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Jeffrey & Isabella
Portrait of Jeffrey Zhao and Isabella Le
Photo taken by Abby Shen
Interviewed in March 2023

Jeffrey Zhao and Isabella Le are the co-founders and hosts of As I Am, a podcast that explores navigating the Asian identity in the West. As I Am journeys through the experience of being othered, whilst rejoicing in the uniqueness of a multi-faceted identity. Jeff and Isabella are focussed on creating spaces that inspire and empower people to explore Asian identities; with As I Am being more than just the podcast, and currently extends to a Writing Corner and an annual in-person event series called Asian Futures. They’ve also written a short story called Alice The Cat, as a part of Small Fires’ Campfire stories project.

Jeff is a proud Chinese-Australian who grew up in Melbourne, Victoria. He started As I Am, in order to build a platform to amplify Asian voices as he believes they have been long muted in mainstream western discourse. He hopes that grassroots initiatives are the key to solving that problem. He currently works in Product Development at Lyka, and was previously a management consultant at Deloitte Digital. In his spare time, you can find him training Muay Thai, obsessing over anything food related, electronic music and Shounen anime. 

Isabella is a proud Vietnamese-Australian who grew up in Melbourne, Victoria. She started As I Am because she wanted to explore what it means to be Asian in the West - an experience that is both unique and shared. It is her goal that this platform becomes a place that empowers and educates. She is currently a law graduate at Allens, and loves to travel whenever she can. 
As a young Asian-Australian, listening to Jeff and Isabella’s podcast, As I Am, truly feels like I’m just having a discussion unpacking my Asian identity in Australia with two close friends in one of our living rooms. It’s not just any discussion though - it’s always thoughtful, well-researched, vulnerable and quite hopeful. I wanted to interview Jeff and Isabella because I wanted to meet like-minded people who were passionate about navigating the Asian-Australian experience. I wanted to showcase what the future leaders of Australia look like: diverse individuals who are extremely proud of their intersectional and cultural identities.

I’m also incredibly excited by the fact that beyond the podcast, Jeff and Isabella truly want to foster and build up the Asian-Australian community through their other ventures - from in-person events, fostering writing spaces to releasing books! I’m excited to see how their brand of As I Am evolves over time, and the impact that they’re going to continue to have in the Asian-Australian, and also Australian ecosystem.

I hope their story inspires you as much as it did, me.
How has As I Am, the podcast and the brand evolved over time?
Isabella: In terms of the podcast, we’ve become much more nuanced in the topics we explore. In the beginning, we dived into topics that are very relatable to everyone such as what it's like growing up Asian in Australia, and childhood experiences etc. Over time we’ve been able to canvas topics that don’t get as much airtime like the intersection of disabilities and culture, or the power of names and accents.

Jeff: Along with what Isabella mentioned, we’ve gained clarity in what space we want to play in, and that’s to create an inclusive platform that encourages people to have deep and meaningful conversations and to foster new connections. At the start, we didn’t really have a direction for As I Am, it was just an itch we had to scratch. Now we’ve honed in on this vision - we’ve even grown from just a podcast to hosting events as a part of our Asian Futures series. It’s amazing to see how people - who have never met each other before - bond, get together and also start their own thing in the Asian Australian space.  
What have been the challenges and highlights from creating As I Am, especially since the two of you were either working or studying full time?
Isabella: So for those who don’t know, we have an amazing team of volunteers who help us with As I Am - from design to marketing to production. We don’t generate any revenue from As I Am, but Jeff and I are so cognisant that these incredible people are putting their time and effort into us and the brand, and naturally we want to compensate them for helping us along the way. As a matter of course, we’ve experienced levels of attrition especially with university students who come and go within a year or two. So I would say maintaining the team has been challenging. 

We’ve been playing around with the idea of sponsorship especially to compensate our volunteers, but we’re still working on it. There’s also an interesting tension for me and Jeff with regards to sponsorship since we started this off as a passion project. Over time, we’ve realised that sponsorship could help us grow and scale the brand, but have wondered whether it does detract from the purpose and mission of why we started As I Am in the first place.

In terms of highlights - Asian Futures is definitely one. It’s so tangible, seeing the faces of people who actually listen to As I Am. It's been so humbling to see the level of engagement that Asian Futures has been able to attract in the past two years that we’ve run it. Another highlight would be meeting all the incredible people we’ve interviewed, and helping facilitate other people to meet each other. The highlights always boil down to the community and it’s been lovely, feeling like we’ve been able to contribute some small part to it.

Jeff: Another challenge would simply be, being smart with how we market As I Am - especially since it is a media product. It’s hard for us because Isabella and I like to invest our time in curating the content and topics, rather than focus on the marketing and brand building. But it’s such an important part of growing As I Am or any brand since we do want more people to continually engage with our content.

I think in our heart of hearts, we hope that the phrase ‘build it and they will come’ is true, but I know we need to do more in building greater brand engagement.

A highlight for me would be receiving listener DMs (direct messages), saying that they resonate with our episodes. Our experiences as Asian Australians are extremely shared, and it’s cool to know that we can spark and facilitate these kinds of conversations, and also provide the tools and language for listeners to have these conversations in their daily lives too. That’s always rewarding.   
How do you hope that grassroots initiatives, like As I Am, can change mainstream western discourse and representations of Asians in media?
Jeff:  My hope is that we can up-skill the literacy of the Asian identity and experience, and start the conversation amongst just a few people, and subsequently for that to cause a ripple effect. It's a long game. At some point, maybe we will do something that causes this huge movement and changes everything, but I'm quite a realist - Isabella’s definitely more of the optimist out of the two of us. 

If we can just instigate these conversations within a few people now, that’ll cause a ripple effect for them to continue having these conversations so that in 10 or 20 years time, these topics that we’re discussing now on As I Am are common knowledge. It won’t be special for someone to understand the experience of someone who is Asian Australian - it’ll just be a given. It’ll be a part of living in Australia, which will hopefully become truly multicultural at some point in the future.

Mainstream Western media is already changing significantly - look at Everything Everywhere All At Once sweeping the Oscars. I'm confident that this kind of discourse is going to be so much more mainstream - whether it's in media or corporate - whatever industry, it's already beginning to change. And grassroots initiatives help - there’s more and more initiatives from the Asian Australian community that are popping up and it’s amazing because we're not competing against one another. We’re all part of the same community - a community that wants their voices and experiences to be heard and understood. So the more the better.

Isabella: Along with everything Jeff said, I think we also need to acknowledge the importance of having allies to engineer the change that we’re looking for. The goal with As I Am is really to foster the pride of what it means to be Asian Australian or just Asian, as well as to educate others who may not identify as Asian, but who can then understand the experience of being Asian, and be great allies.
What are your long term goals and aspirations for As I Am?
Isabella: To put it simply, it’s to be a trusted platform to facilitate conversations and inspire and empower people to explore Asian identities. Either through the podcast, Asian Futures and our Writing Corner. 

Jeff: A real ‘blue-sky’ goal is for As I Am to become the trusted source for anything involving the Asian Australian community - to be a platform to spotlight all kinds of Asian Australian content. It’s very ambitious and probably requires us to go full-time, but it’s what we’re building towards. It also requires some level of engagement with news, which we don’t do at the moment. 

Right now we’re building credibility around various forms of media. We’ve established the podcast, and have run Asian Futures two times already. For our Writing Corner, we want to publish something like a zine in the near future. Currently we’re focussed on building trust with our audience, which is something that you can only accrue over time.  
Could you also tell me more about the SHORT STORY you two wrote recently - ‘Alice the Cat’? How did this opportunity come about? 
Isabella: So Jeff and I actually wrote a children’s book first called ‘What’s in your lunchbox?’ for young children aged 6 to 8. We realised that all the topics we discussed on the podcast stemmed a lot from childhood experiences, and an indelible part of the experience was of food and particularly eating our cultural food at school. This is such a universal and differing experience between people, so we wanted to write a story celebrating the diversity of people’s cultural heritage through their lunch boxes. 

Jeff: With this book, there’s a repetitive question of “what’s in your lunchbox” to teach kids the appropriate way to ask that question, rather than something like “yuck, what’s that weird smell?” We’re trying to teach children the right behaviour when engaging in conversations about other people’s food, which is quite personal. And when you’re young, you don’t realise that your food is different until others actively point it out. 

So in terms of how ‘Alice the Cat’ came about, I was talking to my friend who is a book-fluencer, about how we wrote ‘What’s in your lunchbox?’ and I asked her who we could pitch this idea to. My friend linked us up with an indie publisher called Small Fires. We caught up with Grace O'Hara, one of the co-founders who told us about one of their initiatives - Campfire Stories, sponsored by the City of Melbourne, which involved the creation of 12 short-form stories that celebrate each and every individual in our diverse Melbourne community, with a particular focus for these stories to be written, created and illustrated by people from diverse backgrounds. 

From there - Isabella and I came up with ‘Alice the Cat’ with our super-talented illustrator Sam Kenneally. We wanted to create a really simple story, with a slight twist, that would resonate a lot with people. It was a really fun project, and it really scratched an itch for us to delve more into writing ventures. 

on culture and identity
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
Isabella: In primary school, I was surrounded by a lot of Vietnamese or Asian kids so I felt quite comfortable as myself. It wasn't until high school where I began to feel quite othered, primarily because I was surrounded by a lot of people who didn’t look like me - I went to a very white school. At that age, all I wanted to do was fit in. A lot of my high school experience was defined by this shame I felt about my Asian identity. I was embarrassed to be Vietnamese. I would be embarrassed to speak to my parents in Vietnamese in front of others, even my friends - which sounds insane now. I didn't want to have Asian friends and I even actively avoided liking Asian boys.

I went through this period of having underlying shame around just being Asian. I feel quite remorseful about how I felt in that period of my life. I should have been more proud. I don't think I even realised the extent of my shame until I went to university where I was able to get over it and embrace my Asian identity to the point now where I am so so proud to be Vietnamese. I completely own that ‘difference’ now. 

It’s also just a part of growing up. The older you get, the more you realise that your differences - any differences - should be valued and celebrated. 

Jeff:  I had a very similar journey to Isabella. Now I just have an overwhelming sense of pride. 

You know in video games where you build out a character, and it’ll have different traits and strengths in varying proportions to one another? When I was younger, being Asian was just a small part of me. It was almost surface level, it just shaped my physical appearance. With everything else, I tried to keep the Asian influence as minimal as possible.

The older I get, the more my Asian identity becomes a central part of me. I will talk about my Asian-ness way more now. I’m way more proud of my history, for example, I’ll talk about my traditions totally unprompted in conversation. I’m essentially unapologetic for being Asian, and it just feels really good to be myself. This feeling gets strengthened when you engage with other people from the community as well, and bond over shared experiences. Especially because a large part of the Asian identity is having that sense of community. 

Ultimately, through grassroots initiatives or mainstream media, we want the number of people who feel this shame around their cultural identity to get much smaller. Ideally, people should just live their life, completely happy with who they are and what culture they’re from. 
How do you think starting a podcast like As I Am, exploring the Asian identity in the West, has allowed you to come more fully into your cultural identities?
Jeff: So we started As I Am to share this conversation around the Asian identity in the West with others. But often we’re learning about these topics for the first time ourselves too. By being able to talk about these topics with one another, I think I’ve developed a much better fluency and deeper understanding of certain topics and experiences that were previously just stuck in my head, and that I couldn’t process or rationalise as well.

Isabella: It’s definitely been quite therapeutic. Starting As I Am has also expanded my definition of what it means to be Asian. Prior to this podcast, I think my thinking revolved around Asians who were primarily East Asians and South East Asians, especially since a lot of the mainstream discourse often excludes South Asians who are also a big part of the Asian-identity conversation. So starting As I Am almost highlighted my own ignorance and showed where I still need to grow and what learnings I still need to have. 
What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
Isabella: For me it’s always Lunar New Year - particularly when my family prays to our ancestors. So in traditional Vietnamese culture, at midnight as the day goes into the new year, we open our doors and have a table and a makeshift shrine of food offerings and incense to essentially welcome our ancestors home for the new year. My dad, who is the eldest in the family, would pray first, outside of the house to welcome the ancestors in. And then we all do the same. 

As someone who isn’t religious, this is the only time of the year where I feel quite spiritual. It feels like I can almost talk to my ancestors. In any case, it's a really lovely way to start the year, and to connect to my past through current traditions which is why it’s so significant.

Jeff: I think a significant cultural memory for me is taking Eastern medicine. Mostly because now I realise that there has been so much trial and error that has gone into creating these natural medicines - so I just have a lot of pride in the ancestors who have passed this knowledge on over the thousands of years. You’ll get given this absolute black, viscous and putrid elixir to heal whatever ailment you have and it tastes disgusting, but it just - works. 

I don’t get sick often. If it’s something minor I’ll just take a pill for it, but if it's something intense, I’ll always use Eastern medicine because it always works. In a particular stressful time of my life I had shingles, kind of like adult chickenpox. No Western pills worked - only Eastern medicine worked on me. 

What is your favourite food from your culture?
Isabella: Probably my mum’s bún bò huế (a rich spicy beef & pork noodle soup that originates from Huế, a city in central Vietnam associated with the cooking style of the former royal court). I think bún bò huế is a very underrated Vietnamese dish - with pho and bánh mì often taking the spotlight. 

My mum’s bún bò huế is a labour of love - she’ll always have the broth cooking a night before, and it’s always just a beautiful marriage of flavours. 

Jeff: The first thing that comes to mind is a Cantonese-style steamed whole fish. It’s a beautiful dish in a lot of ways - especially with Cantonese-style cooking, there’s a simplicity in respecting the ingredients. I love that it’s a very communal dish and that whilst it’s super simple on paper, it still requires a lot of technique and thought from how you prepare the fish, to sizzling the oil on the aromatics before you serve it, to the ratio of water to soy sauce to sugar. I like that when you pour the soy sauce mixture over the fish, the juices from the fish mix in and it basically becomes its own broth. It’s the absolutely perfect dish with a huge Murray Cod. 
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
Isabella: Alice Pung. I’m definitely biased with Alice since we’ve interviewed her previously on the podcast. I think she’s an incredible writer and also just a really giving person. She gives so much to the Asian community in Australia - she has helped us out, helped Michelle Law out and so many more people. 

Someone else I admire is Margaret Zhang. She’s the OG influencer for me. She’s currently the editor-in-chief of Vogue China, and just kicking goals. She’s an ideal person for us to have on our podcast. 

Jeff: I totally agree with Alice Pung for those exact reasons. I also love what Diana Nguyen is doing in terms of breaking so many different barriers. She’s totally going against the traditional stereotypes of Asians being quiet and docile with her work as a comedian and just her infectious personality in general. She’s also got so many ventures in different mediums up her sleeve, from comedy to plays, what with adapting Laurinda on stage, to TV shows with Phi and Me. It’s incredible to see all that she gets up to.