Redefining Success Told By AAPI Voices
Jun 13, 2022
Our latest Uprisers.World Roots Capsule at Complexland 3.0 propels conversation on reclaiming and reimagining success. And we spoke with people from our community who said “all-in” to their passion and dreams.
For immigrants and descendants of immigrants, the traditional notion of success categorized itself under the umbrella of the American Dream. Accomplishing “the dream” meant financial success, professional stability, upward mobility and admission to opportunities we may not have come by in our home countries. It’s an unspoken code we readily subscribe to: work doggedly with no rest within the borders of assimilation and acceptance. It’s a realization that we carry with us the stories of our parents and grandparents – the intertwining of acute sacrifice with household obligation to construct a life worthy of such decisions. It’s understanding their footsteps hold weight and the paths paved are very much instilled in shaping who we are.
Enough. For us, we’re reimagining the concept of the American Dream. We’re dissociating from the traditional template and challenging its existence entirely. We’re moving past just stability and financial security. Why not prioritize passion over money and work driven from authenticity over acculturation. Looking around, we see community leaders, passion pursuers and “betting on myself” individuals who are putting in the work to unlock what the future can look like. And these are the stories and conversations we hope to activate through our Uprisers.World Roots Capsule at Complexland 3.0.
Chances are you’ve seen a Maneki-Neko before: a traditional Japanese figurine often found waving from store windows and restaurants believed to bring good fortune. Literally translates to “beckoning cat,” its origin story follows the legend of a man who was saved from a strike of lightning when a cat beckoned him to enter a temple.
Over time, they have become a symbol of prosperity and fortune. Our founder Michelle @mkhanabusa found inspiration for the Uprisers.World Roots Capsule close to home. Reminded of the prominent presence of the Maneki-Neko in her dad’s store, it illustrates her dad working his ass off to take care of his family. Our Maneki-Neko, named TEN TEN, is the cornerstone of this capsule, representing Michelle’s father’s work ethic and the multiples of Maneki-Nekos that lived in his business.
It’s the sacrifice made by Michelle’s father and countless other immigrant families that inspire us to go back to our roots – honor where we came from and reimagine where we’re going.
So we reached out to a couple of our friends and asked them how they previously defined success through an Asian American lens and how their work flipped the whole paradigm.
CEO of SANZO
How did the younger you, the nuclear power plant engineer, define success? Has your definition of success changed over the years with Sanzo?
The younger me defined success as rising up through the ranks and ultimately running a large corporation. I viewed my career through the lens of how much power I could obtain. But I learned it wasn’t authentic to me and more importantly, wasn’t a life I wanted to live.
When I shifted my thinking to how much impact I could have, that’s when the idea for Sanzo came to me. And it’s framed my definition of success ever since.
On the Lucky Boys podcast, you mentioned the hardest part of starting was unlearning certain roles. If you could give advice to that version of you with the experiences you have now, what would it be?
Stop doing whatever you think everyone else wants you to do, and stop being whatever you think everyone else wants you to be. You are the only person who has to live with yourself 24/7, and you are the CEO of your career.
Oftentimes as children of immigrants, we readily chase the standard success story: climb the corporate ladder, become a doctor or lawyer for the opportunity to a stable life, but your decision to start Sanzo reimagines what success looks like. Instead of following the template, you’re reaching back into your roots and shifting mainstream perspectives. How have your family’s roots inspired you to do that?
My parents took the ultimate risk – made the big sacrifice by leaving their families, friends and comfortable lifestyles in the Philippines to fly halfway across the world to give our family the opportunity to pursue a better life.
They didn’t play it safe, they didn’t chase the standard success story. When I finally internalized that nothing I did would compare to that, it opened me up to a world of possibilities of the life I could lead. And so that definitely inspired my entrepreneurial journey.
That said, as I grew older, I found myself wanting to learn more about my parents as people. And I was then struck by just how much I didn’t know about them at all and how much, even though I was Filipino, I never really thought about or really tapped into what that meant. Sanzo is that exploration.
What's been the most fulfilling part of it all?
I used to think I was the only person who felt this angst about my self-identity as an Asian-American. The most fulfilling part of it is finding that I’m very much not alone, and there’s a community of folks who share this journey or if they don’t share it, readily embrace mine.
I’ve seen it in my family, my friends, our customers, team members and fellow creatives and entrepreneurs. We see where the world is going, and we want to take an active role in getting it to that better place.
To be part of it in my own special way is about as fulfilling as it gets.
If your life’s work had a message, what would it be?
Be intentional about the impact you want to have on the world. But also realize that no one has ever changed the world without a community. It’s also way more fun when you have awesome people with you, so treat others with kindness and empathy.
Founder of Reclamation Magazine
How did your younger self define success, whether that's been influenced by parents, friends or society media?
So I think my younger self defined success in terms of monetary gain – finding a stable career and thinking that would bring me happiness. Growing up with a family of immigrants and my dad's side mostly in medicine, I always pictured myself on the same branch. Because in medicine I would have a stable career, stable income, stable job, and I’d be able to provide for my family.
But as I grew up and found my own personality, I started to define it more for myself. And for me it was creative fulfillment. I've always been a very creative person, a very artistic person – I find solace in writing. These are the ways to utilize my creativity, and also influence those around me – leave my mark in that way.
Success is so much beyond just monetary gain, I think it's personal fulfillment. It's creative fulfillment. It's having a strong sense of identity. And being proud of that identity.
Was there a pivotal moment, a memory or experience that stands out to you that prompted you on this journey?
Yeah, so I can actually recall it in vivid detail because it was during the 2016 elections. There was a lot going on in the media at that time – the Muslim community in particular. It was a campaign of hate that you saw in the media. I started to write blog posts to respond to that. At the time, there weren't many young writers writing about politics and social justice issues. And so I think seeing a young voice like that for a lot of young people was very powerful.
And I had to sit down with myself and really think about what I wanted to do in terms of my career, because I was graduating high school that year. I had to make that decision for myself. I remember initially choosing international relations and politics because I thought that's where my interest was. But after doing it for a year, I decided that I wanted to pivot into media and communications because of the creative aspect that I wasn't getting in politics. And that's actually where I got influenced to create the platform Reclamation Magazine. It's because of the community support that I gathered in college where I met people from all different walks of life who didn't necessarily share the same background as me and we all had our different stories of self-fulfillment, of oming into your identity, but being proud of that. This is where the name Reclamation Magazine came from.
For me, it's been such a personal journey from the beginning of coming out of the labels that society defined me with like the daughter of a doctor, and I defining myself for myself.
What is the most fulfilling part of doing the work that you do?
I think it's the storytelling aspect. When I started Reclamation, I didn't imagine that we would have the kind of community that we have today or the intimate, personal stories that people share.
As the editor, I discover a form of bond with the writers that I’m working with because I’m reading such personal work. And a lot of these pieces are about identity and coming into that identity – it’s issues that you don't necessarily see represented in the mainstream media. One of the things that I always say is that Reclamation is a space for stories that don't always have to do with oppression because I feel a lot of the mainstream platforms when they do hire POC, it's to write about our oppression. We don't really get to showcase our art or our talent.
And that's something that I want to continue to build on. Because you do have to have a space for the stories that don't get told; but at the same time, there's so much talent out there that deserves to be recognized and highlighted.
Have there been hard moments or moments of unlearning certain things?
I guess the biggest challenge throughout this journey has just been the lack of mentorship in the field.
Because as the first daughter of immigrant parents you do have to make your own footing, to figure things out for yourself and navigate that on your own. And additionally, when you're entering a career where there aren't many people who look like you, that's an added challenge – you're navigating the space on your own.
How have your parents or your grandparents inspired you into the work that you're doing?
I can reflect back on my roots and be proud of them. Especially on my mom's side, she's a very creative person. She left the arts when she moved here to the US. But then she revived her love for it after we [her kids] went to college. She got her degree in interior design just a couple of years ago. Witnessing her journey of making sacrifices for us to have the life that we have, and then later, finding their own footing in life, I’m really inspired by her strength and wisdom.
The same extends towards my grandparents. Seeing the kinds of lives that they fled from and the struggles that they faced, it provides perspective when reflecting on the current situation in India right now where I'm from with the Muslim population being targeted for their faith.
Living in a first world country, I think we kind of forget that Muslim minority populations in other places in the world are facing racism and Islamophobio on a much larger scale. So that's something I definitely want to amplify in my own work. Knowing this, I’m inspired me to be a better person and integrate storytelling into my work. No matter where I am or what I'm doing. I hope to bring those voices to the forefront of conversation. Because it's no longer just about me at that point. It's about the community that I come from.
Founder of ADIMAY.com
Reflecting on your heritage, how has your generational narrative shaped/ inspired you to the person you are today?
Being first-generation and belonging to the South Asian diaspora has allowed me to understand the importance of community, and the idea that we are no one without the work of villages behind us. I also think it means having a deep reverence for elders, and the knowledge they pass down from a place of love and culture.
When was a pivotal moment in your life that prompted you to choose on creating meaning with your story and pursue the work that you do?
A pivotal moment that informed the work I do now as a sustainable fashion activist was the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse. Rana Plaza was an eight-story garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that was producing apparel for household name fashion brands. On April 23rd, 2013, structural cracks were identified in the building. However, due to pressure from upper management, workers were called into work the next day to finish orders for brands including Zara, Walmart, Benetton, and Mango. The next day, Rana Plaza framed one of the biggest industrial disasters of human history: an eight-story factory collapse that killed more than 1,132 workers and injured over 2,500. Rana Plaza catalyzed a new understanding of fashion for me. No longer was fashion just about a pretty dress. It was about the politics of labor, to the industry’s disproportionate burden upon communities of color worldwide. But the fall of Rana Plaza also marked a key moment in the world of fashion and the sphere of sustainability and ethics. From there, I wanted to understand the historical and sociopolitical underpinnings that allowed the fashion industry to function in a colonial manner, rooted in exploitation and extraction of both labor and the natural environment. Since then, my work from existed a few different domains: from grassroots organizing in Downtown LA’s garment district to educating folks on the importance of diverse perspectives.
As a South Asian woman, I also know the power of fashion as a vehicle to explore beauty, culture, and craft, and I constantly look to cultural identity as a central pillar of my sustainability practice.
Human behind Highly Human
Highly Human @highlyhuman – a Queerative (queer + creative) studio centering the LGBTQIA+ through designs and experiences that invite us to reflect and dissect all that connects us together.
What inspired you to start Highly Human?
So the backstory of Highly Human is it wasn't called Highly Human. At first, it was Highly Normal. I wanted to normalize talks about anxiety and have an online community where we can talk about things that are taboo like mental health. And so that's how Highly Human came to be: ”I don't want to be normal. I'm just human.”
Why challenge the status quo?
For me, the biggest thing that’s always been part of my life is to challenge things. I mean, just being who we are is challenging things. Growing up, I always felt like an outsider outcast; especially in heteronormative standards.
Then within the industry, it’s challenging what the industry was telling me that I should go into or them telling me who I am. I was performing for the American dream. I was still in the “rat race.”
What was a pivotal experience that inspired you to pursue your work?
So when I left college, I really wanted to have a T-shirt line. I was so inspired by Zoo York and Echo. I was trying to figure out how I can be a clothing designer when I didn't have that background. And so to me, my time in New York was about not only exploring creatively, but also being able to express myself in my sexual identity and all my identities. I would say New York really shaped my perseverance, my resilience, my need to express myself – and be okay with that.
How did your journey of unlearning begin?
When I went overseas to the Philippines, I really had to challenge the American dream. Because the whole time in New York was about achieving XYZ and then LA was another level of achieving but in a different field. It was in the Philippines that shit hit the fan because my computer broke. Because the Philippines doesn't have a direct Apple Store, I went a long time without my computer. And I did not know myself without my computer. I didn't know how closely I tied my identity to my productivity.
What is the most fulfilling part?
I think to me it's what we're doing right now: the connections. The connections of meeting with other folks that are going through something that are going through something that they may not be able to express, may not know how to express or they’re figuring out how to express. I just love connecting with folks that are on the similar path of reimagining what tomorrow looks like.
To me that's really rewarding because it reminds me that I'm not, we're not ever alone on this journey, even though it can seem like it.
What’s your advice for when you start to think it’s impossible or there’s push back?
You're gonna have a lot of rejections, especially when people don't understand the vision. Remind yourself that through all of that there's always the opposite. The opposite of uncertainty, at least to me, is possibility.
Any advice you’d love to share?
Shoot your shot. Take a chance on yourself.
For those who haven’t had lived the complicated experience being Asian American, these are mere words floating on the internet – or an opportunity to learn. For us, it’s an unraveling of identity, an exploration of heritage and hope for the future.
Your voice matters. And we want to extend the conversation to you. How have you once defined success or allowed the American Dream define you? What was your pivot moment? Comment below your story ❤️