There’s always something that’s standing in the way
But if you don’t let it faze ya, you’ll know just how to break
Just keep the right vibe, yeah, ’cause there’s no looking back
“Permission to Dance” by BTS
Growing up in New Jersey in the 80s and early 90s, I vividly remember my girl friends fawning over New Kids on the Block with posters all over their lockers of Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight. My little sister’s room plastered with pictures of *NSync and Justin Timberlake. Just like Meilin and her friends in the latest Pixar feature, Turning Red, melting over her favorite boyband 4*Town. One thing was consistent, almost all of the big boybands were all-white. If you had told the 15 year old me, that in someday there would be sold-out football stadiums of screaming and fawning teenage girls (and grown women) of all ethnicities across America, for a Korean boyband who barely spoke English, I would have thought you were insane. And yet, a group of 7 young men from Korea known as BTS have become the most popular music artists in the world. The gatekeepers of American media would never have supported BTS or any other Asian band to the meteoric rise that they have had. But that didn’t stop BTS, because they were so good that they could not be denied. This was the same story for Parasite, a Korean indie film that was the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie was a flawless masterpiece that managed to beat the Hollywood machine and do it with subtitles. Everything we have been told all these years is that there is no market in America for diverse stories or celebrities. It took a small peninsula in Asia to smash that false narrative and open the door for so many others. People care about quality, no matter what color is behind it. BTS and Parasite were so good that they could not be stopped and they didn’t ask for permission or approval to do it. This is a critical lesson for Asian Americans who often seek this permission and approval. We need to break free from this mentality if we want to be seen. It’s not enough to be seen, we want the seat at the table that we rightfully deserve.
Recently, a friend brought an article from Business Insider to my attention. It was about seven “self-made billionaires”. Three of them were Asian, and yet Business Insider chose to feature three photos of the others. Here are the originally featured photos for the article before they changed it and added the following editor’s note “The cover image has been changed to include an image of DoorDash co-founder Andy Fang to better represent the diversity of people on Forbes’ list of billionaires under 30.”:
It was another reminder that the media perpetually makes Asians feel invisible through conscious or unconscious bias. Whether or not this was intentional doesn’t matter, because it happens far too often. This type of subtle exclusion is far more insidious and dangerous than explicit racism, because it rarely gets noticed or called out. For far too long, American media gatekeepers have gotten to decide who gets featured and who doesn’t: Who they choose to put on covers of magazines. Who they choose to interview on television. Who they choose for awards and recognition. Whose stories they choose to tell. Who gets recording contracts and promotion. Thankfully things are changing, whether they like it or not.
The Game Has Changed
Media used to determine who shines but social media has force them to shine the light on us when we shine so bright that they have no choice. The Internet democratized content with YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Now you don’t need to have a casting director or record producer decide if you are worthy of an audience. You can build your own audience and let your talent speak for itself. For the longest time, network television wouldn’t cast many Asian actors because they thought there was no demand. Ryan Kaji of Ryan’s World proved them wrong on YouTube by amassing huge audiences and views. Ryan has been called the Boy King of YouTube by the New York Times and has amassed 31 million subscribers and close to 50 billion video views. Network execs would have never guessed a Japanese-Filipino American boy would be the most watched kid in America. They fall into the trap of “pattern matching” which is code for: stick with what’s safe and maintain the status quo. This happens in every industry unfortunately and is an extremely dangerous form of perpetuating and reinforcing conscious bias.
Streaming video has forever altered the media landscape. The competition for endless content among streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Hulu has created demand for more stories and productions. This has allowed for more diverse audiences to be served with relevant content. Netflix was at the forefront and obtained the rights to international television shows including Korean drama series. What they didn’t expect was that one of those Korean shows would become a worldwide crossover phenomenon and the most watched show in Netflix history: Squid Game. It was proof again that the audience didn’t care about race or language, they just wanted good stories.
Black Panther has one of the best stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Everything from the story to the acting to the costumes to the directing made it a massive worldwide blockbuster. No one in Hollywood expected Ryan Coogler’s masterpiece with an almost entirely black-cast would break records the way it did (it was still the top grossing solo film after the Avengers ensemble series until Spider-man: No Way Home last year). But Marvel had to go through 8 other white male Marvel heroes before Black Panther was made (and that includes Ant-Man!). If it wasn’t for the success of Black Panther, it is unlikely that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would never have been made. It made more than Captain America, Thor (1 & 2), Black Widow and Ant-Man (1 & 2). The success of Black Panther and Shang-Chi demonstrates that people want good stories, despite Hollywood wanting us to believe that fans just care about “big name actors.”
In the past, anytime an Asian American project was announced or premiering, the community would cross their fingers and pray that it wouldn’t suck. Phil Yu, better known as Angry Asian Man refers to it as the “rep sweats” for the anxiety that a project represents us well, otherwise we may not see another for years. This fear is justified since it would take over 20 years for another Asian family to get a prime time network television show after All American Girl with Margaret Cho was cancelled by ABC. But since the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians, more Asian American projects have been greenlit than I can recall in my lifetime. In the past month alone, we have seen the first Pixar feature directed by an Asian American woman in Turning Red about a Chinese Canadian girl, Everything Everywhere All at Once about a Chinese immigrant family who runs a laundromat, Umma about a Korean mother and daughter haunted by the matriarch’s ghost, Bridgerton season 2 features the South Asian Sharma sisters in a British period drama, and Pachinko tells the generational stories of a Korean family. When I was a child I would desperately scour television shows for anyone who looked like me, and now my kids are able to watch Fresh Off the Boat or Never Have I Ever and not think twice about it. Being able to see yourself represented on screen is more impactful than you realize when it happens.
So Pursue Your Dreams
A recent TikTok of a Vietnamese woman named Kaitlynn Bu telling her parents that she wants to major in art is going viral with 7 million views to date. Her mother responds that she is too short and small and has “nothing in comparison to others.” Her father goes on to say that she needs to “stop dreaming” and “live with the reality.” This conversation is painfully all-too-familiar for many children of Asian immigrants. Our parents gave up so much to come to this country and suffered to give us a better life. They want the best for us and that means a life with security and comfort. We know that in some twisted way, this is how they show love to us. And we in turn, raised in cultures of filial piety, feel an indebtedness to honor them by fulfilling their dreams for us. But those dreams are rarely our dreams, even if we were programmed to believe they are.
Simu Liu has not been shy about sharing his personal journey from reluctantly becoming an accountant for his parents and getting fired from Deloitte. While it wasn’t easy, and he had to model for stock photos and dress up as Spider-Man for birthday parties, he would go on to star in a hit Canadian television series, Kim’s Convenience, and shoot his shot with Marvel to land the starring role of Shang-Chi, the first Asian American superhero featured in the MCU. He recently presented an award at the Academy Awards and is starring alongside the likes of Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in a live-action Barbie movie and Mark Wahlberg in Arthur the King.
Even those who have taken the path their parents wanted for them or that they thought they wanted for themselves, harnessed their gifts and talents for something they were more passionate about like writing. Min Jin Lee attended Yale and Georgetown Law, only to write two New York Times bestsellers and a National Book Award finalist in Pachinko, which is now an adapted series on Apple TV+. Charles Yu graduated from Berkeley with a degree in molecular and cell biology (likely pre-med) and Columbia Law School and worked at a top law firm, before writing short stories and two novels, the second of which he won the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown. Abigail Hing Wen went to Harvard and Columbia Law School and spent two decades working in law and venture capital before writing the young adult series Loveboat, Taipei that is being adapted into a Lionsgate film. Eric Lu graduated from Harvard and Harvard Medical School and is now a writing his third season for the Fox television series The Resident. By all accounts, these writers had perfect resumes that would make any parent proud. There are countless examples of obedient children who honored their immigrant parents dreams for them, but realized later in life that they had different aspirations of their own. Imagine if they had nurtured these gifts early on in life and had those years back to write.
I personally have experienced this myself. I spent my youth jumping through achievement hoop after hoop to please my parents: Ivy league college, working at big name tech companies like Apple and Yahoo!, getting my MBA from Stanford. I jumped through these hoops only to find that I was always unfulfilled on the other side and left thinking fulfillment would come with the next hoop. It wasn’t until I started my first company that I found what I loved. My mom was not pleased with me leaving the path I was on. She still worries about me to this day, but that’s what moms do, no matter what path you are on. Now I’m investing in the next generation of Asian American founders through Hyphen Capital. I can relate with many of my founders who have parents who are disappointed in their life choice and some have even been disowned by their parents. Ultimately, these are our lives to live and our successes and failures to own. Otherwise they will be our regrets that will haunt us as well.
I am a firm believer that we need stop believing the myth that effort leads to outcomes. Instead we need to build our own houses. Don’t wait for someone else to approve of you. We need to leverage our networks to succeed because success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It may be terrifying to take that leap of faith, but it will be the best thing you will ever do for yourself, even if you fail. If you depend on someone else to determine how high you can go, you will never find out for yourself. Asian Americans have gone on to start their own successful companies, law and venture capital firms, hedge funds, production companies, design studios and more. They have gone on to build restaurant empires, write bestselling novels, and even become the mayor of Boston. Don’t let someone else tell you what you can and can’t do, even if they’re your parents. You and you alone can hold you back.
Invest in the Future You Want to See
In the 1980s, the Korean government lifted a ban on foreign travel for Korean nationals. This allowed Koreans to explore the world and many pursued education in the West. They would return to Korea with new perspectives on business and popular culture. In 1996, the Korean constitutional court banned censorship on artists and filmmakers for controversial content. This opened up a whole generation of bold and creative ideas expressed cinema and music. The Korean government is one of the only countries in the world that has a Ministry of Culture. One division of the ministry, the Popular Culture Industry Division that is focused on pop music, film, television, fashion, and three other divisions known as the Cultural Content Office have a budget of $5.5 billion! The Korean government sponsors $200–300M of a $1 billion investment fund also backed by investment banks and private companies. The goal of the fund is to nurture and export Korean popular culture which has created this “Hallyu Wave”. The government sees the investment fund as a way to “promote the nation’s soft power.”
Despite the popular success and adoration of Korean pop culture exports, there has been an increasing wave of hate crimes against Asians that has frustrated and demoralized many in our communities, because we feel helpless to stop random attacks from happening. Changing perceptions is a long game. It takes time, but it also takes planning and investment. The Hallyu Wave from Korea did not happen overnight. Seeds were planted over the past several decades and nurtured by supporters and investors to grow into the fruits we are seeing today. Korea is a country of 52 million people on a peninsula in Asia that is exporting content that isn’t even in English. Let that sink in. Korea has built up its global standing and power without having to saber rattle or build up arms the way neighboring countries have had to do. Instead they have built soft power through winning over the hearts and minds of people internationally with its songs and stories. Who needs an army with nukes when you have the BTS army? Have you seen them annihilate haters without mercy on Twitter?
We need to change our mentality from short-term investing for financial ROI into long-term investing for social ROI.
If Asian Americans want to see real change, we need to invest in more high quality, impact projects and support creators, artists and community leaders. We need to invest in non-profits like The Asian American Education Project that promote teaching Asian American history in schools and museums like the Museum of Chinese in America and Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. We need to invest in projects that tell our stories. That’s why I helped produce 38 at the Garden, a documentary film on HBO that celebrates Jeremy Lin’s legendary night at Madison Square Garden ten years ago but also contrasts it with the current anti-Asian climate. We need to invest in scholarships for young creatives who can’t afford the proper training or whose parents may not be supportive of their dreams. We need to mentor young professionals and founders on how to navigate company politics and fundraising. We need to donate to candidates who can represent us and fight for us in government.
Our parents raised us to be extremely conservative with our money, so we’re used to investing in real estate and mutual funds. But just as we need to take risks with our careers, we need to be willing to take risks with our money. We need to change our mentality from short-term investing for financial ROI into long-term investing for social ROI. Put your money and time into projects and causes that you can be proud of that you believe can have positive social impact. It doesn’t have to be about financial investment, you could open doors with your network or volunteer your time. Don’t just think about your bank account, think about the future we build for our kids and grandkids.
If Korea can produce the Best Picture winner, most watched show in Netflix history and the biggest band since the Beatles in America, just imagine what is possible. If you’re a parent and your child doesn’t want to be an engineer or a doctor, but instead wants to be a professional athlete, comedian, mayor, chef, writer or actor, support and encourage them, because they just might become the next Jeremy Lin, Ali Wong, Michelle Wu, David Chang, Min Jin Lee or Simu Liu. Growing up, we didn’t have names and faces to fill those gaps, but now we do. Let’s invest our time and money in making it the norm and not the exception. Like BTS and Parasite, we need to be so good that we can’t be denied. We won’t wait to be given our seat at the table, we will take it.
Please check out the book Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now which thoroughly goes through the past three decades of AAPI representation in media and the impact it has had on the community. We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we came from.