The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A viewer told an anchor to ‘keep her Korean to herself.’ Then ‘something amazing happened.’

A screen shot of St. Louis news anchor Michelle Li listening to a voice mail on Jan. 1 from a viewer who said she was being "very Asian" on air. (Michelle Li)
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A journalist for more than two decades, Michelle Li had grown accustomed to negative comments.

But when the award-winning Asian American news anchor first listened to a voice mail on New Year’s Day, she said she was “disheartened.” The words were more than rude — they were hateful. Racist.

The caller criticized Li for “being very Asian” and said she should “keep her Korean to herself.”

But soon after that experience, “something amazing happened,” Li, a reporter and anchor for NBC St. Louis, said in an email Monday to The Washington Post. “People began sharing their own New Year’s Day traditions, from eating noodles to eating little smokies. People really came out in a big, anti-racist, loving way. It just made me proud to be both Asian and American.”

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The viewer’s remarks came after a segment about traditional New Year’s Day dinners in which Li, who is of Korean descent, commented: “I ate dumpling soup. That’s what a lot of Korean people do.”

Soon after, the viewer called in to express her dismay. During a minute-long voice mail, the viewer said: “I kind of take offense to that because what if one of your White anchors said, 'Well White people eat this on New Year’s Day.’ I don’t think it was very appropriate that she said that, and she was being very Asian.”

“She can keep her Korean to herself,” the viewer added. “All right, sorry. It was annoying.”

Li later posted a video on social media, showing her listening to the voice mail — and the Internet erupted.

News anchor Michelle Li of the St. Louis station KSDK shared a voice mail on Jan. 1 from a viewer who said she was being "very Asian" on air. (Video: Michelle Li)

Social media users, journalists, authors, politicians and activists have been sharing words of encouragement for Li as well as their own experiences with racism, using the hashtag #VeryAsian. Some have posted photos of their holiday dumplings.

One Twitter user thanked Li for highlighting Asian New Year’s traditions, writing, “We need to include more discussions that include diverse traditions because youth do ‘see you.’”

“If they’re mad that we eat dumpling soup on New Year’s, wait until they hear that we celebrate two New Year’s,” one quipped.

Another wrote, “Let us all be #VeryAsian, every day in 2022!”

Fellow journalist and author Hsiao-Ching Chou wrote on Twitter that two decades ago, a reader sent her newspaper publisher a letter “criticizing my article on tea, calling me a fortune cookie, and saying they should’ve hired an American.”

@MichelleLiTV, do say something. Dumpling posse has got your back. #VeryAsian,” she added.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu (D) retweeted Li’s post, writing: “We had dumplings for New Year’s too! Proud to be #VeryAsian.”

KSDK, the St. Louis NBC affiliate, said in a statement that “we embrace diversity in the people we hire, the stories we tell, and our local community. We will continue supporting Michelle and celebrating diversity and inclusion.”

“I think what happened to me was ugly,” Li told The Post, “but more importantly, we have to remember Black and Brown Americans get assaulted or worse just for existing. I can take the heat of an anonymous phone call if it exposes racism and hate. But I now see that call as a gift because I’ve seen the good in people in a way that I’ve never seen before. It inspires me to be better and to learn more as well.”

Particularly since the coronavirus outbreak emerged in China, Asian adults have said they have been increasingly subject to racism. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that about 4 in 10 Asian and Black adults said people have acted uncomfortable around them since the start of the pandemic. And about 31 percent of Asian adults said they have been the focus of slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity, along with 21 percent of Black adults and 15 percent of Hispanic adults.

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Li said she was raised by White parents and grew up in Missouri.

“I reconnected with my Korean family in 1998, and I’ve been incorporating Korean culture in my life since,” she wrote in a first-person account of the experience for KSDK. “So, like many American families, we do a mix of traditions, if any at all. As I was looking at my own social media feeds, I saw a lot of my friends eating a mix of foods and playing games — Korean dumpling soup, Chinese noodles, collards, and so forth. And since I have a son who is mixed race, I feel it’s important to expose him to Korean culture in our every day lives.”

Li made it clear that she does not “begrudge someone for having an opinion, albeit one I think is racist, bigoted, and wrong.”

“We are all just people trying to exist,” she wrote. “If I had the chance to actually speak to this woman, I would love to have a heartfelt conversation with her — maybe we could do it over a bowl of dumplings.”

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