International Journalist and host of The May Lee Show goes On Record about AAPI Heritage Month
At the start of 2020, May partnered with NextShark, the leading Asian online news source, to launch “The May Lee Show”, a podcast/video program focused on Asian and Asian American issues and stories. On her programs, May sits down with the most impactful and relevant Asian and Asian Americans who are boldly enhancing and elevating Asian voices and issues around the world. The show strikes an authentic and intimate tone with honest, entertaining and, sometimes, uncomfortable conversations. Expect the unexpected on the show. May has become a prominent voice in the effort to combat anti-Asian hate that exploded due to COVID-19. She has been working with various organizations, companies, and media outlets to raise more awareness of AAPI history and experiences.
Prior to “The May Lee Show”, May was the LA-based correspondent for international network CGTN-America. She covered news, politics, business, and entertainment throughout Southern California and beyond.
May is also the founder and CEO of Lotus Media House, a media company that she started in Singapore and produced original programs including “The May Lee Show”, the first pan-Asia talk show for women. May’s international experience as a broadcast journalist began in 1992 at Japan’s NHK network. Then, May became the first Korean American to become a news anchor for CNN, first as the Tokyo Correspondent and then the main anchor for CNN International in Hong Kong.
In 2000, May joined the dynamic new women’s network, Oxygen Media, founded by Oprah Winfrey as one of its main talk show hosts. She headed back to Asia in 2004 to join CNBC Asia as the primary anchor.
She is the author of “MAY LEE, LIVE AND IN PERSON. It all begins with Passion”, published by John Wiley & Sons and Random House Korea.
How did you get to where you are today?
Well, it was a long time ago, first and foremost, but it’s one of those stories where I grew up in the Midwest in Ohio as a shy Asian kid. You can probably imagine growing up there in the 70s, early 80s, it was not easy because there weren’t any other Asians around. It was predominantly white environment. So already I was feeling very timid, intimidated, and didn’t really know what my identity was. There wasn’t a sense of belonging, but I persevered, and I thought I was going to be a doctor like a good Asian kid is supposed to be, but I realized that I couldn’t do science and math to save my life. I really couldn’t do it. I’m atypical when it comes to that stereotype, which many people break including myself. And I realized that I loved public speaking.
I love storytelling. I was curious and I think my history upon a lot of self-reflection, as I got older, I think my history of sort of oppression, and racism and being made to feel like the outsider when I was a kid, I think that really embedded in my sort of head, and spirit and heart, the idea of seeking justice, the idea for speaking up for the marginalized and the idea of really accurate storytelling. And that really led me to journalism. I fell into it by putting all these pieces together. From that moment in college when I said, “Okay, you know what? I’m going to be a broadcast journalist.” I just kept on going, stayed focus. My career developed quickly. I knew I had found the right thing. I absolutely knew I was on the right track.
Gina Rubel: When we talk about communications, there’s so much value and the obligation of the media to deliver fair and concise news, well-balanced news, but also from a diverse perspective.
May Lee: Should be.
How have you been able to harness who you are, your experience, to help to deliver that more balanced perspective?
I was saying before about my background of growing up in an environment where I couldn’t express myself clearly, and I didn’t want to identify with my identity because of the way in which I was treated. Because of those challenges that I faced early on, it made me much more aware of the issue of racism and the lack of diversity, the lack of representation. That instilled in me the idea that these were important topics and issues that we should be concerned with. And around me, people didn’t really care about that at the time. As a journalist and maturing and obviously growing into adulthood and seeing the world and the way it really was, that made me even more sort of motivated to tell the stories of people who are marginalized and issues and topics that maybe people don’t talk about very often.
My own experience journalists are supposed to be objective. We were supposed to be fair and accurate and all of that, but we’re still human. If you don’t bring a human element to your story and your coverage, then you’re just a robot. We must incorporate some of our own experiences and some of our own knowledge from a personal perspective, to be able to engage in a story and engage with somebody else and make that connection. As a journalist, that’s what I do.
I’ve grown to really love that aspect of journalism and storytelling — you’re talking to other people; you must connect to other people on a human level. If I can bring some of my past experiences, whether that be joy or pain, then that’s going to help in that storytelling. That’s going to help in the connection that I’m trying to create with that person to be able to tell that better story. All of that, my history, and my experiences, both privately, personally and professionally, work together in a harmonious way.
Gina Rubel: It’s interesting when you talk about storytelling because I am a white female who grew up in Philadelphia, so I grew up in a very diverse community, which was a gift. And yet I was always the outsider. When I went from the local Catholic school to the private school where everyone else had private schooling much longer than me, they all knew each other. I was the outsider. I look for these illustrations that we can use for people when we tell stories that help them to bridge the idea that anyone who has moved schools has been the outsider. People need to ask themselves – What did that feel like the first day and think about feeling like that every day. That’s what I’ve heard from members of the AAPI community, from the black community, from the brown community – that it’s feeling like an outsider every day. Like you’re the new person in the room.
May Lee: Right. And always wondering if someone is treating you a certain way or looking at you a certain way or not engaging with you, always the default is, “Oh, is it because I’m Asian? Is it because I’m a minority?” That’s always something that sits in the back of our heads and back of our minds, unfortunately. The last year and a half clearly, we’ve seen the xenophobia and the racism against Asians, all the anti-Asian hate crimes that has now exploded into everyone’s psyche. Now that’s all front of mind. We live with this, all our lives in the back of our minds, but now it’s front and center.
We think about it every day, every moment, every time we go out, every time we think about our elderly parents or kids, I mean, it’s just something that is so… We’re now kind of obsessed with this because it is such a pervasive problem. It’s a difficult existence, I will admit. And the last year and a half has sort of, I’ve been telling people, it’s almost like I have PTSD from my childhood of dealing with racism. All of this is coming back and it’s a terrible reminder of the fact that we still have this problem and it’s growing bigger by the day.
Gina Rubel: That makes me sad to hear. I will say that to any of our listeners take the time to educate people. I remember early in the Coronavirus pandemic, hearing people say, “the China virus” and I’d getting infuriated. Very early on last February, in fact, I was in New York with several people from the Legal Marketing Association and we were in Chinatown and there were stores closing and there was a sense of dread and it was so sad. On the other hand, people were saying, “Oh, well, that’s not happening.” It was happening. We all have an opportunity to educate the people around us.
May Lee: Well, that truly is the key, Gina. I’ve been saying this repeatedly with any speaking engagement I have or conference that I’m taking part in. And on my show, obviously, I say that education and information is the key knowledge is power. With the AAPI experience and history, it has truly been erased or ignored, right? Everyone can say clearly that they probably did not learn about any Asian American history in school because it’s not taught. It’s just not taught. And so therefore, if there’s a lack of education and understanding of the AAPI history and experience that spans to 200 plus years in this country, we’re not new. A lot of people think that we’re new immigrants and we’re all crazy rich, and we’re all educated, and we all are successful. That is not true. With those stereotypes that are incorrect, then that’s going to lead to the dismissal, right? That we have never faced oppression or racism, we’ve never been othered, things like that. So, the educational, the lack of education is a big problem. And we need to work on that, and I love now seeing a different like local government school districts, as well as national efforts to try and push for better education when it comes to AAPI history. So that I think is number one, in terms of changing that narrative and creating better understanding. With better understanding and education, what happens? Then people have empathy, because then you get it right? Then you get why there’s been this problem for all these years. And it’s been compounded, but all these different events in history, and now we’re dealing with COVID yet another time when we’re being scapegoated and blamed for something. So, yes, thank you for saying that people need to share the information they know, and if you don’t know it, go seek it out. I mean, there’s plenty of resources out there online, everywhere for you to like educate yourself just a little bit. Just a little bit.
You mentioned something about stereotypes and as an Italian American, I’ve always had a hard time with TV shows like the Sopranos, and those things that really don’t highlight any of the good that Italian Americans have done in history. How do you feel about shows like Crazy Rich Asians and all these shows that create stereotypes that are not typical of the incredible Asian community that is so diverse?
The Asian community and I speak of Asia as a region, and then of course, Asian Americans, truly diverse, but the mistake that most people make and the stereotype that exists is that we a monolith, that we’re all the same. Right? We all look the same. We all are from the same place. And then there’s nothing beyond that, so, but the stereotypes have existed forever, right? Because the media created these stereotypes of Asians being the yellow peril. Bringing disease, or we’re villainous, or Asian women are either dragon ladies or butterflies. Asian men are either villainous, martial arts experts or they’re nerds and geeks. So, Hollywood has certainly perpetuated these stereotypes forever. And they still do to this day. And so that, like it or not, entertainment and media is so powerful. That’s the way that most people get a lot of their information and they’re fed that either accurate narrative or the false narrative. And oftentimes with the AAPI community, it’s been a false narrative, that has been created by non-Asians. Asians have not been in control of our own narrative, but that is starting to change, which gives us all hope. We are starting to see Asian storytellers create Asian content like Minari, the movie that was nominated for a bunch of awards, like Parasite, the Korean made film that swept the Oscars last year. We’re starting to see content being created that doesn’t follow the typical age-old stereotypes of Asians. It’s just Asians being themselves, telling unusual stories of family and love and conflict and all these things. That’s what we need to see more of, but, yes, those stereotypes and the stereotype of the model minority myth has certainly harmed the Asian community to this day. The model minority myth exists to this day.
Learn More about the Model Minority Myth
- Watch ABC 7 Eyewitness News with Nydia Han Our America: The history of the model minority myth and its impact on Asian-American Communities. Nydia will be a guest on the show later this month.
- Read Debunking the Model Minority Myth by USC Pacific Asian Museum
We can’t live in our individual silos and we can’t speak to each other in our own echo chambers. I say this to my fellow Asian Americans: “It’s great. We talk about this. And we know the issues and we know the problems and we know all the hate crimes that have been going on because we talk about it and we’re reminded of it every day, but if we just talk to each other and not go beyond our safe little silo, and safe little echo chamber, then nothing will change.”
That’s why I’m always emphasizing the importance of sharing each other’s stories with other communities. Reaching out and trying to connect, because what you find, especially, with communities that have been marginalized, who have been oppressed, who still feel like they’re being other eyes and the outsider, you find these common threads, common experiences. With that better understanding, then you can say, “Oh, wait a minute. Okay. You get it. Let’s work together. Let’s unify, let’s build that kind of solidarity rather than just keeping our separate, again, keeping our separate silos and not crossing those borders to that better understanding.” So that is hugely important for sure.
What was it like to be the first Korean American news anchor for CNN?
It’s funny because when I was growing up, I never thought about being a journalist or broadcast journalist. The only Asian broadcaster that was well-known during my childhood was Connie Chung. She was the one and only, so I just never imagined that I would be breaking any ground in this field because all I was doing was the work and loving it so much that I just kept on moving up the ladder. When it did finally occur to me was when I didn’t even realize that myself. I was like, “Oh”, well, somebody had to tell me, “You’re the first Korean American to be on CNN.” I thought to myself, wow, I guess I’m breaking some barriers here and blazing a trail that I never knew that I was going to be appointed to do.
I looked back on my childhood and I thought, “Gosh, I went from the shy kid who never spoke in class.” Every grade, like a little comment card that I would get from a teacher, would say, “May is a really good listener,” meaning I didn’t speak, I didn’t speak at all. The fact that I went from that kid to then this international journalist and a first breaking these barriers is unbelievable. The people who knew me when I was a kid couldn’t believe that I was the same person. When you find your calling and I really do feel like I found my calling, it gives you that motivation, that inner strength that drive that you maybe never knew existed. It told me that I was on the right track and I was just going to keep doing what I love, which to this day I still love what I do.
I feel very, very blessed. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t take it for granted because I know not everyone finds their calling or feels so pulled to something. But for 30 plus years I’ve been doing this, and I still love it. I still see the impact that I can have in what I do as a journalist and a storyteller. I’m lucky.
What are some of the stories or issues that you really enjoy covering?
I used to be your standard journalists who, we call ourselves a general assignment reporter or correspondent, and that means that you, whatever is thrown your way, you cover it. Whether that be a wildfire or a political campaign or some sort of business story and everything in between, so you become sort of an expert in lots of things, and so that was my specialty. It was like, I could kind of cover anything and everything. Then I started The May Lee Show and what was happening in our world. And then what was happening within the AAPI community, I really became much more active in terms of social issues like this, where I saw a need for a voice and someone who needed to really speak up and speak out.
I actually was one of the first AAPI members of the community early on in 2020 to start saying, “Whoa, guys, there’s something going on here. We need to address this. This is bad. And it’s going to get worse if we don’t start speaking up about this.” and sure enough, it did get worse and still is bad.
I now call myself an accidental activist. I fell into it. I consider myself a journalist. But suddenly, I became this voice for the Asian-American community. People started writing to me and thanking me for speaking out and being courageous. I don’t think of it as courageous, but I guess in this situation right now that we’re in, there’s so much fear and there’s so much anxiety that people are wondering what to do.
I use my skills as a journalist. I am in my fifties now. I really don’t care what people think about me. I will just speak boldly and openly if I have an opinion about something. That’s how my career has changed a bit in terms of my role. It’s been an interesting transformation in my fifties. Never thought like I would suddenly reshape myself, but here I am.
Gina Rubel: I appreciate you saying that for our younger listeners. I’m in my fifties as well, you do cross that line somewhere, mid-forties, early fifties, where you think, “I’m just going to speak up.” Being in public relations, we’re always behind the scenes and always uber careful with what we say, who we say it to. I was an activist in my twenties. And then I was a silent activist and I realized I was part of the problem. I’m no longer a silent activist. I share with those younger listeners, it’s okay to speak up throughout your career, fight back. You look at the companies and I’m not going to name any of them where they have said, “You can’t talk politics in the office.” Well, don’t stay there. It’s up to us. Those of us who have had the opportunity to walk some of the journey already, and those who are just starting their journey. I really do believe that this world is going to be a better place for our children. I have a daughter who’s 21 and a son who’s 18. Unlike me, they’re both STEM majors, brilliant. And I really do believe that it’s going to be a better world for them, a more inclusive world, a more diverse world.
May Lee: What gives me a lot of hope is that I do see younger people becoming much more vocal and active. I do see them pushing companies and asking questions about what their standards are and their ethical kind of code and all these things that they care about. If they see something that they don’t like, then they won’t go work for the company or they will raise up their voices. That really gives me a lot of hope that this younger generation is really kind of prepared to seek out better standards, higher standards, more fairness, more equity, so the whole idea of diversity and equity and inclusion, that’s something that’s really starting to gain a lot of momentum now. For your younger listeners right now, listen, it’s never too late to kind of shift gears. If you want to feel more empowered then use your voice, don’t be afraid. People will respect you if you stand your ground. I think we now live in a society where we all need to speak up and not stand on the sidelines, not be silent.
Is there one book that has significantly influenced you?
Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, was fantastic. I mean, how inspirational and just here’s a woman who’s gone through a lot in her life beginning in her childhood, but then really stood her ground as well and became this powerful, impactful woman to admire. I love that book and I listened to it on audible because she narrates it so it’s even more powerful when you hear her reading her own story.
There are lots of Asian-American authors that I have loved Amy Tan made a very strong impact on me, in my younger days when I read The Joy Luck Club, because that really was the first time a book was so popular, just not with just Asian audiences, just overall talking about Asian history and family and the dynamics of being dual identity. That was a very powerful book when I read that when I was younger.
Min Jin Lee wrote Pachinko. She’s a Korean American author and Pachinko is going to be made into a movie. It’s a powerful, fictional tale that talks about the Korean experience of war, Japanese occupation, and the time after that. It’s about survival, family, love, struggle. So
Another one by Helen Zia, who’s a phenomenal activist.
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