Despite the lingering snow and ice, on New Year’s Day I finally pulled out my car and drove to my sister’s house to do what our family has done on the holiday for as long as I can remember: celebrate Japanese New Year.
Japanese New Year, known as Oshogatsu, is one of the most important holidays in Japan and for people of Japanese descent around the world. It is traditionally celebrated with osechi ryori, or New Year’s foods, which have important symbolic meanings and bear auspicious tidings for the coming year.
Our dad had always kept the tradition alive in our family, but since he passed in 2019, my sister, Toshiye, and I have tried to keep it up as best we can (OK, fine, mostly my sister). As is customary, my sister made beautiful bowls of ozoni soup, and as is now also customary, I posted a picture of the soup on Facebook, as did so many other Japanese Americans on my timeline.
It was delightful to see so many people keeping up the tradition with their different but similar ozonis on social media, and even as COVID-19 has kept so many of us apart, it was a reminder that we are still connected by this shared culture and history. I was particularly delighted to see friends from other cultural backgrounds share their New Year’s traditions, including, of course, many examples of black eyed peas and greens; a Mexican American friend who shared eating pozole; and another who shared a pic of the Korean tradition of eating rice cake and dumpling soup, called tteok mandu guk.
But unbeknownst to me, tteok mandu guk was about to play a huge role in a cultural moment. Former KING-5 journalist Michelle Li, who is now an anchor at KSDK in St. Louis, was reporting a story about New Year’s foods and added that she had eaten the soup for New Year’s, because “That’s what a lot of Korean people do.”
In response, Li received a voicemail from a reader complaining she was “being very Asian” and she should “keep her Korean to herself.” Li recorded a video of herself listening to the message and posted it on Twitter, and what happened next was unexpected.
Li’s video touched a nerve and people began to respond with messages of encouragement, support and solidarity. Quickly, the hashtag #VeryAsian began trending, with people using it to describe their own New Year’s traditions and to reclaim what one person tried to make a derogatory comment into one of pride. By Friday, her video — just on Twitter — had been viewed 3.7 million times. TV producers have reached out, many articles have been written and even T-shirts have been made with “Very Asian” front and center, with proceeds going to the Asian American Journalists Association (of which I am a longtime member and chapter leader).
“This last week has been surreal,” Li said when I talked with her over Zoom last week from St. Louis. “And I’m still kind of living in it.” She described the outpouring of support she received as “beautiful and awesome.”
Li said nearly all the feedback she received has been positive. “I just think it gave a lot of people pride. I think they took back ‘very Asian’ and owned it and did something with it for themselves.”
After working in TV for 20 years, Li is no stranger to racist comments, though she points out that her experience is nothing compared with the physical violence that other people of color have faced because of who they are and what they look like. She said she has been called the whole gamut of prominent Asian American women: Connie Chung, Michelle Kwan, Kristi Yamaguchi, and one viewer used a slur for Japanese Americans to demand the station take her off the air. “You just experience a lot of racism,” Li said. “It’s veiled and not so veiled.”
Our country seems to be divided between those who are grateful for and embrace the richness and contributions of all our people and those who feel like we have a zero-sum society, where somehow one person’s rice cake soup takes away from someone else’s New Year’s favorite. Or those who feel that learning history from a wider, more complete lens is somehow a threat, instead of an opportunity to learn, grow and evolve.
But the lesson I took from this is that no matter how small and invisible some might want to make people of color in this country, there are millions of others who will push back. As one commenter, Sherry Wang, wrote in part on Twitter, “What a great way to start 2022! You give us anger, we cultivate community love & pride.”
Li hopes this will be the start and not the end of the conversation.
“It would be really nice if we could somehow make it meaningful for more than just a viral moment,” Li said. “Help people feel confident in accepting and loving themselves for who they are as they exist.”