“Hi, this evening your Asian anchor mentioned something about being Asian and Asian people eat dumplings on New Year’s Day and, um, I kind of take offense to that because what if one of your white anchors said well white people eat this on New Year’s Day?” the viewer said, in part. “I don’t think it was appropriate that she said that and she’s being very Asian and I don’t know …
“She can keep her Korean to herself.”
That was the message an angry woman left on a voice mail for Michelle Li, a former WISC-TV news anchor in Madison who is now an anchor at NBC affiliate KSDK of St. Louis, after she reported on a story about New Year’s foods and had listed black-eyed peas, pork, greens and cornbread as foods that are believed to bring good luck. She added to her report, “I ate dumplings, too. That’s what a lot of Korean people do.”
The angry message above wasn’t the first one for Li, who is Korean American. She has gotten messages like this before and experienced this kind of discrimination. As an adopted child from South Korea raised by two white parents in Missouri, she has faced her share of racism and discrimination. This message from this woman, to kick off 2022, brought her back to those times.
“It reminded me of being young. It really compounds all of these feelings and experiences you’ve had. It really just took me to some places that I haven’t been in a while,” Li tells Madison365. “It was a shock at first. How crazy is this? Just like everything – you’re shocked at first, you shake it off and then you really start dissecting it and internalizing it … which is what happened for me.
“It ended up being deeply troubling to me because I was like, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ Even if I wanted to be ‘less Asian’ or ‘less Korean’ … how would I do that? You really start internalizing everything. I think a lot of people can relate to this, Asian or not.”
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) January 3, 2022
Li had recently moved back to the St. Louis area (after spending time in Seattle after her time in Madison) because she wanted to be closer to her father after her mother died.
“It’s been a year of grief and processing and transition for me with my mom dying suddenly. It’s been really tough. The weight of everything felt so heavy,” Li says. “And when that call came in, I thought to myself, ‘Is this my future here in Missouri? Is this what I’m going to have to live with? Is this the future my son will have, too?’
“All of these things going on just compounded and my thoughts were really heavy when I went to bed that night,” she adds.
But soon that negative hateful energy of the caller would turn into something powerfully positive and amazing.
Li posted a video on social media showing her listening to the voice mail, and within a day, she would help make the hashtag #VeryAsian — from the caller lamenting that “she’s being very Asian” — a trending topic on social media and used by people from all around the world in a positive and uplifting way. It was not just a giant wave of support from the Asian American community, but from everybody.
— Ken Jeong (@kenjeong) January 2, 2022
“The #VeryAsian hashtag started with a friend of mine, [KARE 11 Minneapolis news anchor] Gia Vang, whom I’ve known through years connecting through journalism. She shared some Hmong food and shared the hashtag #VeryAsian. A lot of journalists started tweeting it,” Li remembers. “By the time [former NBA basketball player and social media influencer] Rex Chapman retweeted it, I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ At that point, I was like, ‘oh, gosh. I think this is going to be a thing.’
— Gia Vang (@Gia_Vang) January 2, 2022
“I was in total disbelief. It was amazing. Because not only did St. Louis show up, but the world showed up,” Li continues. “I had messages from Korea and have done a couple interviews for Korean TV and radio. I’ve had messages from Australia, the UK. George Takei tweeted it, Margaret Cho, Dr. Ken Jeung, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.
She was featured in national articles in CNN, The Washington Post, Newsweek and more. It ended up being a really excited 24 hours for Li … and then some.
“After all that, I can take a bad phone call. There are people who go through much worse,” she says. “There are actually people who get assaulted or worse because of racism.”
Li says she doesn’t want the woman who made the call to lose her job or her livelihood because of this.
“We can move on without her. We can keep focusing on the positive,” she says. “People have started sharing their own pride stories and their own ‘other’ stories and all of these great things. They have turned what she said into something very positive.”
The Internet is now full of family pictures and food pictures and celebration pictures titled #VeryAsian.
“We have reclaimed the negativity and are making it into something very positive and powerful,” Li says. “Who gets to say that?”
Even people who are not Asian are sharing their stories because of the hashtag.
“Those stories have been so beautiful. What happened really moved them, too. Even though it’s #VeryAsian, it also feels very universal,” Li says. “I had someone who told me, ‘I’m a 75-year-old gay Black man and this really spoke to me’ or ‘I’m a Jewish woman and I could really feel this.’ It’s been so beautiful.”
Li and Vang have launched a website, www.veryasian.us, where people can purchase #VeryAsian themed t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and other merchandise with proceeds benefitting the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA).
Li, who was an anchor at WISC-TV in Madison before moving to Seattle and then recently back home to her native St. Louis, still has a big following in the Madison area. It is a city where she says she has “nothing but fond memories.”
“I miss Madison. We are going to make a trip up there this summer and we are so excited about coming back. I still talk to so many people in Madison. It’s by far one of the best places we ever lived,” Li says. “Madison allowed both my husband and I to dream for ourselves. And I just felt so loved by the community.
“We really like that people in Madison are so innovative and progressive and friendly. To us, it opened our eyes to what we wanted in our lives. It’s such a beautiful city.”