Editor’s Note: Very Asian

Madison's "Very Asian Week" becomes a model for creating meaningful programming and activism
Very Asian By Larry Chua
Photo by Larry Chua
Very Asian Week panel

This alive-and-well stereotype in America is rooted in racial bias that labor performed by Asian people is also cheap. It dates back to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1800s, when Chinese immigrant workers experienced a gap in pay compared to their white counterparts.

The 1800s. Yet in 2022, the perception persists. The racial stereotypes and aggressions, both overt and subtle, have remained, exacerbated by a president who called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”

But Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander voices are getting louder and no longer being silenced, even as they endure negative repercussions for calling out racist words and acts. I applaud the proprietors of places like Little Palace, an Asian-owned restaurant on Madison’s King Street, for speaking out against it. Many in Dane County’s 32,000-plus Asian population endure racism on a regular basis, from malicious comments at the farmers’ market to hate crimes on campus.

Michelle Li, former News 3 Now anchor, received a voicemail that called her “very Asian.” It inspired a global movement and a nonprofit, the Very Asian Foundation, to combat hate by turning a phrase that can be used disparagingly into a phrase that demonstrates pride. Madison Magazine partnered with Li on “Very Asian Week” in Madison. Back in July, we put a spotlight on Asian-owned restaurants with a week of food specials, and we hosted a panel discussion featuring several prominent Madison-connected Asian leaders. Donations from the week, plus a 2:1 matching donation from The American Family Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, totaled $15,000 raised for the local Asian American community. A majority of the funds will go toward the May Book Project to place more Asian American youth literature in Wisconsin libraries. Li says she now considers Madison a model for how cities can activate and create meaningful programming and fundraising. “We saw the power of community right before our eyes,” Li says.

So did Tory Miller, one of the event’s panelists. The chef and owner of Graze and L’Etoile told the audience of about 200 people how meaningful it was for him to be in the presence of that many other Asian Americans in one room, to a level he’d never experienced before in Wisconsin.

“Our experiences as Midwestern Asian Americans don’t get highlighted enough in local and national news, even when we make up the majority-minority in our hometowns,” Li says. “But, when we were in Madison, we saw so many people across intersections show up for AANHPIs [Asian Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders]. It was a tremendous example of solidarity and community building.”

It was an honor to help pull off the very first Very Asian Week in Madison, and I hope it becomes a yearly tradition. I proudly sewed “ally” under the “Very Asian” script on the baseball cap Li sent me. But we should all do more to build on what Li and others started. Speaking out shouldn’t fall to places like Little Palace alone.

It’s in that same spirit of building community and lifting up others that we honor the late Amy Gannon in this issue. I’d like to think that that entrepreneurial force of a woman would have been at that Very Asian panel discussion, maybe even with the loudest clap in the room.

Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine.

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