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

Monica Luhar for NBC News, Nov. 10, 2017 

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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.”

FINDING ARTISTIC INSPIRATION IN THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY

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.”

 

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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 

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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.”

EMBRACING INDIAN-AMERICAN IDENTITY

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 / 

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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.”

STIGMA IN ASIAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITIES

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.”

Asian-American Groups Start Mental Health Program for DACA Recipients

Monica Luhar for NBC News, Oct. 10, 2017 

A group of Asian-American and Pacific Islander-serving organizations announced the creation of a mental health program for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and their families Thursday, a month after the White House announced that it was ending the program.

Ten mental health service providers from the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council (A3PCON) — a Los Angeles-based consortium of Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) groups — said they will provide free counseling, case management, and other mental health services through the DACA Mental Health Project.

Members of A3PCON discuss mental health needs in the AAPI community with LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn.Courtesy of A3PCON

The groups said they are providing the services in 12 languages: Bangla, Cantonese, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Vietnamese, and English.

Connie Chung Joe, co-chair of A3PCON, said it was important for the groups to say they would continue to provide services during a time of uncertainty that has seen some clients shy away from seeking help.

RELATED: Asian-American Advocates Blast Trump Decision to End DACA Program

“We wanted to make it particularly clear that we would find a way to serve DACA recipients regardless of whatever Medi-Cal qualifications or status, without having to [worry] about getting the government involved,” she said.