The internal struggles and “in-betweenness” of the Asian American identity are progressively becoming a mainstream topic. Learning how to embrace all aspects of one’s heritage can be intimidating for modern Asian American Women, but it is the mission of some community leaders to let know other AAPI women that they don’t have to be alone.
ACMA’s Executive Director has spoken to two influential Asian American Women who help others discover and embrace their identity and accept their past to inspire their future. Wendy Kim, author and speaker, and Dr. Marissa Pei, known as the “Asian Oprah”, share their insight on being Asian American Women who specialize in using New Media to empower others.
This conversation comes from our E4Women in Media Webinar and Panel Discussion from August 27th, 2020, which you can watch on YouTube. If you’d like to join us for our next E4Women event, visit our Webinars page for more information and updates.
Cathlyn: How has your chosen media field impacted you as a person in regards to feeling self-empowered in creating equality in the workforce as an Asian woman?
Marissa Pei: Two things. One, you know, traditionally with Asian woman stereotype: don’t be out in front, don’t be loud, don’t be too much. When I used to date, a white guy would usually say, “I’ve always wanted to date an Asian woman” and I would say, “I’m not cookin’ for you, I’m not cleaning for you, and I’m not walkin’ on your back unless it’s with high heels”. So the first part of the answer is getting through the cultural. and even though I was born in Canada, and I don’t appear very Asian in the way that I speak or dress or whatever it is, I still have those roots. And I always saw my mom–me speaking on stage is like being a stripper. So I had to get over my whole Asian background–very strong culture. And then number two, I’m super self-critical. I’m a recovering perfectionist. And so, what I had to do is–there’s an African saying that says, when there is no enemy within, then nothing outside can hurt you. So I had to get to a place where I was okay with whatever I said after preparation, after practicing, and then get comfortable being less critical of myself. And things take time, and with those two natural barriers, you just, Gospel according to Nike–Just Do It.
Wendy: I think growing up, I followed Oprah and always admired Oprah, thinking I wanted to be Oprah, but I didn’t see any Asian women doing that. So, a lot of my childhood growing up, I thought maybe a White or Black woman could do that, but not me. I should go the traditional practical path because that’s what I’ll be able to do. But thankfully, overtime, with things like podcasting and social media, I realized I could start my own podcast. I could speak to people whether it’s through Facebook or Instagram live. I could interview people and share my voice and the voices of other women of color. So I think, previously, and even now, there are not a lot of podcast hosts that are people of color, women of color, and especially Asian American women. And hopefully, through forums like this, that will change.
Cathlyn: As we are well aware, there are a lot of Asian women out there who often find themselves struggling with self-identity issues. What advice would you give those who experience this often self-described “in-betweenness”?
Wendy: Yeah, I can relate to that. I’m actually biracial. My father is German and I’m Korean. I lived in Pittsburgh until I was 11, and I was the only Asian. So, I definitely didn’t feel like I belonged. Then I moved to Hawaii, which is primarily Asian, and there I wasn’t Asian enough. I was the “weird Asian” because I would raise my hand and answer the teacher’s questions and things like that. I think, especially in the past coming from being Asian American and from an immigrant background, I know I wanted to assimilate. I didn’t want to learn about my Korean culture or eat the Korean food in front of my white friends, stuff like Kimchi–but that’s changed, hopefully! But over time, with everything we’re talking about, I look at my daughter who is Korean-American, and she’s so proud of being Korean-American. She’s proud of the food. She watches Kim’s Convenience and We Bare Bears. She tells all her White and Hispanic friends, who all watch these shows. It’s a very different world, and I think the thing that I’ve been doing is studying more about my Korean background–even Korean spiritual practices. I knew nothing about that growing up. I was never encouraged to learn about Korean culture, I was only encouraged to learn about American culture, which of course we know as the White culture. The more we can do to learn about our roots and embrace that, and see it as a gift we can share with the American society, then we can be happier in who we are.
Marissa: It is actually a pretty strong question. I was brought up in Canada, in a very small town, so I was very much Chinese-Japanese…I was embarrassed about being Chinese. People would ask me if I was Hawaiian and I would say “Yes”, and that was outside of the home. Inside of the home, Chinese are very known as the most Asian parents–tough, you know, Tiger Mom. I was told I was fat, ugly, and clumsy my entire life in order for me not to be–it’s that negative motivation. And so for any child, or any young woman, who is Asian, right now, the media is not a supported field. For a traditional Chinese, you’re not a doctor, lawyer, or scientist, you’re in media. So that’s one thing…the ability to be okay even if there is no approval on the inside, then be okay if there is no approval on the outside.
I would look a child in the eye and I would say you can do ANYTHING you put your heart and mind to because I wasn’t given that. I wasn’t told that. But my math teacher in grade 10, he knew something was wrong, and he had me stay after class and he said those words to me, and it completely changed the trajectory of my life. We are loving, loveable, and loved exactly as we are.”
Cathlyn: If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Wendy: Make lots of mistakes. For a lot of Asians, our culture is very much about achievement and perfection. When you’re afraid to make mistakes, you play it safe and don’t take risks. You miss out on so many amazing opportunities. You miss out on really being able to accept yourself even when you do make mistakes.
Marissa: What people think of you is none of your business. what you think of yourself is the most important thing. If I can feel worthy in and of myself, and feel like I’m wrapped in a warm blanket of enough-ness, then that’s all that matters. So finding that part of me that is, one-of-a-kind wonderful.