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Episode 25: Kimmy Yam | Reclaiming Asian Identity & Bringing Asian Voices to Mainstream Media

There's just countless incidents of racism or microaggressions and all these different things growing up that definitely made me feel very alone.

Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 25, the fourth episode for Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.

This season, we’ve talked to Asian American people who are challenging the status quo and overcoming barriers to do so. In this episode, we sit down with Kimmy Yam, the cofounder of HuffPost’s Asian Voices and now reporter for NBC News. Kimmy has a strong perspective on all things Asia America, so we’re super psyched to get into the conversation with her about her own personal story of growing up the child of immigrants, growing up in a small town of mostly white people, and how she eventually became inspired to be a champion for Asian representation in journalism.

We talk to Kimmy about:

  • Growing up in small town America

  • Being in a working class family, and not a "model minority" Asian family full of doctors and lawyers

  • Going to college and reclaiming her Asian identity

  • Bringing HuffPost Asian Voices to life

For more resources and links, check out the show notes at the end of this article.

The following is an abridged transcript of the episode. To listen to the full episode, find us on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

I. Kimmy's Origin Story

Kimmy: I am Kimmy Yam.

I co-founded Asian Voices at HuffPost. That's my little baby.

Lynne: Kimmy Yam isn’t afraid to speak her mind online, and is a fierce advocate for issues that disproportionately affect Asian American communities. But she wasn’t always so in tune with the Asian part of her identity.

Kimmy: I grew up in a really small town of I think we only have like five thousand people. It's like super little and it was all white.

It was like very working-class, red white and blue town and we were just one of the very, very few Asian families.

Lynne: So Kimmy comes from a Chinese restaurant family.

They’re Fujianese, and for Asians that grow up in predominantly white areas, Kimmy says the stereotype was the model minority but for Chinese restaurant families, it was different. There’s a bit of a stigma attached to Chinese restaurants in what Kimmy says is the “polar opposite” of what a model minority is.

Like, that they cook cats and dogs, or that they’re dirty and don’t have manners. And those stereotypes affected Kimmy as she was growing up.

Kimmy: There's just countless incidents, instances of racism or microaggressions and all these different things growing up that definitely made me feel very alone. And I just felt that you when you grow up with that you can't really truly be your authentic self because your entire being is just dedicated to countering everything that everyone ever thinks about you. So if they're like, oh, you know what Asians are bad at sports or whatever you're going to like join the sports team because like all of the popular white kids are doing it.

Whatever you think is going to get you the best shot at being accepted. You're just going to go and do that.

Lynne: She says her dad really shaped who she is now. Not only did he want to give her confidence to go through life not caring about what others thought, but he led by example. He was always himself, always loud and always proud.

Kimmy: I think so much of my personality is just like my pops, like he is crazy.

So if people think I'm too crazy it's because blame my parents they were no rules.

His introduction into America was like a very working-class kind of deal and his vocabulary is very peppered with a lot of like cussing and stuff like that.

He's like, you know what sometimes you just got to like drop the F-bomb, you know? You know the stereotype is like we're just loud as fuck and no manner. Yeah all that. It's all true. Yes, it's all true. I think we're just screaming all the time. That's like our norm. But yeah, I think I think my mom is a little more traditional in that like she's always like "Oh, you're so beautiful. But once you like drop a bunch of bombs just not so pretty anymore."

Lynne: Another side of her identity is coming from a working class family. She couldn’t identify with the Asian American doctors and lawyers that usually make up the model minority crowd, and she hardly even knew people like that until she went to college. All she knew was Chinese restaurant families from small towns like the one she grew up in.

Kimmy: For me it was so important as a kid from just like a regular ass asian family. Like I think that there's this idea that you know Asians are so well educated and blah blah blah, but that's like 1/2 of Asian America and the rest of us like get no say.

I think it is a very different struggle if you're coming up and your parents don't have degrees and they don't have the vocabulary to fight back in any capacity, you know, and they don't have the privilege of anything. They're just really just trying to put down roots in the US.

II. Kimmy's Reclaiming Process

Lynne: At college, all of a sudden, she was around so many other Asian Americans, and they were proud of who they were and even shamed others for not being proud enough of being Asian. So Kimmy started a process to reclaim her Asian identity.

Kimmy: It was a cultural awakening for someone from such a small American town, you know, but it was a different thing where it's like, "Wow, like I had no idea you were allowed to like your own food." Like what's a soup dumpling. I have no idea, it was so strange.

And so it's a whole process of realizing that you're allowed to do things.

Lynne: Another part of this reclaiming process was feeling better about her body. Besides getting made fun of at ballet, she also had a tough relationship where her boyfriend made her feel negatively about her own body. That insecurity has affected her relationship with her appearance even to this day. She tells us that she still has days where she “absolutely hates” her body.

Lucia: Yeah, it’s one of those things that if you’ve internalized these negative conceptions of yourself, no amount of praise or positive signals from other people will ever totally get rid of it. It doesn’t matter that Kimmy is a beautiful person because she is, she doesn’t feel like she can think of herself that way.

Lynne: Kimmy is also open about her depression and anxiety. It’s something that’s difficult to discuss in the Asian American community, but she feels that it’s important for her to be super upfront about.

Kimmy: I understand that my reputation is like okay, she's a tough bitch so she can take whatever. But I realized after a while that if I'm not talking about this other side, that is giving people very false representation of who I am and I don't want little girls growing up thinking that they have to be tough and that they can't have feelings and that you know, the only that the crying or like. Feeling down or feeling whatever way is a weakness because it's not.

I had extremely horrible depression all up until I think I would have I would say until I graduated college and then for just a couple years I was free. And so that's why I think there's some modicum of hope that I have that you know, every time I have like a really really low dip. I'm like, okay. This sucks. But I always keep trying because I just remember there was a good three years where I felt so free and I was like, this must be what the rest of the population feels

Because I think about this a lot. It's like depression takes your ability to think that anything is as beautiful as it once was and I hate that like I used to like there are times when there's people that were with me when I was like really really really going through some shit and like you can't. You can't grasp that they've been incredible to you that they didn't have to be there like but everything inside of you feels like it's dying, you know that you can't function and so you don't even have the energy to thank them and now that I think back and I feel like much more stable now, I'm just like wow, like that's incredible. These people didn't have to be there and they were there for me and. You know, I try to take time to express gratitude as much as I can because you know, that's a difficult difficult thing to be there for a friend who just cannot see past any of the ugliness that comes with depression and mental illness.

It's really difficult.

Kimmy says she’s tried therapy, and though that is a valid route for many people, it doesn’t always work for her.

Kimmy: I know for me when it comes to anxiety if I'm having like a serious attack or something like that. Like I'm I can't talk through it.

But for me, definitely, you know, medicine is where it's at. Like I need that and I think that there's such a stigma that if you're taking some type of drug then you are a drug addict.

It's funny because a lot of times in Western Society, I feel like when people talk about depression or mental illness to any degree, it's not seen as quite as serious as it is like a physical illness. But I think in the Asian-American Community, it's actually seen as so much worse that if you have a mental illness. It's horrible versus having like a physical ailment. And so I think because of that and I did some reporting on mental illness and you know, one of the experts had told me and it was very interesting to me that a lot of especially elderly Asian Americans who come in for help, they'll describe their ailment as a very physical one and they'll say that you know, my stomach hurts. I can't sleep or something like that, when truly they're going through trauma or depression or something like that, but that is how it manifests itself in our community

We don't share skin tones even or anything but this sense of shame and this concept of shame is very consistent across Asian America.

Lucia: I really like that Kimmy points out that in the Asian American community people who may suffer from depression or anxiety go to their doctors and describe it in physical symptoms, because that is absolutely how it happens.

Lynne: It’s like it’s not a real illness until you have physical complications. It doesn’t warrant a visit to the doctor, it’s not worth that until you can point to something in your body that isn’t working right.

III. Kimmy Enters Journalism

Lynne: Well, out of college, Kimmy got some journalism internships and jobs. And for a while, Kimmy worked on good news and impact or solutions journalism. She wrote a lot of heartwarming things.

Lucia: But there was still something more she wanted to do. She kept noticing that there were so many different voices, but no Asian voices. All of the current events and issues she was seeing, there were Asian angles to those stories, but they weren’t be told.

Eventually, she got to work with a great editor at HuffPost who gave her the space and the trust to create Asian Voices. And Kimmy was not about to let this opportunity go to waste.

Kimmy: When you're going to cover your community better fucking do it, right, you know because like that's going to be the predominant voice after that like who else is doing this like you have just to mainstream outlets and there are other outlets, you know covering Asian Americans, but it is just specifically for the community.

If you're covering it at a mainstream level, it's just different, you know, you can't fuck up you actually can't because the weight of the community is on your shoulders.

If I'm going to write about something, then there's going to be stats and research at all that pumped into it and I absolutely believe that is huge when we cover race, especially at HuffPost. You have to back it up with so much research and data or anecdotes or something. Like there has to be examples, examples, examples, for what you're saying.

Everything I say I think can be backed up, you know, so it's like if I'm saying something that feels very pointed is not going to be just like out of my ass. I'm always like, there is something behind it.

Lynne: If you haven’t read Asian Voices, it’s not just a column about the latest Asian movies and TV shows, although those are great for representation. It’s more what’s happening to real Asian people, so for instance - ICE raids looming over our community.

Lucia: It makes total sense to her that these stories should be told, that they should have a place, and they can change how Asians are talked about in news and media. This sometimes inevitably draws the attention of trolls.

It’s interesting with Kimmy that in her teens, when people said something that either offended her or made her feel bad, she withdrew but now in her 20s and as the editor of HuffPost Asian Voices, she’s fighting back and she’s loud and proud about her opinions. This kind of boldness draws the worst on the Twitterverse, though, and Kimmy’s had her fair share of Twitter wars.

Kimmy: When I post things though, people get mad. Like, I've somehow become like a very, very clear target for white supremacists and really salty men who are sad about their dating lives.

I think a lot of people can go through life and not necessarily get such blatant racism but like I do on the daily.

Every single day there's going to be someone writing to me that's just super mad about what I'm doing.

And on top of that, it's like if you're a tough bitch, like people really hate seeing Asian women like that because it's like oh, you know, like we thought you were going to be good and play by the rules.

The comments that get me the most honestly are, like I get a lot of sexual comments because Asian women just in general get a lot of those. When people are mad at me, they just turn into disgusting sexual things and I think a lot of people are like, "Oh, I bet you're fucking all these white guys to gain acceptance from the white community," or something like that, which is just...There's no good way to respond to that. There's absolutely no good way to respond to that because I first of all I believe that you know, you can you can sleep with whoever you want.

Lynne: Kimmy does get fed up with the trolls. It’s frustrating that they bring up her personal life. It’s as if that is the last and ultimate weapon in the troll’s arsenal, which can be hurtful because, you know, we’re all human.

Kimmy: I just want people to leave me alone and keep my vagina out of all of this, you know, like just don't talk about it anymore.

I love a good Twitter war but sometimes you just have to realize nothing you say is ever going to make sense to them.

I know I'm tough as hell but at the same time like, you know, like stuff gets to me absolutely gets to me and I think that it's not healthy.

Lynne: And to circle back to her upbringing, Kimmy told us about how she’s tried to be more open to her parents’ perspectives and experiences. She realizes they also had a tough time, and may not have known how they could have helped her. That they were always just trying to survive and provide for her.

Kimmy: We go through so much pain and then we kind of blame our parents or like, "Yo, why the fuck did you not do something to like help me," or whatever, but then you have to remember like they were going through some shit, too, you know, and I think about that all the time. I think I discounted everything that they had to go up against.

I'm hurting a lot but they were too. I need to say sorry for all the things that I put them through because it's been a lot too, you know, and I think one thing that Asian America right now is really, really missing is that extra layer of empathy that when we talk to our when I'm talking to my pops, if he says something that's like sexist or whatever. Well, am I gonna get mad at that? He doesn't have an education, he is literally behind a wok. He's still working at the restaurant. Like is he gonna come home and read about like the different waves of feminism and like suddenly come up with like the right vocabulary to describe shit? No.

They didn't even have the privilege to think of this next step because they're putting down roots and trying to survive in the first place.

Lynne: She’s also trying to be more open to perspectives of people like the ones who made up her life, those who live in small town America.

Kimmy: I think it's difficult to be woke because woken asst is a privilege. You know, I went to fucking Georgetown, man. Like I'm going to learn shit. Like I'm going to have a vocabulary where you can see like, "Oh, this is a microaggression." This is whatever. But you know, it is a privilege.

Lynne: Being woke is a privilege. Powerful words to end on.

Lynne: At the end of our interview, we asked Kimmy our signature closer question, what does it mean to you to rock the boat?

Kimmy: I think for Asian Americans now, it's just be your most like authentic self and feel happiness and feel joy and don't feel tethered to some type of white male-dominated narrative. I think so many of us, whether they realize it or not, have lived in some way trying to either counter stereotypes or follow stereotypes or whatever it is.

We are at a time where you have to live the most freely and it's tough to do that. And I think that there's a lot of privilege that comes with that, you know, because I think a lot of our communities are still under attack.

I just want people to know don't try to change yourself. Don't try to be something else.

Just do your own thing and that in itself is badass and subversive and incredible and, you know, just be free.


Show Notes

We like that Kimmy points out that Asian Americans often try in some way to counter or follow the stereotypes. But we should try to get beyond those stereotypes. If you like soup dumplings, so what. If you like country music, so what.

More and more media companies are now following Asian Voices and dedicating resources to telling stories and news from the Asian American perspective for a wider audience. We highly recommend you following her @kimmythepooh. You can also follow HuffPost Asian Voices and NBC Asian America. They’re doing stories from perspectives that no one else is doing, and it’s just what we need!

More links:

Listen to Kimmy's the full episode on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

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