I’ve spent the past 3 years choosing between “Asian” and “American” as a business owner.
“Not one person gets to define what American means, we have different experiences and we have shared experiences and all of them should be respected.” - Michelle Li, talking about #VeryAsian
These past 3 years, I’ve been struggling with running an Asian American business (my mom and I make candy chews inspired by traditional Chinese candy) and the never ending tug of war of being “too Asian” or “not Asian enough”. In light of the renewed conversation around #VeryAsian, I thought I’d share my experiences with the dilemma of branding and describing an AAPI business in the US.
When we started making our first batches of my mom’s favorite childhood candy, we described the candies as “milk chews,” inspired by the original Chinese candy category of chewy milk candies (like White Rabbit). With this description, our candies almost exclusively sold to those already familiar with Asian candies. We got a lot of upset comments from others that were extremely put off by the name; they told us “milk belongs in the fridge.”
We eventually pivoted to calling our candies “good-for-you nougat,” inspired by the direct Chinese translation of 牛轧糖 and the fact that technically, our candies are nougats. We stopped hearing the milk comments, but people either didn’t have a clear idea of what nougat is, or they had completely different expectations from European nougats. Dejected, we finally transitioned to the current branding of “good-for-you taffy,” shedding the ties we had to being an Asian-inspired candy.
“Not Asian enough.”
The new description and branding made it easier to share our heritage with more people, which was incredibly rewarding, but it also pushed us further away from the Asian-American community – we started hearing from multiple AAPI influencers and news writers that we were “not Asian enough.” It was hurtful to hear that what we had created through our personal stories was now considered something not entirely Asian.
Our brand name, Numa, means daughter and mother in Chinese. From the beginning, the brand was born from our personal journey. I was now being told to be acknowledged as Asian, we had to morph our brand even more. It felt ungenuine and boxed – how could I be not Asian enough when the foundation of our business, and the people making it, were Asian?
Sharing is caring
When we first changed our product description, it felt like we were shying away from our cultural background – the history and description of our candies was alienating and pushing people away. But we realized that we were leaning into our shared experiences: neither wholly Asian nor wholly American. It’s a spectrum along which we’ve chosen our path, and one we’re proud to embody. And that’s what this write up is: an attempt at acknowledging the shades of gray that make us Asian American, not entirely one thing or another.
We don’t have the perfect solution to our candy’s description – and maybe we never will. But we don’t want to be told to choose between our Asian and American identities. We want people to embrace the idea that there is no one way of being Asian-American. As generations beget new generations, what will be known as childhood treats will change. Opening conversation on new takes of old favorites will cultivate greater cultural understanding through food. Hopefully, by sharing our story, we can help open some more conversations to help that process….and we’d love to see a new category of Asian-American candies popularized too! 😉