As an Asian American, I’ve carried a silent and heavy pain throughout the pandemic watching anti-Asian hate crimes surge while media coverage of said crimes remains largely flat. Throughout this time, I’ve been reminded that the Asian community is part of the model minority myth, which has fuelled a stereotype of compliance. Then, last week—after a year of climbing violence—my worst nightmare happened: The mass shooting in Atlanta targeted Asian-owned businesses, taking the lives of eight people, seven of whom were Asian (and six of whom were women).
Seeing the faces of these women and learning their stories—one of the victims, Hyung Jung Grant, was a single mother of two, who devoted her life to providing for her children, a story that so many children of immigrants can relate to—the AAPI community can no longer be subjected to the dismissal that we don’t have it that bad. We need allyship more than ever.
A protest sign that proclaimed, “Love us like you love our food” spoke to me as an Asian founder in the wellness space. I wanted to make my own that said, “Love us like you love our yoga”—or our acupuncture or even our matcha latte.
A protest sign that proclaimed, “Love us like you love our food” spoke to me as an Asian founder in the wellness space. I wanted to make my own that said, “Love us like you love our yoga”—or our acupuncture or even our matcha latte. So much of modern-day wellness is rooted in Asian history and culture, and yet when the safety of our community is under threat, there is little to no support. That’s especially disappointing when you consider the magnitude of Asian influence in wellness and beauty.
With K-Beauty alone, South Korea became the fourth largest exporter of beauty products in the world at $2.4 billion in 2015. And in 2016, Americans spent more than $16 billion on yoga. For the millions who can’t live without their Ayurveda, cupping therapy, jade rollers, or meditation, there is a responsibility to act and be vocal when the Asian community, which created and cultivated these self-betterment practices, is experiencing harm. That is the bare minimum. And it shouldn’t take a mass shooting to spur action.
I founded Kaya Essentials in order to raise awareness for the Asian roots of one of the beauty industry’s most used ingredients: coconut oil. In 2018, the Philippines was the top producer of coconut oil with 1.2M tonnes. Coconut oil has a deep cultural significance in the beauty and wellness rituals passed down by generations—for many Filipino/a/x, it is our first introduction to beauty. My mother showed me that wellness doesn’t have to be expensive with all her DIY treatments (which I believe is the ultimate clean skin care), and coconut oil was always her hero ingredient. My lola (grandmother) would make it from scratch every week, grating coconut meat from coconut husk and would then boil it down to coconut oil.
After working for a non-profit in the Philippines, I discovered how widely Filipino coconut oil was used by brands in the world of wellness and beauty. Yet, none of these brands acknowledged its cultural heritage. It was this overdue recognition of Filipino coconut oil that brought me to launch Kaya Essentials.
Growing Kaya Essentials has introduced me to a community of fellow Asian female founders, who are bringing the traditions and rituals of Asian wellness beyond just trends and honoring their own cultural origins. Take something as simple as tea—most of the world’s production comes from Asia (the world’s top producers being China, India, and Sri Lanka), yet most people don’t consider the cultural heritage of a golden turmeric latte when they order it on a hurried commute. Sashee Chandran founded Tea Drops in order to honor tea culture from her Chinese and Sri Lankan roots. Like with my lola, Chandran grew up with her uppama’s strong Sri Lankan black tea and her mom’s comforting Chinese herbal teas, which became a vehicle for connection and self care. “Without my own cultural heritage, there would be no Tea Drops,” she tells me.
On the surface, wellness may seem to celebrate Asian culture—otherwise, one could wonder why would face massage tutorials using the Gua Sha be so popular? But the reality is that most consumers and practitioners of Asian wellness oversimplify and fetishize our products and practices into something hollow. Lin Chen, founder of Pink Moon, laments that, “When I see people reduce the Gua Sha down to an alternative to Botox, it’s disappointing. A Gua Sha is a piece of history.” And as coconut oil was for me, the Gua Sha is a wellness tool that was passed down from her mother and deserves to be acknowledged as an Asian innovation that has withstood the test of time.
After all, we are each only as well as our community is well.
And if not connecting to Asian culture through wellness, some people “celebrate” the culture with food; yet, it can feel limited, inferior, and it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes because it is still viewed through the lens of othering. Vanessa and Kim Pham, Vietnamese American sisters who co-founded Omsom, point to the “ethnic aisle” in our supermarkets as a literal manifestation of this inferiority and Kim Pham shares that Asian dishes are often associated with a “restrictive view, tied to cheap, lowbrow, and harried service.”
Clearly, there is so much work to be done. To start, we need your vocal support against these anti-Asian hate crimes, so that our community can begin to feel safe. Somewhere to start is learning from the personal stories and local AAPI organizations through the #StopAsianHate hashtag on Instagram. And please, love us like you love our wellness. Because if you benefit from Asian wellness in any form, we need your anti-racist activism and support to include Asian-Americans. After all, we are each only as well as our community is well.