Eva Chen, bestselling author and director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, discusses the immigrant experience, being authentic to yourself and the model minority myth ahead of the release of her new book “I Am Golden.”
You might not know exactly how you first encountered Eva Chen, but chances are you’d recognize her. The former editor-in-chief of Lucky Magazine, current director of fashion partnerships at Instagram and New York Times bestselling author can be spotted yearly at the MET Gala, at New York and Paris Fashion Weeks and on Netflix’s “Next in Fashion” co-starring with famous friends.
Suffice it to say that Chen, who has nearly 2 million followers on Instagram, has found immense success in many ventures. Her latest children’s book, “I Am Golden,” is her first book to explore her racial identity. In a conversation with NextShark, Chen discussed the impact she hopes her latest book will have.
The origin of “I Am Golden”
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen feared that Asian Americans would be scapegoated as soon as she first heard the term “China virus.”
“I immediately felt this cold dread when I heard the term for the first time. I was like, this is going to be so bad.”
Growing up and living in New York City, Chen knew she had always been fortunate to live in a diverse place with a large population of Asian Americans. Still, she understood that bigotry and hatred could exist anywhere. Her parents, who also live in New York, didn’t understand her fear.
“They were like, there’s just no way. But sure enough, within like a week, the first hate crime happened.”
The worst aspect for Chen was knowing that Asian elders were being targeted.
“Growing up going to family dinners, the oldest person got the best meal, and you saved them the best parts of all the dishes – it was just horrifying to me,” she said.
With escalating instances of anti-Asian bias and hate incidents, Chen wanted to have conversations with her children about their Chinese identity. In 2020, her children were 5 and 2 1/2 years old, which made it difficult to introduce these topics.
During her own childhood, Chen didn’t have many opportunities to discuss identity and racism.
“My family is very practical and pragmatic, and, as immigrants, just working to build a home and a foundation for the family.” There wasn’t always space for conversations about being Chinese, she continued. “I didn’t grow up in a family where we talked about everything, about family history.”
The pandemic pushed her to consider these ideas more deeply.
“I would say I spent all of coronavirus – which is ongoing, I guess – thinking about my identity, my racial identity, my children, who are half Chinese.”
Writing the book became a chance to connect with her children and engage with her own parents.
“If you look at the book and you see the Author’s Note and then you see the photographs, all those photographs are family photos. My mom and dad walked me through each one.” The process of uncovering these memories helped her connect with her parents and open new discussions about their family. “It definitely allowed me to think about family and family history and allowed me to have those kinds of conversations.”
Embracing who you are
With “I Am Golden,” Chen hopes to facilitate these conversations earlier in readers’ lives, so the next generation feels empowered to embrace their authentic self.
“I hope that for some kids, it helps them build and grow confidence in who they are, and the skin they have, the eyes they have, the hair they have, and for them to understand that anytime someone calls you different, the difference is like a superpower.”
Chen said it took her a long time to embrace her authentic self, late into her 20s and even 30s. She hopes that younger people will learn earlier how to be true to themselves.
“The sooner you can bring your authentic self – and that incorporates everything from being Chinese to loving ‘Lord of the Rings,’ whatever it is that you love and you feel proud about — the sooner you can bring that, and feel confident projecting that into the universe and saying it unapologetically, the sooner you will feel at peace and secure in yourself.”
Career and the model minority myth
Throughout her career and in the multitude of spaces she’s been in, Chen said she’s been fortunate to not have experienced “negativity and malice” because of her identity.
“I have been aware, at different points in my career, of being the only ‘fill in the blank’ in the room: the only woman in the room, the only Asian in the room… I have definitely felt my otherness.” But, she says, she has been fortunate to have always felt supported. “I feel pretty lucky in that I never felt like I was intentionally othered.”
She worries about the model minority myth, which “very much sabotages or kind of undercuts the Asian community, where everyone assumes that everyone Asian is high-achieving, and successful, and financially solvent.”
Asian Americans who don’t fit into the model minority myth are rarely acknowledged. Chen highlighted Apex for Youth, a non-profit organization in New York City that helps Asian and immigrant youth, and cited the statistic that nearly one in four Asian Americans in New York City lives below the poverty line, the highest of any ethnic group in the city.
In order for things to change, Chen believes that there needs to be more seats at the table for Asian Americans.
“We need more Asian executives. There are fewer Asian executives at corporate companies than you think. We need more Asians in the arts. If there are more Asian book editors, will we see more Asian literature on the bookshelves? I hope so.”
“It’s all little incremental steps that hopefully will create this tidal wave of support and representation. It really starts with one person.”
“I Am Golden,” written by Eva Chen and illustrated by Sophie Diao, is available for pre-order and will be published Feb. 1.
Images via Macmillan Publishers