A hiss of steam, followed by a fragrant whiff of soup dumplings, steaming in their bamboo domes like plump, glistening pillows. My mother’s Shanghainese dialect cutting through the air, sharp and lilting, as she gossips with my grandmother over Skype. “Fei! Harry! Kuai lai chi!” she yells up the stairs, hastening my yawning brother and me to roll out of our beds and into the kitchen, where she will cluck over our sleepiness while piling our plates with food.
Growing up, I envied my classmates who got to sleep in on the weekends. Instead, my mother made traditional Chinese breakfast for our family every Saturday, served promptly at 8 a.m. — soup dumplings, scallion pancakes, fluffy pork bao, or congee with spicy, pickled vegetables, always accompanied by two perfectly fried eggs on the side. By 9, she’d shuffle us out the door to drive us to Chinese school by 9:30. We were never late.
On these Saturday mornings, my carefully-curated white exterior slipped off of me effortlessly, like a coat I was wearing outside before coming home. It’s an experience many Asian Americans are familiar with — a feeling of straddling two worlds: one you are born into, one that is learned. The lack of visibility in the latter, the dissonance of trying to find your identity in both.
As I started my career, I thought I found a safe space in the beauty industry. After all, here was a place that seemed to embrace Asian brands, traditions, and voices. Korean beauty arrived in the U.S. and reached a fever pitch in 2014; Asian Americans held roles as beauty directors and editors-in-chief for major magazines. But representation was still lacking behind the scenes, and I couldn’t ignore a nagging feeling that Asian cultures and traditions were only celebrated if they were deemed interesting, or palatable enough, for a white audience.
Then, 2020 happened. I watched in horror as hate crimes against the AAPI community began to spike; the model minority myth blown up in front of our eyes. Like a blindfold being ripped off, I realized that racism doesn’t care if you call America your home, but only judges you by the shape of your eyes and the color of your skin and hair. Years of assimilation may have gotten our feet in the door, giving us a false sense of safety and belonging, but our moment of reckoning had come. I thought of my mother, going to buy groceries to make Saturday breakfast, and felt fear seize my chest.
In the years since, the AAPI community has come together to grieve, to comfort, and to speak out. And now, more than ever, our stories need to continue being told. In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, I spoke with 36 influential creators, brand founders, and voices in the beauty industry to share their lived experiences — from growing up in America, to family and sacrifice, to the comforting foods that reflect their immigrant parents’ love.
I see aspects of my own life in their stories; in others, I find a new perspective and hope for the future.
On The AAPI Experience
The AAPI experience is as diverse and varied as we are. But there are common threads that run throughout our stories — assimilation, family, and sacrifice are just a few.
“I grew up in a predominately Caucasian area and I would get called names. I felt like I was always hiding. It got to the point that I hated going to school because of how people made me feel. Both of my parents immigrated here from Vietnam. They moved here and worked so hard for me; I look back and I remember just how ashamed I used to feel of them. And now that I’m older, all that I see is that they are the hardest working parents.” —Patrick Ta, makeup artist and founder of Patrick Ta Beauty
“As a first-generation Asian American, growing up was confusing because I tried to be accepted at school by assimilating completely into the American lifestyle, but I was always reminded of my culture and heritage when at home. This period in life was made harder when running into people who would take any opportunity to make jabs at my Asian heritage, which in turn would make me feel like a foreigner even though I was raised in the U.S. my whole life.” —Annie Le, founder of Mademoiselle Lash
“Being Asian American is a story of constantly straddling two worlds and two identities. Always in between both worlds and never completely part of either world.” —Chriselle Lim, content creator & creative director of PHLUR
“I’ve served in the US Navy on active duty and now in the Navy Reserve, and I can proudly say that in my experience, I’ve never felt ostracized or treated differently for my race by fellow service members.” —Juliana Brewer, founder of Happy 2nd Birthday
“In my career, I constantly found that people assumed I got positions to fit a diversity card instead of by merit, so I had to prove myself and work even harder.” —Susan Yara, founder of Naturium
“Even now, editors and brand PR reps sometimes confuse me with other Asian women, like Aimee Song and Tina Leung. They tag us interchangeably on Instagram. I understand mixing me up with Tina Leung because of our names. But Aimee? We look nothing alike.” —Tina Craig, content creator & founder of U Beauty
“I've oftentimes felt ignored and it's been clear that I'm being treated a specific way because I'm Asian, and that's been really painful.” —Michelle Li, stylist
“I think living in Hawaii gives a really unique perspective when it comes to being Asian American, as Asians are a much larger percentage of the community than in other parts of the country. I was very fortunate to grow up in [this] community and I didn’t feel like there were any general biases against me, but I recognize in the rest of the U.S. that isn’t the usual experience.” — Ty McLaren, founder of Koa
“I was born and grew up in Japan. In Asia, people in each country have a strong sense of their nationality — I have my identity as a Japanese person with our own traditions, history and language. I moved to NYC and have now lived and worked in the US for over 20 years. The concept of ‘Asian American’ — which includes [those with] Eastern and South Asian [backgrounds]— was a new concept and identity for me, and I've come to embrace it. It’s made me feel closer to people with Asian heritage and roots." — Munemi Imai, founder of Mūn Skin
The Features That Define Us
Throughout history, Asians have felt both shame and pride over the curves of our eyes, the shapes of our noses, the color of our hair. Now, more than ever, we embrace the features that connect us with our ancestors.
“As a teenager, I was so ashamed of my nose. Someone once told me to get a nose job to my face! I used to hate taking photos of my side profile. But now, I absolutely love it, and it reminds me of how far I’ve come in embracing myself.“ —Priyanka Ganjoo, founder of Kulfi
“I love my almond eyes that are monolidded and from my mother.” —David Yi, founder of Very Good Light & Good Light
“When I was a teenager, I felt like my eyes were so small, and I didn’t have a crease, so I couldn’t ever be that ideal version of ‘pretty.’ I would use glue or special stickers to create an eyelid crease so I could look more like the women I saw on TV. Now I love my eyes, although the revelation did not come without some serious self-reflection and self-love.” —Le
“I am super lucky in that I was born with a significant amount of rich, thick Asian hair. This feature goes generations back in my family — and I'm so happy that my 1-year-old son inherited it from me.” —Priscilla Tsai, founder of Cocokind
“I finally have all my natural black, straight hair back after having bleached it to a platinum blonde. I loved switching up my look, but it feels so good to embrace my natural hair — almost like coming home to myself.” —Sandy Lin, content creator
“When I was a little girl, I used to feel insecure about my eye shape because I didn’t look like a lot of the girls in my school. Since I got into makeup, I’ve learned so many fun, creative looks that I love doing with my eyes.” —Liane V, content creator
“I was teased mercilessly for my chubby cheeks as a child. Kids called me pie face. I even refused to smile as a child for fear my cheeks would look even bigger. But now I am thankful for my full face — it’s kept me from looking my age!” —Craig
“I have these thick, angular eyebrows, which are a hallmark of my Japanese family. I have thought about trimming them in the past, but I love them now.” —Hiro Shinn, co-founder of Koa
“I love the warm undertones of my skin and watching it darken and lighten during the seasons. It’s also my flag of rebellion — ditching the Asian ‘porcelain doll’ standards and the tanned all-American beauty expectation by letting my skin just be.” —Stephanie Lee, founder of selfmade
“I used to hate my monolid eyes and did everything I could to create that highly-coveted crease (even considering surgery!). Now, I love my eyes — especially when I smile or laugh, because they express joy so well.” - Jaclyn Fu, founder of Pepper
“Growing up, I was often the only Indian girl in the room. All the ‘pretty girls’ had blue or green eyes, so for years, I begged my parents to get color contacts so that I could have them, too. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come not only to appreciate my dark eyes, but also fall in love with them, because they’re the channel through which I share my most sincere emotions.” —Rooshy Roy, founder of AAVRANI
“As South Asians, we're often made to feel ashamed of a darker skin tone. But I love mine and I don't think anyone should be made to feel ashamed of their skin color.” —Bunny Ghatrora, co-founder of Blume
“I share the same nose with a small bump on the ridge as my father. My grandmother always told me the little bump was luck, and I’m reminded of both of them every time I look in the mirror.” —Christine Chang, co-founder of Glow Recipe
“I have big, textured hair and I remember when I was younger, I would receive straightening treatments in Korea that were very damaging. Now, I not only embrace my texture but have really grown to fall in love with my hair, down to each strand.” —Sarah Lee, co-founder of Glow Recipe
To Our Allies…
We can’t make progress without help from our allies. Here is what we’d like you to know as you continue to speak out and stand up for the AAPI community.
“If we're going to enjoy the beauty innovations that are directly derived from Asian cultures, then all Americans must stand up against anti-Asian hate.” —Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam & Then I Met You
“It’s so easy for the AAPI community to be morphed into one big group and painted to be the same, when in reality we are all so different and rich in each of our own cultures. We have traditions that are unique to each of our own communities and we share many experiences, but we also carry very different ones. Taking the time to learn about those differences between each of us in the AAPI community matters. We are not all the same, but we stand united in alliance.” —Deepica Mutyala, founder of Live Tinted and recognized TIME Magazine Next Generation Leader Award
“Support us not just in the month of May, but year-round.” —Ju Rhyu, co-founder of Hero Cosmetics
“In my experience, most instances of AAPI discrimination are more low-key, such as people saying things that are supposed to be ‘funny,’ and then you find yourself just deflecting and placating the situation so that you aren’t accused of being too sensitive or humorless. I would hope anyone who considers themselves an ally should feel empowered to be an advocate and call it out.” —Le
Speak loudly with us, sit in discomfort with us, champion our champions.
“Check on your Asian friends. There’s an assumption that many of us must be doing fine, because culturally we’ve been raised to not speak up on our emotions. Sometimes support is just asking if we’re OK.” —Yara
“Be proactive about not Westernizing our features or whitewashing our voices.” —Craig
"Be aware of any microaggressions — change comes from small daily thoughts and interactions.” —Lim
“We need more from you than just loving our food and beauty products. We’re finding our voices, breaking sh*t, and getting louder. It’s going to be uncomfortable and feel messy. So encourage that and make space. Speak loudly with us, sit in discomfort with us, champion our champions.” —Stephanie Lee
“Love us or just simply leave us alone.” —Kim Chi, drag queen & founder of Kim Chi Chic
“Take the time to sit and break bread. Listen to our stories and understand how our lives and upbringing have shaped who we are as individuals during these tumultuous last few years.” —Daniel Martin, makeup artist & creative director of Tatcha
“Supporting the community needs to extend beyond just supporting on social media and should exist in your everyday life as well. That means contributing to your local AAPI owned shops, helping your neighbors, and thinking critically about the ways that you might be biased towards AAPI.” —Li
On The Foods That Make Up Our Lives
Although AAPI traditions may differ depending on background, one common theme is cuisine. The foods of our childhood have been passed down for generations — used for healing, beauty, celebration, community, and as a way to show love.
“My mom’s biryani — there’s nothing in this world like it. She would put so much love into that huge steel pot. I realized after she passed, South Asian moms say ‘I love you’ through piping hot plates of food. That’s what I miss most in life." —Zareefa Arije, founder of Ammu Beauty
“Japchae was the very first Korean dish I ever tried, and I love it so much. I recall someone bringing it to school and finding out it was Korean — I ate the whole bowl. It was eye-opening and made me want to find out more about a culture and heritage I had spent much of my childhood rejecting.” —Emily H. Rudman, founder of Emilie Heathe
“My parents make the best aloo parathas. It’s a staple in my Punjabi family. My favorite memories are looking back on Sundays knowing these hot, yummy, stuffed and fried breads were going to be waiting for me when I woke up.” —Shalini Vadhera, founder of Ready Set Jet
“Chicken feet, bitter melon, and oxtail bone broth: When my grandmother fed these to me, she would assure me they were the key to good skin.” —Craig
“One of my favorite traditional dishes is bengali khichuri — it’s made with rice, daal, vegetables, and various spices like cardamom, cumin, and turmeric. Growing up, my mom would make it during religious holidays and festivals like Durga Puja, so I’d always eat it at the temple surrounded by Bengali friends and family. Eating khichuri reminds me of home, of community, and of the few moments I had growing up that gave me deep sense of belonging.” —Roy
“My absolute favorite food is Japanese tonkotsu curry. Growing up, it was that rare dinner my mom would make that I always looked forward to the most. The crisp fried pork and rich curry over white rice just ticks all the boxes for me.” —McLaren
I realized after she passed, South Asian moms say ‘I love you’ through piping hot plates of food.
"Once in a while, my family does temaki (hand-rolled sushi) dinners where we buy various kinds of sashimi, cook a big pot of rice, and roll our own maki using traditional bamboo rolling mats. It’s a really fun, interactive meal that I always look forward to.” —Shinn
“My comfort foods are associated with my grandma. She expressed love through her cooking, and I felt it with every bite. One of my favorites is her tomato eggs. It's such a simple dish, but I have never been able to recreate it myself.” —Fu
“My mom would always cook chicken adobo and lumpia for me growing up. She also taught me how to cook both dishes with her own secret seasonings.” —Liane V
“I love Miyeokguk (seaweed soup) — it's a wellness soup that’s served to new mothers to help with postnatal recovery. Koreans also traditionally enjoy Miyeokguk on birthdays — to honor and thank their moms for bringing them into the world.” —Alicia Yoon, founder of Peach & Lily
“I grew up in Central America between the ages of 5 and 11. I remember our babysitter teaching my mother how to make tamales and my mom teaching Ophelia how to make fresh rice paper spring rolls. Here were two women from different backgrounds brought together by a food that was a staple in their own cuisines. I will always remember the ritual and the camaraderie they shared in the kitchen that day.” —Martin
On Pride & Progress
We’ve made great strides for AAPI representation in the beauty space and beyond — but there’s still work to be done. As we move forward, let’s take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come.
“I am so proud to be Indian-American/Asian-American. I grew up in India and moved to America when I was eight years old. There is so much that I love about my culture, and to celebrate that in America is such a beautiful feeling.” —Arshia Moore, content creator
“In fragrance, the industry has been dominated by French Caucasian males for decades. It's only very recently that there have been master perfumers of varying backgrounds. I felt like I had something to say, being not just a female creator but also one with an Asian American background.” —Bee Shapiro, founder of Ellis Brooklyn
“When I first started in this industry back seven years ago, it was really, really hard. I felt like brands didn’t even notice me and I almost just wanted to change who I was and what I shared because of it. Things are totally different now, and I love standing up for who I am and how I was raised.” —Nita Mann, content creator
“I started off at a makeup counter doing makeup for free. I was so hungry to make something of myself. When I moved to LA, I felt like all of my dreams started coming true. Three years ago, I launched my own brand. The thing that makes me the most happy, what really brings a smile to my face, is when my dad points to my brand and tell his friends, ‘That’s my son.’” —Ta
“We’re in a special moment where the AAPI community is embracing our roots and celebrating our diverse cultures and lived experiences, rather than minimizing ourselves to fit in. Being Asian American has allowed me to shine in all my complexity.” —Ganjoo
Being Asian American has allowed me to shine in all my complexity.
“Being proudly Korean American means having a complex, beautiful, multicultural identity. It means seeing the world through a global perspective, balancing Western and Eastern values, being able to merge seemingly opposite worlds, and uplifting others in the process.” —Yi
“My experience as a member of the AAPI community within [the beauty] space has been super positive and empowering. I've felt really seen and supported by my AAPI peers, and feel extremely proud to be among so many smart, talented, and kind individuals.” —Fiona Chan, founder of Youthforia
“I feel a great sense of pride these days especially being Native Hawaiian and Korean. I think understanding my roots and culture gives me my strength and power in this world.” — Kapono Chung, co-founder of Koa
“Our career in the beauty industry has always been heavily influenced by our Korean heritage. One thing my mother told me that has always stuck with me is that your skin is a direct reflection of your current mental health. It’s lessons like these that have been passed down through generations that have shaped my approach to skin care and the beauty industry today.” —Sarah Lee
“I feel immense pride and gratitude when I reflect on the journey of my ancestors, my grandparents, and my parents. Being Punjabi to me means being resilient and living my life with the values I was taught — chardi kala, which means high spirits, even in times of adversity.” —Taran Ghatrora, co-founder of Blume
“Being an Asian American gives me hope for the future — we have come together in so many ways, from the beauty industry to mainstream media. Seeing our beauty rituals reflected on a global scale allows us to authentically share our culture and heritage with the world.” —Michelle Ranavat, founder of Ranavat