I have a confession to make. I was born in America, speak perfect English, educated at top American universities, produced for American companies, give back to American charities and communities, and built a category changing mobile gaming company in America, but still I am not seen as an American.
My whole life I’ve had this song running in my head from Sesame Street: “One of these Things Is Not Like the Other”
One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things doesn’t belong.
As Asian-Americans we have been told that we don’t belong. Sometimes subtly, when I was told with surprise that I didn’t have an accent or ask where I’m really from. Other times, not so subtly, when people pull their eyelids back and say “ching ching chong chong” or yell, “Go back to where you came from!” and - I am not making this up: “ Holly Liu, Do you see half of what we see?”
That bad crab, only you tried to take it. Everybody else want best quality. You, your thinking different. Waverly took best-quality crab. You took worst, because you have best-quality heart. You have style no one can teach. Must be born this way. I see you.
- Suyan talking to her daughter June, The Joy Luck Club
The movie Joy Luck Club came out in 1993. It was the first film I remember seeing about the Asian-American experience. The movie follows 4 mother-daughter pairs bonded by more than just playing mahjong, but experiences of trauma, hopes, dreams and expectations. Every time I read this quote, my eyes well up at the last three words: I see you.
Growing up in a predominately White American town in the 80’s, I dreaded being seen for the wrong types of things - my almond-shaped eyes, my monolids, my hard to pronounce surname, my strange shoe customs, and my delicious “aromatic” lunches. My goal was to be as invisible as possible and not bring attention to myself lest there be trouble. And regardless, there was still trouble, and constant reminders that I didn’t belong and was not American. We have a popular saying in Chinese called “吃苦” (che ku). It literally means eat bitterness. If you have problems you don’t want to burden anyone, especially those you love. Instead, you hold it in and stay silent, offering the best crab to everyone else, while you take the worst crab. Hence you give up the ability to be fully seen for who you are. 1
However, a few weeks ago, the targeting of Asian-American women catalyzed the unseen to be seen. The horrific shootings of 6 Asian-American women in Atlanta, GA, has brought pain, trauma and tears as we grapple with the horrors and relive our own traumas as Asians in America. And we can no longer just eat bitterness.
I often joke that invisibility is the Asian-American superpower. We quietly try to do our work and not make a fuss. When people are horrifically unfair to us, we continue to sacrifice behind closed doors where we are never seen as “leadership” material even though our English is perfect, our manners impeccable, our skillset above average. We continue to toil, putting our jobs, our bosses, colleagues, friends and family above ourselves. 2 And, when we get passed over and hit that “bamboo ceiling” because we aren’t management material, we never scream or shout. Instead we decide to leave and build our own companies. We provide jobs, not just for ourselves but also *for* other Americans.
And despite all of the hatred and racism, we continue to provide for the very people who spew the hatred. We continue to provide for the very country who legislated against us.3 We continue to provide for the very people who have hurt us. We continue to provide for the very people who kick us out. Why? Because we are Americans too who love this country dearly - even more dearly.
And even in this moment, I sit and think maybe we don’t want to take away from the Black Lives Matter movement because they were brought here in chains forced to live as less than. The Native Americans where we cruelly took their land and subjugated them. The Mexicans whom we continue to turn away. But this comparison of people of color, it’s this very thinking that divides us more. It’s the systematic racism that has become a noxious gas that is killing us all.
United we Stand. Divided we Fall.
The other day my Indian-American friend told me, “When I look at you, you are the American Dream. Your parents came here with nothing, not knowing English, and they worked while they raised you. You worked hard and built a successful company from nothing. Regardless how you feel, you are American.”
Just like that I realized I can flip the script and embrace being an American.
As founders and investors we can change the script, not just flip it. We impact entire industries, like gaming and create entirely new categories, like Apple. But when we focus on exclusivity, we keep our market potential small. 4 As founders, we have the ability to be leaders to our employees, customers, and industry. We need our organizations to be as diverse and wide as the customers we aim to serve. Promote the Asian American who marks high in every category but has a hard to pronounce name. Provide Asian Americans with true access to leadership opportunities. As investors, we have the ability to determine which founders and problems get funded, but if everyone who is making the investing decision is white and male, you are missing out on large opportunties. Promote that diligent analyst that doesn’t look like you. I promise you we will make you proud - that is part of who we are.
And for everyone, you have the ability to stop being invisible and make our voices heard. If you feel moved, I encourage you to sign our statement: Stand With Asian Americans
🙏Thank you for reading and supporting thus far. This is a break from the usual things I’ve been writing about but it is important and core to who I am. Special thanks to Jen Liao and Karen Hong for reading drafts of this. And a thank you to Dave Lu and Justin Zhu for rallying the Asian American tech and business community together.
❤️Sharing is caring. If you think someone could benefit from this newsletter or post, please share! ❤️
After this, so many Asians talked about horrific trauma and accidents their parents experienced that they did not know for the longest time so as “not to be a bother.” Their parents thought they could be strong by “eating bitterness.”
I received a deluge of emails and support the week it happened, but it took me a beat to wonder why. Not only have I been towards two deadlines, but my natural tendency would be just to stay silent and “eat bitterness”.
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 - Chinese people were the only peoples to have a law that excluded them from immigrating to the US.
There is a large difference between focus and exclusivity. When you focus on something it doesn’t mean things out of focus disappear, they are just in the background. Exclusivity is forcing them to disappear.