After her first anchor spot of 2022, Michelle Li got a voicemail from an audience member about her four-second mention of eating dumplings on New Years Eve. “You’re ‘very Asian’ and you need to be less… Korean,” the caller said. Michelle’s clip of her reaction listening to the voicemail went viral. These are the types of microaggressions that people of color receive daily, but Michelle didn’t let it slide. The momentum from the #VeryAsian movement landed her on Ellen, with Ellen Degeneres’s donation paving the way to create the Very Asian Foundation.
In the midst of all that is going on in the world, Michelle shared the best news on Instagram recently: she’s publishing her own children’s book, A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food, later this year! Turning around a book in a year for publication is a HUGE feat, and I wanted to chat with her about it. Read more about how the book came about and what’s next for the Very Asian Foundation.
AK: Where did the idea of the children’s book come from? What inspired the theme and the idea?
ML: I have always wanted to write books. From children’s books about adoption…to food… to journalism and breaking stereotypes. This one was a no-brainer – the inspiration came from a racist, viral voicemail from a news viewer who complained I was being “very Asian” after I talked about eating a Korean dish on air for New Year’s Day.
AK: As a journalist, that doesn’t surprise me at all! How did the partnership wtih Gloo Books come about?
The interesting thing about Gloo Books is that I was a fan of its founder, Karen Chan. She wrote What’s That? – a book about multi-cultural meals, family traditions, and friendship. I loved the concept of the book and the story behind Karen’s journey to become a publisher. The thing that did it for me? My son got excited about the book’s main character, Jax. My son thought he was Jax! He kept saying, “That’s me, mama!”
AK: It matters so much when our kids are able to see themselves represented in a world that often doesn’t portray their skin tone or · Tell us more about why you chose Sunnu Rebecca Choi as your illustrator? How did you meet her/come to know her work?
ML: The credit goes to Karen. She is committed to supporting and amplifying the work of people who have a personal relationship with the material. Sunnu Rebecca Choi is a Korean-Canadian illustrator based in the United Kingdom–how wonderful to have a global perspective as well as a knowledge and appreciation of Korean food. Sunnu is dedicated to inspiring people to find joy within themselves, which is a shared value of the Very Asian movement and foundation.
AK: Writing a children’s book is a little different than being an on-air journalist. What are some of the things that have surprised you so far in this writing journey?
ML: I think collaboration makes the experience very similar. It starts with an idea, writing, and the there’s feedback and edits. The process of crafting a story is actually very similar. And we worked on a fairly tight deadline—something I do multiple times a day for several newscasts. What I didn’t know is the actual process and then learning book-related things, like how long an average children’s book might be or thinking about what it could look like if we translated it into a different language.
AK: What are some details you can give us of how you are structuring the book?
ML: This is a fun book we’re calling A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food. There’s not a lot of flowery writing, it’s really just sharing some very cool Korean foods in a positive way, pointing out some Korean-American spins on them, while also celebrating their origins. For example, a lot of people living in the US seem to know about bulgogi (often called Korean barbecue), but we mention the American ways to eat it, like in tacos and burgers. Or we mention creamy tteokokki… it’s about mix and balance of Asian and American – kind of like Very Asian itself.
AK: I can’t wait to pre-order it! How do you hope audiences – both children and their families – will be impacted by this inclusive, inspiring book?
ML: We know that so many kids have traumatic stories about taking “stinky lunches” to school. It’s a shared experience that spans generations for Asian Americans. As an adoptee, I didn’t grow up that way, but I’ve definitely been told my lunch stinks as an adult. We hope this book inspires kids and adults alike to have pride in whatever foods they eat while others learn about food in a respectful way – and enjoy it themselves! As a parent, it’s important to me that I find representation in books, and I hope my son (who loves kimbap when most of his school friends do not) will continue loving his foods and not let others yuck his yum. I think this is a small, yet fun way to celebrate our humanity.
AK: What other topics do you hope to cover with this future series?
ML: Actually, I think it would be amazing if Gloo Books did a series on more very Asian foods. That would mean Karen Chan amplifying the work of other folks. However, I would like to personally write more about my experiences – adoption, families with multi-cultures and mixed races, trying to raise confident children, and journalism.
AK: That future hope is core to the mission of the Very Asian Foundation. Can you tell us more abut how you’ve grown this movement and the impact you’re making?
ML: The Very Asian Foundation continues to grow, but in our first 116 days, we launched a national awareness campaign with several AANHPI organizations to help young people have more access to Asian American literature. We are partnering with national scholars, students, educators, librarians, authors, and caregivers to create The May Book Project. We created an extensive book list for all readers, created and shared guides to help librarians build and maintain robust, inclusive collections, and we are raising money for those libraries that cannot afford to add to their collections.
We are so grateful to do this with the help of one of our major sponsors, Asutra. Stephanie Morimoto and Venus Williams co-own this women-led, self-care brand, and they’ve graciously contributed enough money to help buy between 2,500 to 4,600 books depending on the price points of the books requested by at-need libraries. We think Stephanie Morimoto is amazing for her enthusiasm of The May Book Project – it was a dream gift.
This project was inspired by high school students who asked for more Asian American and Pacific Islander books in their schools and were largely ignored. Many of them talked about struggling with mental health during the pandemic.
AK: How can we support you and your work?
ML: I think from The May Book Project perspective, it would be great if caregivers would consider sharing the book lists with their schools and seeing if this is something that fits their core values. Our scholars put more than 200 books on the list, so we believe it gives libraries many choices. It’s not curriculum in classes but access to literature in libraries. It has been wildly supported in Missouri, and we have schools across the country that are celebrating the project with us. At a time when mental health is a major focus of our young Asian American students (suicide is now the #1 cause of death in AA students aged 15-24 and the only group that has suicide as the #1 cause of death) we realize more than ever the need to reach out to our young people and make sure they are seen and supported.
Otherwise, we’re still also raising money for other organizations and looking for new opportunities to help support people need more representation.