How a Racist Insult Inspired the Very Asian Foundation

Michelle Li is an award-winning journalist and news anchor in St. Louis, Missouri. She was born in South Korea, adopted as a baby, and became a documented immigrant in the U. S. She didn’t follow any traditions for New Year’s Day — from the U.S. or Korea — so, when she was given a story about foods eaten on New Year’s (pork for progress, greens for wealth and cornbread for coins), she added that she ate rice cake soup (Duk Guk) with a dumpling because that’s what a lot of Korean people do. She got a few compliments from people related to Koreans and the moment felt very inclusive. Then she received one voice mail criticizing her for being “Very Asian.” The woman said that Michelle should keep her Korean to herself. Michelle was stunned. This was a 20-second story with a one-sentence adlib. She was shocked anyone was even watching on New Year’s Day.

Michelle said, “I shared myself listening to the voice mail and it went crazy viral. People started using #VeryAsian to share their family pictures, cultural traditions….and backgrounds.” She heard from adoptees, half-Asians, quarter-Japanese, which she says is important for her as the mother of a mixed-race son. She tells him that there are variations of being very Asian and instead of being half this or part that, you need to be a whole person. When #VeryAsian went viral, they raised money for the Asian American Journalists Association, which fights for equity in newsrooms and keeps track of bad headlines. Ultimately, Michelle, and fellow journalist, Gia Vang co-founded the Very Asian Foundation to encompass the whole world–Asian-Canadians, Asian-Australians, and Asian-Americans–“to advocate for our full humanity” and “celebrate that we have a right to be who we are.”

Suicide Is #1 Cause of Death for Asian-American Youth.

Michelle said that the belief of the COVID origination and political rhetoric that followed gave people permission, not only to say hateful things to Asians, but also emboldened them to act in unthinkable ways. She notes one teenage boy in Texas who was stabbed in the face at the grocery store. The result was that teens were making suicide plans during the pandemic and the CDC reported that suicide is the number one cause of death for Asian-American youth. In response a small group of students in St. Louis created a book list for school libraries for Asian-American students and distributed it to ten schools. No schools adopted the list, but something needed to be done to protect the children from becoming victims. Michelle’s gift is listening and responding with positive action, and she received the cry for help loud and clear.

The May Book Project

Since her skill is highlighting stories as a journalist, Michelle looked for ways to do that with the foundation. After #VeryAsian went viral in January, she was meeting with student groups from coast-to-coast. The students were talking about “how many young people felt invisible in their schools and how that made them feel with the dual existence of being hyper visible in their communities.” She said that when a teenager opens up to tell you they have suicide plans, you need to listen. She gathered scholars who knew about young people’s literature and created a vetted book list for young people of Asian descent. Michelle says that it’s important not to have only mythical folklore stories, but real modern-day stories with protagonists who just happen to be Asian. Since May is Asian-American Heritage Month, (including Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians), they titled it The May Book Project. She said the scholars also created “a rubric for librarians to give them an academic approach to building diverse libraries.” She said they were very careful about creating the list since many schools are banning books. The free resource the May Book Project offers to school libraries is also being promoted by student ambassadors who are doing book drives and asking their libraries to buy books from the list.

Michelle is also writing a series of cookbooks for children. Her first book, A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food, will be released soon from Gloo Books.

Listen to or watch Michelle’s interview for more of her story and how we need to celebrate who we are. Check out the Very Asian Foundation website to learn more, see Michelle’s voice mail story and buy a Very Asian t-shirt.

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