The future is Asian American


In Silicon Valley parlance, we are witnessing a “zero-to-one” opportunity in Asian American cultural construction. I’ve been thinking about this since my reaction to Crazy Rich Asians got more attention than I expected. 

Still, saying that Asian Americans are doing anything new might come as a surprise to a lot of people. After all, there are sixth and seventh generation Asian Americans, and you can easily find Asian restaurants, Chinatowns, and even Asian-themed museums. However, these artifacts are vestiges from a different generation. They are closer to representing the few sentences that mentioned Chinese railroad workers and the Chinese Exclusion Act in our history books than anything we can relate to today. As an Asian American, visiting an old Chinatown or an Asian museum makes me feel just as foreign as when I visit Asia. The idea of the model minority has stripped us of any discernible character.

Wesley Yang’s been writing about this for a while.

Wesley Yang on the New York Magazine cover

Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally. — “Paper Tigers” by Wesley Yang in New York Magazine. May 8, 2011.

That is what zero feels like.

But what does one feel like?

These Tweets from famous Asian American athletes look quite ordinary because…they are. But these were also the rare moments where an Asian American got to display her or his full personhood, in all of its simplicity (like feeling hangry and having a celebrity crush) and complexity (like talking about cultural appropriation). Something that most ordinary Americans are not used to seeing from Asian Americans so publicly. 

Since Yang’s article in 2011, Asian Americans have experienced an unprecedented number of opportunities to publicly renegotiate with the rest of America about what it means to be Asian in this country. At the Oscars, Chris Rock inadvertently ticked off Asians, fueling #OscarsSoWhite and the ensuing attempts at reconciliation, which helped set the stage for the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Harvard, the most sought-after Asian brand, is currently contending with its biggest boosters about how to fairly evaluate their children. The progression from zero to one will require more cultural representation and public discourse about what it means to be Asian American. In Taiwan where I grew up, people can’t tell white people apart. Racism and stereotypes strike me as problematic largely because compelling alternatives are not readily available. I feel like we are at the cusp of this rise in the American cultural consciousness as I read these names — Michelle Phan, Steven Yeun, Amy Chua, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Ryan Higa, Tim de la Ghetto, Hasan Minhaj, Eddie Huang, David Chang, Shib Sibs, Fung Bros, Bobby Hundreds, Akwafina, John Cho, Ken Jeong, Ali Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, Grace Park, Shim Lim, Lana Condor, Randall Park, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Harry Shum Jr., Ted Chiang.

This rise is not an accident. We are seeing the rise today because Asian Americans have built up hard power (i.e. economic means) and we are beginning to demand soft power (i.e. cultural influence) in the United States.

Asian American Hard Power (the market)

It must first be noted that the simplicity of the “Asian American” grouping ignores the important differences among the 40+ subcultures that fall in this bucket.

Population: The Asian American population is projected to grow to 25.7 million by 2019 (7% of the U.S. population), more than doubled from 10.9 million in 1999 just twenty years ago (and the year when I moved to the United States). Asian Americans are the fastest growing population group, faster than the Hispanic-American population. 

Purchasing power: According to Nielsen, Asian American buying power increased 257% between 2000 and 2017 (compared to 203% from the second-fastest growing group of Hispanic Americans). They are projected to have a combined purchasing power of $1.3 trillion by 2022. Asian American household income of $110,523 is the highest among all population groups including non-Hispanic White households (Asian Americans are also the highest in individual mean income of $44,887).

Young and educated: Because the most recent immigration wave started in 1965, Asian Americans skew younger than the general population (34 as opposed to 38). If you only consider the second-generation, the median age is only 30. Asian Americans are more likely to enroll in college at 87% compared to 72% for the average American. 

Greater Asian Diaspora: It would be remiss to not mention a similar rise in the Greater Asian Diaspora. In terms of population, there are 1.7 million Chinese in Canada and 1.2 million in Australia. There are 1.8 million Indian-British, 1.5 million Indian-Canadian and 1.3 million Indian-South African. Unsurprisingly, Crazy Rich Asians, the movie that spoke specifically to Asian Americans, also dominated the box office in Canada and Australia.

The rise of Asian American Soft Power (the opportunity)

A few months ago, I started noticing my Asian American friends started to share memes from a Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Traits.” The group now has more than one million members and it seems like almost every Asian American I know is in there. If you’ve read this far, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that the group was started by students in Australia. As one of the founders told the New York Times:

She said she doesn’t mind that her friends ask her about her heritage, although answering questions can be “a bit tedious.”

The endless stream of memes in the “Subtle Asian Traits” group provides relief — it’s a chance to belong for once without having to try.

“We don’t have to explain stuff,” she said.

A New Yorker article describes the impact of this random Facebook group has had on an Asian Canadian:

Jin Angeles, who is twenty-six and lives in Toronto, told me that he has become much less apprehensive in opening conversations about his own Asian upbringing — topics that, before Subtle Asian Traits, would only come up if some event occurred to break a silence that he had never quite noticed before.

Specifically the way Subtle Asian Traits (“SAT”, lol) helps create feelings of belonging is through the sharing of memes that only those in the in-group would understand. Here’s an example:

A meme from “Subtle Asian Traits”

According to Pew Research, second-generation children of immigrants are more likely to identify with the Asian American or American label than the label associated with their heritage country (i.e. “Korean-American”). There is a tremendous opportunity in being part of this secular movement, and entrepreneurs are starting to pay attention.

Opportunity: Asian American-first businesses

What does it mean to build a business to specifically cater to Asian Americans? With an exploding population and spending power, it pays to explore this idea more. 

Yamibuy

The first 99 Ranch Market opened in 1984 in Westminster, CA and has since expanded to 50 locations, making roughly $350M a year. Alex Zhou started Yamibuy in 2013 as the online equivalent of 99 Ranch Market to target the younger generation of Asian Americans. In just five years, Yamibuy has grown to $100M in annual revenue and has received $10M in venture funding to fuel its growth. Yamibuy has expanded to beauty and home/kitchen appliances, which maps perfectly to the categories Asian American consumers over-index on according to Nielsen.

Coffee Meets Bagel, EastMeetEast, 2RedBeans, Minder, Shaadi

In the competitive dating market, Coffee Meets Bagel has survived against better funded competitors by carving out a niche of Asian Americans and that niche pays at a much higher rate. Compared to CMB, EastMeetEast is more overtly focused on Asian Americans, from working with Asian YouTubers to creative billboards in LA K-Town to having “fobbiness” as a filter in your dating profile.

Filter for “age arrived” aka “fobbiness filter”

2RedBeans went directly after the overseas Chinese market (you can log in with WeChat), which has also enabled them to stay relevant. I haven’t checked these out but I hear there are Minder and Shaadi to tailor to Muslims and Indians specifically.

Michelle Phan / Ipsy

Asian Americans are the most digitally connected minority group in the U.S. Using the YouTube, Asian Americans have side-stepped being overlooked by the mainstream media and built their influence online. Amongst all the Asian beauty and food influencers, Michelle Phan has had the most success riding this wave. Her company, Ipsy, is doing north of $360M in ARR and has people talking about a $2B exit. Building on YouTube is a great way to target Asian Americans.

Instant Pot

When I first heard about Instant Pot, it was around 2016. My Asian American friend Esther Yu was spreading the good word about the Prime Day discount. Then in 2017, my other friend Wil Chung convinced me to buy one, but by then I’ve already seen Instant Pot infiltrate every Asian household I go to. The product was engineered to facilitate making immigrant comfort dishes like curry. It even has buttons specifically for “porridge” and “rice.” Typically, the young people are the first to discover new products, but in the case of Instant Pot, they started magically appearing in the homes of my older family and relatives at the same time because Asian Americans are the more likely to be connected with their families through messaging apps like Skype and Whatsapp (Young Asian Americans are twice as likely to be using those apps compared to the average population because of their families), and they made for convenient gifts for our immigrant parents who love to cook.

Crazy Rich Asians, GoldThreads and NextShark

Movies are like startups (with longer odds). The phenomenon that was Crazy Rich Asians grossed $238M worldwide on a $30M investment. The lesser-known movie Searching, #StarringJohnCho, did $78M worldwide with South Korea accounting for $22M of the box office on a shoestring budget.

South Morning China Post with their Goldthread and Abacus properties are bringing professional, high-quality media production to target Asian Americans and those with an interest in China. New media startups like Nextshark has also quickly carved out a niche celebrating Asian Americans in a relatively short time.

These are just the first of many businesses that are smart enough to take advantage of Asian Americans’ digital savvy and desire to identify with their culture.

Opportunity: Asian cultural import

It’s not rocket science to think that something that works in Asia might work in the Western world, especially with a growing and established Asian Diaspora. Many Asian Americans I know grew up without role models who look like them, beauty standards they can aspire to or products that speak to them, but when we visit Asia, we find them in abundance. 

Mari Kondo / KonMari Media, Inc.

What sparks joy for me is to tell people that Mari Kondo is VC-backed. She’s helping to export Japanese Shintoism and minimalist values to the rest of us. While she is clearly Japanese, the backlash she’s facing in the United States has many Asian Americans up in arms defending her because the other-ification is not dissimilar to how they’ve been treated and threatens to take away one of the few heroes they can look up to who looks like them.

K-Beauty and Yoga

K-Beauty, at least according to my female friends (and a few male friends), has been on the come-up for a while. South Korea exported $5B worth of cosmetics. While it’s unclear how much ended up in the U.S., Rakuten’s survey indicates that the category has grown by 300% between 2015 and 2017, and these products are disproportionately purchased by Asian Americans.

Yoga, which came from India, has also been growing rapidly in recent years. 36M people now practice yoga according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, which is up from 20.4M in 2012. It’s a $16B industry that has grown 60% between 2012–2016. 

K-Pop

This past February, BLACKPINK went on Good Morning America to announce their US tour dates and quickly sold out. A week later, BTS presented an award at the Grammys. You can find many Asian Americans at the root of K-Pop. Jae Chong moved to Korea in 1992 to start the first K-Pop Hip-Hop boy band SOLID. Tablo from Epik High grew up in Canada and graduated from Stanford before moving to Korea for his music career. Jay Park was doing YouTube videos from Seattle before he became one of the biggest K-Pop stars to cross back over to the U.S.. You can trace many more K-Pop producers, songwriters and business executives back to their Asian American roots. The rise of K-Pop is really Asian American homecoming. 

88Rising

There’s this guy, Sean Miyashiro, who’s been going around signing artists out of Indonesia (Rich Brian), Australia (Joji, who recently became the first Asian artist to debut #1 on Billboard‘s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart), Korea (Keith Ape), China (Higher Brothers) and making them superstars in the U.S. and worldwide. Only a few artists on the label are Asian Americans, but the formula is a hit with Asian American youth.

Rich Brian addresses the audience at the 88rising Double Happiness show at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall in Los Angeles on February 10, 2018 (Forbes / 88 Rising)

Opportunity: American fast-follow

We’ve moved from the days of Chinese knock-offs and copycats to Americans “fast-following” Chinese startups and localizing their strategies for the U.S. consumers. Not only has venture capital started to flow more to China than to the U.S., the staggering number of urbanized consumers in China will inevitably produce ideas that Americans will only adopt later on as we become more urban over time. Connie Chan has been talking in much more depth and nuance than I can capture. If you follow her on Twitter, you will find great talks like this one on how Chinese startups have more diversified income streams than advertising. 

Lime

Lime is a clear fast-follow from the Chinese trend of dockless bikesharing, but they’ve adopted it for the American commute by electrifying its micromobility fleet and adding scooters to the mix. The startup is most recently valued at $2.4B. Asian Americans who have experienced these services first-hand in Asia and have strong ties there are most likely to be the ones to help bridge their cross-over to the United States. 

Wish

Wish is a shopping app that boasts 300M users with a valuation over $8B. Chinese consumers already benefit from being able to order from Chinese sellers on sites like Alibaba and JD.com, but American consumers has to go through various middlemen marking up low-priced Chinese products. Wish offered an alternative. 94% of the sellers on Wish are Chinese while 30% of its buyers are based in the U.S. (the rest are in Europe).

American Ninja Warrior, The Masked Singer

Americans will also continue to copy the best of Asian media. You probably could’ve guessed that American Ninja Warrior is based on a Japanese show Sasuke, but did you know that the latest show on FOX, The Masked Singer, is based on the South Korean show The King of Mask Singer (you will be really delighted to learn who won the first season)?

Betting on #AsianAmericanRising

Now is literally the defining moment in history for Asian Americans and I’m optimistic because betting on Asian America has always yielded high returns against all odds.

In the technology industry where Asian Americans historically have the most advantage because they represent 27.2% of the work force, only 18.8% become managers and 13.9% become executives. This is the classic “bamboo ceiling” and it highlights the struggle that Asian Americans face even when they are relatively privileged.

However, when I compiled a list of “unicorn” startups (i.e. companies with private valuations over $1B) and their founders, I found that out of 206 unicorns, almost one in four (23.8%) are led by an Asian American or Asian Diaspora founder. In other words, Asian Americans have created nearly $200B (29.4% of $659B) in aggregate value. Just like with Hollywood, Asian Americans are impacting Silicon Valley by side-stepping traditional corporate ladders and writing their own rules as entrepreneurs.

In a world where everyone is connected through the major tech platforms, focusing on niche populations and helping them fuse their identity makes for smart business. The restaurant review platform Yelp can attribute much of its success to finding product-market fit among Asian Americans. One study found that Asian American women are 201% more likely to use Yelp. The online publication BuzzFeed has also found success by identifying with Asian American users. Their staff of writers regularly create content about Asian American topics after discovering that people like to share content that help them express their identity.

I’m excited for the future of Asian America. There are a lot of exciting opportunities to create new products and services created for a population that is more likely to live in multi-generational homes, more likely to travel, more likely to purchase consumer electronics, home, kitchen and beauty products, and more connected digitally and globally.

Where can we share stories through food? Where can we buy glasses that fit our noses and falsies that fit our eyes? Where can we watch our version of BET, Univision and Telemundo? Where do we go to feel like we belong? Where is the next Uniqlo that’s made for our bodies? Where is the next Lime to bring innovations we enjoy in Asia to us?

I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Fans at the 88 Degrees & Rising Tour show in New York. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

If you’d like to chat more about this essay, follow me on Twitter or shoot me an email at last name dot first name at gmail

Asian-Americans Are Cultural Orphans (aka I hope Crazy Rich Asians isn’t a flop)

The most anxiety-inducing movie poster ever

I just found out that there’s a movie coming out this summer with an all-Asian cast called Crazy Rich Asians and it’s making me very nervous. Is this supposed to be our Black Panther moment for stereotype-shattering Asian-American representation in mainstream media? Ok, that’s probably an exaggeration. I’m happy we are even represented in the first place. But what if no one watches it? Does it prove once and for all that Asian-Americans are not bankable stars? What about the fact that studios have largely given up on romantic comedies because they don’t sell as well as superhero movies. Would anyone care for our excuse? What about this male lead from Malaysia, Henry Golding. He’s not technically Asian-American and I don’t want to put it all on him, but he might be the only Asian-looking romantic male lead we will ever get. If he’s not a big enough thirst trap, can Asian-Americans men ever be found physically attractive by American standards? I’m asking, uh, for my friends…

How I became Asian-American

The media has given more attention to the lack of Asian-American representation in recent years thanks to movements like #HollywoodSoWhite and leaders like Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang and Constance Wu speaking out about the issue. However, I can’t help but feel like not much is going to change because “Asian-American” as an identity is not really a meaningful one.

I really wanted to be Asian-American growing up. I immigrated to the United States when I was eleven from Taiwan. Since I didn’t speak English, I wanted to befriend the Korean-American kids in my school because they looked liked me. Kids being kids, they wasted no time to make fun of the new kid by pointing out that I was nothing like them — I was a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) Asian, not Asian-American. At that age, being ostracized like that by what you thought was your people pretty much amounted to devastation. I stopped trying to talk for two years until I developed enough fluency to sound just like any ordinary Asian-American kid from Los Angeles. Eventually I joined the Asian-American kids in teasing the new FOB Asians in our school and feeling like I’ve succeeded in becoming one of them.

When I got older, I started to understand the complexities of being Asian in this country. I moved here at a young enough age that I had an easier time passing as Asian-American, but those who immigrated later often didn’t have a choice because it’s much harder to get rid of your foreign accent after a certain age. Not that identifying as Asian-American should be that important, but it does give you a shared identity to relate to other Asian-Americans as opposed to feeling like an alien all the time. For many of the older immigrants that can’t or don’t want to identify as Asian-American, they’re simply immigrants or “Overseas Asians.”

The Overseas Asians usually refer to themselves as “Chinese” or “Indian” living abroad. They have lived their formative years in their native Asian country, so they are culturally much more Asian than they are American. I’d speak to my Overseas Chinese friends in Mandarin because it’s preferred, and we’d talk about the latest Chinese shows and celebrity gossip. Where I live in the Bay Area, there are authentic Chinese restaurants that cater specifically to the Overseas Chinese. It’s a big enough market that there are even dating apps (2 Red Beans) and shopping services (YamiBuy) designed specifically for this population.

Sometimes I’m envious of the closeness of the Overseas Asian community. It feels like being “Asian-American” is simply what you end up with when you are not an Overseas Asian or a FOB Asian like myself who could swing both ways. In fact, it’s way more meaningful for an Asian-American person to identify as Vietnamese-American, Pakistani-American, Filipino-American, etc. since those labels point to much richer cultures. Asian-Americans do not have much of a shared history in the United States to unite us, which can be good because that history is mostly a history of struggle, but it does deprive us of the urgency to be authors of our own cultural narrative.

We don’t know what it means to be Asian-American, and so far we haven’t shown much interest in figuring it out. On top of that, our parents would remind us that Chinese and Koreans detest the Japanese. Indian and Pakistani people don’t get along. Generally the light-skinned Asians look down on the “jungle Asians” of South East Asia. Historically, we’re just not that interested in being lumped into the same group. However, the younger generation of Asian-American like me do not have this historical baggage. We’re simply interested in finding our identity, but when we look out to the world, all we can find is the lazy portrayal of the uni-dimensional, kung-fu fighting, smart, obedient, emasculated man or hyper-sexualized woman. The Model Minority. That sucks.

What being a cultural orphan feels like

Remember Linsanity?

Linsanity was the biggest media event of my Asian-American life. I remember my friends and I would leave work early to watch the Knicks play, not wanting to miss any precious second because deep down we knew this moment wouldn’t last, and we would never experience this powerful feeling again.

Jeremy Lin showed us that Asian-Americans are strong, masculine, and competitive at the highest level of our favorite sport. Of course, we’ve always wanted to believe that about ourselves, but few of us actually did because we’ve never seen that image reinforced in the media until we saw Jeremy Lin. Maybe cultural symbols and narratives were never that important to you to begin with, but for many of us, they are important because the media is like a mirror — we look to it to reflect the ideal image we want to believe about ourselves. If you’re Asian-American, you’re always left wanting more.

The term “Asian-American” wasn’t a thing until fifty years ago. Before that, we were simply Indian-American, Korean-American, Hmong-American, each group considered different from one another. In order to gain political power, activists at UC Berkeley took a page from the Afro-American playbook to create the Asian American Political Alliance, uniting Asian-Americans under one umbrella. This movement put pressure on the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to promote “Asian-American” from the “Other” category, with significant impact on how political resources are allocated — something we still benefit from today. But culturally, we never made much progress.

The Black Power political movement in the 60s had the associated Black is Beautiful cultural movement that rejected the racist perception of the country and helped define a more empowering narrative of what it means to be a black person. Even many of us non-blacks can recite speeches, poems, songs and identify influential black cultural figures. What about Asian-Americans? Our Model Minority status is sinister because it hides the significant cultural vacuum that we operate in. We have no aspirational images. No role models. Asian-Americans are cultural orphans.

Being a cultural orphan in America means that other groups of people don’t know how to interact with us. We are asked questions that you’d ask a foreign tourist from a culture you know little about. “Where are you from?” and “Do you know kung-fu?” Despite the fact that we grew up here in the United States. Our fellow Americans do not mean to belittle or relegate us to the stereotype, they’re simply under-exposed. Asian-Americans are still only 5.6% of the American population, so most people will be under-exposed to the Asian-American narrative. We need to leverage the media to help us scale that exposure.

#AsianAmericanRising

Fortunately over the last decade, I believe we’re witnessing the beginning of the rise of Asian America. Every time Jeremy Lin attacks the rim and rocks a new hairstyle, he inflicts major damage on the stereotype. On Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu and Randall Park are showing off the eccentric Asian-American family and making it something endearing that we can all be proud of. Eddie Huang and David Chang are the irreverent chefs with untouchable swagger. Ali Wong, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling are the funny Asian-Americans that you wished you were friends with. Steve Yeun, John Cho and Harry Shum Jr. are sexy men ready to be your next male romantic lead (#StarringJohnCho). We even have an Asian-American running for president in Andrew Yang(!).

The biggest factor contributing to this rise is likely the maturation of second-generation Asian-Americans. The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 resulted in an unprecedented number of Asian immigrants coming to this country. Their now adult children are beginning to understand that culturally, they are not like their immigrant parents, but they have yet to define what it means to be Asian-American.

The Internet is also playing a big part in the rise of Asian America. For example, YouTube allowed Asian-Americans to sidestep Hollywood completely until they became too big to ignore. Pioneers like Ryan Higa, Wong Fu and Timothy DeLaGhetto paved the way for the ascendence of Michelle Phan, Fung Bros, Awkwafina and Eugene Lee.

The Internet also enabled a more global youth culture that is much more receptive to elements from outside of the United States. Asian-Americans like Maggie Q, Daniel Wu, Jay Park who moved to Asia to better build their careers abroad are now making their way back home because the American taste is becoming more multicultural. BTS, an Asian K-Pop import, just topped the American Billboard charts, and their songs are all in Korean. Music label 88Rising is seeing this opportunity and aggressively marketing Asian artists with American and Internet-friendly sounds like Rich Brian, Keith Ape, Joji and the Higher Brothers to the American audience. These Asian imports will also be part of the Asian-American narrative going forward.

88Rising artists: Rich Brian (Indonesia), Keith Ape (Korea), Higher Brothers (China), Joji (Japan)

Bruce Lee wanted to be so much more

I heard a great Bruce Lee interview recently on the NPR 1A podcast that made me think that if Bruce Lee was still alive, he would’ve already already pushed the Asian-American narrative significantly forward. In an interview from 1971, the man primarily responsible for the kung fu fighting stereotype talked about the importance of Asian-Americans like himself to be embraced more fully by our society.

Interviewer: are you going to stay in Hong Kong and be famous or are you going to go to the United States and be famous?

Bruce Lee: I’m gonna do both because you see I have already made up my mind that in the United States I think something about the Oriental…I mean the true oriental should be shown

Interviewer: Hollywood sure as heck hasn’t

Bruce Lee: you better believe it man it’s always that pigtail and bouncing around chop chop you know with the eyes slanted and all that and I think that’s very very out of date.

Perhaps my trepidation about Crazy Rich Asians isn’t actually warranted. Bruce Lee had all the confidence in the world that he was going to demonstrate all the different ways someone could be Asian-American. Fifty years after his tragic death, we are finally seeing the emergence of a new class of Asian-American role models who are doing exactly that. Crazy Rich Asians is simply the latest culminating event in the rise of Asian America, and the best is yet to come.

#AsianAmericanRising

Thanks to David Tran, Sidney Le, Jennifer 8. Lee, Nancy Hua, Cory Bray and Ian Burgess for reading a draft of this essay.

The immigrant time capsule

MIT’s time capsule. Buried in 1957 to be opened in year 2957.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve been thinking about the idea of a time capsule and how it could be a useful tool to understand the immigrant experience. What is the immigrant time capsule? Let me introduce two characters based on people I know to help illustrate the idea.

Alice is 40-years-old and immigrated from China in 1995.

Bob is 80-years old and immigrated from China in 2015.

If you had to guess, who is more likely to know how to withdraw cash from an ATM in the United States? If you answered Alice because she’s younger and likely savvier with technology, you might be wrong. Alice could be stuck in a time capsule.

In the U.S., ATMs were popularized in the 70s and 80s, but they were very new in China when Alice immigrated in 1995. The Bank of China installed the first ATM in 1986, and by 1995, there were fewer than 9 ATMs per 100,000 Chinese citizens (I couldn’t find the number for 1995, but in 2006 there were only 9 ATMs per 100k people in China). Chances are, Alice has never seen an ATM in her life.

For 80-year-old Bob in 2015, it’s a completely different story. The Chinese economy grew like gangbusters in just twenty years, and modern banking services like ATMs became increasingly commonplace. By 2015, there were 50 ATMs per 100,000 people in China. That number is still well below what we see here in the United States (~200 ATMs per 100k people), but growing rapidly. 80-year-old Bob would’ve benefitted from seeing ATMs get promoted in his native language. He would’ve known friends who magically got cash out of a machine, and perhaps even tried it with assistance from the banks that installed them in an effort to educate their customers to the new technology. When Bob lands in Los Angeles in 2015 and sees the first ATM at the airport, it’ll look familiar to him and he’s more likely to know how to operate it.

Shenzhen’s dramatic transformation.

For Alice landing in Los Angeles in 1995, the ATMs don’t look like anything to her. Unfortunately for Alice, the United States has already moved on from the introductory period of ATMs. No one is going to bother explaining to her what an ATM is. She may not even be familiar with banking services in general and might still be stashing her money under the mattress. Alice is several steps behind because she was plucked from her timeline in China and shunted into a new timeline in the U.S., with a significant gap in technological progress. Alice missed all of the developments in the U.S. that were ahead of China at the time, and unlike her peers who stayed behind in China, she doesn’t get to learn alongside the rest of the Chinese population, in her native tongue, at her own pace. Alice is stuck in a time capsule that is China in 1995. Do you know someone like Alice?

Our immigrants face significant challenges like having to overcome the language barrier, culture shock, loneliness, securing employment, just to name a few. However, I suspect most of us are overlooking the fact that many immigrants are stuck in an immigrant time capsule, making it even harder for them to assimilate. In the most fortunate case when things significantly improve in their home country, the immigrants don’t get to experience that development first-hand. Instead, they are stuck in the United States, belonging to neither here nor there.

Too often, our immigrants simply turn inwards and stick with what they knew when they arrived. Alice would see the U.S. in 1995 through the lens of 1995 China, ignoring ATMs and rejecting basic services like banking because trusting an institution with their money was inconceivable to them. Imagine moving to a new country to start a new life, and seeing unfamiliar things like ATMs everywhere you go.

Alice: “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”

This blog post was inspired by the documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a story about a community bank in New York’s Chinatown that was the unfortunate target of an Manhattan District Attorney looking to make an example out of a bank following the financial crisis. Abacus Federal Savings Bank was built by an immigrant to serve the underserved Chinese immigrant community, which was a tremendous challenge that required Abacus to employ different techniques to help the community feel comfortable with banking services, especially since New York Chinatown consists primarily of immigrants who moved shortly after the 1968. Below is a clip about how Abacus got people to deposit money directly with the bank by first introducing safety deposit boxes to ease the community into the idea. The clip doesn’t really do it justice, so I recommend watching the entire film. Start watching at 3:58.