A Korean-American TV anchor who went viral last year after receiving a racist voicemail for sharing about her culture is doubling down on sharing her and other Asian American cultures.
Michelle Li had shared about the Korean tradition of eating dumpling soup on New Year’s Day. A viewer then left her a voicemail calling her “annoying” and “very Asian.”
She and former KARE 11 news anchor Gia Vang went on to create the Very Asian Foundation and on Tuesday they donated over 70 “very Asian” books to two St. Paul public schools: Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy and Phalen Lake Hmong Studies.
“We want to make sure that when we celebrate ourselves and who we are, that the younger generations can see that for themselves, too,” said Vang, “and see not just us physically here in person, but when they go to their school library that they can see themselves reflected in books.”
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“It's not even about diversity; it's about dignity,” added Li. “It's about giving kids a chance to read about themselves or see a character who may look like them, or just have some sort of relatable content. I remember growing up and having zero.”
The foundation partnered with We Need Diverse Books to create The May Book Project, an initiative to get more Asian American literature in schools, following a panel conversation with St. Louis high school students.
“They were talking about how it really impacted their mental health to be invisible in the places that they really wanted to be seen, like school, and then go to the grocery store and have someone say, ‘Go back to your country. You're the reason we have kung flu,’” she said.
The students had created a list of books by Asian American and Pacific Islander writers they wanted their schools to buy to help them feel more seen. When they said their schools ignored them, Li decided to take up the mission.
She called up library expert Sarah Park Dahlen, who convened national scholars and associations to expand the book list. They also developed free toolkits so schools can incorporate readings into their curricula.
The list includes local authors like Kao Kalia Yang and Bao Phi.
Li said it’s an Asian American youth literature project for all readers so the Very Asian Foundation donates books to schools in need, regardless of their student demographics.
Books celebrating Asian heritage are “hard to find,” according to Julia Fung, who has been leading professional development and coordinating curriculums at Jie Ming Immersion Academy since 2013.
She was thankful and excited for the donations. She said she didn’t even know so many books from Asian authors existed, “so it's amazing to have them now,” she said.
A third-grade class at Jie Ming seemed to appreciate them, too.
For story time on Tuesday, Vang came in to read “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners,” a picture book where a young Asian girl learns to embrace her eye shape.
Afterwards, Vang asked what students liked about the book.
They went around sharing similar reactions.
"Just because you're different doesn't mean you're weird," said one third-grader.