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.