She stormed past us, like, go back to China or go back to your country or something like that. And I was just stunned.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 46 from Season 4 of Rock The Boat: Making Waves, edited for clarity.
If you were paying attention to the New York Times in 2016, you probably saw Michael Luo's open letter to the woman who told him and his family to go back to China. What happened that day really meant something to Michael and the thousands of people who started sharing their experiences. It turned into a movement on it's own, with the hashtag #Thisis2016. The response from his child really sums up the feeling: "Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.”
In this episode of Rock The Boat, Lucia talks to Michael about that experience and what's happened in his life since. He's now the editor of The New Yorker, and he's become more involved and knowledgable about Asian American issues.
Michael talks about:
What happened that day,
What was going through his head at the time,
The massive outpouring of support and stories, and
His career, from his early days to now at The New Yorker.
I. A normal Sunday
Michael: After church, on a Sunday, we were walking down Lexington Avenue. And. this woman was grumbling at, I think me for blocking the sidewalk or something like that, with my daughter in the stroller. She stormed past us, like, go back to China or go back to your country or something like that.
And, and I was just like, stunned. And I sat there for a second and then she kept going. And for some reason I abandoned my daughter in her stroller and ran down the street, confronted her and, and said what? Like, essentially like, what did you say? And then she just started screaming, like, go back to your country.
I don't know, whatever was going through my brain. I was like I was born in this country.
Lucia: In 2016 Michael law wrote an open letter to the woman who shouted at him to quote unquote, go back to China in the middle of the street on the upper East side of Manhattan. It's a jarring experience, especially since Michael was born and raised in the United States. Michael led an investigative reporting team at the New York times at that point, and he wrote an open letter under the coaxing of his coworkers.
What was even more surprising was that the open letter he wrote wound up on the front page of the New York Times. That open letter soon generated an outpouring of other Asian-Americans responding with similar experiences. One person tweeted about uncle car vandalized, go back to China while parked in his own driveway in Dallas.
II. Michael's Origin Story
Michael: My parents weren't the stereotypical, tiger parents, I think in terms of like, really forcing or pushing you to be in a certain field or something like that. Medicine was a field that was seen as prestigious and steady and things like that. And, my dad was an engineer and, a lot of the people we knew were engineers. There was nobody that we knew who was a writer or a journalist or anything like that. I think my parents' parenting style was, they were very strict when we were young, and that kind of instilled certain kind of work habits in my brother and I.
Lucia: Michael and his brother did well for themselves. They both ended up getting accepted to Harvard. Michael's brother chose economics and Michael chose government.
Michael: I was really interested in public policy, government, and changing the world kind of thing. I had that kind of idealistic worldview. And, so I went to Harvard to study government and that was mostly what I thought I was going to do.
Lucia: You have a mind to go into politics?
Michael: So basically what happened was, I thought, okay, I want to get into public policy and what does that mean and what does that look like?
And I, and honestly, I'm actually, I actually kind of struggled over like, what does it, what did it look like? What did it mean? as in like, Oh, do you work, go work, as a, a legislative aid in Congress? Or do you go work for a HUD, you know, in some sort of, you know, management program, remember, or, do you go work at the state department? I did a summer internship, actually at the CIA, the central intelligence agency.
Lucia: After graduating, Michael considered his career options. He would go down the so-called prestigious path into management consulting or finance, but the work didn't really interest him, and he still wanted to pursue public policy. He thought about returning to his job at the CIA, but he knew it wasn't a fit.
He even took the LSATs and considered going to law school, but he quickly realized that he was more interested in studying law than practicing law. So after some introspection, Michael decided to give journalism a shot. He had worked at the Crimson at Harvard, which is the Harvard newspaper.
III. Michael's Start in Journalism
Lucia: Michael ended up joining a rotational program at the LA Times called the minority editorial training program. That's where employees in the program would work for the Times for a year and then rotate to some other papers owned by the LA Times. After his stint at the LA Times, he moved over to Newsday. It was a good experience for Michael, but not necessarily one that he expected.
Michael: I say that I got into journalism at first, not because of a love of the craft and the love of writing, although that is very much, one of the reasons I love it today. I tell young writers and aspiring journalists that they have to love the craft. But when I first started in journalism, it was because of what journalism could do, as in like, I had this sort of idealistic, you know, a little social justice sort of oriented sort of side, that I want to change the world and make the world better. And that's why I got into journalism.
IV. The Open Letter
Michael: The reason why I ended up doing it was, I was an editor on, besides being an investigative editor, the Times had a cross desk race team that was an initiative around covering race. And I edited a reporter, Rachel Schwan's, who's on the team. And, several people on the team, including Rachel, and I think Mark Lacey who ran the team, who is now the national editor at the Times, were emailing me and saying, I think you should write about this.
And I think it was Mark who suggested, why don't you do it as an open letter to this woman? I was like. Okay, I'll try that. I honestly, I was actually a little skeptical that it would work, but I wrote it that way and, and published it and it just took off.
And so then the next day it became a viral piece on the internet.
It was a first person piece and it was written as an open letter. It was very unusual. It's very unusual decision. and that led to, I mean, this is the modern New York Times, but what ended up happening was because there was so much response, they started asking other Asian-Americans, "Has this ever happened to you?" And people start tweeting about it with this hashtag #Thisis2016 and our video team at the New York Times started reaching out to these people and turned around this incredibly powerful direct to camera video of people telling their stories, Asian Americans telling their stories of these kinds of things happening to them.
Lucia: We always have a signature question. This is a new one for Season 4. It's, how do you intend to rock the boat?
Michael: Being an Asian American in a position of influence or, semi prominence, I think there is an element of what I'm working to be most is just an excellent editor and journalist period.
On the other hand that's unrealistic in terms of every person has background, history, perspective, expertise, opinions, passions that are unique to them and that you bring, as an editor.
I have to remind myself that, it's not bad to bring that perspective, that I particularly have, as an Asian American, as an Asian immigrant. And other aspects of who I am, that there is no one who is just an editor who is a blank slate.
You can read Michael's open letter at the New York Times. They also made a video where several people talked about their experiences. Michael is currently the editor of newyorker.com and you can find his contributor page here.