Michelle Li and Gia Vang discuss the impact of #VeryAsian

On celebrating loudly, sparking change and showing up for ourselves and each other

AAJA National
AAJA Defined

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By Daniella Ignacio

Welcome to AAJA Defined, a publication dedicated to highlighting the dazzling array of people who make up our #AAJAFamily. This month, we’re talking to Michelle Li of KSDK and Gia Vang of KARE11: the organizers behind #VeryAsian.

On New Year’s Day 2022, Michelle Li wrapped up a segment on holiday food, during which she said on-air: “I ate dumpling soup. That’s what a lot of Korean people do.” Afterwards, KSDK received a voicemail from a viewer who said Li’s comment was “inappropriate.” The viewer elaborated that Li was “being very Asian” and “annoying.” The caller said if a white anchor said something similar, they’d get fired and Li “can keep her Korean to herself.”

Li posted a video of her reaction to that voicemail on Twitter that day. In the weeks since, a #VeryAsian movement has sparked, with AAPI communities reclaiming those words for ourselves. AAJA Defined caught up with Michelle and Gia to discuss their stories and the wider cultural impact that #VeryAsian has made over the past month. This Q&A is edited for clarity and flow.

I appreciated that you brought your full self and cultural heritage into that New Year’s segment, in a way that many AAPI folks could identify with. It is notable that you said “dumpling soup,” something that has many different iterations within the Asian diaspora. What does it mean for you to show your full humanity and embrace your identity as a Korean American anchor today?

MICHELLE LI (she/her): Embracing and showing my full humanity means feeling pride about every part of me. For many years, I was told I wasn’t enough of something, while, at the same time, told I was too much of something else. I am a transracial adoptee — very few of us are represented in the media or local news. I grew up going to Korean heritage camps, visiting Korea and meeting my birth family. I have done a lot of work for adoption causes and AAPI issues. I feel like I’ve done — and continue to do — hard work over the years to learn and feel good about myself. But at the end of the day, I walk out the door as an Asian woman. It’s how the world sees me, and I am proud to represent AAPI journalists and transracial adoptees.

I think so many people resonate with the #VeryAsian Movement because most of us wear multiple and complex identities. We deserve to be proud of how we exist in the world. If journalists are allowed to do that, we can also cover our communities with more depth and understanding.

“We deserve to be proud of how we exist in the world. If journalists are allowed to do that, we can also cover our communities with more depth and understanding.”

Many people have seen the initial video you posted. What was the moment you first found out about that call like? In that moment of sitting and dealing with this incident, how were you feeling?

MICHELLE: I keep going back to the analogy of tripping, but I’m not sure it’s quite the same. When you trip and fall, you typically laugh it off only to realize later, you’re actually pretty hurt. I felt a wave of emotions. I was shocked at first and laughed it off. I thought it was so unbelievable and comical. But then, a little while later, it felt so heavy. I think that’s how we process heavy things. We internalize all the things we’ve been told about what’s wrong with our race, and I did.

From all the times I was asked to change my name, to the multiple times I was discouraged from pursuing a job because the station “already had one Asian.” Hearing things like, “Minorities only make up three percent of the population, so we don’t have a business model for them” or “Viewers don’t care if you’re the first Asian American anchor because there aren’t enough Asians in the audience to matter” come rushing back into your memory like a tidal wave.

I was again devalued. Yet it’s hardly anything compared to the people who are physically attacked because of the way they look. My dad was worried someone was going to jump me outside of the station.

“When you trip and fall, you typically laugh it off only to realize later, you’re actually pretty hurt.”

Gia, how did you first get involved? Can you talk about the existing relationship between you and Michelle, and how you felt when you first saw Michelle’s post?

GIA VANG (she/her): Michelle and I first connected after the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021. We have kept in touch since and built a connection of sisterhood in being Asian American women and journalists. When Michelle posted the voicemail, my first thought was it was laughable. As it set in, I was hurt right along with her. At that moment, I wanted to reclaim those words the caller had used in a derogatory manner, because my thought was, “What’s so wrong about being very Asian?” I’m so proud of it.

How did the idea and creation of the #VeryAsian apparel campaign come about? What has this collaboration with Michelle, and the outpouring of support from AAPI journalists, been like?

GIA: When I retweeted Michelle’s tweet using the #VeryAsian, she responded by asking if #VeryAsian could be a T-shirt. The response was almost immediate, with a resounding yes from not just me, but what seemed like the rest of the Twitterverse and other social media platforms. We knew we needed to do something good with the momentum. We launched the website on January 4. We honestly had no idea how we’d do. There were a lot of people who said they’d be on board, but would people be willing to put their money where their mouth is? We found out the answer is yes.

It’s been a beautiful part of this whole thing. We have seen AAPI journalists come together to support each other during the two years we’ve seen a rise in anti-Asian hate. Many of us have never met in real life, but there is a connection. And when we turn our anger into celebration of our Asian identity, we do that collectively too. To do it for AAJA, too, is the cherry on top. It’s an organization that has done so much for me since my student member days. I often think I wouldn’t be where I am had there not been AAJA and the many mentors in it.

“We have seen AAPI journalists come together to support each other during the two years we’ve seen a rise in anti-Asian hate. Many of us have never met in real life, but there is a connection.”

What has this movement sparked, and what is the future of #VeryAsian? Any next steps we should know about?

GIA: One of the most amazing things about this is the conversations that are being had. I am proud of the unapologetic celebration of many who inhabit an Asian American body so that the generations to come can see that being very Asian is something to celebrate, and celebrate loudly. That is the kind of world I want to see, one in which celebrating your cultural identity does not diminish another. That we can all live on this earth, see each other fully and say, “Hey, that’s so cool! Tell me more.”

MICHELLE: It’s so weird for me to say it’s become a movement, but others continue to use that language! I hope the future of #VeryAsian is something that will have a lasting impact on the way we acknowledge and share our unique AAPI stories. I’m hoping #VeryAsian can harness some of that Tiger energy beyond the new year.

I also hope #VeryAsian continues to spark change in our newsrooms. KSDK 5 On Your Side and TEGNA have been extremely supportive. I hope it serves as an example for other newsrooms to follow and opens the discussion on how we value AAPI voices in our newsroom.

Liked this piece? Leave claps and share on socials. Be sure to follow AAJA Defined as we continue to chat with AAPI journalists and share their stories.

Daniella Ignacio is the programs and communications coordinator at AAJA. She is based in Washington, D.C. Find her on Twitter.

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AAJA National
AAJA Defined

Empowering Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in journalism, encouraging news diversity.