Why Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Kim’s Convenience and Searching are a Big, Necessary Deal
When my younger sister and I were the new kids at our elementary school, some classmates would taunt us. They’d bevel their eyes, singing “Chinese, Japanese” ad infinitum. We were confused by this because we’re actually Korean American, but basic facts are insignificant when you’re being intimidated. The message was clear: We were seen as foreigners, different, other. And, while I don’t recommend violence, my sister and I responded to these incidents in kind with swift, hard kicks to the perps’ shins. Their yelps told us our message was received: Nobody messes with the Kim sisters.
Many years later, when I started working as a PR professional, I received additional reminders of my perceived foreignness. There was a time when I was working at an agency. We had just won a new piece of business and, as customary, we conducted a kickoff meeting with the client. Their president started the meeting by standing up, acknowledging everyone around the room; then fixing his gaze on me, he said: “Soon Mee, I want you to know that, in my eyes, you are as American as everyone else in the room.” Gulp. As I considered the best way to respond, my agency leader at the time, a white man, didn’t miss a beat. He replied: “Well, actually, Soon Mee is more American than me. She was born in the U.S.; I’m from England.”
Bias in the workplace can occur in many forms and it’s hard to know how to respond in all instances. Personally, I know when I walk into a room, I’m contending with a variety of stereotypes. There’s the perception of me as a perpetual foreigner, something different, even exotic or mysterious. There’s also the stereotype of me as an Asian woman and I’m assumed to be quiet, studious and submissive.
When I’m told with surprise: “You’re hilarious,” I know it’s in part because I wasn’t expected to have a personality. When I pen an insightful essay and receive comments like: “well written,” it’s in part because I’m not assumed to have a mastery of English. Then there’s the invisibility that’s mixed in: When I don’t express my opinion strongly enough, I’m assumed to be timid. When I have a strong opinion, I’m expected to back down. When exceptional work is performed, it is taken for granted. When I recognize I’ve not been heard, I’m forced to repeatedly make my case.
I recently asked my daughters about comments they’ve received from friends and strangers alike:
- “Where are you really from?”
- “You haven’t registered to vote yet? That’s the problem with children of immigrants.”
- “Aren’t Asian girls supposed to be small and skinny?”
- “Do you have a bad relationship with your dad?”
- “You don’t even speak Korean. You’re so white.”
- “You’re a twinkie! Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
- “Is your mom a ‘Tiger Mom’?”
- “So, like how Asian are your parents?”
- “But you aren’t a normal Asian. You’re fine.”
- “Ew, your lunch smells disgusting. Ewwww.”
- “You’re so funny. When I met you, I thought you wouldn’t have any personality.”
- “Oh God, why am I squinting? I look so Asian in this picture.”
- “You’re really pretty for an Asian girl”
- “Which Korea are you from? North or South?”
- “You look like a tourist.”
- “Is this an Asian thing?”
- “Don’t do that. You’ll look like an FOB.”
- “Wow, your mom and dad don’t do STEM jobs? That’s so different!”
- *Holds up peace sign* “Hey look at me, do I look Asian?”
- “What kind of Asian are you?”
- “There’s like 5 rows of Kims in the yearbook.”
- “Are you guys all related?”
- “Ha ha, are your eyes even open?”
- “You guys all look the same.”
- “Can you stop being so Asian?”
- “Oh, you’re just saying that because you’re Korean.”
- “It’s always been on my bucket list to date an Asian girl.”
Some will read this and will want to dismiss it as a personal perspective, but I’ve seen it time and time again. In my role as Porter Novelli’s Diversity & Inclusion Leader, I have the opportunity to speak at events and address many people. It’s humbling when others see in me something from their own experiences — when they finally feel represented in the workplace after having felt foreign or invisible for so long. Now, when those in the Asian and Asian-American community are excited about representation in mainstream media — in Crazy Rich Asians or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Kim’s Convenience or Searching — I understand. Racism doesn’t just come from the KKK or in Charlottesville. It’s not just explicit and macro-aggressive. It’s also implicit and micro-aggressive. It’s unrepresented. It all sends a message: You are other/foreign/different/invisible.
The Joy Luck Club (1993), The Namesake (2007) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) are just three major motion pictures that have featured predominantly Asian-American casts in the past 25 years.
As my daughters tell me, these messages “come from friends who don’t understand. From well-meaning strangers who see us as the exception. From people who care a lot about us and very little about people like us.”
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t assume to speak for everyone. Asia is a large continent that encompasses people from as many as 50 different countries depending on who you ask. According to Wikipedia, Asians represent over 4 billion people and 17 million square miles, varying cultures, religions and physical characteristics. Add to that the feelings of not being Asian enough or American (or Canadian, etc.) enough. And, for many, cultural tensions that affect workplace success — traditionally Eastern virtues of forbearance, community over individuality, and heightened social awareness — can also be problematic for career advancement in Western organizations.
My role today is to help each of my colleagues recognize the basic humanity of others and ourselves, to create environments where we can each thrive both in spite of and because of our differences, where our otherness is recognized as an advantage for our organization because it absolutely is. I’m glad to see more underrepresented populations represented in mainstream media because it helps us recognize ourselves in the stories of others, to empathize and empower and be our very best.
I’d like to think that I’ve matured since I was a kid. But, decades later, I’ve discovered that sometimes we all need a swift kick in the shins, at least figuratively. I hope my story and the stories of others do that in the best possible way.
Soon Mee Kim is executive vice president and global diversity and inclusion leader for Porter Novelli.