MINNESOTA, USA — On New Year's Day a viewer in St. Louis, Missouri called KSDK, the local NBC affiliate and KARE 11's TEGNA sister station, and left a voicemail.
In that phone message a woman criticized award-winning anchor Michelle Li for talking about what Korean people eat on New Year's Day.
"It was a simple story," Li wrote. "Americans eat greens for wealth, black eyed peas for luck, cornbread for gold, and pork for progress. And then at the end, I said, 'I ate dumpling soup. That's what a lot of Korean people do.'"
The caller said she took offense to Li's segment, saying Li was being "very Asian" on TV and that she should "keep her Korean to herself." The caller went on to say that if a white person talked about what they ate on New Year's Day "they would get fired."
You can listen to the full voicemail on Li's Instagram page.
Li, who is a Korean adoptee, responded to the incident in an article, writing “We should all be allowed to bring our full humanity to the table and this is what happens when you’re perceived as perpetually foreign."
"Michelle and I had reached out to each other following the Atlanta shootings of six Asian women and two others. We already had that connection of sisterhood both in being Asian and also being journalist. So when Michelle posted the voicemail, I was hurt right along with her," said KARE 11 Sunrise anchor Gia Vang.
Vang, who is Hmong, retweeted Li's video and said "Hmong people consume a lot of Hmong sausage, chicken, pork with pepper this time of year. @MichelleLiTV I must be #VeryAsian too right now."
In just a few days, the #VeryAsian hashtag exploded on Twitter and generated national attention. Fellow journalists and members of the AAPI community are still sharing messages of support for Michelle, and Twitter users have started using the hashtag to share photos of their own traditional Asian meals.
Now, Very Asian is more than just a hashtag – it's also a pop-up project started by Vang and Li with the goal of "bringing attention to the pervasive nature of anti-AAPI attitudes in this country."
"I think in the moment I wanted to reclaim those words and I know I wasn’t the only one," said Vang. "Michelle simply responded by asking if #VeryAsian could be a T-shirt. The response was almost immediate with a resounding yes, and we knew we needed to do something good with the momentum."
Vang and Li designed a series of shirts, hats and sweatshirts for both adults and kids. After costs all proceeds will be donated to the Asian American Journalists Association, whose goal is to advocate for AAPIs in newsrooms, advance diversity and ensure fair and accurate coverage of communities of color.
For Vang, her connection to AAJA dates back to college. "I knew I loved my English classes and have always had a bend toward service to others. I thought journalism could be the thing to marry those two passions," she said.
"AAJA not only gave me access to people who looked like me doing what I aspired to do, but the encouraging mentors made me reach outside my comfort zone," recalled Vang. In 2008 she attended the UNITY Convention in Chicago, where organizations that support BIPOC journalists come together for one event. "I can still feel the chills on my arms when I think about that trip because it opened my eyes to a world where the sky was the limit for a person who looked like me."
To Vang, the voicemail left for Michelle Li perpetuated the idea that Asian people are not American enough. So even though it hurt to hear someone claim Li needed to "keep her Korean to herself," Vang said she's encouraged by the conversations sparked by yet another incident targeting the AAPI community.
"I have been touched by how my friends who are not Asian are now thinking and talking about anti-AAPI attitudes and looking at their own biases. My heart has been warmed by people are who part Asian now beginning the conversation to examine their identities and find ways to connect to their culture that feels right for them," said Vang.
"Ultimately, I want people to know that different cultures create a more vibrant community for all of us."
The Very Asian pop-up sale lasts until Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 at noon CST.
Below are links to more organizations and resources to support the AAPI community:
WATCH MORE: St. Louis news anchor Michelle Li receives outpouring of support after viewer's anti-Asian voicemail