Author Charles Yu Shares Personal Journey From Law to Interior Chinatown, Thoughts on Changing Asian American Stereotypes
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, September 13, 2021 — In partnership with the Asian Pacific Interest Section (APIS) of the Texas State Bar and Haynes and Boone, LLP, Asia Society Texas welcomed National Book Award-winning author Charles Yu for a program examining his experience of being Asian in America. In conversation with Albert Tan, Partner and Co-Head of the Global Fund Financing Group with Haynes and Boone and Executive Council member of APIS, Yu spoke on growing up in southern California, how he shifted from his corporate law career to becoming a full-time writer, and his belief on the role representation plays in changing the narrative around Asian Americans.
Personal journey to law
Yu shared that growing up in southern California, he experienced both the self-consciousness of not seeing many other Asian kids around in his childhood and the feeling of being surrounded by other Asian Americans after his family moved for high school. Even at that age, Yu was interested in writing — and had his poetry published in the local paper — but said he chose to pursue pre-med at the University of California, Berkeley, due to his family’s expectations that he become a doctor. Nevertheless, he took writing workshops while at school, picking up a minor in English, and said when he finally realized that med school was not for him, law school seemed like a good fit because he liked to read and write.
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Defying stereotypes and being seen
During his 13 years working in law, Yu spent many of them at top law firm Sullivan & Cromwell and then as in-house counsel at a couple of businesses. He said that he did not recall any overt examples of discrimination as a lawyer, but did experience one incident where a partner advised him to step up and quit being the “quiet Asian guy.” He also noted that it was a different environment then, with less focus on diversity and inclusion, where he did not see many partners in law firms who were Asian or Asian American.
Part of why Yu shared this story was to underline the role of stereotypes, often perpetuated by media, which he also addressed in his book Interior Chinatown. He said he believes the best way to advance beyond Asian and Asian American caricatures is to have both quantity and quality of projects and roles. Having greater representation of these communities and individuals in media, as well as a variety of portrayals, would help broaden the experiences depicted and the stories told. He added that another aspect is specificity of experiences, which adds to the authenticity by highlighting more nuanced, humanized stories — moving from the foundational “Asian American stories” to “this specific story of Cambodians in Orange County.”
With Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities now the fastest growing population in the U.S. (at approximately 6 percent) according to the latest census, Yu said he believes there are more opportunities now than before for these diverse portrayals in media. In his view, the diaspora population is now part of a generation that occupies the roles of executives, producers, storytellers, and more —people with the power to decide what works are created and which stories are shared.
Breaking barriers and opening doors
Yu shared that while he continued to write and publish while working as a lawyer, a fork-in-the-road moment occurred seven years ago when he left the field to commit to his new career full-time. Though his parents were wary at first, he said they were less apprehensive than they might have been because they had already seen that writing could be a career through the success of Yu’s brother, Kevin, as a TV writer.
In this vein, Yu spoke about the ability to break barriers and go beyond the traditional fields associated with success for Asian Americans: having Asian representation in these non-traditional fields would help counter the invisibility of Asian Americans throughout U.S. history. He said it gave him optimism amid the recent anti-Asian attacks, as it has now become normalized that Asian Americans are everywhere. While that shift doesn’t happen overnight and requires people to fight for change and recognition, Yu said he had hope for future generations.
His advice for those who are not of Asian descent on how to combat bias and help change the perception of Asian Americans is to support their works. Speaking from a creative’s perspective, Yu encouraged people to go to the movies, buy the books, and be willing to consume different kinds of stories from diverse creators. He noted that those already in a given field should “open these gates to people who don’t have access.”
Words of wisdom
Finally, Yu’s parting advice was a reflection of his own journey, as he emphasized being authentic to yourself versus how you want to be perceived. He said, “Just looking for those opportunities to do things to surprise yourself, to bring your authentic self to things, and see where it takes you.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; AARP and Sterling Turner Foundation, Presenting Sponsors of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Sponsor of the Japan Series; and Regions Bank, Title Sponsor for the internship program. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, and Vinson & Elkins LLP, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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We are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.
About Asia Society Texas Center
Asia Society Texas Center believes in the strength and beauty of diverse perspectives and people. As an educational institution, we advance cultural exchange by celebrating the vibrant diversity of Asia, inspiring empathy, and fostering a better understanding of our interconnected world. Spanning the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, our programming is rooted in the educational and cultural development of our community — trusting in the power of art, dialogue, and ideas to combat bias and build a more inclusive society.
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