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This Is Our Asian American Experience


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There was a distinct period in my life when I was fixated with my eyelids. I hated my monolids and wanted to have a clear, defined crease more than anything. I spent hours on the Internet watching obscure tutorials on how to fake a crease and would stock up on eyelid tape every time I returned to China to see my grandparents. When I started working in beauty—where I discovered Chinese models like Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun, who were lauded and considered beautiful with their monolids—my double-eyelid obsession waned until there was barely a sliver left. I started appreciating my natural eye shape, which slants slightly in the corners and falls somewhere between a full monolid and double eyelid. I wrote and edited stories about empowerment and embracing the features you were born with, and slowly but surely, I started to embody that mindset and accept—even love—my own appearance. But I had years of conditioning to undo—years of believing that success, love and happiness would only be mine if I looked more white. It’s still an ongoing process.

On the surface, the beauty industry might appear to celebrate Asian culture more than others, from the rise of K-beauty to the growing interest in Ayurvedic skincare. But working in the industry as an Asian person is a complicated experience. You’re tasked with championing a more diverse version of beauty, while simultaneously dealing with dismissiveness from your peers and your own long-held beliefs about your own identity. There’s tokenism, appropriation, and daily microaggressions in the form of veiled “compliments.” It’s a nuanced, complex experience, and one that needs to be shared, especially with the rising anti-Asian sentiment in our pandemic-stricken world.

Ahead, I asked 23 Asian editors and influencers at the top of their game to share the personal journeys that got them there. There are common themes—lack of representation, a yearning to assimilate in childhood—and there are stories that are uniquely heartbreaking in their own ways. As anti-Asian hate crimes grow exponentially, it’s time for our stories to be told. No more “model minority” myth. No more putting everyone else’s causes before our own. We are not a monolith, but rather as vast and diverse as the stars in the night sky (and to that point, you’ll find stories from our South Asian sisters here too, who are often overlooked in conversations about Asian Americans in beauty).

To all Asians reading this, I hope these stories help you feel seen—and to non-Asians and our allies, I hope they help you see us.

tina craig


Tina Craig

Instagram: @bagsnob

Background: I am 100% Chinese, born in Taiwan. My grandparents immigrated to Taiwan from China during the cultural revolution

Growing up, did you see yourself represented in media or magazines? How did that affect your perception of beauty?

I was a teen in the ‘80s, the era of glamazon supermodels, like Cindy Crawford and Paulina Porizkova. My favorite model was Reneé Simonsen, a blue-eyed blonde Danish cover star. I watched mainstream sitcoms like Growing PainsFacts of Life and Family Ties. The only times Asians appeared on the shows were when they were the Chinese “Susie Wong” waitress in restaurant scenes or Chinese-food delivery guys in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances. I hated how Asians were represented in film and television. Asian women were mostly portrayed as slutty dragon ladies with heavy black eyeliner and tight Cheongsams and Asian men subservient punching bags (Long Duk Dong, anyone?). It bred self-loathing in not only myself but I think many of my peers.

Clear lack of representation was compounded with simultaneous misrepresentation. It was as if you had two choices: Resort to invisibility or subscribe to the hurtful stereotypes. I chose neither.

When I immigrated to the United States at eight years old, I did my best to become as American as possible. I wore Levis and rainbow tees, instead of the custom-made dresses my grandmother had her tailor sew for me. And I learned to speak English without a trace of accent. But I knew I was never fully accepted. I was everyone’s pet: “Teeny-Tiny Tina.” By high school, I started tanning at the beach and pool during the day and hitting the tanning salon at night: purely a rebellion against my grandmother’s “no sun” rule. I wore heavy black eyeliner to make my eyes appear rounder and accentuated my lids with pastel-blue eyeshadow.

All throughout high school, I only befriended non-Asian friends, mainly because I grew up in very white communities. The few Asians at my schools were the typical quiet and studious kids of immigrants. Not me. Instead, I was loud and demanded attention. I spent a lot of time in detention. I recall a few teachers (usually white males) commenting that I wasn’t very “oriental” because of my boisterous behavior. They wanted me to know my place. I’m thankful I had a few strong female teachers who encouraged me to find my voice, my art teacher especially. She understood me, encouraging me to try out for cheerleading (the Pom Pom Girl dance team, to be specific) and run for student body, so I could channel my loud energy in a more positive way. If not for people like her, I would have been completely on my own to forge a path—which I was determined to do no matter what.

I didn’t like how people treated my family, and while they stayed silent in the face of blatant racism, I wanted to be heard and seen. In the ‘80s, someone threw a soda can at my dad’s white Cadillac as we were pulling out of a Gemco parking lot and called us “Ching Chong Chinks.” My dad stopped the car and got out to pick up the soda can to politely throw it away, but I jumped out, grabbed it, chased after the teen and tossed the can back at him, screaming. My family worried about me. They thought I was a troublemaker, and I was: Little Tina wanted to be heard.

When Lucy Liu came on the scene in the ‘90s, I was in college at USC. Everyone said I looked like her. Random white people felt very comfortable telling me, “You look just like Lucy Liu.” WE LOOK NOTHING ALIKE. But it was at the same time, embarking on this new phase of life at USC, when I began embracing my heritage and made Asian friends. At 18, I stopped tanning and have never tanned again. Suddenly, I was more interested in taking care of my skin than altering the shade of it. So I spent my grocery money on eye and face serums and facials, instead of burgers and wine coolers. And I began doing my makeup in a way that suited me, rather than disguise me.

What has your experience been as an Asian American in the fashion/beauty industry?

It’s been mostly positive, because I demanded to be treated well. I’ve simply never accepted anything less. If people were racist towards me, I’d call them out. I felt seen because I demanded to be seen. I never felt represented anywhere, so I decided to represent myself.

How do seeing “trends” like fox eye makeup make you feel?

I detest fox-eye makeup and the accompanying gestures of pulling one’s eyes back. It reminds me of kids yanking up their eyes at me and shouting, “Chinese! Japanese! Look at me!” when I was young. Even now, people, specifically editors and brand PR reps confuse me with other Asian women, like Aimee Song and Tina Leung. They tag us interchangeably on Instagram. Mixing me up with Tina Leung: I get that because of our names. But Aimee? We look nothing alike. She’s gorgeous, but the fact is, we look nothing alike.

What do you want allies and non-Asian people to know most about how to support the Asian community?

We are not the “quiet minority” that will be passively silenced and continuously stereotyped. There are a few ways people can make a difference, which is increasingly imperative as hate crimes against Asian-Americans have increased by 1,900% in the past 12 months. End the model minority myth, and start by educating yourself on the wide Asian-American experience. It’s vast, layered and a vital part of the tapestry that makes up this country. Volunteer with organizations doing their part, like the NAPAWF. Support your local Chinatown and Asian-owned businesses. Every little bit counts. Speak up on the subject. Racial injustice and hate crimes against Asian-Americans are seriously underreported by mainstream media and underplayed by government officials. The more people spread awareness, the more chance we have for real change.

aya kanai


Aya Kanai

Instagram: @ayakanai

Background: I was born in the US, have a dual citizenship, and my parents have lived in the US since the late 1960s.

Growing up, did you see yourself represented in media? How did that affect your perception of beauty?

I did not see myself represented in magazines growing up. I looked up to the ’90s supermodels (Linda, Kate, Christy, Naomi) who were larger than life, but not Asian. I am 5’10” so I knew that being tall was an asset, but my perception of beauty was that I should always be striving to be something different than what I was. And if I had a penny for everytime someone asked me how a Japanese person could be as tall as me, I would be rich! When people ask me where I’m from, I like to stare blankly back at them and say, “I’m an American” or “I’m from New York.” I know they are trying to ask what kind of Asian I am but I can’t give it up. If you want to know what kind of Asian I am, just ask that question.

What do you want allies and non-Asian people to know most about how to support the Asian community?

The fashion/beauty industry has had a long term fascination with Asian cultures. This, for better or worse, means people think I wont get wrinkles (I have them) or will be quiet and passive (I’m neither).  Aging and the signs of age are honored in many Asian cultures, which makes the shocking rise in crimes targeting elderly Asian people even worse. Nothing is acceptable about the violence against Asian people, especially as so many have been living in fear while trying to celebrate their New Year. Elderly people (of any race) are the keepers of knowledge and inspiration in a pre-digital world. Searching the Internet doesn’t compare to talking to elderly people about their experiences. Support the Asian community by amplifying the stories of this violence to your network. Talk about it because the news wont. Say it’s unacceptable. Wear your mask and when you are out on the street, if you see someone in danger, help them.

Deepica Mutyala


Deepica Mutyala

Instagram: @deepica

Background: South Asian

Growing up, did you see yourself represented in media or magazines? How did that affect your perception of beauty?

Absolutely not. I changed everything about myself; dyed my hair blonde and wore blue contacts. It’s the whole reason I set down the career path that I am. I want to change this narrative for the next generation.

What has your experience been in the fashion/beauty industry?

I’ve always felt tokenized in the beauty industry. That said, I always viewed it as a positive because the existence of a token Brown girl wasn’t even a thing when I was growing up, so we are moving in the right direction. My goal is to normalize all shades and skin tones to be seen as equals.

What do you want allies and non-Asian people to know most about how to support the Asian community?

We deserve more opportunities in creative careers. We were told our whole life to go down a very traditional career path to “live the American dream,” but the reality is that there is a whole collective of us out there that are super talented and meant to build our own versions of the American dream. I hope more of us are given the opportunity to do so, and I plan to do what I can to help make that happen.

kathleen hou


Kathleen Hou

Instagram: @kathleenhou

Background:  Taiwanese-American.

Growing up, did you see yourself represented in media or magazines? How did that affect your perception of beauty?

The first Asian I saw on TV was Connie Chung. The first Asian I read about was Claudia Kishi of the Babysitter’s Club. The first Asian I saw in a magazine was a random person who was a runner-up (not even a winner) in a Seventeen modeling contest. Growing up, it made me think that Asians had to exist on the fringes of society and culture, and the rare one who “broke through” was an exception. Then, in my teen years, on a summer trip to Taiwan, I realized Asians were everywhere. There were Taiwanese pop stars like Jolin Tsai, singing to sold-out stadiums, with pyrotechnics and fireworks. There were Taiwanese hotties doing CW-like shows. There were Taiwanese basketball players. There were Asian makeup artists who didn’t try to Westernize my features. It made me realize that the realm of possibility of what I thought Asians could do and look like, was limited because of whiteness.

What has your experience been as an Asian American in the fashion/beauty industry?

Previous to this week, I would have said that I felt lucky in a lot of ways as an Asian in the beauty industry. And I still do, in many ways. Thanks to the explosion of J-Beauty and K-Beauty, we are recognized for our manufacturing know-how to the industry. Compared to Black people, we are more seen and recognized, and have a much easier time finding our foundation shades in-stores or products which work for our hair.

But it makes me think of what Steve Yuen said: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” To that end, I’m going to ask for more and say that we aren’t still aren’t seen in a lot of ways. In brand discussions and imagery, it seems that the only races discussed are either white or Black. I receive so many DMs asking, “What is the best ______ for Asian _____?” so I know that people aren’t feeling seen in the industry. There are lot of microaggressions that show that people think of us as a monolith, such as receiving an email about J-Beauty, and the “stock image” pictured being Korean actress Song Hye-Ko. There are many white TikTokers with their gua shas who exoticize alleged “ancient Chinese beauty practices” or worse, quickly gloss over, or barely acknowledge, where this “hot new trend” came from. When speaking about eye makeup, how many people know how politicized Asian eyes are, or that there is a wide range of eye shapes that affect technique and the products that suit us? I can’t even imagine how underrepresented the Southeast Asian and Indian community must feel in beauty.

What do you want allies and non-Asian people to know most about how to support the Asian community?

You can support more than one community at a time. Asians have to be included in anti-racism discussions. You can’t talk about K-Beauty or be influenced by it, or be a brand that sells jade rollers, without supporting the Asian community or donating to anti-Asian-hate causes.

kristina rodulfo


Kristina Rodulfo

Instagram: @kristinarodulfo

Background: Filipino—both of my parents are Filipino immigrants who moved to NYC in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I’m the first American born in my whole family, so I’m very connected to and proud of my culture. I grew up learning the dances, eating the food, participating in traditions, and doing Filipino American community work. My background is a huge part of who I am.

Growing up, did you see yourself represented in media or magazines? How did that affect your perception of beauty?

I never saw myself represented–and I was a magazine lover from a really young age because I knew I wanted to be an editor one day. My earliest memory of feeling somewhat represented was watching Michelle Kwan figure skating at the 1998 Olympics. It was the first time I saw someone who looks like me on TV being celebrated as strong, powerful, graceful, and beautiful–I became so obsessed with her I bought my own pair of white skates, read every book about her, and wore the same gold dragon necklace on a red string she wore (even though I’m not from the same cultural background).

Other than that, I remember searching for other Asian women in magazines, beauty brand commercials and campaign imagery in drugstore aisles, television, movies–and never seeing them. Even when Filipino people like myself started getting notoriety in Hollywood—Vanessa Hudgens, Shay Mitchell, Darren Criss—the fact they were usually half-white always reinforced the idea that proximity to whiteness is most desirable: You’re only beautiful when you’re mixed with white features, like a straighter nose or a sharper jawline. This is something deeply embedded in the Philippines too, especially with its history of Spanish colonization and U.S. occupation. When I visit Manila, there are entire drugstore sections dedicated to whitening your skin. I even had an aunt gift me papaya soap to lighten my tan complexion when I was 14 or so—and I used it for six months because I thought that’s what I had to do to be pretty. I would pinch my own rounded nose, dream about getting a nose job, wish I had blue or green eyes, lighter hair…it’s heartbreaking, really, thinking back on how young I was and how deeply insecure I felt about features passed down to me from my ancestors because my kind of beauty was never celebrated in mainstream media. I’ve come a long way in loving myself and unlearning these racist, singular ideals of “beauty,” but validating my own beauty is something I still work on everyday.

What has your experience been as an Asian American in the fashion/beauty industry?

I have to say it feels really lonely at times. First of all, even though I reject the model minority myth, it is true that a lot of Asian immigrant parents of my friends had this expectation for us to pick “stable” careers because of the sacrifice it took for them to uproot their lives and settle stateside. I’m lucky enough my parents were supportive (and I had an older brother paving the path for me in the media industry as a television producer), but I was very much still met with the “Are you sure you don’t want to be a nurse/doctor/lawyer/engineer?” question many times.

Coming up, I didn’t really have mentors or connections because there were not really that many Asian editors for me to look up to. I remember discovering Eva Chen when she was the Beauty Director at Teen Vogue so I went to Teen Vogue University to meet her, and then to Teen Vogue’s Fashion’s Night Out event in Soho just to see her again. It was so novel for me to see a senior level-editor (and eventually an editor in chief at Lucky!) who was Asian, so to this day I look up to her and follow her as an example of what I could do with my own career.

Even when I found success, it still felt lonely at times. I remember going on a huge press trip for a major beauty company—there must have been 40 editors on that trip—and I was the only Asian woman there, and one of two Asians, total. It was jarring. When I go to industry conferences, sales/business meetings, I am always the only Asian person in the room. When people are talking about diversity and inclusion, they almost never include Asian people, experiences, or perspectives into the equation—so I feel like I always have to be the one to push for it. And, throughout my career, I’ve always made the effort to cover Asian story subjects, hire Asian talent, interns, writers, models, makeup artists…anywhere I could lift us up, I would. But I always wondered to myself…if I wasn’t there, would that still happen?

People don’t even realize the number of microaggressions we face daily. I was once told by a high-level person after they saw a video I hosted that I was “actually SO articulate!!”….like it was a surprise I was comfortable and commanding in front of a camera. That’s almost as bad as the time a man at a bar once told me “You speak English really well!” Both meant it as compliments. It made me wonder if stereotypes involving Asian women being “quiet” or “docile” (ugh) had something to do with that. It stung me.

I feel like there’s a general sense of apathy toward the fact that I’m Filipino/Asian American and I resent that. Like I wrote on Instagram recently, “it feels like you have to distance yourself from your own heritage and history to be some culture-less avatar to fit conveniently in molds and systems that still uphold racism and never celebrate you.” I used to feel like I had to minimize my cultural background to try and “blend in” to the very white-dominant world of media, but I’ve come to learn that being silent about it doesn’t help anyone.

What do you want allies and non-Asian people to know most about how to support the Asian community?

I want allies and non-Asian people to expand their understanding of “Asian”—there’s a lot of nuance. The East Asian experience is very different from the Southeast Asian experience is very different from the South Asian experience and Pacific Islander experience. And within those groups, the individual cultures (Filipino, Indonesian, Vietnamese, etc) are vastly different as well. Our traditional clothes are not costumes you can put on for Halloween. Our food isn’t just your Friday night takeout. Our countries aren’t just Instagram background playgrounds.

Our traditional clothes are not costumes you can put on for Halloween. Our food isn’t just your Friday night takeout. Our countries aren’t just Instagram background playgrounds.

Watch movies that center (not fetishize!) us, read books by Asian authors, like Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. But don’t just stop at memoirs or critical race theory—read our fiction, too (like If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha)! Diversify your feed with Asian creators, follow Asian news networks (like Vice AsiaNBC Asian America)—especially because news about us is extremely under-reported—support Asian-founded brands and companies, and by all means diversify who you hire and, most importantly, promote in decision-making roles. I think we desperately need to shift perceptions of “Asian” from stereotypes and tropes, and the way to do that is expanding how you, yourself, view Asian people.

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