The moment you realize you’re the token Asian

The MTV Awards recently did away with gendered categories. Instead of having “Best Female Artist,” they just turned it into “Best Artist,” paying no mind to gender. We can look at this in two ways:

  1. WIN! We don’t need a separate category! C’mon boys, batter up, we out here!
  2. What if women aren’t recognized enough for their accomplishments and end up being left out anyway?

Overall, I think it’s a win. Feminism, by definition, is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of equality of the sexes, and if that’s the case, then we should be judged in the same category as our male peers. May the most deserving person win! *clap clap* well done, MTV.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2016 led to more ‘diverse’ nominees and winners with a focus on increased recognition of Black artists. The #StarringJohnCho campaign is driven to see more Asian leads in Hollywood).

I could go on and on about this topic, but let’s bring this discussion back down to earth for a moment and take a look at what’s happening in our own local communities, particularly in the business community.

Diversity in the business community

Working professionally for about eight years after graduating from university has introduced me to a number of different professional networking opportunities and organizations.

I worked in a very corporate environment and even managed awards programs recognizing top companies and executives, leading me to pay more attention to lists like “The Top 100 CEOs,” or “Top 50 Female Entrepreneurs,” or “Women in Leadership,” recognizing women who have made great contributions to their professions, industries or communities.

Some companies even have programs and campaigns specifically dedicated to promoting female leaders within their organizations. The representation and recognition of female leaders and the impact they have made are causes dear to my heart.

I would read these lists recognizing powerful and influential business people, getting irked if few women were on these lists, but it wasn’t until I started working on Cold Tea Collective about a year ago that I started to notice the lack of ethnic diversity amongst women being recognized in the business community.

Being a feminist made made me open my eyes to other groups of people who need more voices and heroes to look up to. Having my eye out for female representation in business opened up my eyes to ethnic and cultural diversity and the need for a variety of views and variety of voices.

My Mom is a badass business woman

Left: The Remix, Right: The Original

To illustrate this point, this is what she’s accomplished and had to endure in her professional career:

  • She moved to Canada from Hong Kong when she was 12 along with her six other siblings, only to have her father killed in a car accident only weeks after immigrating
  • Her first job in Canada was picking strawberries
  • She put herself through school and got a diploma at a technical school in accounting and has worked in progressively senior roles in accounting, having been laid off more than a handful of times throughout her career due to the nature of the industry
  • When my younger brother and I were kids, she would have to leave work in the middle of the day when my brother or I would get in trouble at school
  • She supported my Dad in going back to school to get his university degree while supporting my brother and I in getting our university educations as well
  • She is the breadwinner in our family
  • At age 60, she will have completed her MBA

My mom has never received any awards for anything she’s accomplished in her lifetime. If it were up to me, she would get all the damn awards, not just “Best Mom Ever” cards on Mother’s Day. This post isn’t really about my Mom, nor is it about being a feminist. It’s about representation.

Think about your heroes for a second. Who are they? Why are they your heroes? What did they do? What impact do they have on you? Do you want to be them?

You can’t be what you can’t see

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a singer, a pop star, then that turned into wanting to be a TV host, like Ryan Seacrest — a white man (lol). I idolized him because he hosted one of my favourite TV shows growing up, American Idol.

Why did I not idolize any Asian news anchors on TV? Because I didn’t look like them, to be honest. Shoutout to the Asian women holding it down on the six-o-clock news, but I don’t look like you, so why would I want to be you?

I didn’t (and still don’t) fit into that mould of what the stereotypical Asian broadcaster looks like, and it wasn’t until having gone through some transformative turbulence in my marketing career did I decide that I really needed to do the damn thing for myself. Be my own hero.

Being the token Asian

While I was getting professional work experience, I also immersed myself in volunteer opportunities. I’ve served on the board of directors, board of advisors and led committees and programs for several community and business organizations.

Looking back, for a lot of these organizations, I realize now I was fulfilling the role of the ‘diverse’ board member; being a woman, young, but what I didn’t realize until recently that I was the ethnically diverse one, surrounded by mostly white board members — I was the token Asian.

As part of my work, I’m often asked to either sit on or moderate panel discussions. I LOVE moderating because I get the fun job of asking the questions, bringing people together, connecting ideas, and bringing stories out of people. I recently moderated a panel on entrepreneurship and on the panel were two women and one man (woop woop girl power!), but I noticed they were all white.

Guess which one is me!

I wasn’t quite sure how to feel because on one side, it was a win for women, but visually, it was pretty homogenous. A few days before the event, I was going to share the event registration page with others and saw that they had added my name and photo to the page as the moderator.

Then it hit me: I’m the diverse face on the panel; I’m the one that’s not like the others; I’m in control of the conversation. Now was that tokenism or influence?

For us, by us

About a month before that, I hosted a panel discussion of my own on the topic of turning 30. I built my own panel of speakers (all Asian), and of course, I moderated.

One of the panelists was talking about how how his Mom really wanted him to go into nursing and then another panelist jumped in and asked “are you Filipino?” The crowd burst out in laughter with a couple cheers and claps coming from the audience too.

Call it a stereotype, but to see and hear the reaction from the crowd and fellow panelists was a response to what we see in real life – in our families and friends, so we laughed. That’s when the panel really started to come together and it felt really natural because there was that common understanding and we didn’t have to provide any explanation as to where the truth was in the matter.

The audience was at ease, and entertained, although I could tell that the non-Asians in the crowd weren’t sure what the joke was, or if they should join in on the laughter.

Photo by Norman Tam

This event was also where I formally announced the creation of Cold Tea Collective — how we were building this new media community and platform for North American Asian millennials to share their authentic, unfiltered stories.

I saw so many smiles, nods and faces light up in the audience when sharing this news. We even had some questions from the audience about our initiative and people that I didn’t even know approached us about contributing.

That’s when I knew that we weren’t just building something for us, we were building something for ALL OF US.

Whether it be online or in person, when we can put diverse voices in the spotlight and give them a platform, we should, because we never know who needs a hero.

This article was updated in 2020.

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