VSA Partners is very excited to share a collection of short essays on culture and career from the incredible Asian-American and Pacific Islander community within VSA. Through their background and experiences, these members bring an irreplaceable perspective to the work and VSA community. These are their reflections on how their culture has impacted their careers and the way that they work, as well as a celebration of the heritage that has made them who they are today.
“This is your Tita Bella and your Tito Rolly, we went to school together,” my mom told me, as I met the open smiles and warm embraces of complete strangers. “And this is their daughter, your cousin Rhonda.”
In the span of a few breaths, I met a new uncle, aunt, and cousin...none of whom were related to me by blood.
The Philippines, like many Asian cultures, has a longstanding nomenclature that weaves together a respect for elders and inclusivity. Labels like Tita or Tito (Aunt or Uncle), Kuya or Ate (big brother or sister), Manong or Manang (older male or female, two generations older), aren’t reserved for blood relatives. In a way, the blood relationship takes a second seat to a desire to show respect and promote a sense of belonging.
For me, this approach crossed over language and racial barriers, too. Friends of my parents who weren’t Chinese or Filipino became my Uncle Richard, Aunt Judy, Grandma Sophie. When I was introduced to someone in this way, it was far more likely that we had no common ancestry—despite that, I was expected to treat this person like family.
The wide use of these terms has taught me that we are honored and bound by all of our relationships, both chosen and familial. The simple act of calling someone “Auntie” creates an atmosphere of familiarity, and an obligation to treat this person with courtesy and affection. It reminds us that there are direct and indirect connections to others that deserve acknowledgment. It cultivates community and broadens our perspective from “me” to “we.” It instills a belief that we’re part of something larger than ourselves.
This sense of relatedness has influenced my professional career tremendously, in various ways. For one, acknowledging someone’s background and shared connections builds trust and inclusivity, which aids in collaboration. Also, it naturally creates an “us versus the problem” dynamic instead of “me versus you,” which facilitates finding workable outcomes. And lastly, it fosters an underlying sense of optimism about others, whether we know them or not—that despite what lies on the surface, we have common ground.
—Carmelita (Cat) Tiu, Chinese-Filipino-American
Many are familiar with the basic greeting of "你好 (ni hao)" as a way to say "hello" in Chinese. However, the phrases "你吃饭了吗 (ni chi fan le ma)/吃了吗 (chi le ma)?" also serve as common greetings amongst friends. Literally translated, they mean "have you eaten?"—and, to some, this may seem like an oddly specific or nosy way to greet someone, but in fact it is a way to show care. Like many other cultures, Asian and beyond, food often plays a central role in how it connects people. The association of food with emotions, health, and general wellbeing are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture. So, when used, you aren't actually asking someone if they have eaten or not, instead, you are asking them "how are you?" and making sure they are doing well.
This connection with food and care extends beyond a simple greeting. Growing up, whenever I had friends over for a meal, they would stare in awe at the "feast" my mom prepared. And, they would have no choice but to leave with food to take home—my mom would insist on it. This form of generosity has always been a part of my life, from having food continuously shoveled on my plate or in my bowl by my mother, to getting five-plus boxes of 60-count rice krispie treats sent to me by my dad from Costco over the span of the quarantine. And even if I’m not hungry, already full and not left for wanting, the food must be accepted wholly. I suspect I am not alone in experiencing these acts of love in excess as a child of Asian immigrants. Food is our unwritten love language.
I've often found myself carrying out the same behavior with others even in a professional environment. There are literal things like ordering food for everyone if we are working late or randomly treating coworkers to a coffee or sweets. But, this mentality has also extended to my own managerial and mentorial style. It has influenced how generous I am with my own time, my interest in how my teams are doing, beyond just completing "work tasks," and if they are metaphorically well-fed. And, if the last year has taught me anything, it's how important it is to ask each other and ourselves "have you eaten?"
—YanYan Zhang, Chinese American
Associate Partner, Executive Creative Director
Resourcefulness can be defined by how one finds a solution based on what’s in front of them—what they can create, what answer they can find, what discovery is buried under all this information.
Filipino mothers are resourceful beings at their core—nothing goes to waste, everything gets reimagined. Dad’s old white t-shirt went missing? Mom cut it into cleaning rags. Leftover rice from dinner? Turned into fried rice by morning. Clothes don’t fit? Pass it down to the younger cousins, who will eventually pass it down to even younger cousins.
Resourcefulness also goes hand-in-hand with being a go-getter and independent. To this day I tell myself, “Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.” I got this a lot as a kid:
“Mom, have you seen my ballet slippers?” “Look in your room.” “I’m not seeing it anywhere.” “Look with your eyes, Megan, not with your mouth.”
Be resourceful and figure it out. The answer is in there somewhere—whether it’s finding slippers or tracking down important assets and making sense of readouts, reports, and audits. The answer (or clues that get you asking the right questions to land that answer) are in there. I definitely learned from my grandmother and my mother and their immigrant stories that you can get pretty far on your own, especially when you have to. Push the limits and then see if you can go a little further, learn a little more, have that breakthrough. And, when you’ve done all in your power, then we can open it up for questions.
— Meg Rux, Filipino American
In the Filipino culture, young children are taught to greet their elders with a gesture called mano po. The literal translation for this is, “your hand, please.” This gesture entails taking the elder’s hand and placing it on his or her own forehead to express honor and respect for the elder. This is a gesture that I still practice today with aunts and uncles. When my Lolo (grandfather) lived with our family, I recall greeting him daily with mano.
I also recall my brothers and I taking turns accompanying our Lolo for his walks around the block so that he got his daily exercise. We did this as our parents taught us it was part of our shared responsibility to care for our Lolo’s well-being. Filipinos are known for being wonderful caretakers of the elderly. This is because the idea of respecting and caring for the elderly is deeply rooted in Filipino values, as it is similarly with other Asian cultures.
Being raised to respect and care for our elders has truly impacted the work that I do and the way that I work. As someone that works in customer and user experience, empathy plays a large role in our work. Respect and consideration of others’ needs was always something that felt very natural to me. These values have allowed me to anticipate and accommodate those needs through the experiences that I help envision and create as a designer. The mindset of humility has permitted me to meet users, clients, and colleagues where they are and effectively understand their pain points and learn from them. I owe a great deal of my success as a designer because of these values that have been firmly instilled in me.
— Jehan Cowan, Filipino American
Creative Director, Digital Design
A common experience for Asian Americans was, during potlucks or family gatherings, all the children would perform an informal recital of their latest songs on piano, violin, or another instrument for everyone’s enjoyment. As I was mediocre at best in piano, I would go first as the opening act to warm up the crowd and set the bar low for the other kids to surpass. My older sister, on the other hand, was the headliner who would go last and close the show to rousing applause and envy from other parents.
I quickly learned that this did not happen by accident. My sister would spend countless hours practicing and honing her skills. She continuously challenged herself and was rewarded with first chair in numerous orchestras as a result. Although music was not my forte, I observed you must put in the time, effort, and be willing to go the extra mile to truly excel at your goal.
This is especially true in the professional world. It does not matter what discipline or practice you are a part of—both VSA and our clients expect our finest on every project, task, or assignment. As such, I take pride in our work as I know we have gone the extra mile for our clients. The high expectations we set for ourselves will be the reason we are the headliners and not the opening act for our clients and the industry.
— Ming Young, Taiwanese American
Revenue Accounting Manager