Author: monicaluhar

A garden and a ‘Share Shed’ are helping this couple build a more inclusive neighborhood


Monica Luhar for NBC News/NBC Asian America –  

Last summer, Wen Lee and her husband Chris Stratton, had a surplus of vegetables growing in their garden.

Looking to connect with their neighbors, the pair put their bounty of zucchinis, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables on their front porch in a cul-de-sac in Temple City, California.

But after realizing that some might be wary of walking up to their house, Lee and Stratton came up with the idea to build a community shed that would be friendly and accessible.

It is a statement that we are not simply individual households — we are a strong neighborhood that is open, friendly, and safe. This is the kind of neighborhood I want to live in.

It is a statement that we are not simply individual households — we are a strong neighborhood that is open, friendly, and safe. This is the kind of neighborhood I want to live in.

“The neighbors that I met through this process were great, and I loved giving away the produce, but we were like, ‘well, this chair is kinda janky. It’s sitting on our front porch and you have to walk up all the way and see if there’s anything,’” Lee said.

The couple built what they call a “Share Shed” using donated paint from neighbors, scrap wood, and other material leftover from previous projects. The shed allows community members to take what they need for free, Lee said, as well as share produce and other goods to “build community.”

Lee — who detailed the shed’s creation on Frugal Happy, a blog dedicated to living a low-impact lifestyle — believes community-focused projects like the Share Shed and the “Little Free Library” can be beneficial to neighborhoods.

 Jenny Lee, one of Wen Lee’s neighbors in Temple City writes Chinese on the Share Shed sign. Courtesy Of Wen Lee

“Curious neighbors have come by to take a look and many have told us how much they like it,” she wrote on her blog. “Whenever we put veggies on the shelf they disappear within a couple days, which feels gratifying. It’s working.”

To make sure community members felt invested in the project, Lee and her husband involved them in its construction. Some neighbors donated materials while others helped with the decor.

“I think the construction of the shed process helped to shape how the rest of the neighborhood viewed it,” Lee said. “Because we were building it, people could see us building it, and we were looking for paint and help, so I would ask neighbors if they had extra paint.”

A neighbor volunteered to write Chinese characters on the sign to encourage Chinese-speaking residents to participate if interested. According to Census data, approximately 47 percent of Temple City’s estimated 36,084 residents are of Chinese descent.

The shed also has instructions printed on the side in both English and Chinese. They read, “Everything here is free! Take what you love; Donate what you don’t need.”

 Wen Lee, a friend, and a neighbor work on the Share Shed sign. Courtesy Of Wen Lee

Projects such as the Share Shed can serve as a vital social bonding experiment, according to Dr. Long Wang, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at California State University, Long Beach.

Exposing young children to community gardens and fresh produce makes them more likely to incorporate these foods into their diets as they get older, he noted.

“If kids have early exposure to growing produce, they are more likely to have a healthier relationship with the produce,” Wang said.

I think the construction of the shed process helped to shape how the rest of the neighborhood viewed it.

I think the construction of the shed process helped to shape how the rest of the neighborhood viewed it.

While Asian diets traditionally have more plant-based foods, diets have changed in the past few decades to include more animal-based products, according to Wang. That can be a cause for concern due to a possible higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular issues.

Having a project like the Share Shed can also be helpful for low-income communities that might not be able to afford fresh produce or are isolated from places where they can access it, Wang added.

Wang noted that Americans do not have enough fruits and vegetables in their diets, as intake is below the recommended amount. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 10 adults meet federal fruit or vegetables recommendations.

“Projects like the Share Shed can provide residents with fresh, locally grown produce for free,” Wang said. “This not only will help the residents improve their diet, but also provide an opportunity to build a stronger community with participation by residents.”

 Jessica Lee and Priscilla Seto show off their contributions to the Share Shed sign.Courtesy Of Wen Lee

It’s that community building aspect that holds much appeal for Lee. Prior to moving back to her childhood home in Temple City after the passing of her mother, Lee was part of a close-knit community in Oakland, California, and for many years biked and took public transit.

Moving back to Temple City left her with a bit of nostalgia and shock, as Lee realized the neighbors on her block often kept to themselves.

The lack of interaction brought back memories of when she was a child growing up in a “protective and cautious” household where she was told to stay inside.

“I do remember growing up, we never talked to our neighbors, and I do remember when the doorbell would ring, our mom would tell us to hide and pretend we weren’t home,” Lee said, adding that she hopes to create more of an open dialogue for neighbors to engage in their communities.

Whenever we put veggies on the shelf they disappear within a couple days, which feels gratifying. It’s working.

Whenever we put veggies on the shelf they disappear within a couple days, which feels gratifying. It’s working.

Since its debut, the Share Shed has continued to receive positive feedback, Lee said. Some treat it as a “drive through” produce stand and young children often peek into the shed to see if there are any new offerings for the day.

“I could tell that it was something a little new to them. I think we sparked a lot of curiosity among neighbors,” she said.

According to Lee, people have donated everything from persimmons to a bag of guava, a batch of Hello Kitty cookies, and even an unused backpack.

She hopes to see more communities build something like a Share Shed, because she believes they can create healthier, happier, and safer neighborhoods.

“The Share Shed is a way for neighbors to help each other, share resources, and have fun. But most of all, the Share Shed is a statement,” Lee said. “It is a statement that we are not simply individual households — we are a strong neighborhood that is open, friendly, and safe. This is the kind of neighborhood I want to live in.”


Asian Americans don’t get treated for alcoholism. This group wants to change that for South Asians.

by Monica Luhar / 

Each Thursday, a group gathers around a candle at a church in Iselin, New Jersey, to talk about their struggles with alcoholism.

Like many other Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) groups, members share stories about their problems with alcohol and substance use disorders and their road to recovery and sobriety.

 South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous program information in South Asian languages at the First Presbyterian Church in Iselin, New Jersey. Courtesy Of Vasudev Makhija

But instead of the cookies and coffee traditionally served at AA meetings, several attendees of the South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous program share their stories over cups of chai and Indian snacks.

“It’s symbolic that the meeting has now started and one person will take the initiative to get water and to heat the water to prepare tea — sometimes, usually always chai,” Vasudev Makhija, the group’s founder, said.

It’s growing. I still get so many calls that people want to come — how can we motivate them to come?

It’s growing. I still get so many calls that people want to come — how can we motivate them to come?

Since 2015, Makhija has run the program to help fill what he said is a need in the South Asian community to provide culturally competent care and help those with alcohol use disorder and substance use problems. The program offers anonymity and is mirrored off of some of the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, though it acts as an independent group, Makhija explained.

Alcohol use disorder tends to be less prevalent in Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities compared to the general U.S. population, according to government data.

The latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), found that 3.0 percent of Asian Americans surveyed in 2016 met criteria for alcohol use disorder, while 3.5 of percent of surveyed Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians did. Overall, 5.6 percent of all people surveyed met that criteria.

 South Asian snacks at a meeting of the South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous Program in New Jersey. Courtesy Of Vasudev Makhija

But Makhija, who works as a psychiatrist in New Jersey, believes alcohol and substance abuse is “grossly underreported” due to cultural stigma and language barriers. And — while alcohol use disorder is less-prevalent in AAPI communities — people still need help, he added.

SAMHSA found that 99.8 percent of Asian Americans with an alcohol use disorder did not receive any treatment in 2016, compared to 92.2 percent of the general population. Data was not available for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“While Asian Americans have the lowest prevalence of alcohol use disorders (3.0% compared to around 6.0% overall) they are the least likely to get help,” a spokesperson from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism said.

 Vasudev N. Makhija spearheaded the South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous program in 2015 to help South Asians with drinking problems on the road to recovery.Courtesy Of Vasudev Makhija

According to Dr. Timothy Fong, professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, although rates of addiction across Asian-American populations are lower than the general population, it is still a significant problem.

“The rates and prevalence of addictive disorders among APIs is lower than non-Asian American populations whether it’s alcohol, cocaine [use], meth, cannabis, but it’s not zero — that’s the key,” Fong said.

A 2007 study, “Asian-Americans, addictions, and barriers to treatment,” co-authored by Fong found that AAPI communities may be less likely to ask for help, or that family members may be more likely to intervene and ask for help for their loved ones.

The South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous program provides resources for those who might not feel comfortable going to mainstream AA meetings due to language barriers or shame, Makhija added.

Going to a meeting which has people from the same communities, same ethnic background — South Asian background, it seems to be for them easier to connect with others who are South Asian.

Going to a meeting which has people from the same communities, same ethnic background — South Asian background, it seems to be for them easier to connect with others who are South Asian.

Before the meetings start, attendees mingle and often speak in their native languages. The setting helps make people feel comfortable discussing their drinking patterns and how their problems first started. AA literature is also available in different South Asian languages.

“When we referred patients to AA meetings to take advantage, the South Asian patients often would say they are not comfortable because they don’t fit in the mainstream AA meetings,” Makhija said.

Currently, the free meetings are hosted by South Asian recovering alcoholics, which Makhija said establishes trust and also provides reassurance and hope for those who are just getting acclimated to the group.

“There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings, and I felt something had to be done by developing the tools for South Asian AA meetings and also put a lot of effort to educate the community,” he added.

Makhija previously attended mainstream AA meetings as a “friend” and liaison to support the South Asian community and connect members with culturally competent care, such as South Asian mental health providers, he noted. Today, the meetings continue to be run by the South Asian community, through his ongoing support.

Makhija said many of the members look forward to attending the meetings because the program offers a chance to bond with people from the same culture while connecting through shared struggles and experiences.

“Going to a meeting which has people from the same communities, same ethnic background — South Asian background, it seems to be for them easier to connect with others who are South Asian,” he said.

 The church in New Jersey where South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous meetings take place. Courtesy Of Vasduev Makhija

During the meetings, some of the common themes discussed include how members were able to sneak alcohol into their lives during work or how it nearly destroyed their lives, but how recovery and getting help through meetings has immensely aided in the effort to sobriety.

There are also success stories that reaffirm Makhija’s commitment to helping individuals recover. He noted that one individual had been going through withdrawal symptoms, and how the group encouraged him to seek a treatment program before coming back to the meetings. Makhija said the member celebrated a year sober last month.

When we referred patients to AA meetings to take advantage, the South Asian patients often would say they are not comfortable because they don’t fit in the mainstream AA meetings.

When we referred patients to AA meetings to take advantage, the South Asian patients often would say they are not comfortable because they don’t fit in the mainstream AA meetings.

While publicizing the support group initially was difficult — with some weeks where Makhija would be sitting alone, waiting for members to show up — the program has grown and currently has about a dozen members committed to attending regularly.

“I think the biggest challenge I had was how to get the first member there, [the] first person to admit he’s an alcoholic and willing to come to the meeting,” said Makhija.

But Makhija says knowledge about the program has gradually spread through word of mouth and referrals from South Asian physicians and psychiatrists. Currently, there’s a consistent group of six to 10 members who attend the South Asian Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, according to Makhija.

There continues to be a growing need in the South Asian community for education about alcohol use disorder and treatment programs, Makhija noted. The group continues to see regulars attending the meeting and newcomers receiving the resources they need.

“It’s growing,” he said. “I still get so many calls that people want to come — how can we motivate them to come?”


‘Big Gal Yoga’ is showing that yoga is for everyone

Valerie Sagun practices yoga during one of her travel shoots in Joshua Tree National Park in California.Photo by Jessica Rihal / Courtesy of Valerie Sagun

When Valerie Sagun first began her yoga practice, she didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on her life.

She fell into yoga by “accident” after taking a class at her university. At the time, Sagun was going through a “quarter-life crisis,” she said, unsure of what she wanted to do and confused about her art degree. To find some balance, she started practicing yoga to connect with herself, take a break from art, and celebrate body positivity.

We’re moving our bodies; we’re having fun. Because of fat shaming — it’s what keeps people from doing yoga and anything in their lives.

We’re moving our bodies; we’re having fun. Because of fat shaming — it’s what keeps people from doing yoga and anything in their lives.

“Yoga just kind of helped ground me and not feel like the whole world was just cracking upon me,” the 30-year-old said. “I felt I needed a break from art a little bit. I needed to clear my mind, and I feel like that’s how yoga helped me balance it out.”

Today, Sagun, whose father is Filipino American and mother is Mexican American, is the force behind “Big Gal Yoga,” a platform that advocates for body positivity and representation in yoga. She shares her personal journey on social media while interacting with other yoga practitioners, and released a book earlier this year featuring instructions for those looking to start their own yoga practices.

The inspiration for “Big Gal Yoga” came when Sagun first started watching tutorials nearly seven years ago and was frustrated by the lack of representation of plus-size women and women of color.

The videos often didn’t take into consideration pose modifications geared toward “bigger bodies,” Sagun noted, and the women she saw in yoga social media feeds were predominately white and skinny.

“Seven years ago up until today, [it] still hasn’t really changed much on popular yoga tutorial videos. Yes, there are a lot more now with POC communities making their own videos, or some companies bringing on plus-size and POC teachers, but it still hasn’t fully spread to big media,” Sagun said, using an acronym for people of color.

 Valerie Sagun, body positive activist and founder of Big Gal Yoga. Photo By Samantha Figueroa / Courtesy Of Valerie Sagun

In January 2013, Sagun started a Tumblr, “Big Gal Yoga,” as a personal visual diary and as motivation after a friend asked if she’d be interested in being her maid of honor.

She began posting photos of her doing yoga against backdrops of state parks, beaches, and hiking trails and encouraged others to share their yoga journeys as well.

“I wanted this to be a visual journey of practicing yoga and being myself, and being a big person, … and not have to feel so negative about life,” she said.

Sagun began receiving positive responses and realized there was a need for more body-positive representations of women of color. She began posting video tutorials and challenges on Instagram, which today has more than 153,000 followers.

After receiving questions about how to start yoga, Sagun decided to share what she learned in her book, “Big Gal Yoga: Poses and Practices to Celebrate Your Body and Empower Your Life,” which was released in July 2017.

The book includes yoga routines and pose modifications as well as positive messages, Sagun said. It is geared toward individuals with “bigger bodies” and those looking to start their yoga practice but unsure of where to begin.

“Sometimes bigger bodies look different in a pose,” Sagun said, noting that the book includes photographs of herself to provide a visual representation of what the modified poses may look like.

“In my book I try to find a balance of the other practices of yoga along with a yoga asana challenge, mixed with body positivity and self-love practices because I believe that all of these things work together to make a better yoga practice,” she added.

While Sagun’s content has been well received by fans, she noted that she has also received “fat-shaming” comments and criticism from people who assume she is “glorifying obesity.”

“That’s like, the top comment pretty much on every plus-sized person’s page is like ‘you’re glorifying obesity,’ and that’s usually the one statement that irks me because it sounds so stupid,” Sagun said. “Yes, I’m big, but that doesn’t mean I’m promoting — I don’t know. What part of my page says, ‘go eat burgers?’”

It’s those sorts of comments that can keep people from trying things, she noted. But Sagun focuses on the positive, practicing self-love through yoga.

“We’re moving our bodies; we’re having fun,” she said. “Because of fat shaming — it’s what keeps people from doing yoga and anything in their lives. It limits people’s ideas of what they can do with their bodies just because it keeps implanting the seed that you are not worthy enough to do anything.”

Yoga just kind of helped ground me and not feel like the whole world was just cracking upon me.

Yoga just kind of helped ground me and not feel like the whole world was just cracking upon me.

For Sagun, self-love is about finding a healthy relationship with yourself — whether through yoga, or other activities. Sagun hopes to see more plus-size women represented — and in all yoga media, not just in specific niches.

There are more plus-size social media influencers today than when she started, Sagun said, but there is still a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to those in the Asian-American, Latino, and black communities.

“I’m the Asian plus-sized girl. There’s one of each of us, and that’s pretty much what it is, and I want us to all have more representation,” she said. “Like, I very much appreciate being the one being highlighted — I’ve got a lot from that — but there definitely needs to be a lot more. There cannot just be the one person for a whole race.”

‘No Ni Hao, Thanks’: How One Artist Is Fighting Stereotypes About Asian-American Women

Monica Luhar for NBC News, Nov. 10, 2017 


As a child, illustrator Brenda Chi devoured sitcoms and ‘90s cartoons like “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Hey Arnold!”

But while she saw many strong female protagonists on TV, she also saw that most were predominantly white characters.

“I realized that I learned a lot of American culture through TV,” Chi, now 25, said. “In my head, I wasn’t expecting anyone Asian.”

 Illustrator Brenda Chi explores Asian-American history, feminism, and identity in her illustrations. Courtesy Of Brenda Chi

It wasn’t until she was older that Chi came across stereotypes that Asian-American women were passive and quiet or that their “voice doesn’t really matter because they’re meant to be submissive.” The tropes upset her and inspired her to spotlight female characters in her work, which has included observations on the phrase “tiger mom,” musings on young-adult identity crises, and her take on classic Chinese stories.

Her work was recently featured in “New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei,” a graphic anthology inspired by the life of Takei produced in conjunction with a museum exhibit about his life. The collection was unveiled at the Asian American ComiCon at the Japanese American National Museum in July.

Chi’s contribution, “InBetween,” appears in the first chapter of the collection and explores identity and exclusion during Chi’s first trip to Hong Kong, where she has family.

But while there, relatives viewed her as an “American Born Chinese,” she recalled. In the comic, she draws comparisons to her upbringing in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley and her encounter with a woman in Hong Kong who said, “you speak Cantonese well for someone from L.A.”

The comic illustrates Chi’s experiences not feeling “Chinese enough” but also not seen as “American in America,” she noted.

“Being in America, you look at me, you’re not going to assume I’m American,” she said. “I don’t know why this is what people assume.”


As a teenager growing up in Alhambra, California, where 52.9 percent of residents are Asian according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Chi said she felt pressured to get good grades and be a “good daughter.” She added that she also felt the need to make enough money so she could live the “American Dream” and take care of her aging parents.

“I grew up in an immigrant family,” Chi said. “The Chinese culture is about preserving the culture and the family, and so I grew up in a household like that and grew up in a community that was heavily Chinese so that stuck onto me.”

 An illustration by Brenda Chi for “Inktober.” Courtesy Of Brenda Chi

In high school, art helped Chi fuel her rebellion and explore her identity and family history, she said. The more pressure she felt, the more art she did. She went on to attend art school, where she majored in illustration.

Her parents, while supportive of her decision, encouraged her to consider having backup plans like nursing or education because they didn’t see the arts as a “safe career.” Chi resisted, eventually quitting her full-time job and focusing on freelancing and participating in shows at local art galleries.

In college, she saw more depictions of female subjects that convinced her about her work’s importance, she noted.

“I noticed these women were often just pretty and soft. Often sexualized, but not depicted as strong. Yet, here’s everyone praising the work,” Chi said.

She explored breaking those stereotypes in a comic she drew of a Chinese-American woman sitting at a bar, where she looks away from a man who is enamored by her, Chi said. In the comic, the woman says, “No Ni hao, thanks.”

The illustration was inspired by Chi’s love for Doug Sneyd, a cartoonist for Playboy magazine as well as times where she has been hit on by men saying “Ni hao.”

“I’ve had that happen to me, and there was nothing I was doing that said I was Chinese, nor did it look like I didn’t know English,” she said. ”I don’t understand why they think this is the way to get into the hearts of Chinese women. It baffles me, because I’m still a person, trying to say hi to me by saying ‘hello’ works fine.”

Chi hopes to expand her work to include all Asian-American voices.

While she is happy there are more Asian-Americans on television than when she first flipped the channel as a kid, Chi said she believes there is still much work to be done, and that starts by supporting and elevating other Asian-American female creatives such as stand-up comedian Ali Wong, who she said breaks the stereotype of “submissive and quiet women.”

Moving forward, Chi hopes her illustrations will work toward advancing the conversation and breaking stereotypes.

“I want our stories to be told and shared and be recognized as something more than the stereotype,” Chi said. “I hope, for myself, that I can contribute to the Asian-American community in a positive way.”


As a kid, Vidya Vox hid her Indian roots. Now, her music merges India and the U.S.

Monica Luhar for NBC News, Nov. 17, 2017 


On one of her latest songs, “Tamil Born Killa,” Vidya Vox addresses her critics with a message that she isn’t going to change her appearance or give up her Indian-American identity just to be successful.

“I ain’t gonna change my hair,” she sings over a track that features folk Indian instruments. “Blue, black, or green — don’t really care.”

The song, which she released in August as part of an extended play, “Kuthu Fire – EP,” was inspired by social media comments she had seen over her career criticizing her appearance or work.

“At the same time, it’s important to not forget your roots. You can be proud of your roots even though it might not be ‘cool to do so’. I think you absolutely can.”

“At the same time, it’s important to not forget your roots. You can be proud of your roots even though it might not be ‘cool to do so’. I think you absolutely can.”

“I used to have blue hair, and a lot of people hated that I had blue or green hair, and I’d get so many comments like, ‘you’re so perfect, but why do you have blue hair?’” Vox, whose name is Vidya Iyer, said. “And it’s like, okay, but it’s my hair and I can do whatever I want.”

Iyer found success on YouTube after posting a series of mashup videos in 2015 that feature a blend of Western pop, electronic dance music, Bollywood hits, and Indian classical music. One of her earliest songs, a mashup of Major Lazer’s “Lean On” and a traditional Punjabi folk song, has been viewed more than 27 million times.

“The one thing I won’t do is sacrifice my Indian identity in my music, my clothing choices,” the 27-year-old singer said. “It’s something I tried to hide growing up, and I would never do that again because it’s such a big part of me and I’m very proud of it.”

Lately, Iyer has been juggling bhangra and hip-hop dance rehearsals in Los Angeles and promoting her original music. She is currently on tour in India, with shows scheduled until the end of November. Her set lists feature mostly original songs, she said, with one or two mashups sprinkled in.

“The thing about doing mashups and covers is it’s great, but a part of you never gets to really showcase what your original sound is like or what your writing voice is like,” Iyer said. “And even though we’ve been sneaking songs in there like in ‘Sandcastles’…just like with popular Bollywood songs, it just never felt like it was fully our song.”

Iyer began writing songs for the EP about a year ago with her boyfriend, composer-director-musician Shankar Tucker, whom she met in college, where they collaborated alongside her sister Vandana Iyer, who also appears on the EP.

The title track “Kuthu Fire” is different from any of the mashups she had been doing, Iyer noted, as it is representative of Tamil folk music and Indian dance tradition. The music video features the dhol drum and henna body art set against a black light.

Iyer added that she was nervous when she first put out the release, but said the feedback has been largely supportive.

“I was so scared of thinking about how it would be received, especially because it’s so different from the mashups,” she said. “I was so nervous, but when I put it out, people in India really liked it, which I thought was very telling. Some people have similar stories and they can relate to that. There’s a little bit of pushback here, but people are open to it, specifically in LA.”

 Vidya Vox recently released her EP, “Kuthu Fire.” Photo By Jermaine Saunders

On the EP, Iyer explores leaving home and embracing a new life and also conquering inner demons and critics.

Other songs take on female empowerment and supporting one another and looking inward instead of judging others based on appearance.

“There are so many messages especially for women, there’s all these magazine covers, you don’t even know what’s real,” Iyer said. “Even social media stars, they’re living life on Instagram, but behind those photos, you don’t know how much pain or sadness there is in that.”

Iyer added that she aims to show that music is universal, and that you don’t need to speak a specific language in order to understand the nuances of a song.

“You don’t really need to know Malayalam to enjoy that song,” Iyer said, referring to “Be Free,” another track on the EP. “And a lot of it is in English.”


Born in Chennai, India, and raised in Mumbai, Iyer immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 9 years old.

She said her upbringing and cultural background have played pivotal roles in shaping the person she is today and the music she’s creating. Her first exposure to traditional Carnatic music — folk music from southern India — was at the age of 5, when she’d take lessons alongside her sister.

“Truth be told, when I was younger I wasn’t really into practicing that much, and my sister and I would goof around until I was about 12, when I started taking it more seriously,” Iyer said.

Iyer’s grandmother encouraged her to continue practicing, and classical Indian music became a therapeutic refuge as Iyer grew older.

She studied psychology and pre-medicine at George Washington University and planned to pursue medical school after graduating in 2012. But while studying for the MCATs and working at a clinic, she discovered she really wanted to pursue music.

Instead of working toward a career in medicine, she decided to move to India for two years and re-familiarize herself with classical music and arts.


Iyer said that growing up, she and some of her Indian-American friends felt lost as they struggled to embrace their Indian and American identities. There was also a lack of role models like Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra in the media, Iyer noted. She said she felt like she had to assimilate to fit in.

“We were always trying to hide our ‘Indianness’ and it was always this battle,” she said. “I was teased a lot for being Indian … My mom would be packing roti and dal, and she would not be packing PB&J. I’d be begging her to pack Lunchables.”

But in college, Iyer became more comfortable with her identity. She joined Indian student associations, an Indian folk dance team, and participated in inter-collegiate competitions.

For the young Indian girls and boys who are struggling with their identities, Iyer wants them to know it is “cool” to be proud of your identity.

“It’s okay, it’s cool to be Indian and there are cool people that are Indian and doing really well,” she said. “It’s okay to be brown and cool.”

“The one thing I won’t do is sacrifice my Indian identity in my music, my clothing choices. It’s something I tried to hide growing up, and I would never do that again because it’s such a big part of me and I’m very proud of it.”

“The one thing I won’t do is sacrifice my Indian identity in my music, my clothing choices. It’s something I tried to hide growing up, and I would never do that again because it’s such a big part of me and I’m very proud of it.”

Iyer’s upcoming collaborations include a song with Gujarati world music band — MAATIBAANI — and an upcoming Telugu song with an LA-based singer. She recently collaborated with British singer-songwriter Arjun Coomaraswamy on a two-day shoot in Joshua Tree for the original song, “Diamonds.”

From conversations she’s had with her mom, Iyer said she has learned that it’s okay to borrow from both cultures without losing or giving up your true identity.

“I think that especially being an immigrant, I think it’s OK to assimilate to where you are, whatever country you are in and learn the culture and social etiquette,” she said. “At the same time, it’s important to not forget your roots. You can be proud of your roots even though it might not be ‘cool to do so’. I think you absolutely can.”

She Didn’t Tell Her Family About Her Infertility Diagnosis. Now She’s Helping Those Struggling to Conceive.

by Monica Luhar / 


Holidays can be a time for family gatherings and warm memories, but for Annie Kuo, they have also become a reminder of loss.

On Christmas Eve 2009, Kuo invited friends and family to a party at her home in Anaheim, California. She had planned to announce her pregnancy, but discovered it was not viable at a doctor’s appointment weeks before.

Just before the party, Kuo felt intense contractions and cramps, she said. She excused herself and headed upstairs, where she experienced a miscarriage at 14 weeks of pregnancy.

“It was horrific,” Kuo, 40, told NBC News. “I have more sensitivity over folks facing infertility over the holidays. It marks the passage of time when holidays roll in, and it’s another year when I remember that searing pain and devastation of that loss.”

Kuo tried to get pregnant again immediately because she had heard stories about couples conceiving easily after a miscarriage. But after a year of trying, she and her husband had no luck.

On the suggestion of a friend, Kuo made an appointment at a fertility clinic after moving to Seattle in 2011. She received an infertility diagnosis and was told she was on an accelerated track to menopause. But while waiting to go over additional test results with her doctor, she got pregnant again without treatment. While Kuo was grateful for another chance, she said the experience was isolating.

Today the mother of a 6-year-old, Kuo is sharing her story to help make sure couples dealing with infertility don’t have to go through what she did.

In 2015, she founded an infertility support group and currently co-hosts the group with help from the nonprofit RESOLVE, The National Infertility Association.

 A fertility yoga practice hosted by guest speaker Lynn Jensen and organized by Reolve’s Seattle Peer-Led Infertility Support group. Courtesy Of Annie Kuo

Kuo’s efforts include planning guest speakers and community gatherings. The support group discusses topics like the challenges of conceiving after already having children, fertility nutrition, men’s fertility health, and fertility yoga, Kuo said. In the past, she has also volunteered on Infertility Advocacy Day to lobby Congress for family-building legislation, including making coverage for in vitro fertilization (IVF) permanent for veterans and reinstating the adoption tax credit.

“Sharing my story gives a voice and face to the disease of infertility,” Kuo said. “It encourages people who are struggling that they are not alone and empowers others to open up to loved ones.”


Infertility in women under the age of 35 is defined as the inability to achieve or sustain a pregnancy in 12 months of unprotected intercourse, according to Dr. Eve Feinberg, assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Victor Fujimoto, the director of the IVF program at the University of California, San Francisco, said couples and women of East Asian descent wait considerably longer before they consult a doctor about fertility and are much less likely to seek early intervention when they’re having a problem getting pregnant.

 Family-building advocate Annie Kuo (right) with Kelly Garrity at Resolve’s Infertility Advocacy Day in Washington, DC Courtesy Of Annie Kuo

“When we looked at our population of Asian patients, 40 percent or more were delayed in speaking for at least two years after their problem began,” Fujimoto said, citing a 2007 study he co-authored.

He noted that there are social and cultural factors that may play a role in access to fertility care in the Asian population and that Asian-American women in general have lower pregnancy rates after IVF treatment than white women.

After conceiving her daughter, Kuo wanted to preserve the chance to have a second child, opting against IVF in favor of an alternate fertility treatment. But while she consulted eight doctors in five states and tried several cycles of treatment, the attempts were unsuccessful.

Devastated by the news, Kuo said she decided to use that opportunity to explore other ways to build a family, including completing foster parent training and exploring adoption.

In 2015, Kuo came across a video about Infertility Advocacy Day posted by RESOLVE. She felt like she had an opportunity to channel her energy and frustration into something meaningful. After some encouragement from doctors and community members, Kuo decided to start a support group, recruiting members of a fertility book group she had hosted before.

Kuo believes there is a stigma attached to fertility issues within the Asian-American community, and also a pressure to conceive at a certain age, citing her own personal experience.

“People in Asian communities often are very family-oriented so elders, peers, and in-laws expect you to reproduce,” she said.

She noted that a generation gap and lack of understanding can exist unless elders they have also gone through an infertility experience or procedure, adding that in childbearing, a lot of the blame is often placed on women.

She said initially she didn’t reveal her infertility diagnosis to her family fearing some might not be supportive, but today, she has their backing.

“I’ve also had many people in the informal, extended Asian family network that have said, ‘What did you do?’ upon hearing about my miscarriage,” Kuo said.

 Annie Kuo (center) is seen here with authors who have written books about infertility and perinatal loss. Kuo emceed the fertility authors’ panel and book signing in Seattle. Courtesy Of Annie Kuo

Dr. Kathleen Lin, a Seattle-based reproductive endocrinologist infertility specialist, stressed the importance of culturally and linguistically appropriate services for patients, including those seeking fertility treatment.

She said that when she first started her practice, she learned how to speak Mandarin in order to communicate with some of her patients.

“Technically there’s still some limitations but a majority of communication is in Chinese and that helps them feel less alienated, to be able to do communicate,” Lin said. She estimates that approximately 30 to 40 percent of her clients are Asian American.

Some of her patients seem to have misconceptions about fertility and often have a fear about pregnancy, Lin noted. Part of the fear, she added, may stem from a lack of understanding about the process or previous lack of success.

“There’s a sense if you go to a fertility doctor, something is wrong with you,” she said.

Kuo hopes her future projects will help destigmatize conversations about infertility. She’s in the initial stages of producing a short documentary to be submitted to the Seattle Asian American Film Festival to raise awareness about infertility and its stigma, she said.

“Organizing awareness projects, advocating for family-building legislation, and starting support groups have been another way of giving birth,” Kuo said. “These projects and groups are like my babies.”

CLARIFICATION (Nov. 3, 2017, 7:10 P.M.): An earlier version of this article stated that Kuo underwent fertility treatment because she wanted to have a second child. Kuo says she wanted to preserve the chance to have a second child.

Toni Okamoto Wants to Teach You How to Live a ‘Plant-Based’ Life

Monica Luhar for NBC News, August 14, 2017 

Toni Okamoto was trying to make her family healthier when she started the blog that would become Plant Based on a Budget, a website for meal planning, recipe sharing, and education about the affordability of a vegan diet.

By the time she first posted vegan recipes on her family blog in 2012, she had seen her grandfather pass away due to complications from heart surgery and an aunt amputate a toe and foot due to Type 2 diabetes.

“I had just started learning more about food issues, so in my early 20s, I thought, ‘OK, this is really frustrating and sad for me to sit here and do nothing while my family is suffering,” Okamoto told NBC News.

But over the past five years, Plant Based on a Budget has built a growing reader base, with more than 120,000 followers on Facebook.

The success has allowed, Okamoto, now 30, to author a cookbook, “The Super Easy Vegan Slow Cooker Cookbook,” which highlights 100 healthy, low-maintenance recipes, as well as co-author “The Friendly Vegan Cookbook.” She was also featured in “What the Health,” a documentary on plant-based diets released on Netflix in June.

“The feedback for my segment has been amazing,” she said. “I can’t believe how many people are inspired to eat plant-based after watching the film. I’m so grateful to have had a small part in it all.”

Growing up in a multi-ethnic household in Sacramento, California, Okamoto learned first hand the importance of maintaining a healthy diet.

Every day before high school track practice, she would eat lunch at a fast food chain located across the street. But within minutes, she’d immediately feel sick to her stomach.

“It was not healthy for me to eat that way,” Okamoto said. “My track coach said, ‘why don’t you stop eating fast food and try cutting back on red meat?’”

As Okamoto changed her diet, she saw herself “thrive” as a runner and — after participating in a two-week vegetarian diet challenge with a friend — eventually decided to transition into a full-vegetarian diet.

The four-year transition to a vegan diet for ethical reasons was more gradual, Okamoto said.

“I stopped eating beef, then getting broth beef and stopped drinking cow’s milk and butter,” she said.

In an effort to inspire healthier eating options for her family, Okamoto began compiling plant-based recipes. But when she put the recipes up, she was shocked when many of her family members expressed the concern that it was too expensive for them to eat the way she did.

“That’s when my family food blog turned into a blog that challenged the misconception that plant-based food is only for privileged people,” Okamoto said. “I wanted to provide everyone resources that gave them inspiration and drive to eat healthy.”

Okamoto stresses the importance of providing early nutrition education in schools and avoiding processed foods.

“Nutrition education is nonexistent in many low-income communities of color,” she said. “It’s important to feed children healthier food.”

Having grown up in a low-income family, Okamoto focuses particularly on budget-conscious recipes. Her meal plans can be as inexpensive as $25 per week per person and include a grocery list that shows how to use 100 percent of the ingredients while staying within budget.

There’s also a focus on ease — when she doesn’t have time to cook, Okamoto pre-plans her meals and uses her slow cooker, letting ingredients cook overnight.

“While I sleep, I cook beans overnight, and in the morning I’ll add chili and stuff, and when I’m at work, I’ll cook it,” she said. “When I come home, I have dinner, and the rest of the week I’ll have leftovers.”

Okamoto said that she wants people to know that Plant Based on a Budget is not an all-or-nothing decision and that every bit of progress toward a health goal is something to be proud of.

“It takes a lot of courage and effort to relearn all of the things you’ve been taught about food and that is difficult,” she said. “Pat yourself on the back for every healthy meal you eat and every day you choose plant based.”