PROVIDENCE — Growing up, Michelle Liu would feel inferior when she heard her mom speaking to a store cashier in broken English. She remembers wishing she was white when she mispronounced a word and people would chuckle at her.
She was born in America, and her parents, who immigrated from China nearly three decades ago, taught her not to challenge the status quo or speak of her race-related qualms.
“My own parents try to keep our race on the ‘down low.’ They say to me, ‘There’s no need to be so open about it,’ ” she said. “It’s part of the Asian immigrant community’s mentality around gratitude, that you don’t want to challenge even the slightest inequalities that might be present in our lives.”
Now a Brown University student, Liu said she is working to foster pride instead of shame in her own identity as an Asian American. She and two other first-generation Asian American women, students at Brown and Columbia University, founded Red Envelope Stories this past winter.
In Chinese culture, the color red symbolizes good luck and prosperity; gifts of money are often given in red envelopes on special occasions. At Red Envelope Stories, the gifts are personal stories that grapple with “modern Asian diasporic identity.”
“The words are all so familiar, but feel so foreign when they come out of my mouth.”
Liu points out that in the United States, Asians are often called the “model minority,” something she said is like being considered “honorary white.” But that privilege is relative to other races, and it doesn’t mean Asian Americans feel equal.
“Being ‘honorary white’ sometimes means we’re seen as highly successful, upper middle class with high levels of education,” she said. “But when we take away levels of education, Asian Americans are actually more likely to be in a working class. There’s some of the greatest wealth disparities within the Asian American population. It’s not a broad brushstroke.”
“I’m seen for my race above anything else,” she said. “I can be a Brown University student or a professor, but if I walk out onto the street, I will first and foremost be seen as an Asian and could still be attacked for that . . . It took until this past year with the coronavirus pandemic for non-Asians to really see how prevalent that is.”
Red Envelope Stories offers a weekly newsletter with three 150-word stories from other Asian Americans. Each story centers on a seasonal theme and central question about food, interracial relationships, family, stereotypes, college admissions, and other topics.
Liu describes it as an “easy way to get your weekly dose of real Asian narratives in a world saturated with misrepresentation and stereotypes.”
“These stories really capture specific issues. It’s not just sweeping generalizations like ‘I hate my culture, and now I love it.’ The stories are raw, and the people writing them are really allowing themselves to be vulnerable,” Liu said in a recent interview.
Liu said the stories are not just what people think of as “traditional Asian American stories,” but also the intersectionality of Asian people in America, as well as other parts of the world. She said that she’s had someone in the US Army write in recently, discussing how they are transgender and Asian American. She said others discuss the true lives of Vietnamese nail salon workers and Filipino health care workers, what their backgrounds are and what their life stories are, instead of sweeping generalizations.
"I'm in love with defying stereotypes to the point that I worry I lose myself."
San Francisco, CA
“Up until now, I associated a lot of my experiences with shame,” she said. Beauty standards anchored in whiteness, cultural quirks that friends don’t understand, and casual race-based jokes reinforce that feeling of shame. “It just all builds up over time to make you not address your own identity.”
“It’s hard to unlearn what has been ingrained in you and the shame that you felt your entire life so far. It wasn’t until recently that I started that unlearning journey,” Liu said. “But I really think a platform like this, that will give you that push, will help.”
“It’s OK to be Asian. It’s OK to be different,” she added. “And seeing it as a source of strength rather than any flaw.”
"Hopefully, my Chinese New Year call with YeYe can last four minutes this time around."
I’ve never been super close to my YeYe (or any of my grandparents for that matter), but I feel overwhelmingly guilty that I can’t hold a real conversation with him. Aside from a couple of basic English words, he only speaks Mandarin Chinese. You would assume that I can as well, given that both my parents also speak it, but you’d be wrong. I picked up more Spanish in 3 years of high school instruction than I did Chinese across 8 years of weekend school. Embarrassing.
I don’t know why I resisted it for so long, but I finally came around to learning Chinese seriously - perhaps I’ve just realized that it’s for my own good to be able to communicate with my YeYe before it’s too late. Either way, I’ll be enrolling in a beginner’s Chinese course next semester to pick up where I left off since my last official Mandarin class in 2015. Hopefully, my Chinese New Year call with YeYe can last 4 minutes this time around.
“When my parents first immigrated here from China, they had less than $500 in their pockets,” Liu said. “My mom recently sent me a picture of our tiny two-bedroom apartment my parents, sister, and I shared with my grandparents that was just so small. And now my parents have a whole house right outside of Princeton, New Jersey. But they worked hard to get there.”
“My dad didn’t feel like he could pursue his passions. He sucked it up, went into computer science and waited tables at a Chinese restaurant for a while because that’s what made the money he needed to support us,” she continued. “That’s normal within Asian culture: pursue what will lead to monetary success and put aside your passions. Me going into sociology and statistics is making my parents really worried because they have this image of success in America that’s just working for a tech company.”
Mental health is often not addressed in many Asian cultures, and conversations around social issues are scarce. But issues of racism and emotional wellbeing need to be addressed, Liu said.
“The complacency trap that we Asian Americans fall into needs to stop. It’s my generation’s job to challenge our parent’s notions,” she said. “The status quo isn’t enough. Our experiences are not all the same, either. We are different, and that’s a beautiful thing. And we are more than our race.”