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Charlotte Deleste, far left, moderates a discussion with journalist and founder of The Very Asian Foundation Michelle Li, chef Tory Miller, actor Mike Moh, UW–Madison's Gabe Javier, state Rep. Francesca Hong and Hip Foodie Mom Alice Choi. 

Amid rising hate incidents against Asian people in Madison and across the nation, panelists Thursday discussed the question, “What does it mean to be very Asian and very American?” 

“To be very Asian and to be very American is to be hella human,” said state Assembly Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison, at the “Very Asian” panel, hosted by American Family Insurance's Institute for Corporate and Social Impact. “I think now to be Asian and to be American and to be a human being is to be vulnerable and be OK with that.” 

Hong was among six speakers — all with roots in the Madison area — including social media influencer Alice Choi (@hipfoodiemom1); L'Etoile and Graze chef Tory Miller; actor and business owner Mike Moh; University of Wisconsin-Madison Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Gabe Javier and journalist Michelle Li. 

The event helped raise funds for Li’s Very Asian Foundation, which seeks to expand access to Asian American youth literature in Wisconsin libraries. Li was a former anchor at News 3 Now. 

In January, Li went viral on social media after sharing a racist voicemail she received during an on-air segment in St. Louis, where she is an anchor at KSDK News. The viewer complained that Li was being “very Asian” for sharing her Korean holiday traditions with the audience. 

Li, who later appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” is now using her platform to advocate for the Asian community. 

At Thursday’s event, she referenced a startling statistic: Suicide is the leading cause of death among Asian Americans between the ages of 15 and 24.

“We know that mental health has really been a challenge for everybody during the pandemic,” Li said, “but especially with the rise of anti-Asian hate and discrimination, our Asian American youth have really felt it.”  

The fact that Wisconsin public schools are not required to teach Asian American history makes understanding one’s identity even more challenging, she added. 

In the most recent legislative session, Hong led a bipartisan effort to amend an existing law that would include teaching Asian American and Pacific Islander history in K-12 schools. But the package of bills ultimately failed to pass in the Republican-led Legislature. 

“Not a lot of great work happens in the Capitol,” Hong said. 

“Asian American history is going to increase a sense of belonging in our kids,” she added. “It's going to make sure that our kids feel like they can be heard, that they have allies in their communities. But it's going to take organizing because to be honest, right now, we don't have governmental officials that are representing those needs.” 

Moderator and News 3 Now anchor Charlotte Deleste also pointed out that a group of people recently assaulted two Asian international students near the UW-Madison campus in June. 

“It’s incredibly disappointing, and that’s why conversations like this are so important,” Javier said. “To lift up our voices (is) a direct answer to the violence that many of our Asian and Asian American communities are facing.” 

When Deleste asked the panelists if they had received anti-Asian hate messages, all six of the speakers raised their hands. 

Moh, who played Bruce Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” said the nationwide trend of violence toward Asian people has been difficult for him and his family. He said he uses his martial arts school in Waunakee to uplift young people who may be going through the same struggles.

Miller, on the other hand, said he teaches people about Asian culture through food. As a Korean adoptee, cooking has also helped him better understand his own identity. 

“I feel like it’s a responsibility and a joy for me to be like, ‘Now you’ve come here to try this food and you’re gonna love it. You might not be able to pronounce it, but neither can I,’” he quipped. “Changing people’s minds through food is the only thing that I know how to do.” 

All of the panelists also encouraged Asian Americans to be proud of who they are and to work together to upend white supremacy. They additionally urged people to vote for lawmakers who are allies of communities of color. 

“I think in the end, it's about finding ways to love yourself by being in community with others,” Hong said. “I can’t build resilience to reject white supremacy and live in a racist society and figure out how to build coalitions, unless I honor my humanity by just loving myself a little more.”

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