Creating Asian-American Content Goes Beyond Talking About Asian-Specific Issues

It’s about creating pieces where stories are universal and relatable.
09/14/2017 04:43 pm ET

 

It was my first day, my first job out of college and at my dream company: an amazing consumer products company with great brands used by people all over the world. I was hired to work on a brand new detergent product that was going to revolutionize the laundry world as we know it. In my first-ever meeting, my new boss brought out a cake for a co-worker during the team’s weekly check-in.

“Congratulations, Bill, for 25 years of hard work at this company. You’ve seen this company go through a lot, you’ve vested a ton of stock, but most importantly, you’ve inspired the people around you every day. To 25 years of soap!”

After the meeting, I approached Bill nervously, “I’m the new hire. Just wanted to say congratulations, and I guess I’m going to be learning a lot from you.”

“It’s great to meet you!” he responded gleefully. “I can’t wait. I love working here, and you’re going to love it, too. Let me know if you ever have any questions.”

As I thanked him and turned away, I couldn’t help myself. “One quick question, Bill. I know you said you love your job. But do you love soap?”

He looked at me, a little taken aback, but recovered quickly and smiled. “Yeah, I love everything about it. The story, the production, the chemistry process… it’s fascinating.”

And that was when it dawned on me that I might be in the wrong place.

I realized if I was going to dedicate the next 25 years of my life to something… I wanted to exude as much passion as Bill did for soap.

For the next few months, I tried many different hobbies in my spare time, until one night I decided to make my very first YouTube video. And I immediately fell in love.

The story, the production, the process… I was hooked. Every hour I wasn’t at work, I was learning how to write, how to edit, how to act. As more time passed, the more I longed to quit my job and dedicate all my time to making videos. But would I be able to grow an audience? Would I get good enough at making videos? How would I even make money? It was a difficult decision, and I prayed about it a lot. Truthfully, in the end, I mustered the courage to go for it from the peace I received from God. I knew everything was going to be okay regardless of what I chose.

When I finally told my mom I was thinking about quitting, I expected her to tell me to ride it out for a few years. Instead, she surprised me by asking, “What do you love doing?” So a year and a half after I started, I officially quit my job to work on my YouTube channel full-time, and I knew exactly what I wanted to make videos about.

Growing up Asian-American in a sea of white faces, I struggled to find my sense of identity, my place in this world. I was good at math and science, and I wasn’t the most naturally athletic kid, but I hated that I fit the stereotype. It’s hard to explain how this impacted my life, but I actually made a video a few years ago called “The Things I Carried” to articulate how all this weighed me down.

And this whole YouTube thing... well, this was my chance to finally craft my story in a way that I only knew how. I’m not the best talker (I hated classes that were dependent on class participation). But when I pull out my camera to shoot and sit at my laptop to edit, that’s when I feel like I can express myself most freely. Twenty-three years into my life, and I just started to learn that these were some of the talents that God gave me, that this was my purpose on this earth ― to share my story.

Very quickly, I found my audience on YouTube ― a niche group of Asian-Americans. And that’s what I wanted ― to make content for Asian-Americans who also struggled with their identity and were looking for guidance or a conversation. I made videos because I strongly believe that it’s important for people to know that they’re not alone.

In the summer of 2014, a video of mine went viral on Reddit ― “Asian Parents React to I Love You” ― and it was because of that a senior producer at BuzzFeed found me. He reached out and asked if I wanted to move to Los Angeles for a fellowship. I initially turned it down, because I wanted to create inspiring Asian-American content, and at that time I thought BuzzFeed only made lists and cat videos. But after a few months, I decided: What harm would it be to just check it out? (Not to mention, I wasn’t making enough money from my YouTube channel to support myself, so I was waiting tables at night just to pay the bills.) That, along with much encouragement from my girlfriend, motivated me to pack my bags and leave for BuzzFeed.

If I can add [my] unique perspective to the collection of Asian-American voices in media, then I’ve done my job.

When I got to BuzzFeed, I developed close friendships with my co-workers, and it was so refreshing working in a creative environment. This ultimately led me to accepting a full-time offer at the end of my fellowship. But I was still determined to create create content for Asian-Americans. A few of my earlier videos included “Asian Parents Have The Sex Talk With Their Daughters” and “Women Photoshop Themselves With An Asian Beauty App.” I was proud of them, but these videos didn’t totally stick with our audience. While Asian-Americans found this content funny and interesting, a lot of our non-Asian viewers didn’t really relate. That’s when I began to retool and started creating food content.

Around that time, I along with a few co-workers started a show called “Feast Mode Hunger Squad.” We’d try out different restaurants in Los Angeles and play “telephone” until we found the best item of food in Los Angeles. It wasn’t what I came to BuzzFeed to ultimately do, but it was fun. The first video came out, and it was a hit. And the second one, too. And the third one. After a few episodes, I had an idea to do one of my favorite cuisines… Taiwanese brunch.

I suggested it to Freddie, my co-producer on the show, and she was totally down. She didn’t really know anything about it but she was excited to try. On the flip side, she wanted to share her style of brunch with me. We pulled in another friend of ours and ultimately made “Co-Workers Try Each Others’ Favorite Brunch Spots.”

That whole day, we shared stories of our own lives. I told Freddie about my upbringing, the food I ate, the culture around eating it, why it was important to my identity… and it was just easy. She was engaged, excited to learn about my background and couldn’t wait to try the food. And that’s when it clicked for me. Creating Asian-American content goes beyond talking about Asian-specific issues. It’s also about creating pieces where stories are universal and relatable. It’s about sharing our own cultures and identities with each other in their nuanced ways. And food is just that ― a perfect medium to share my story with others.

A year later, I created “Worth It.” Yes, creating Asian-American content is important. But you know what I’ve learned is equally if not more important? Just being myself ― an Asian-American person ― in one of the biggest shows at BuzzFeed. And moments where I can share my story, whether it’s calling my mom in the middle of a steak episode or trying tea-infused eggs at a Taiwanese street food restaurant... those are the moments that are going to inspire Asian-Americans as well as anybody who eats food.

I certainly can’t speak for all Asian-Americans, but I can tell you a little bit about myself:  I’m a Chinese Malaysian American introvert who loves basketball. In my spare time I watch sitcoms and relax at the beach. And I draw every ounce of strength from my faith in Jesus. If I can add that unique perspective to the collection of Asian-American voices in media, then I’ve done my job.

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