The month of May brings us Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: a celebration of culture and history, and today, a time for us to tell our stories.
We are a group of Asian Pacific Americans who work in the geek world who you may know from the shows we’ve made, the comics we’ve created, the events we’ve produced or the words we’ve written. We come from different backgrounds, work in different fields, were born in different decades and have different hopes and dreams, but the experiences told here make up just a small sample of the beauty and complexity of the what the cultural fabric of Asianness is in the United States today.
The modern story of the Asian Pacific American can only be woven by speaking out about our experiences great and small. What follows are some of our stories, told in our own words. Some are bittersweet, some triumphant, but all of them important.
We encourage you to share your own story online using the hashtag #APAHeritageStory
All photos above and below by Mike Saffels. You can follow Mike on Instagram.
Gaming Talent Relations Manager (Square Enix, Nexon)
Yume Warlock is an influential mover and shaker behind the scenes of some of the geek industry’s largest games. Although she is often off-camera, you can be sure she has had a hand in making sure your favorite influencer or gamer is present at your local convention or on your favorite streaming show. Yume is also one of the organizers of this #APAHeritageStory project.
Yume grew up in rural California, the sole ‘Asian Goth’ in town, feeling isolated by all those around her, whether it be Hmong people or the locals. She felt resentment through her Hmong community and it made her pull away from her family, resulting in her moving away from her small town without a word when she was 20 years old.
I barely talked to my parents for the past 17 years, and when I did it was always an argument. They believed I left because I didn’t love or respect them. I felt like I was always treated like the red-headed stepchild.
Last August, my brother told me that my mother was dying of cancer. I went home for a month to be with my family. One night out of the blue, my mother apologized to me while I was tending to her. She was sorry about this (her dying), saying it may cost me my job. She knew working in gaming was important to me, and she was sorry. I spent the rest of that night crying on an air mattress in the middle of the dining room, feeling the shame of all the years of anger I had kept with me.
My mom did not see me as the great disappointment. She never told me that directly, but the fact that she even knew what my dreams were at all, meant she actually knew and saw who I was. She watched me via social media and printed out photos from my Facebook.
I felt the weight and guilt of everything we had ever argued about, and I wondered if I had misinterpreted all the things my mother had ever said to me. She never brought it up again before she died, but honestly, by that time, I had a greater understanding of what my mom thought about me and how she tried to show it in a way that was culturally acceptable to her.
That is probably what I would call a big part of the Asian American experience: learning how to understand and interpret the culture and ways of your parents, and not applying Hollywood-approved, Americanized standards to them.
TV Host, Robotics Expert (MythBusters, White Rabbit Project, Battlebots, Disney Imagineering)
Grant Imahara has been a prominent figure for Asian Americans in the media since his work as the electronics and robotics expert on the long-running Mythbusters show. Before that, Grant used his Electrical Engineering degree to create robots, spaceships, sets and more for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. He is currently consulting on robotics for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Before all this, when Grant was a child, he would spend his summers with his grandparents, watching TV together. One day, a certain show changed his life.
We came across a rerun of the original 1960s Star Trek. I instantly loved the science fiction parts of the show: the spaceship, and the phasers, and the uniforms. And then I saw what looked like an Asian person. It was Lt. Hikaru Sulu, played by George Takei. But he wasn’t like all the other Asian people I’d seen on TV: gangsters or thugs. In other words, Bad Guys. He was a hero. He was a main character. He had an important job: piloting the ship. And he looked just like me. I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. It was the first time I’d ever seen an Asian person on TV portrayed in a positive light. I wanted to be noble and brave like Sulu.
When Grant began being on-screen with the show ‘Mythbusters’, he was relieved he wouldn’t have to play a character, just himself.
Often, when I speak in public or sign autographs at conventions, people have commented, “You’re just like you are on TV.” After one such appearance, a college-aged Asian girl came up and whispered to me, “You’re representing all of us. Don’t screw it up.” Luckily, I did not screw it up.
A few years later, Grant became part of a fan-produced Star Trek web series called Star Trek Continues, as Lt. Sulu himself. He was ecstatic.
On the very first day of filming, as I sat in my Sulu costume at Sulu’s helm station on our Enterprise bridge set, I thought, “I should tweet George and thank him for inspiring me.” And so I did. And not five minutes later, he tweeted back: “Thanks for continuing to inspire future generations.” And I was instantly brought back to that moment of glee when I first saw him on TV as a kid. I could not stop smiling. True story. I still have a picture of the tweet on my phone to this day. And I can say that I truly understand the power of representation because it made me understand that Asian people on TV could be cool and awesome and heroic. In other words, Good Guys.
Michelle Nguyen Bradley
Writer, Producer, Host (Hyper RPG, SenpaiBuddies Podcast)
Michelle Nguyen Bradley is an established writer for sites like Geek.com, GeekandSundry.com and DefectiveGeeks.com, a show host and producer of the SenpaiBuddies Podcast, and currently stars at Betty in the Rat Queens live tabletop RPG show on HyperRPG. Michelle is also one of the organizers of this #APAHeritageStory project.
Growing up in a rural town outside of Pittsburgh, my sister, brother and myself were the only people of color in an all-white school. My other-ness was made apparent to me the first time the other kids started calling me a ‘dirty chink.’ It happened frequently, and my only means of protection was to turtle into myself. I didn’t want to stand out in any way, thinking it would save me from the persecution of my peers.
My parents enrolled me in a Vietnamese language school that met on the weekends in the city. I refused to become engaged. I was disgusted by how ‘Asian’ the other kids in class were, speaking Vietnamese to each other, hanging out in big groups, and being… well, noticeable.
My parents, refugees who came to the US in the 1970s during the war, tried their best to teach me Vietnamese at home, but they worked 7 days a week, running a restaurant and a laundromat. They did their best to involve me and educated me about the home they were forced to run from, and all I could think about was my own embarrassment.
I remember a moment around the 6th grade when I asked someone, “Do I look really Asian to you?” She, of course, said, “Yes.” I was disappointed. I thought I could wash all that away with the right amount of work.
I think about all the things that my initial clash with racism has taken from me, including my pride in my heritage, the chance to make friends who understood my hardships, even the relationship with my family. I mourn all these things, but I also move forward. In the decades that have passed, I have realized that the road to self-acceptance started with making other Asian friends who could commiserate with my experience. I began to understand that this self-hate was not my fault, and my reaction was similar to many of us in our younger years.
The diversity of Asian cultures in Los Angeles has been a great healing presence for me. I spent my youth pushing away other Asian people, but really, what I needed was a community to help save me from the suffocation of feeling like I have to hide my Asianness.
For that reason, I helped organize this project for Asian Pacific American Heritage month. We must speak out about our experiences so that we can eliminate the hate and the ignorance that can cause this cycle anew. We must speak, and then we can heal, educate, and move forward.
Actress (Overwatch, Fallout 4, Modern Family, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)
Anjali Bhimani has been a force in the acting, dancing and voiceover world for many years. With a strong presence as an Indian American woman in media, she has starred in theatrical plays, performed on Broadway, been in countless shows like ‘Modern Family’, ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’, and gained notoriety in the gaming community for her role as Symmetra in ‘Overwatch’.
Anjali’s upbringing in Southern California didn’t lean to her experiencing heavy racism until she was well into college. However, she saw each interaction with racism as a chance to teach, rather than a chance to judge a person for their ignorance.
I do remember the first agent I met after graduating college said to me, “Oh I saw you in that showcase and it was just so amazing. You were up there singing an AMERICAN song and sounding so AMERICAN”. I replied, “Well, I was born here,” and she clearly didn’t hear me. All I could think about her response was, “Catch up.” So I surrounded myself with people who had the same vision of life and of storytelling and acting as I did — that no one is defined by their ethnicity any more than any other trait — and for my entire theatre career, feeling unique served me very well.
I do think the television world is catching up as well, with more South Asian and Asian characters with storylines that are complex and less about common perceptions of our cultures than complex human stories. Getting to play a forceful FBI agent, an overly superior theatre director, a post-apocalyptic sniper with a painful and complicated past, and yes, sure, a traditional Indian mother with some very non-traditional sass within months of each other is just proof of that. And then, of course, there is the gaming world which is becoming exponentially more and more diverse and inclusive. In my world, I’ve chosen not to accept anything less than forward movement and more inclusivity in my personal and professional sphere. We humans and our lives are far too complex and interesting to be defined by one thing. And when faced with anyone or any situation that falls short of that, I still go back to those two words: Catch up. Because the world isn’t stopping and neither am I.
Producer, Host (BuzzFeed, GammaRayTV, Collider Games, YouTube)
Christopher Lam is a prominent Producer and Host, best known for his work at BuzzFeed. When not appearing on camera, he also speaks about his work at conferences across the US.
Christopher talks about his experience as a gay Asian American in many of his online videos, but when it came to coming out to his parents, he found himself at a crossroads. He spoke with his therapist about his fears at length.
I recall talking to my therapist, Tina, about being so afraid of facing my mom, even though I knew I needed to tell her in-person. Tina then very calmly asked me, “Why do you need to tell them in person?”
I was prepared to say, “Because I owe them that much!” but I stopped myself and realized why she questioned me. For some reason, I felt the need to decenter myself in an experience that’s supposed to be all about me. I was the one coming out, yet I was only thinking about my parents. I’m not coming out for them. I’m coming out for myself. How Asian of me! Even in such a difficult coming-of-age moment in trusting my parents to not disown me or simply not treat me differently after I come out, I still don’t consider my own comfort first.
Christopher recalls that growing up, he saw many prominent white, gay YouTubers posting videos of their emotional and dramatic encounters with their own families when coming out. With the image of a tearful family hugging with congratulations at the back of his mind, Christopher realized this is what prompted him to feel like he needed to make a spectacle of his coming out in the first place. He decided to come out to his mother via Facebook Messanger text.
I never felt comfortable talking back at my mom. She always found a way to shut me up. Even if she didn’t, it so difficult shedding that childhood mindset that you should always obey your parents. I always clammed up when she yelled at me and settled with giving her hateful glares. It’s probably why I’m bad with in-person conflict to this day.
Even over text, I still had to tell her in a roundabout way. I asked my mom if she has seen videos of me on BuzzFeed, being out and proud. She said she did. And I ask her if she ever wondered if I was gay. Because I was. She said she did.
My mom said, “I’m still figuring out how to deal with this. What do you want me to do with this information?”
All I said was, “Just don’t treat me differently.”
And that was that. Definitely not what we see on TV. No crying. No sudden talk about my sex life. No rainbow flags on our house. No attempts to set me up with the other gay guy in the neighborhood. But you know what? My mom didn’t treat me differently. And that’s plenty for me.
Shing Yin Khor
Cartoonist, Installation Artist (Say It With Noodles, Resistance Cranes, The Last Apothecary, Resistance Auntie)
Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist, installation artist, and activist. You may know her as the woman who immortalized ‘Resistance Auntie’ as a cartoon when an elderly Asian woman fiercely flipped a double bird during Trump’s inauguration in 2017. The image went viral as a symbol of backlash against the presidency.
Shing grew up as diaspora Malaysian-Chinese in Malaysia and the Philippines, both countries with a recent history of colonialism and western imperialism. Having moved to the United States when she was 16, Shing likewise treats America’s culture as her own to shape, which influences much of her body of work.
When I was a child, I was fascinated with very classic American things — things like Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Route 66, cowboys and prairie homesteads. Growing up, reading more histories, and realizing that black and brown people feature very heavily in these narratives, even if the public face of these histories are whitewashed, was a significant turning point in my work. Now, a lot of my work revolves around brown people reclaiming their place in the American mythos, which is where they have been all along!
I have a graphic novel memoir coming out in August about driving Route 66 solo with my dog, but my big project right now is a kids’ graphic novel about a young Chinese logging camp cook who tells stories about Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, except he is an elderly Chinese auntie and her big blue water buffalo.
I often get asked to pitch ‘Chinese’ stories, which means that editors want stories in the way that white people want Chinatown to have pagodas and dragon arches. I’m kind of done with that. Who gets to own a myth anyway? There were plenty of Chinese people in logging camps, plenty of Chinese people built America.
I’m just gonna go ahead and take some of these American myths for my own, there are plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t have white faces.
Yoshi Sudarso and Peter Adrian Sudarso
Yoshi — Actor, Stuntman (Buffalo Boys, Milly & Mamet, Power Rangers Dino Charge)
Peter — Actor (Fam, Power Rangers Ninja Steel)
Chinese/ Japanese/ Korean/ Native American/ Filipino American
Yoshi and Peter were both born in Indonesia but were raised and grew to fame in the television industry in the United States. The brothers are a close pair, having both worked on the same show across different seasons of ‘Power Rangers’ and also appearing on the tabletop role-playing version called ‘Power Rangers HyperForce’. As prominent faces of Asian American men in the media, they both see their heritage as a point of pride.
Being Asian is beautiful. It has its hindrances in this line of work, sure, but I choose to focus on its advantages. It has given me a lot of unique opportunities. I was blessed to be able to play the lead in an Indonesian movie because of my cultural background and in doing so, I was able to bring my two worlds together: Indonesia and America.
Peter also views his Asianness as an opportunity to educate others in the mass media.
It was challenging at first because people assumed they knew who I was and what I was like based on my ethnicity.
Peter mentions that in building his career, he was able to overcome those stereotypes.
Being Asian American has given me unique perspectives and has helped me a great deal. Changing people’s biases about my people and country has also been really exciting and enjoyable.
Stephanie Inagaki has worked in the fine arts field for years, creating work that has been showcased in galleries throughout the country. She recalls that the inkling that she was different than others grew into feeling shame for her own culture, as she was forced to realize that she was different than her classmates in the predominantly white schools she attended.
Through college and graduate school, I started to finally accept and embrace who I am as someone who is doubly othered: a female and Asian. As I challenged these notions in the artwork I created through confronting and juxtaposing the female body and classical paintings representing male bodies, I hit a wall. White male academia couldn’t even be bothered to try to understand and dismissed my work as simply erotic because they saw a female nude and [labeled it] exotic because it wasn’t a white female body.
Ten years out of graduate school I am still making work representing women, sometimes nude, but always empowered and strong. My work has been a means for me to visually synthesize the poignant and profound experiences fate has dealt me, the deaths of my only sibling and of a long term partner, illness in my family, and the loss and grief of love. I have fully embraced my cultural background and have integrated it into the storytelling and mythology in my artwork. I can happily and confidently express who I am now and that I can draw inspiration from a heritage that is rich in culture.