Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to indicate that the caller who complained about Li for covering a Memorial Day celebration did not reach KSDK, but another station Li had worked with years ago.
Weeks after receiving a racist voicemail that quickly transformed into a solidarity movement, Missouri news anchor Michelle Li launched The Very Asian Foundation, an organization committed to amplifying diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voices.
Li, who works at NBC affiliate KSDK in St. Louis, made headlines at the beginning of the year after a viewer complained about her mentioning dumpling soup while reporting on food Americans eat on New Year’s Day.
“Hi, this evening your Asian anchor mentioned something about being Asian, and Asian people eat dumplings on New Year’s Day,” the woman can be heard saying in the voicemail. “I kind of take offense to that because what if one of your white anchors said, ‘Well, white people eat this on New Year’s Day.’ I don’t think it was very appropriate that she said that,” the unidentified viewer said.
They continued, “She was being very Asian. I don’t know. She can keep her Korean to herself. Alright, sorry. It was annoying because if a white person would say that, they would get fired. So, say something about what white people eat. Alright, thank you.”
Sparking a movement
Shortly after, Li took to social media to share the call. To her surprise, she received an outpouring of support over the next few hours, including comments and messages from prominent politicians, celebrities, influencers and fellow journalists.
“To see people I admire tweet their opinions or personal stories was surreal,” Li told NextShark. “Some of them reached out personally, and some of them even gave advice on a way forward to continue the momentum.”
Li said she is “very humbled” to receive such a degree of support.
It did not take long before Li’s post about the viewer’s complaint sparked a new movement throughout and beyond Asian communities. Social media users shared countless photos of their family and culture, owning their heritage and taking pride in themselves for being #VeryAsian.
“When it started going viral, it was a little terrifying,” Li said. You start thinking, ‘How many times did I put my kid out there? Am I going to get in trouble with my boss?’ You start to realize how much control you don’t have in that situation, and you have to just hope for the best — which I am so lucky because I think the outcome was better than I could have ever imagined.”
Dealing with racism
Li, a seasoned journalist with over 20 years of experience, is Korean American. She was adopted and raised by a white family in Missouri and was able to reconnect with her Korean family in 1998.
Since meeting her biological parents, Li has incorporated Korean culture into her life. But even before the dumpling soup comment, she wrestled against racist and discriminatory comments for too long.
“I’ve been called Connie Chung, Tricia Takanawa, Michelle Kwan, etc., and two of those recently,” Li shared. “But I’ve also been called Asian slurs, which I always think is hilarious because if you’re calling me a gook, you are actually just calling me ‘soup’ or ‘country,’ since that’s what the Korean word ‘guk’ means. If you’re calling me another Asian slur, it shows your ignorance about who I am.”
Li looked back on an incident years ago in which another woman complained about her for covering a Memorial Day celebration. For no apparent reason, the woman assumed she was Japanese.
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“She told my producer, ‘Get that damn Jap off the air! How dare you disrespect our country,’” Li recalled.
“I can’t tell you how many times someone said I couldn’t work at a news station because it already had one Asian anchor – can’t have two because it might confuse the viewer,” she added. “I’ve also been told by news directors and hiring managers that I would only succeed on the West Coast where there is a bigger AAPI population. News directors and my agents have asked me to change my name. That is still happening to AAPI journalists if their name is ‘too hard to pronounce.’”
Li believes every single AAPI journalist has experienced something similar, but that many “do not feel supported enough to share.” Needless to say, the problem is far from being confined to the workplace.
“People have thrown money at me and asked me to ‘love them long time,’” Li shared. “Once, someone threw a box of rice at me. Even as a kid, there were boys who drove up and down our school with confederate flags, and a boy once told me his dad didn’t want us to date because we could end up together and have mixed kids.”
As someone with a bicultural background, Li has also had to deal with difficulties from her Korean side.
“I’ve had Korean people tell me it was a shame I was adopted, my Korean family is made of terrible people, and I am a broken person. All of these racist, ignorant incidents started very young, as it tends to do, and it simply compounds over the years. Little girls get hypersexualized, and little boys get emasculated before they understand what is being said, and it’s trauma that carries into adulthood,” she said.
Launching organized efforts
Li on Wednesday appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where she spoke about the now infamous voicemail and how it started the #VeryAsian movement. In partnership with nonprofit Tisbest, Ellen presented Li a $15,000 check to be used to kickstart The Very Asian Foundation. The foundation, which now has a website, commits itself to amplifying diverse AAPI voices. It is currently selling merchandise and raising funds for other pro-Asian organizations, including the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and Stop AAPI Hate.
“We have a board, and we’ve had a lot of wonderful leaders and influencers in St. Louis and across the country who’ve given countless hours to help [set] this up,” Li said. “We also have grassroots efforts going here in St. Louis, Seattle and Minneapolis right now. We know we will evolve, but at the very least we will form something that will make an impact in communities.”
Li told Nextshark she thought #VeryAsian would disappear after a few days, but it is now clear that “people have a lot of pride in being #VeryAsian.” She referred to a tweet from physician Sherry C. Wang which summed up the whole saga:
Li stressed that there is still a lot of work to do to combat racism, discrimination and violence targeting the AAPI community but that its members also can take time for joy.
“I think that’s why the movement could be here to stay,” she said.
“It’s almost to say, come for the pride but stay for the empowerment to stop racism… and eat our dumplings! Everyone loves sharing pics of their dumplings.”
Reconnecting with the caller
Li described the aftermath of the call as a “rollercoaster of emotions.” She was shocked, saddened and eventually angered as she flashed back to all her previous experiences of racism in her memory.
“I was just so shocked right after hearing the call because it seemed so ludicrous. But a few hours later, it felt heavy and sad. I started internalizing so much of what she said and how she said it,” she recalled. “I got angry that she took the time to find our station number and make the effort to leave a voicemail as if to speak to a manager.
“I was hurt thinking about the many times I’ve endured similar acts of racism and hatred. I felt subhuman in a way. It was a rollercoaster of emotions, to say the least, but I think that’s what happens when someone processes something hateful.”
Li said the viewer later called again – only this time, to apologize for her remarks. KSDK featured the story on TV.
“It’s a very complicated conversation, but ultimately, she apologized and I accepted,” Li told NextShark. “We had a long talk, and we said we’d meet each other when it’s COVID-safe for a chat.”
Li said she does not know the viewer’s name, but she recognizes her voice. She also called the experience a “gift” for all the good things that have emerged from it.
“I don’t want to see her canceled. In fact, I do not know her name. I just know her voice. She ultimately gave me an incredible gift, and the most important thing is that we are both safe. There are people who get hurt or killed everyday because of racist behavior. That didn’t happen here. We are all growing. No one is perfect. And we can move on without her,” Li said.
Finding strength in community
Since the notorious call, Li said she has heard from so many people who felt “seen in a way they hadn’t been seen before.” Many of such messages came from transracial adoptees, those of mixed race and the LGBTQ community.
The overwhelming response, however, came from people who say they had been fighting with the notion of not being “Asian enough” until the #VeryAsian movement began to take off.
“We are all 100 percent human. We do not need to calculate our Asianness by percentages. I don’t believe in saying you are ‘half’ of something when you’re a full person. Half seems negative. Mixed is better,” Li said.
She added, “I don’t want to raise my son thinking he’s half anything, though he can use whatever language he wants when he wants. We should be allowed to bring our full humanity to the table, which is what I posted when I shared the voicemail.”
Li is now urging others to take time for introspection. She points out that no one can be boxed in for being one thing.
“I think as simple as it sounds, we need to find a way to reach self-acceptance and ultimately self-love. And we can do that by accepting the fact that we play many roles and represent many identities,” she said. “Everyone has multiple identities. No one is just one thing.
“I have fought with being too white, too Asian, too big, too small, too loud, too submissive, too mom-ish… or not American enough, not Asian enough, not this, not that. At some point, I’m just me. And when I can love all of me, I can be better to all the people around me.”