On New Year’s Day, a Korean American news reporter named Michelle Li presented a quick and lighthearted piece on the traditional foods that Americans would be enjoying over the holiday to celebrate the hope and promise of a fresh new start. She spoke of greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and pork and what they symbolized: wealth, luck, gold, and progress. She then added her personal note: “I ate dumpling soup, that’s what a lot of Korean people do.”
The news channel received a voicemail from a woman complaining that she didn’t think that it was appropriate for the Asian reporter to have said what she said about dumplings, that she was being “very Asian,” and that she can “keep her Korean to herself.” The caller said she was offended and that a white anchor would not have been able to say what white people ate on New Year’s Day.
In this short message, the caller revealed so much about the inherent racism in our country as she spoke from her pedestal of white supremacy. The majority of the piece had not at all been about what Asian people eat, but rather, the reporter had been painting a picture of what Americans as a whole eat, based on survey responses that the network had received. Li's personal comment about dumpling soup was a simple statement, something anchors often add in at the end of their reporting, to create a feeling of conversational banter and camaraderie. The moment was nothing out of the ordinary, but for the more than usual visibility of Asian representation seen in the Asian American anchor herself and in the mention of an Asian food.
The fact that such an innocuous subject - that of food - in such an inoffensive setting - the end of a newscast often known as the fluff piece - could elicit such an off-base and racist response is deeply revealing of the way racism continues to pervade our country. This incident is a perfect example of what Asians have been subjected to since we first started immigrating here. Broadly speaking, racism against Asians has not been as blatant or as violent as it has been for the Black and Brown communities, although it feels important to note that there has been a 339% increase of anti-Asian hate crimes over the last year. Ultimately, all acts of racism are a critical part of the story of injustice in America.
What I love and feel so proud of is the way that Li responded. She posted a video of herself listening to the voicemail, saying nothing except through her expressions. The video went viral and a community organically grew around #VeryAsian. People were sharing the ways they, too, were Very Asian. The prevailing mood was of banding together in Asian identity and appreciation rather than in attacking or shaming the caller. The levity of the subject matter - dumplings - made it easier to keep things somewhat funny while calling out that what the caller had said was not okay. The collective response was that while we’re no longer surprised by these subtly racist comments, we’re also no longer going to quietly stand by.
In a matter of days, Li launched very-asian.com, selling #VeryAsian sweatshirts to raise money and awareness to Stop AAPI Hate. I quickly bought a couple for my son and myself, which was a good move as they sold out instantly.
Our sweatshirts arrived just in time for Lunar New Year.
Ryker is very aware of racism, George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter. Since he was very young, I have made the effort to explain skin color to him. We have never been a family that tried to pretend like we did not see skin color. Even if we wanted to pretend, it would not be possible as my husband and I look completely different and, well, Ryker has eyes. When George Floyd was murdered, Ryker asked many questions and I did my best to answer them. We are also really fortunate to be in a school that teaches a true picture of history and current events. As a 1st grader, Ryker made Black Lives Matter signs with his best buddy and protested in our neighborhood.
It’s been harder to explain anti-Asian racism to Ryker, for many reasons. As I mentioned before, anti-Asian racism has not been as visible. I also don’t want to conflate it with the Black or Brown experience. But it’s important for him to know because it is part of his story. Even though he is both of the majority and of the minority, and his own identity and affiliation may not yet be clear to himself, he will never be viewed as a white person. He does not fully understand this, sometimes asking me, “What color is my skin?” For the sake of simplicity, I point out that he looks more like Mommy (Asian) than like Daddy (white) and that is what other people are going to see. But he is not either / or; he is both.
The morning of Lunar New Year, I showed him his new sweatshirt. He immediately thought it was cool because he likes hoodies and he likes dumplings. He knows what “Asian” means, but he asked, “Why does it say Very Asian?”
I relayed to him the news story and the message from the caller. He, rightfully, screwed up his face and said, “Why would someone get mad about someone else saying they ate dumplings?”
“Exactly! That’s the point!”
“Dumplings are delicious,” he said matter of factly.
“I know, but, some people have never tried dumplings before and they just assume that it is weird because it is something different. They are more comfortable talking about foods they’re familiar with like bread or roast turkey.”
“But they shouldn’t just think something is bad without even trying it. Maybe someone should give that person some dumplings.”
“That’s a good idea. That’s why this sweatshirt has an image of dumplings, see? And today is a great day to wear this and be proud of the fact that you are Asian. I’m sure you’ll talk about Lunar New Year in school.”
“Oh yeah! My teacher said some people will be bringing in some snacks to celebrate.”
“It’s important to be talking about all of this. It all ties into the fact that all people are equal, regardless of the color of our skin or what foods we eat.”
“Yeah! Nobody is better than anyone else.”
“But…” long sigh, “Mommy?”
“Now I’m really hungry for dumplings.”