predominantly Asian community in California and a lot of us were first generation. That meant we grew up with similar pressures around academia and success. Not only was this a vital part of my upbringing, but there was also an emphasis at home on ethnic pride and tradition. My parents were constantly educating us through their personal experiences while giving me and my siblings the opportunity to explore different interests so that we could establish our own set of rules for life.”
Founder and Designer of abacaxi
“When I was 17, I went to Argentina as a high school exchange student. For 12 months, I didn’t speak any English and was treated like another daughter by my host family. The community welcomed me very warmly, and for the first time I experienced the feeling of wanting to be heard from.
It may seem strange that it was a novelty to me at the time that my voice could be heard and that people were truly interested in hearing about my family, my culture, and my experiences growing up in the US as an Indian-American.
That adolescent year shaped my outlook very much; I learned so much more about what community and friendship means, what my own personal values were and how I wanted to move about in this world we live in.”
Multimedia Journalist, Director, Co-host of All of the Above
“An experience that shaped my experience was living in Shandong, China with my grandparents between the ages of 2-4. Although born in the US, I lived with my grandparents and then came back to the States not remembering a lick of English.
I had to relearn my ABC’s and adapt to a completely new American school life. This taught me how to be a better listener and ultimately led me wanting to tell stories to give a voice to those unheard. I had felt that way as a child re-adapting to this new environment.”
Editorial Lead, Fine Jewelry and Watches at The RealReal
“Growing up in the incredibly homogenous suburbs of Philadelphia (I was one of two Korean-Americans in my elementary school), I looked forward to my grandparents’ visits from Korea. Not only did they spoil me incessantly as only grandparents can, but my grandfather made it his M.O. to teach me about Korean history and culture.
He carefully sketched images and wrote out key notes as he spoke, and would listen to me parrot back his words in my broken Korean. I loved this time with him, because it gave me context for my identity in a life that did not normally make space for it. I just didn’t see people like me in school, books, magazines or TV. He passed away when I was in high school, but I still remember his stories verbatim.”
Co-Founder of YanYan Knits
“Anytime I’m on holiday longer than 4-5 days I get a little homesick. I will never realize how much I’ll miss Hong Kong until I’m away. So eventually I’d visit Chinatown or try to find some authentic Chinese food, but nothing beats coming home to Hong Kong.”
Fashion Designer, TV Personality aka “FAIRYGOWNMOTHER” on Netflix’s Say I Do
“When I was 18 years old at the Naturalization Citizenship interview, they asked if I wanted to change my first name or add an American first name. I said “No”. That was the first and biggest decision I made towards realizing how important it was to keep my authentic Vietnamese name given to me by my grandmother and my parents.
Thái Nguyễn in Vietnamese. Thai Nguyen in English. Then ‘fashion forward’ now to the age of 40, my name is being recognized on Netflix and many major red carpets.
Most recently, as the first Vietnamese American Fashion Designer dressing a Vietnamese Leading Lady, Kelly Marie Tran at Disney’s premiere of “Raya and the Last Dragon” in an authentic Áo Dài (an iconic Vietnamese traditional outfit) was a dream come true, shaping and defining my identity.”
“I grew up in an all white community and never really felt connected to the Asian community outside of my own family and there weren’t many AAPI people to look up to in popular culture at the time. A few years ago during New York Fashion Week someone came up to me and asked me ‘if I was me’…I thought it was a weird question (haha), and I said yeah.
This person then continued to let me know how much of an inspiration and influence I was to them being an Asian American photographer, and how my success story gave them the confidence to pursue their own creative dreams outside the traditional Asian family norms of working as a Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer.
It was a moment in my life where I realized what I do as a photographer doesn’t really change the world, but who I was as a Photographer can help inspire a younger AAPI generation.”
Content Creator, Brand Consultant, Podcast Host of Vanessa Wants to Know
“I think like many 2nd and 3rd generation Chinese Canadians/Americans, I really only started identifying with my Chinese heritage later in life. I was brought up in a ‘colourless’ world, which can be very damaging and confusing for a child.
I really dove into this in 2019 when I launched my podcast @vanessawantstoknow dedicating the first season to Asian Excellence. I spoke intimately with friends like Phillip Lim (Fashion designer), Michelle Lee (EIC Allure Magazine) et al. about how their Asian-ness shaped their success & who they are today.
It was cathartic not only for me and my guests, but for everyone who tuned in.”
“Going to Bubble_T back in 2017. Little did I know that attending this new queer Asian party in the middle of Bushwick would change my life forever. Entering the world of Bubble_T was the first time in my life I ever felt seen, welcomed, and embraced as a queer and then (pre-transition) gay Asian androgynous and very femme cis-man. Especially because queer spaces for gay Asian cis-men back then were always such toxic places to navigate, but Bubble_T was different.
To have seen so many other queer, gender-nonconforming, and Trans API folks just like me was an eye-opening moment, I no longer felt alone and like an alien in this world. It’s a space where I could just be and exist without explaining or minimizing myself, it was non-judgmental, full of love and so liberating!
This community has since become my home away from home and chosen family here in New York. They made me fall in love with not only NYC again but also myself. I definitely wouldn’t be the Goddexx I am today, thriving and going after my dreams that I once thought “not in this lifetime,” if Bubble_T didn’t exist. So I’ll forever be grateful to the founders Stevie, Nick, Pedro, Karlo and Pauly who I’m so lucky to call my friends and family today.”
Associate Editor, Trending and Viral Features at PopSugar
“I was born in the US, but much of my upbringing was actually spent in Korea, so it wasn’t until I went to college and started working in this country that I really explored and thought critically about my identity as an Asian American.
While I initially went through that familiar phase of wanting to so badly assimilate into American culture, in recent years, sharing stories to uplift the voices in our community and celebrate our differences through my work as a writer and editor has reignited my pride and strengthened my identity as an Asian American.”
Co-Founder and Creative Director at RASTAH
“Coming back to Pakistan after graduating, I started looking at my own country and heritage from an open minded and raw lens. I felt so inspired by the richness of my country’s textiles and artisanal techniques that this feeling inspired the creation of Rastah.
It was hard to come to terms with the fact that for so long I too had succumbed to the affects of our country’s post colonial hangover to the point where I had lost sense of what it meant to be Pakistani. It almost felt like a burden. I feel like ever since Rastah was born I am a lot closer to my roots.”
“This APAHM month, I encourage people to understand that cultural heterogeneity is extremely real amongst Asian people. Of course, there are many interconnected, cultural values like family, morals, religion, migration patterns etc. that connect us. But when celebrating a group and their heritage, it is deeply important to remember when we’re talking about folks who are identified through a continent that has billions of people, thousands of languages, hundreds of ethnicities, and many different religions, that there’s so many different ways and perspectives to truly celebrate what being Asian means.
As a first-generation child particularly, you’re socialized by Western society to believe that if you are non-white or English is not your first language, that you’re perceived as poor, lower income or uneducated. Many of us went through the journey of being ashamed of how our parents speak, how they raised us, how they dress, how they made us dress, or what they do for a living, and my only hope is that through cultivating a deeper understanding from our non-Asian siblings this APAHM month of what it truly means to be Asian and the complexities that come with it, that we have an opportunity to ensure that our next generation has a smaller gap than we had in learning to love ourselves. It will allow them to understand their identities through a lens that is not dictated by whiteness, self-hate, or solely celebrated, understood, and honored for one month.
As we continue the fight for equality, I also encourage everyone in my own community to remember that celebrating our heritage means having important conversations of how we treat one another in our own communities and the people who have been left out of identifying as one of us, like our trans, sex worker, and queer siblings; that our liberation is directly tied to the liberation of Black people, especially in the United States.
Our challenges are not solely showing up in poor policing, or insidious politics or policy, but they show up in our workplaces, our entertainment, our sports, our schools, and in fashion. It shows up everywhere, and it is our responsibility to identify how it looks, no matter what iteration that may be and ensure that we understand the intersectional nature of our collective advancement.”
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