“Where are you really from?“
“Wow! You speak such fluent English.“
“So, what’s your real name?“
I’ve been asked these questions all my life.
Last week’s news about the murder of six Asian women by a mass shooter in Atlanta has really shaken me to the core. The gunman had targeted Asian spas, killing eight innocent people. When I first heard, I immediately called my partner Travis, then my mom. It’s the first thing we do in moments of crisis: you go to your loved ones and make sure they’re okay. None of us were okay.
I was really struck by the thought that we were better than this. A naive part of me thought we had made more progress. I was shocked and scared. I thought of my elderly parents and my uncles and aunties. The first instinct is to protect the ones you love… then you get angry. How can we stop this? I can’t help but think: what’s my part in this?
To be transparent, it’s taken me a week to really process everything. And of course, no one is ever “done” processing racism. I’m reeled back into the plethora of emotions each time the aggression of hate is made against my AAPI community.
As an interior designer with a background as a therapist, I have always wanted to inspire people to feel safe in their spaces. But getting to a place of safety means speaking up, setting boundaries, and seeking change. This is an emotional and isolating time not only for me but the entire AAPI community, and we need all the support we can get.
Growing Up As An Asian-American
My parents came to the U.S. as exchange students in the 1960’s from Taiwan straight to Arkansas. In recounting her time in Arkansas, my mom very matter of factly told us that her host family asked her to do their laundry by hand and it was without pay.
It wasn’t always easy for my sister and me growing up in our neighborhood in the 80s and 90s, either. Even a simple thing like a school lunch could be a source of stress. Because our parents were first-generation, we often did not have the same lunches as our peers. Our friends may have had peanut butter and jelly while we had char sui in a bun. One time my sweet grandma attempted to make a sandwich with peanut butter and lettuce. We wanted the traditional American lunch so badly, mostly to stop the daily questions and teasing from everyone around us. The need to belong was so intense, especially at such an early age.
My mother and grandmother were wonderful in empowering us as females and they were strong role models for us. But it was harder for them to relate to our identity crisis of being American-born living a very different culture at home than at school or the homes of our friends. Learning to embrace both cultures took time and many ups and downs for us to land in an emotionally balanced place.
Dismantling The “Model Minority” Myth
Most older Asian Americans feel pressure to be the “model minority.” As a result, they raised their children like me to uphold that value. There’s an unspoken pressure to be perfect: to try to fit in.
We’re often taught that if we keep our heads down and work hard, it’ll pass. Society isn’t used to Asian Americans speaking up. But now is the time to amplify the AAPI community. We need to be heard, seen, and respected.
I am committed to unlearning the harmful myth that I need to be silent and obedient. In my own way, I’ve stopped being a “model minority.” I don’t think I would have gotten this far in my career if I hadn’t overcome the perfectionism that keeps you playing small.
As I began to pursue my passion for interior design, I quickly realized I was once again needing to find my voice. It was starkly clear that my physical appearance was very different from the majority of designers in the interior design world. And that I would have to work a lot harder to prove myself in the industry.
In the beginning as a newbie design influencer, I was surprised to find that I was the only Asian American or Person of Color present at many design events. It takes a lot of emotional strength to constantly break through barriers, speak up for yourself daily and not give into your own fears and judgment of others.
I remind myself that my feelings of anger are valid. I give myself permission to stand up and speak about my experience. We need to stop this violence against Asian Americans. Now.
How To Be An Asian-American Ally
Let a friend know you’re here for them, without expecting a response
I’ve had some friends ask me how to approach their Asian American friends from a communication perspective. Honestly, questions like “How are you doing?” may not receive a reply.
Remember that it really depends on the person, but a lot of times we are so overwhelmed, we don’t even know what we are feeling, let alone what to say. It can be a hard question to answer. But that shouldn’t be the end of a very important connection and dialogue. Whatever relationships you have with them, continue it, and let the dialogue flow naturally.
As a therapist, my emphasis in my practice is on connection and empathy. If you want to be a true advocate, it’s simple. Just reach out. Don’t hesitate. Culturally, it’s not always easy to be vulnerable and open. We may not overtly say or show our pain but believe me, it exists every day of our lives. So knowing that we have someone in our corner can make all the difference.
And the first step towards empathizing is acknowledgment.
If you think about it, it is truly a human need that we all desire. We just want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged.
The feeling of being invisible and the lack of recognition over a long period of time can be psychologically very damaging.
The most lovely message I received was: “Anita. I’ve been thinking of you. Sending lots of love and strength to you and your family.” And that was it. It made me feel so good, like I was going to make it through all of this because my friend acknowledged what was happening. But I wasn’t required to make a big response back. She acknowledged me but also gave me space to process and not necessarily respond right away.
Learn the Asian American impact on American history and culture
I encourage you to educate and learn the multitude of ways we’ve contributed to the success of our country—and continue to. Learn to pronounce Asian names correctly, and acknowledge the talents of Asian Americans around you. We work really hard, and it helps to know our efforts are seen and valued!
A few of my favorite books written by Asian American authors are
And here are three truly talented Asian American artists that truly are inspiring:
Please check out their beautiful work and join me in supporting their creativity.
Don’t Be Silent
Our boundaries don’t have to be abrasive or abrupt, but they need to be clear and firm. (I’m still learning to do this every step of the way!) This happens in practical, everyday situations.
Whether they are microaggressions that frankly are sometimes harder to confront or heinous violent acts like in Atlanta, we need your support to amplify our voices and stand beside us against hatred.
We all have ways that we can share our thoughts and show support. Find your avenue of support. It doesn’t have to be through social media. It can be through volunteering at a non-profit organization that supports the AAPI community like Asian Americans Advancing Justice or reaching out to your Asian American friends and offering any support that will help them consistently. Don’t give up.
For my AAPI friends, Here Is How We Cope:
As a designer who marries interior design and therapy, I find it healing to set my home up so that it can help me process my emotions. Here are some design strategies from my Home Therapy method to help you feel grounded:
- Create a spot or corner just for yourself and dedicate time every day to meditate and write out your thoughts. A cozy invitation calls for a comfy seat, a relaxing scented candle, and a journal to invite you to open up and reflect. Remember, flushing out raw emotions and thoughts is essential to your mental health.
- Organize your home to give you a sense of positive control. When the environment outside of our home is chaotic, it can leave us feeling hopeless and helpless. But if we keep our pantries, closets, and entryways tidy, we automatically feel more safe and secure. And that increases our self-esteem in a significant way.
- Learn to express your anger appropriately, which is not always easy. Paint your living room or dining room in calming colors: whites, blues, and greens. This visually cues you to de-stress. Designate these rooms to be a neutral place where you can express and communicate in a relaxing environment.
- Prepare your home with self-care zones in your bedroom and bathroom. Dealing with fears and judgment from others is emotionally taxing and you need space to focus on yourself. Aromatherapy diffusers, mood lights to balance your circadian rhythm, and weighted blankets are key items for restorative sleep. For your bathroom, having a fully stocked bath caddy of skincare and bath salts for your next spa bath experience relaxes your body, brings down the stress hormone cortisol and increases your adrenalin to up your mood.
Home Therapy isn’t just about pretty aesthetics. Case in point: I have three girls and Travis and I spend lots of time with them in our family room. It used to not be the case. But once I intentionally and thoughtfully arranged furniture to encourage communication and family interaction, I got a golden opportunity to really get to know my girls. We talk about everything and that includes what happened last week. This is proof that being intentional with your home design is truly therapeutic.
It’s been enlightening to see my commitment to raising my girls to be fearless really shining through. They won’t stand for any kind of racism and they do NOT subscribe to the “Model Minority” myth. This gives me so much hope in a very unsettling time. I see them fighting the fight and communicating honestly about their experiences.
I strongly believe that every small or large act is movement and progress. And if we all act together, there is hope no matter what. I liken it to styling or renovating our home–the emphasis isn’t about perfection. Things may take time and there may be delays, but we must keep going forward. Join me to stop this horrific violence against the AAPI community now.
Opening Image Credit: Photo by Ari Michelson