On Jan. 1 at 10:15 p.m., Michelle Li of KSDK News in St. Louis a voicemail she received about a recent broadcast in which she discussed traditional American New Year’s foods like greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and pork, ending her segment by saying she eats dumpling soup like a lot of other Koreans. The caller complained, “She was being very Asian. … She can keep her Korean to herself.”
Two states north of her in the Twin Cities, KARE 11 news anchor Gia Vang saw the post and thought the racism was so outrageous, it was laughable. The laughter soon turned to hurt, though, so she reached out privately to Li and then publicly , adding, “Hmong people consume a lot of Hmong sausage, chicken, pork with pepper this time of year. @MichelleLiTV I must be #VeryAsian too right now.”
A viral movement was born.
Since that moment, the hashtag #VeryAsian has spread across social media, with Li’s original tweet alone having been liked more than 54,200 times. Other posts incorporating the hashtag include photos of Asian food, Lunar New Year festivities, and many supporters wearing apparel from the . As of Feb. 13, the hashtag has been used in more than 9,300 posts on Instagram, in videos garnering more than 25.4 million views on TikTok, and 3,700 times on Facebook, where hashtags aren’t often used. These numbers don’t include the thousands of tweets, retweets, and quoted tweets on Twitter.
The hashtag has caught on because it highlights the everyday celebration, not the trauma, of being Asian American. It allows allies to show their support, and for others to exalt their own cultures, including versions like #VeryBlack. It’s a powerful reclamation of words.
“It was the part [of the voicemail] where ‘She was being very Asian,’ and the way she said it—it had such a negative connotation,” Vang says. “What’s so wrong about being very Asian? For me, it’s something that I’ve worked through for my entire life now. When I was a kid and growing up and living in this world—it makes you kind of ashamed of being your true selves and being ashamed of your identity. I had to unlearn all of these things. … And so that’s why I think I wanted to reclaim it.”
A Coast-to-Coast Problem
#VeryAsian is not the only Asian American-related hashtag that has gained momentum in the past few years. So has #StopAsianHate, #StopAsianHateCrimes, and #StopAAPIHate. All were born out of increasing anti-Asian racism in the United States. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism that Asian hate crimes increased 339% in 2021, coming off an increase that was already 124% in 2020. Stop AAPI Hate 10,370 hate incidents from March 19, 2020, to Sep. 30, 2021.
In fact, Vang and Li originally connected in the aftermath of a in which six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent. Vang recalls that all of the Asian American reporters were reaching out to each other to offer support and check in. It didn’t matter if they knew each other previously. That was just what they all did in the face of that tragedy and injustice, she says.
While the shootings were in Atlanta, it wasn’t just a Southern problem. As one example, after the shooting, Vang’s father was waiting at a St. Paul bus stop when a woman pulled up her car and yelled at every Asian there to get out of America or be killed.
Fast forward to 2022, and the racism hasn’t gone away. “That’s also why the #VeryAsian and the Very Asian movement has been so resounding,” Vang says. “Because everyone knows that even if you live in California, where there are tons of Asian people, [the voicemail] could have happened there. Even in New York City, it could have happened there. It was just an example of the kinds of racism that Asian Americans deal with anywhere in the world.”
“As I’ve said to many people, I’m also a realist,” Vang continues. “There’s this dual reality that exists. There are people who believe that anti-racism work is really important, who think we have to keep going and, as people like to say, are ‘fighting the good fight.’ And then there are people who are not wanting to live in an equitable world and fighting against that. Both those realities exist. I think that’s why, when we look at presidencies, we can look at how we elected the first Black president and then, eight years later, elected a Donald Trump. There are dueling realities, and both can exist.”
Keep Talking About It
Part of Vang and Li’s own efforts to “fight the good fight” is to turn their Very Asian brand into an official foundation in hopes of continuing to spread awareness through activities, such as events that highlight local Asian businesses, and by exploring how to better support the many different people under the umbrella of “Asian American”: Hmong, Burmese, refugees, adoptees, those who are partially Asian—the list keeps going.
As the duo’s ambitions grow, so do plans to expand the apparel line. The shop has pared down its limited-run designs to the Grassroots collection, but updates are coming, all still benefitting the Very Asian Foundation and Stop AAPI Hate. And both Vang and Li insist that allies are more than welcome to wear Very Asian gear.
Vang points out that having people find the courage to talk about anti-Asian racism, even if they’re not Asian themselves, is so important. Hearing those conversations gives her hope, whether it’s listening to someone talk about why they bought Very Asian merchandise or listening to someone learning how to support the cause in other ways if they’re not comfortable wearing the merch. Vang suggests those alternatives include donating directly to organizations such as Stop AAPI Hate or the Asian American Journalists Association, being mindful of where to shop, and validating and amplifying Asian American experiences.
“We always talk about being in uncomfortable spaces and how that helps you grow, and it’s really true,” Vang says. “A lot of people say they want to be a part of this [movement], but they don’t know where Hmong Village is in the Twin Cities, and I just think that’s another way to support us. Go out and be uncomfortable, and be around people who aren’t like you, and ask questions and be interested and curious.”