Who is your #inspirasian?
To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we asked journalists to name the Asian Americans who motivate them to be journalists.
Share your own #inspirasian on social media, and come back throughout the month to hear about more individuals who inspire AAJA members to new heights.
Jia Tolentino is a contributing writer for the New Yorker’s website. She previously served as the deputy editor of Jezebel, and the deputy editor of the Hairpin. She has also written for The New York Times, TIME, Grantland, Pitchfork, and several other publications.
The Texas native graduated from the University of Virginia and received an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan.
I’ve never met Jia Tolentino
But what I appreciate most is her distinctive and fearless voice. It’s always incisive, often funny, and ostensibly does not care how an audience might react. Her writing carries an unwavering confidence, a combativeness, and a sense of belonging that I can only assume has been — and continues to be — hard-won in a profession that sidelines women and people of color. She applies that confidence to any and every subject, from stinging takedowns of corporatized feminism to well-deserved praise of Cracker Barrel.
When I read her work, I feel like she’s writing for herself first. She's not prioritizing an imaginary reader — who, too often, tends to be white in our minds. Her work has taught me that writing in a voice that’s true to yourself can be enough for any reader. I don’t know if it’s a conscious choice for her, but I cannot emphasize enough how important seeing that confidence is — especially for writers like myself, who regularly question their place in journalism.
— Sonam Vashi, freelance reporter and editor
Sonam Vashi is a reporter and editor based in Atlanta. She was formerly a researcher and data reporter for CNN.
David Ono is a news anchor for ABC7 Eyewitness News in Los Angeles.
Ono worked in Sacramento, El Paso, Dallas, and other cities before settling in Los Angeles. Throughout his time there, he has interviewed President Barack Obama, and covered countless high-profile stories. He has also produced several documentaries, including one that described life at a Japanese internment camp.
He has won three Edward R. Murrow awards and more than a dozen Emmys. A longtime member of the Asian American Journalists Association, he received the organization's Lifetime Achievement award in 2011.
Even when I hadn’t yet figured out my passion for journalism, I loved to watch the news. And when I watched ABC7 Eyewitness News, one of the anchors that stood out to me was Mr. David Ono.
During my junior year of high school, I volunteered at the Japanese American National Museum during the summer — and little did I know that one day, I would see Mr. Ono there. I immediately recognized him, but I don’t even know if I managed to say hello.
When I began my first semester at Cal State Channel Islands in August, we were assigned a project for the end of the semester, where we had to interview someone in the field we wanted to enter. I knew I wanted to reach out to Mr. Ono.
To my surprise, he got back to me. I was a bit nervous on the day of the interview: I did breathing exercises, and even tried to do a technique I had learned to appear confident, called the “superhero stand.”
I had conducted interviews before, but it was intimidating to talk to Mr. Ono — I realized I was interviewing one of the best interviewers I had seen on television. It felt surreal talking to the journalist who had inspired me to take this career path.
He taught me a lot during that interview: I learned that it’s hard to find success easily, but working hard will get me where I want to be. When I left that day, I knew I wanted to learn more and more about journalistic ethics and how to tell a great story. Thank you, Mr. Ono, for all the tips you’ve given me.
— Naomi Santana, student
Naomi Santana is a communications major and student journalist at California State University, Channel Islands.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a reporter on the Washington Post’s national politics team, working on the Fact Checker column.
The Guam native graduated from Emory University before joining the staff of The Arizona Republic. There, she was a government accountability reporter, and was named a finalist for the 2012 Livingston Awards for an investigative series on homeless sex offenders.
She is also the senior vice president of the Asian American Journalists Association, and a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors.
“Of all the news publications I regularly go to, there’s only one column I check on a daily basis: The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, featuring our very own Michelle Lee.
There are a lot of things to like about the Fact Checker: The writing is great, the fact checking is in-depth, and the wit is dry. If journalism is all about holding truth to power, then there is no more powerful truth than telling politicians their words are worth Pinocchios.
Michelle does a stellar job at the Fact Checker. She’s checked things I didn’t even know could be fact checked. She fact checks falsehoods faster than you can say ‘That’s BS.’ Usually by the time I read a quote and think, ‘Oh, I wonder if this is true,’ the Fact Checker already gave it four Pinocchios.
Michelle has undoubtedly inspired a generation of young journalists to question politicians before accepting their quotes as fact. She has also proven to the rest of us ‘I’m too busy to help out with AAJA’ is a bad excuse. I knew I could juggle doing my job and also be heavily involved with AAJA because Michelle showed me how.
Michelle is also an excellent example of dignity and professionalism all journalists should aspire to. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Michelle was the target of terrible hate speech and racial slurs, and yet endured on to seek the truth. She is truly fearless.
Michelle inspires me to aim really, really high in the newsroom as well as to hold myself to a higher degree of professionalism and accuracy. She’s my #Inspirasian.
— Benjamin Pu
Benjamin Pu is a production assistant at Meet the Press Daily on MSNBC. You can catch the show and Ben's sick graphics at 5pm EST. Ben also serves on the AAJA 2017 National Convention programming board, and hopes to see you there.
Photo of Michelle by Crystal Lee. Crystal is the younger sister of Michelle Lee. She is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Digital Media Design. She aims to work as a software developer and has recently helped to found a design club at her school.
Traci Lee oversees NBC Asian America, a section of NBCNews.com that serves as the country's largest English-language news source dedicated to cover Asia America. In that capacity, she launched "NBC Asian America Presents," a digital video channel that features series and documentaries. Lee frequently writes for the site, which has been heralded for giving AAPI voices and stories a platform.
A graduate of the University of California, Irvine, Lee previously worked at msnbc.com as a digital and multimedia producer.
“I've known Traci for quite some years now and she has always been down to help out, guide, and, in general, be an awesome person to know in the industry.
I first reached out as a graduate student assigned an informational interview. When she was at MSNBC, I found her on LinkedIn and messaged her. To my luck, she agreed to speak with me over the phone about her experience working at MSNBC. That, in itself, was a rarity.
When I became an AAJA/NBC News Fellow and moved to New York, I reached out again and we met up in person. She showed me the ropes at 30 Rock and I shadowed her for part of the day.
She was always open to making introductions, which is crucial and exceedingly rare in this industry. She was even willing to take time out of her busy day to meet with me for coffee and show me around her office.
I started freelancing full-time recently and began working with her as a contributor for NBC Asian America, where she brought this same reliability and ease to our editor-contributor relationship.
Aside from her great work ethic, the thing that makes Traci really stand out is her commitment to raising up AAPI voices. From the time she agreed to let me pick her brain over the phone to now, she has consistently been willing to put in that extra effort to help other AAPI journalists like myself. Anyone can write passionately about an issue, but it takes a lot more work to live those principles in real life.
— Anna Sterling, freelance writer
Anna Sterling is a reporter and video journalist based in California. Her videos and written work can be found in NBC News, VICE, HuffPost, Fusion, Los Angeles Times and more. She studied political science and women's studies at UCLA and received her M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California, where she was an Annenberg Fellow.
Esther Yu Hsi Lee is the immigration reporter at ThinkProgress, an online news site based in Washington, D.C where she covers domestic and international migration issues.
In her previous role as an E3! Ambassador for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Esther sought to bring dignity to Asian immigrants through outreach and engagement efforts with the Asian-American community, particularly among college students and young adults.
She contributed to The Country We Call Home: Stories of Growing Up A Citizen In Every Way But One, a compendium of stories written by undocumented immigrants. The book won second prize at the 2016 Latino Literacy Now's International Latino Book Awards.
Esther was selected as a White House Champion of Change recipient in 2014. She was also a finalist for Define American's Journalist of the Year award in 2016, and earned her B.A. in Psychology and Middle East and Islamic Studies and a M.A. in Psychology from New York University.
“For over four years, Esther has been helping give a voice to marginalized communities around the world. She has covered the fears of Haitians facing deportation from the United States, the undocumented immigrants along the US-Mexico border who are trapped in their own homes, the undocumented families afraid of being torn apart under the Trump administration, and the continued refugee crisis in other parts of the world.
She knows better than anyone how our struggles and our oppressions are intersectional, and it's evident in her work. After Trump passed the Muslim ban in February, Esther pitched me a story -- while she was on vacation -- on the racist history of incarceration of Japanese Americans -- a case that would be brought up in the appellate court reviewing Trump's ban months later.
It's always hard to be an immigration reporter, but especially in Trump's America. I'm not entirely sure how she does it, especially since the news is close to home for her. She always has multiple stories on her plate, and the majority of them are depressing.
I imagine she's able to keep doing it in partly due to a diverse collection of Pikachu gifs and home brewed tea, but it's also probably just because of the kind of person Esther is. She knows what is important and what needs to be said when no one else is saying it -- and she always manages to find the good news, when it seems like there are none left. It has been an absolute pleasure working with her as an editor, and I am inspired daily by her energy, optimism, and serious work ethic. Because of her, I have greater faith in the resistance.”
— Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, Associate Editor at ThinkProgress
Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani is an Associate Editor for ThinkProgress. Before joining the team at ThinkProgress, she served as an editor at Muftah Magazine and worked in the Iranian American community.
Frank Abe is a film director and producer, who also serves as director of communications for the King County Executive in Washington.
Abe worked as a reporter for KIRO Newsradio, the CBS affiliate in Seattle, and also helped start the Asian American Journalists Association in Seattle. He was also a founding member of the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco.
He also works in film, and served as the producer and director of the award-winning PBS documentary, “Conscience and the Constitution.”
“Don’t let his pleasant demeanor fool you. Behind the smile is a volcanic force for justice.
Frank Abe continues to inspire me decades after I met him because he will not let injustice stand.
He never got over the fact that Japanese American men who resisted wartime incarceration during WW2 had their history wiped out.
Radio reporter/producer by day, documentary producer by night, Abe helped organize the first "Day of Remembrance" media event and went on to direct “Conscience and the Constitution” a labor of love that took him ten years.
‘Between ‘shikata ga nai’ It Can’t Be Helped and ‘Go for Broke’ Give 110 Percent, there was no tolerance for a third option, resistance,’ says Abe.
Long shunned by some in the Japanese American community as cowards who wouldn’t volunteer for the Army, Abe discovered resisters were men who stood against oppression and violation of their constitutional rights. For that, they were imprisoned for the duration of the war.
Abe went on to work as director of communications for two County Executives, co founded the Seattle Chapter of AAJA and served as national vice president for broadcast for National AAJA.
Even today, he continues to organize workshops and work with academics to tell the resisters’ stories. Abe feels the question for Japanese Americans is not ‘Why didn’t you resist,’ but ‘Why did you turn your backs on those who resisted?’”
— Lori Matsukawa, KING TV Anchor
Lori Matsukawa is a veteran news anchor at KING TV in Seattle. She was a co-founder of the Seattle Chapter of AAJA. She received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Asian American Journalists Association (2005), was inducted into the University of Washington Communication Department’s Alumni Hall of Fame (2012) and in 2014, was inducted into NATAS Northwest’s Silver Circle for lifetime achievement.
Jonathan Sun is a Twitter comedian and creator, writing absurdist jokes and coding two Twitter bots to send out scheduled positive reminders.
Besides racking up over 541.8k Twitter followers on his three accounts combined, Sun is a Ph.D candidate for Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He researches how individuals find a sense of place and community within online environments, and is also an engineer, artist, and playwright.
“With a 24-hour news cycle, journalists rarely catch a break. We’re bombarded via social media with constant updates of the world’s latest events, and they aren’t exactly the most uplifting.
Yet, Jonathan Sun is carving out his own tranquil space in the chaotic social media landscape. With @tinycarebot, he reminds followers to practice self-care, with tweets such as ‘please take a little bit of time to eat something nutritious’ or ‘don’t forget to take a quick second to rest your eyes please.’ With @tinydotbot, he creates symmetrical dotted drawings, up to interpretation by the viewer, in what he calls ‘a small exercise in creative seeing.’
His main account, @jonnysun, also serves as comedic relief. He’s taken up an online alter ego as a naive alien simply trying to figure out human language, relationships, and existence. His first book, titled “everyone’s a aliebn when you’re a aliebn too,” is set to release June 2017.
Sun’s accessibility and genuine care for his followers is rare for such a popular account.
Last month at a panel for the MIT Online Humor Conversation Series, Sun recounted a small interaction with a follower. When he saw Sun’s photo for the first time, “he cried because he’d never seen a comedian be Asian before.” After the panel, Sun stayed after for hours to meet and chat with every single fan.
For many followers, Sun’s accounts are a small break from the sensory overload of Twitter timelines. His tweets are a burst of positivity, encouraging me to take a moment, step away from my work, and reflect on my day.
— Claire Tran, Boston University student
Claire Tran is a junior at Boston University, majoring in Journalism and double minoring in Political Science and Public Health. She serves as a Senior Reporter for Inside Boston at BUTV10, the campus TV station, covering local and national news. She’s involved with the Brookline Interactive Group, Boston Asian American Film Festival, and The BU Buzz. This summer, she’ll be interning with NBC News in New York City.
Juju Chang is a co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline, and she also reports for “Good Morning America” and “20/20.”
She was born in Seoul, then attended Stanford University. Chang started out as a desk assistant for ABC, and eventually worked KGO-TV, World News Tonight, 20/20, and Good Morning America.
The Emmy-award winning journalist is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a founding board member of the Korean American Community Foundation.
“I grew up watching news stories on television to learn English. As the anchors and reporters boiled down the most difficult concepts – ranging from diplomacy to finance – to accessible terms for the viewer, I repeated their words in admiration. As I expanded my fluency by emulating the reporters, I grew determined to experience it full-circle one day. I wanted to be on the other end of the screen, sharing the stories with viewers like myself.
However, the idea of reporting on television to a worldwide audience seemed extremely disconnected from my reality. I simply could not possibly imagine someone like me on screen: How could I, a South Korean girl who learned Hangul before English, deliver stories to the American public?
Then I saw Juju Chang on Nightline. As she lent a voice to the unheard by reporting on gender issues and families with incarcerated members, I was struck by her charisma. When I later “fangirled” her biography to learn that she, too, had immigrated from Seoul, I realized that my dream may not be entirely fantasy. She gave me the confidence to fully embrace my identity as a woman of Korean descent in an industry where Asian Americans are underrepresented.
I started my first year at Stanford last September. Knowing that I would share Juju’s alma mater, I came in with an extra sprinkle of hope on my shoulder. And when I was appointed the news director position at KZSU Stanford, the public radio station in which Juju once served as news director, I felt a sense of assurance that I was walking the right path.
I was ecstatic when Juju graciously agreed to join me on-air for a live interview on my weekly news show for the station. I was screaming on the inside the whole time, but I still remember every moment of my conversation with her. It was a surreal moment where I was the journalist interviewing the journalist who inspired me to become one. It was the full-circle experience I desired.
Although I continue to follow Juju’s career trajectory, in no way am I even close to emulating her charm, gravitas, and success as a journalist. I am very young and very much still questioning my talents, interests, and ideologies – at this stage in life, I thank Juju for giving me a sense of direction to follow. I don’t know if I’ll ‘make it’ (whatever that means) as a journalist, but for now, I’m diving into it head first, looking up to Juju as a mentor and her career as a guidebook. Thank you, Juju, for your mentorship.”
— Inyoung Choi, Stanford University student and KZSU News Director
Peter Kwong was a pioneering scholar on Chinese immigration who joined the faculty of Hunter College in 1993, and also worked as a writer, journalist, and documentarian. Kwong, 75, died in March, according to the New York Times.
Throughout his decades-long career, he wrote several books on Chinese immigration, including “The New Chinatown,” and also co-produced the Oscar-nominated documentary, “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province.” He also was the inaugural director of Hunter College’s Asian American Studies program.
“I met Professor Peter Kwong while I was pursuing a Master’s degree in urban planning at Hunter College. His benevolent love for the Chinese immigrant community, tenacious advocacy for social justice, and relentless passion for creative endeavors inspired me to focus my studies on the Chinese immigrant community and to pursue a career in ethnic journalism.
Though I never took a class with him, he encouraged me to continue my studies in urban planning. When I first began at Hunter College in 2008, I was a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant student who entered the graduate program with hopes to use the knowledge for the Chinese immigrant community— but I was struggling with the English language and finances.
There were times when I thought I should drop out of school. But Professor Peter Kwong reached out to me and provided me support to help me through my years at Hunter.
There were many times I sat in his office, expressing my frustrations about life and how I may discontinue the program. He patiently encouraged me each time, saying, ‘All the obstacles will go away, but your dream will stay with you. Keep dreaming and work harder.’
As a Chinese immigrant, he knew the hardship of immigrant life and saw the injustice imposed on the Chinese community. I learned about the concept -- and negative consequences of -- gentrification from him. He often said to me, ‘The Chinese immigrant have right to stay in Chinatown and have the right to fight against gentrification.’ He brought me to many protests and invited me to join his research.
He was not just a scholar, but also a journalist, writer, and filmmaker. When I tried to transition into creative writing, but was unsure and doubtful about it, he reminded me about his prolific career paths. He always told me to follow my interests, and that things would fall into place.I was inspired by his vision -- and later on decided to follow his path to speak for the Chinese community. Now, I’m a reporter for the Chinese community. His generous support and guidance lead to where I am today. I know that I must be among so many who will miss him, and I will try to work harder to honor him and to carry his legacy forward.”
I was inspired by his vision -- and later on decided to follow his path to speak for the Chinese community. Now, I’m a reporter for the Chinese community. His generous support and guidance lead to where I am today. I know that I must be among so many who will miss him, and I will try to work harder to honor him and to carry his legacy forward.”
— Yichen Tu, freelance writer
Yichen Tu is a freelance writer, documentarian, and photographer based in New York City. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the World Journal, covering issues about the Chinese immigrant community in New York City.
Sharon Chan is the vice president of innovation, product, and development at the Seattle Times, where she has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor, and producer.
She has long been a fierce advocate for AAJA, serving as the national president in 2009 and 2010. Sharon has also served as vice president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity in 2011 and 2012.
"What I love best about Sharon Pian Chan is her fearlessness. She firmly believes we have one life to live, so we'd better make it count!
She knows the value of forming relationships with bosses, peers, readers, fellow AAJA-ers and using them to further fair coverage and diversity in journalism. She leads by example.
When National AAJA needed new energy, she ran for and became President in 2009-2010. She was also Vice President of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity in 2011-2012.
How she did all this while working full time at the Seattle Times and being married to Danny O'Neil— a print colleague-turned-radio host— is mind boggling.
Her latest coup was commuting to the East Coast to complete an MBA at MIT and being promoted to Vice President of Innovation, Product and Development at the Seattle Times. And she still finds time to bake a heavenly peach pie.
In an interview, Chan said, “In a world of fake news and clickbait, The Seattle Times remains committed to fact-based, in-depth, independent journalism about the place our readers care most about: home. My job is to get our journalism to them with innovative products that cut through the information overload and improve their lives.”
— Lori Matsukawa, KING-TV Anchor
Lori Matsukawa is a veteran news anchor at KING-TV in Seattle. She was a co-founder of the Seattle Chapter of AAJA. She received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Asian American Journalists Association (2005), was inducted into the University of Washington Communication Department’s Alumni Hall of Fame (2012) and in 2014, was inducted into NATAS Northwest’s Silver Circle for lifetime achievement.
Jean Lee is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a non-partisan think-tank based in Washington, DC.
A veteran foreign correspondent, Lee led Associated Press coverage on North and South Korea from 2008 to 2013, where she became the first American reporter to be granted exclusive access to North Korea. In 2012, she opened the Pyongyang bureau for the Associated Press. Lee grew up in Minnesota, then studied East Asian Studies and English at Columbia, and later obtained a degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
“Jean Lee was the first female, Asian-American bureau chief I came across early in my career in South Korea. Nearly 10 years later, she's still one of the only ones I've ever known.
When Jean was at The AP, she was someone who created opportunities for young, Korean-American journalists like myself, allowing me to report as a stringer and encouraging me to join AAJA. (I demurred at first, but she persisted and got me to become a member, and it was a life-changing decision!)
It was incredible to see her break barriers, from leading the AP's team in South Korea to becoming the first American journalist to get regular access to North Korea. Working now as an independent journalist, she is one of the most well-informed sources on the Korean peninsula, offering a rare dose of practical, thorough knowledge gleaned from work on both sides of the Korean demilitarized zone.
Over the years, Jean has served as a mentor to me, and she has shown me how to be strong in the face of criticism, to be kind and generous to those less experienced than me, and to know how to have fun in your off-hours, which is so important in this high-pressure industry. I wouldn't be the journalist I am today if not for Jean.”
— Hannah Bae, freelance journalist
Hannah Bae is currently working on a Korean food project called EatDrinkDraw.com, in addition to writing on topics including travel, business and all things Korea. Hannah is a social media specialist who has worked for organizations such as CNNMoney, Newsday and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. She is the vice president of AAJA's New York chapter and a graduate of AAJA's Executive Leadership Program.
Photos of Jean Lee, Sharon Chan, Juju Chang, Jonathan Sun, Frank Abe and Peter Kwong by Zac Wong.
Zachary Wong is an illustrator and filmmaker from Venice, CA. His work is far-reaching, ranging from illustrations about angsty Asian Americans to comic strips about angsty Asian Americans. You can find his work at zacwong.com and on Instagram at @xactowong.