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The Balance Between Two Cultures

With Larissa Lam

Published on: Aug 3, 2018

You might think that Asian children who are born in America would have a better time adapting to the American culture, but this is not the case. Asian descendants still have some challenges growing up in America. Award-winning singer, songwriter, film maker, and TV and radio host Larissa Lam says initially she had a hard time embracing the Chinese side of her identity. It was only when she was older that she realized that God made her who she was for a reason and that all of us are different. All the different colors of the spectrum of races and beauty are equally important. She says there are positive and negative things about both cultures, and finding the balance between the two is really important. Larissa tells the story of how she started in the entertainment industry and the challenges that she had faced while building that career.

The Balance Between Two Cultures with Larissa Lam

If you were like me, you might think that our children who are born here would have a better time adapting to the American culture. I found out that this is not the case. Asian descendants still have some challenges growing up in America. In this episode, you will hear a story from a Chinese-American woman, how she started in the entertainment industry, and the challenges that she had faced while building that career. Let me introduce you to Larissa Lam. She is an award-winning singer, songwriter, filmmaker and TV and radio host. She worked as a Chief Financial Officer for NSoul Records and one of the lead singers for the EDM gospel group, Nitro Praise.

She has composed music for the Oprah Winfrey Show among other film, TV, and video games project. She has been a key note speaker at TEDx, Yale, UCLA and MIT, promoting diversity in media. Recently, she directed the award-winning documentary, Finding Cleveland. This documentary film is about the early Chinese immigrants in Mississippi and how the Chinese played a major role in American history. Larissa is also co-hosting UTalk Radio with speaker and author,Steve Russo. Larissa lives in Los Angeles with her husband and fellow artists, Only Won and they have a five-year-old daughter.

Larissa, I’m happy that you’re here with us. I understand that you are the second generation in America and your parents came from China. Do you identify yourself as American or Chinese-American? What’s so important about that identity?

Growing up, I was very proud to be an American. I have an American passport, English is my first language, and I grew up here. At the same time, I do identify as being Asian, specifically Chinese-American, because my parents were both born in China. They’ve lived here for very long time since the 1960s, coming over for school. They still raise me with a lot of Chinese culture. I speak the language, I speak Cantonese or Shanghainese and Mandarin as well and certainly with food and a lot of customs observing Chinese New Year. A lot of those cultural things were very much part of my upbringing. I feel like I’m in a unique position to appreciate both cultures and it’s important to embrace both of them.

I grew up wanting to be blonde hair and blue eyed. I initially had a hard time embracing the Chinese side of my identity because what I saw were white blondes and blue eyes as the models and a lot of the actresses. That was the model of beauty for me growing up. I played with a lot of Barbie dolls and that did a lot of negative things to my self-image because for me, Barbie dolls were the most beautiful thing in the world. Then I looked in the mirror and I would say, “I don’t have blonde hair. I don’t have blue eyes.” I have brown hair and black hair and that, to me, wasn’t as beautiful.

That was a terrible thing to think of as a child. It was only until I was older that I realized that God made me who I was for a reason and that all of us are different and all the different colors of the spectrum, of races and beauty are equally important. That was a lesson I had to learn through the years and I’m very passionate about, especially with young girls. I have a five-year-old daughter. We made sure that the very first doll she played with was Mulan, the Disney Princess, not Cinderella and not Barbie. We wanted to make sure she had very strong Asian beauty identification.

Balance Between Two Cultures: All of us are different and all the different colors of the spectrum of races and beauty are equally important.

It is very common for us to have some influences from the outside. I remember when I was in Vietnam, my parents had a tailor shop and most of our customerswere American. We hadAmerican catalogs becausemy father can make the suit, dress,and outfit to fit in what the customers like.Just like when you go to the hair salonwhere you can see pictures of hairstyles. They showedthe models, I don’t know whether it’s American or European or something like that. All of them looked so beautiful, blonde hair, blue eyes. That gave me a comparison that, “I want to be blonde, I want to be tall, I want to marry an American someday,just like the handsomemodels in the catalog.” I had that memory and that’s how I gotthis fantasy ofmarryingan American. You shared you have influence from both cultures, Chinese and American. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being influenced by both cultures? 

There are good things about both cultures and there are also negative things about both cultures. Finding the balance between the two is really important. On the positive side, I’ll start with the Asian Chinese side. We have a very strong emphasis on education and work ethic. In a sense, there’s a very strong family bond.You take care of yourself like you take care of your people and your own family members. When my father came to this country in the 1960s, he was the first one in his family to come to the country and over the last couple of decades he sponsored all his siblings and also some cousins to come into the country. Every cousin, aunt, and uncle that came over, my dad helped take care of them and helped guide them through that process.

That’s something that you don’t see as much in American culture. The immediate families stick together but in Asian culture, extended family is just as important and helping one another out. There are, to some degree, some benefits of beinghonorable in terms of keeping certain things private. I always joke to people that you will never see an Asian family on the Jerry Springer Show or Maury Povich or one of thoseshows where people were talking about baby daddies and affairs and all these other things on public television. At the same time, to talk about some of the negative things about the Asian culture, because we don’t talk about our issues and we don’t talk about our feelings, that can be a downside.

Whereas American culture are much more expressive. Dealing with things like therapy or going through tough times, you have to have a little bit more support.Education isn’t everything butit’s very important. I went to UCLA, I have a college degree, at the same time having some social life and balance and contributing to the greater good of the world in terms of doing humanitarian work. I’m trying to be active, whether it’s politically or in the community.That isn’t always emphasized in Asian culture.Speaking up for injustices and things that you might believe in are not encouraged necessarily in Asian culture. In Western culture and American culture, the individual is championed and being unique, being different and being outspoken is important.

At the same time, I always had this conversation with people. There is a point where it gets to be too much on the Western side where it’s too much about individualization that people don’t care enough about the collective good. There’s a balance ofemphasizing education, valuing family, but not to the point where everything revolves aroundyour family or just education.Embracing some more independent thoughts and speaking up for yourself and being bold and taking chances, there should be a balance between those two.

I totally agree on that to find a balance.One thing could be good, but if it is too much then it becomes bad. 

As someone who is an Asian-American, a lot of times we feel like we have to choose, “I have to choose to either obey my parents or abandon my culture. I have to choose to embrace my culture and not assimilate.”They can coexist. I’m living proof of that. I don’t have it all worked out. This battle between Asian and American is who I am and that battle continuesevery single day as I deal with thingsin this journey called life. It’s important to be aware that we can also provide a bridge. I came to this epiphany about fifteen years ago whereI really didn’t like a lot of things about my Asian culture and a friend reminded me about a story in the Bible where there’s a figure named Jonah. God tells him, “You have to go tell the people of Nineveh about Me,”and Jonah didn’t want to go. The parallel I’m running here is a lot of people is like, “You’re Chinese, you should be singing more inMandarin or you should do things in Asia.” I’m just rejecting the Asian community for awhile because I really wanted to be accepted by the “non-Asian community.”

A friend of mine, I’m telling her the story and I’m like, “I don’t like Chinese food, I don’t like a lot of the culture,”and she’s like, “You sound just like Jonah, that figure in the Bible who God was saying go over to Nineveh because He wanted him to do something with people that maybe he didn’t like or feel comfortable with.” I was like, “That’s been me. I’d been so judgmental of my own Asian community.” I finally realized God made me Chinese-American for a reason because He wanted me to be a bridge for those cultures. When we come to that place of realizing we have a benefit of being more than one culture, we can help teach and bridge understanding between Americans or people in the Western world and help bridge understanding between those and the immigrant first generationAsian world. That’s where you come to the place of like, “That’s who I am and this is my mission in life, this is my purpose of why I’m here.”

I resonate with it. Most of the Asian immigrant here will find themselves in that situation from time to time, that they don’t belong in either. They don’t belong in a traditional Asian culture and neither do they belong to the American culture. They don’t feel they are 100% that. I have children here. My children are born here and I’m dealing with both cultures. My children don’t care about the Asian culture and my parents care very much about the Asian culture.They want to enforce the traditions, the culture, and their beliefs. Then who am I? I need to be a bridge on both sides. It did take me a long time to balance it out, to recognize there are good things from both culture and I am the bridge. The more I learn about it, the more I have compassion on both sides. 

This is a difficult thing for first generation immigrants especially the more recent ones.My parents fortunately, they certainly forced upon a lot of culturalthings on me to stay Chinese, to marry Chinese, all those things. They weren’t as bad as I heard with some of my other friends. Someone once said that the moment you leave your home country and you come to United States, you have to come to the acceptance that you are going to have to give up some of those cultures because otherwise you probably should have stayed in that culture.

I’m not saying this in a racist way.If I was white and I said this, this will sound racist, but because I’m Asian, you can say it.If you want it to stay completely 100% Chinese without any influence from the West, then you should stay in China or if you want to stay 100% Vietnamese, stay in Vietnam or 100% Japan and retain all those cultural things then you should stay in Japan, but the moment you step into another country, it doesn’t have to be America, you could be in South America, you could be in Europe. Then you’ve already decided, “I am now leaving my home country and I have decided to stay in another place and hopefully retain some of that culture.”

I’m not saying get rid of it but you have to say,“The moment I stepped in, I’ve got to start to learn a new language. I’ve got to start to adapt to some of the ways.”Therefore, your children that are born there are going to have to adapt to those ways, too. I know there’s this tension for that.That’s something a lot of first generation immigrants have a hard time of trying to retain everything that they take from leaving, say Korea, and coming here and thinking we’re going to recreate the same thing we had over there, but on a different country. That’s not the reality that happens.

Balance Between Two Cultures: The moment you leave your home country and you come to United States, you have to come to the acceptance that you have to give up some of those cultures.

You mentioned that you have a five-year-old daughter. How do you plan to pass on some of the Asian culture and traditions to her? 

For my daughter, she’s starting kindergarten in the fall. We have enrolled her in Mandarin Immersion School, that is one way. She speaks English very well and she’s going to be speaking English the rest of her life. I think it was important for her to learn Chinese. My husband and I speak Cantonese at home, so she does understand Cantonese and certainly celebrating some of those unique Chinese culture traditions like Chinese New Year or moon festival. We want to be able to share those specific customs and of course food. My husband loves dim sum. I’m a singer and he’s a rapper, he’s Chinese-American. He raps about things like dim sum. It’s very cute to see my daughter rapping about how much she likes dim sum. If you haven’t seen her, we have a video on YouTube called Twelve Days Of Dim Sum. She was two or three years old when we did that video and she sings about five cha siu bao’s. It’s funny. It’s like the Twelve days of Christmas, but with twelve days of dim sum. Little things like that, which are very uniquely Asian, we tried to pass down to her.

Who were your role models growing up? 

When people ask that when I was younger, I would say my role models would have been my parents. I admire my parents greatly in many ways. My father came to this country with only $60 in his pocket and put himself through school. He didn’t know anybody.He had to raise a family at one point, holding multiple jobs. I feel in one way the work ethic and pursuing the American dream, my father is a great role model. He’s a loving father at a very unique situation. My dad told me he loves me every day, which is not usual for a lot of Chinese father. That contributes to my high confidence. My dad told me I was beautiful and he told me that he loved me all the time, which are the two important things that fathers need to do to assure that their daughters have strong confidence. I know a lot of Asian women struggle with that because they didn’t get that affirmation from their fathers or their mothers. My mom is also a role model for me. She was a stay at home mom and she took care of me very well growing up. She was a loving mother. As an adult I would say I have different role models.

Being someone who’s very spiritual and a strong Christian, I certainly follow a lot of the teachings of Jesus and find a lot of his love and compassion towards peopleas very good role model. There have been different people in my life that served as role models for me whom I admire. I say it at the forefront, my parents. As an adult, I realized that they were flawed. That’s always the case. There is no perfect person in this world. You aspire to be the things that are positive and the people that you admire.

You wrote your first song when you were thirteen. What was that song about? 

It was a love song called the Wild Side of Love. A thirteen years old, you just think about your first crush.

You shared that song impacted you a lot and that encouraged you to choose the career as a singer and a song writer. What was your parents’ reaction to that? 

Growing up, I was brainwashed into thinking I would become a doctor when I grew up because I got good grades. I was your model Asian child. The logic was you get good grades, you either become a doctor or a lawyer or some other profession. When I was about sixteen years old and I was in high school, I came to this realization that my father was a doctor, the idea was I was supposed to take over his practice. I came to the realization that I did not like the sight of blood and I did not like any time a TV show that showed surgery or operating room scenes. I had to look away. I ended up thinking logically like, “What’s the next best thing? I’ll be a songwriter and a music producer because it makes sense.”

It was because I started writing my first song at thirteen and I thought it came very easy to me. I thought, “Doesn’t everybody write songs?” Then when I started realizing not everybody writes songs and that this was a special, unique talent, I started to think a little differently. I came to this realization that I didn’t want to be a doctor and I was going to go into the music industry, and the reason I wanted to go to the music industry wasn’t just because it was fun. It is because I didn’t like a lot of the negative messages in music. I liked the challenge of being one of the few Asians. I realized there were no Asians, there was not a lot of women.

For me, it was a challenge to do something that no one else was doing before. When I told my parents about it in Chinese, they were like, “You’re going to starve.” They thought I was going to be the starving artist, and the thing is I wasn’t even going to be a singer at first. I just wanted to be a music producer and a professional songwriter. I wanted to be a record executive and work behind the scenes because I figuredmy ethnicity doesn’t matter behind the scenes as much. I didn’t see any Asian-American artists or singers. I said, “A lot of people can sing but I have a business mind, I can produce music.” I looked up to major music producers like Quincy Jones and Babyface and those are the people that I wanted to emulate.

My parents freaked out, at the same time, the way I won my argument, I realized this was a unique argument. My father, before he came over to the US, he was an actor for Shaw Studios in Hong Kong, the major motion pictures. For those of you who don’t know, that’s like the Warner Brothers of Asia at the time. Because he had gone to medical school, the director told him, “You’re smart, you should go to America,” because they didn’t know what would happen in Hong Kong after 1997 when China would take back over. Back in those days you were only an actor if you were not educated. If you were educated in Asia, you would become a professional. My grandfather, my dad’s father, was very against this.

My dad ended up coming over to the United States and so he gave up his passion for acting to start a new life here. I was able to win my argument because I told my dad, “Dad, at least you tried and you willingly gave up that to come to United States. Let me try. If I try and fail, then I try and fail, but at least I tried.” I told him I was going to go to college. I went to UCLA and got my business economics degree. That’s how I won my argument. I realized not everybody’s parents were also an actor. My dad had an understanding because where did that talent and where did that artistic passion come from? It came from my father, so he only has himself to blame. My mother, she forced me to play piano when I was five. If she hadn’t forced me to play piano, I would never have become a songwriter, so they both are to blame.

Let’s talk about the two very important projects that you are working on. The first one is a documentary film called Finding Cleveland. Tell us about this project and how did you get started.

Finding Cleveland is a documentary short film that I directed and wrote the music for about three years ago. My husband, who I mentioned is Chinese-American, his family took a trip to Cleveland, Mississippi. It’s not Cleveland, Ohio, which a lot of people think. There are a lot of Cleveland's named after President Cleveland all over the country. His grandfather and great grandfather are buried in Mississippi. We went to go visit the grave sites of these two Chinese men. Growing up in California, I literally thought we were going to find two Chinese men buried in Mississippi and that’s it. Instead we found a whole population of Chinese who have lived there for generations and were very instrumental in opening grocery stores and living there during segregation and serving the Black community and the White community during this pivotal point in history.

They’d also experienced a lot of discrimination as the Black community, like being segregated out of white schools and subjected to a lot of Jim Crow Laws. For me, it was an eye-opening experience and that trip itself had a lot of miraculous revelations I’m not giving too much away. My husband grew up not knowing anything about his grandfather because his grandfather left China when my father in law was only one year old. We didn’t know anything about the family. This whole film was about all the things that we discovered, not just about the family but also about this last chapter of American history. It was really important for me. We thought we were making this family film.

We were recording to have a home video later. Once we started to unravel a lot of these revelations, I realized we needed to make a film that other people can see. Growing up here in the US, I took AP History. I learned about the American South. I learned about the civil war slavery, post slavery, segregation, I learned all of that. Nowhere in our history books does it ever mentioned that the Chinese were also impacted by these laws of segregation and that they were even living in the South because it was only talked about in terms of black and white. I felt like if the rest of American knew and if other Asian-Americans knew about our history, we know about the railroads, we know about the gold mines, we know about Japanese internment, and yet we never learn about the Chinese being in the South at the same time as the Blacks and the Whites.

That would frame a lot of people’s thinking of what it means to be American and feeling that the Asians were a very integral part of this country and American history, especially in some of the cases of discriminations that we don’t hear about. I decided that we needed to make this movie. Now when we first started making this movie, I was going to be the music composer because that’s my background. I’ve written for a lot of television and film projects and that was my job. Then once I started seeing the film, I realize that I could tell a better story than who we had at the time working on it. I worked with the editor and my husband and I said, “I’m going to tell the story because I was there and I want to take people on this journey the way I saw it because it was an amazing journey.”


Balance Between Two Cultures: Nowhere in our history books does it ever mention that the Chinese were also impacted by these laws of segregation because it was only talked about in terms of black and white.

That reminds me of a movie I saw called The Jade Pendant. It’s very similar. That movie made me realize thatthe Chinese has been here for a long time and that’s how there’s a lot of Chinese who have been here for a couple of generations already. The Chinese is not a newcomer here in this country. They are a part of the whole country, just like the African-American. 

We’re making a second part that’s a longer documentary. With the short film Finding Cleveland, we’ve been touring all over the country and we’ve done over 100 screenings in major cities and smaller cities as well, film festivals, libraries, museums, universities and now we’re starting going into the schools. We’re on a mission to not just make a movie. We’re here on a mission to use this movie as a teaching tool to educate current and future generations to include this history of the Chinese in the American South and hopefully in other UN and other stories as well. You mentioned Jade Pendant, a lot of people don’t know that the largest mass lynching in American history, and it happens at the end of that film, happened in LA where eighteen to twenty Chinese people were hung forracist reasons. A lot of people think that it would have happened in the South. There were probably more lynching's that happened in the South to individuals and smaller groups of people.

As far as a large group of people, the Chinese were hung here in LA and also throughout other states, Wyoming, Idaho, Seattle, and Washington. There were lots of Chinese that were driven out during the time of the Exclusion Act and massively discriminated too and in many instances killed or literally dragged in and sent back on boats to China. There’s this history that we don’t learn about and people would view us differently because with a lot of the newer immigrants, people view us as like, “They’re just taking over our country or they’re buying up all their property forsome of the immigrant nations that are wealthier.”

They don’t know your story about being a refugee. That’s a different story. Those who are new immigrants were coming over and buying all their property. I think all of that is important and that there’s this very rich history. On top of that, I think the personal revelation here is through our journey and why we’re making a second movie is after we went to that trip to Cleveland, Mississippi, my husband, who thought he was the first person born in this country.His father came over in the 1950s. My husband was born in San Francisco, for all his life he thought he was the first one in his family born here and until we started this journey to find Cleveland and now we went back to San Francisco in the national archives, we found the Chinese Exclusion files for his grandfather and great grandfather.

In that file was his great grandfather’s birth certificate that he was born in 1877 in San Francisco and it was authenticated in 1902. It was before the earthquakes and fires,so we’re pretty sure this is authentic. That changed my husband’s whole perception of who he was. He’s more American than “some Americans.” His great grandfather was born in 1877, so his family’s been here for five generations because his great grandparents first came. That changes everything for the way he feels. In between, his grandfather and father were born in China and there’s a long story behind that because of the Chinese Exclusion Act that there was a lot about people going back and forth to China to have families. That’s why we’re making that second film, but his whole identity has a perception of who he has changed in the last year. He feels so much more American and he feels like now he’s an authority. If people say, “Go back to your country,” he’ll be like “I was here longer than you probably.”

What is the next movie called?

We are trying to figure out what our next title is. We’re calling it Mississippi Learning Beyond Finding Cleveland, but that probably will not be our final title because of our story. There’s been so much to our story that we want to really find a title that captures everything. There is a sequel and a prequel to our short because we’re going to document why we had to go find Cleveland. My father-in-law, Charles, it’s his journey. He came here as a fourteen-year-old boy, brought to this country by his grandmother. He didn’t grow up with a father so he had a lot of struggles as an immigrant. We’re going to share about his story and why he had to go find Cleveland and why he had to connect with the past and also the trauma that he experienced growing up without a father and being a new immigrant in this country. A lot of people discount that adjustment that a lot of immigrants have. He had a lot of feelings of abandonment, bitterness, and anger because he didn’t know the whole story.

We ended up discovering this whole story about how his father loved him through this journey and all the sacrifices that they did for the sake of family. That’s where a lot of the cultural misunderstandings between first generation, second generation and third generation. That’s a large part of what our second film is about, is the generations. Here we are, even my first-generation immigrant father-in-law who turns out is four generations down. He had issues with his father because he didn’t have a father. Then my husband growing up with all the culture clash between first generation and second generation, he didn’t understand his father.

This is a beautiful journey of fathers and sons reconciling with each other and finding discovery in the past to better understanding. We find out what the struggles were with not my father in law’s immigration story, but then once we get to Mississippian and uncovering the struggles of the Chinese families and his family in particular, what they had to sacrifice and having to travel back and forth to China, not only dealing with segregation but also dealing with the Chinese Exclusion Act and not being able to bring the families in. There’s this interesting racial dynamic that happened in the South too that we want to explore between the Black communities and White communities and how they all lived together during this dark and difficult time. I know nowadays there’s a lot of racial tension and a lot of rhetoric but in studying the history, it was way worse back then.

We have to keep that in perspective. There are some similarities to the past with what’s going on now, but at the same time it is way, way different time than the early 1900s. We can learn from that. What were the mistakes made that we don’t want to make again? What are the things that we can learn that were positive? For instance, one of the things that a lot of communities can learn from is the resilience of the immigrant community. The Chinese community, despite of all the challenges, somehow found a way to survive and thrive, operating businesses and being able to send their kids to college so the next generation could have it better than they did. There are so many things that we can learn from history.

I used to be someone who didn’t care about history. I know Kimchi, you mentioned your kids don’t care learning about being Asian. I was the same way. I didn’t care about Chinese history, Asian history, Asian-American history. I didn’t even care that much about US history until we stumbled upon this because now I saw myself in this history, the American history. I was like, “We were part of this and I didn’t know about it.” I hope that this longer film will educate not just the Asian-Americans, but the Black community, the Latino community, the White community, every community. Our stories are all important, all our stories together make up American history. This isn’t just a Chinese story or a Chinese-American story. This is an American story. All our stories are valuable and hopefully we can learn something from each other.

I’m looking forward to seeing that movie because that will resonate with a lot of us who are first generation or second generation or who still see that a part of them is Asian. Let’s talk about your second important project called UTalkAdvise Talk Show. Tell us about why is it important to you and what is it?

U Talk Radio is an advice show that’s geared at young adults. My cohost, there are three of us, Steve and Kati, they’re Italian-Americans. They’re third generation. Steve’s grandparents were born in Italy. We’re talking about this generation, but Italians are now perceived as White. We are trying to address a lot of the issues that youth and young adults are facing today and give them practical advice. Because I’m also part of the show, diversity viewpoint is very important to me. We will address a lot of issues that maybe because of my background, we’ll talk about say these issues of immigration or we’ll talk about racial identity on the show.

We’ll also talk about mental health issues and we talk about suicide and bullying and we’re serious top picks as well as some lighter topics about relationships and giving advice. Also hearing from our audience about what they’re going through or things that they’re doing to make a difference. We’re trying to be a positive show that is impacting culture in a positive way. We were going to be starting a campaign about fighting this culture of everybody’s so mean today on social media. Our president is mean, people criticizing the president are mean, journalists are mean, celebrities are mean, everybody’s just being mean to each other. We are trying to foster a culture where we’re concerned about the next generation in bullying and this rhetoric of hate. We want to encourage them. It’s important to be making a difference in a positive way, to be saying kind words, to be doing kind things and loving our neighbors. That’s what our show is about. It’s our audience talking to us and us talking back to them.

Balance Between Two Cultures: Because of social media, the way the school systems are, and the breaking down of the family unit, there are a lot of broken families in this generation more than ever.

Why is this important to you?

It’s important to me because one, I have a daughter and I previously hosted a youth talk show for nine years. I realized that this generation more than ever, because of social media, because of the way the school systems are and also because of the breaking down of a lot of the family unit, there’s a lot of broken families. There’s a lot of things that are contributing to young teens and young adults feeling very isolated and not having a place to turn to, to get good advice, to get practical advice on enforcing life values.

You see all these school shootings, you see all these reports on suicide or cyber bullying. For us, we want to be a place that young adults could come to, where it’s a safe place to talk, where if they don’t feel comfortable talking to an adult, whether it be a parent or a teacher, that they can come to us. We’re not those people who are like, “Do whatever you like, whatever makes you feel good,” because sometimes things that make you feel good are destructive decisions. For us, we want to help people make wise choices in life that are going to be beneficial to them and not harmful to them.

You shared that you had some of these challenges growing up. Would you mind sharing with us what happened there? 

I grew up, for the most part, in an encouraging family environment at the same time my parents didn’t get along. They fought a lot. That was very difficult for me growing up to be stuck in the middle of my parents. My parents stayed together thankfully but there are definitely times where I thought to myself like, “I wish my parents weren’t together because this is just crazy.” I spent a lot of time crying in my room about it because they fought a lot growing up. After college I moved back home with my parents and I ended up with this very unhealthy situation where, I didn’t even know what the word codependency meant, but I realized I ended up in this very unhealthy codependent relationship with my parents where I became this go between my parents. Where if they had problems with each other, they would use me to communicate with each other and I was trying to solve their problems.

I was trying to be the peacemaker. It was just getting to be very unhealthy and then over time, after a few years, there were some other events, like family crisis events that happened that ended up triggering me going into a deep depression. I actually didn’t know what was going on at first because I just showed up at church one Sunday morning and I remember I was crying uncontrollably. I was someone who was an optimist. I was a very positive, very happy person for the most part. I used to be like, “How do people get depressed? ”As a person who has a strong faith, I was like, “If you have faith, that should be everything.” I didn’t realize even people of faith can go through mental challenges.

For me, I didn’t know what was going on. A friend of mine who was a counselor at church who ended up talking to me and she walked me through this and then I started to realize, I am going through depression. This lasted for several weeks where I would wake up every morning crying. I would be in bed and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Did you ever see those cartoons where there’s this dark cloud and it’s raining and wherever that cartoon character goes, that rain cloud follows them? That’s how I describe depression. You feel that rain cloud over you and it’s only raining on you and it follows you wherever you go.

It just felt like endless. Thankfully, music was my outlet. I was writing a lot of music during that time and I’m doing a lot of prayer. I eventually joined a support group at my church and I was able to talk through some of my issues. Going through that depression, I think a lot of it was triggered because I didn’t have an outlet for my feelings. I think and I felt like I’m a strong person. I’ve always been a strong woman and I wasn’t going to let anything bother me. At some point, all the things that were happening with my family, between my parents’ relationship and some other events of crisis that were happening in my family, I couldn’t shoulder that anymore.

I’m human, I hate to admit this, but I’m not as strong as I think I was. I broke down and it was in some ways the best thing that ever happened to me because coming out on the other side, I now can be able to talk to you and your audience. I’m someone who can say I went through depression and I survived. It wasn’t easy and there are times where I could possibly relapse into that. Yet I can see the warning signs now and I know what my triggers are. I had to go through it during postpartum depression too when I had my daughter.

That manifests itself in manic behavior and more bipolar behavior. It was because I had gone through it before that I was able to cope with it a little bit better when I was going through my postpartum. Hopefully, I can help other people by sharing my story. My support group was very important to me in being able to talk through my feelings and what I was experiencing and to deal with my bitterness and my anger that I had built up towards my parents as well. To know that I wasn’t alone, that was the most difficult part of going through my depression is that when I went through it initially, I felt alone because I’m an only child.

I was living at home, my parents didn’t understand, and of course being Chinese, any issues at home, they did want me to share with anyone. They want to put on a happy face like everything’s okay.That puts even a greater weight on me. I encourage people, if they’re struggling with something, talk to someone, whether it’s a counselor, therapist, find a support group. There’s a lot of free support groups that different mental health organizations offer like NAMI, that’s National Alliance for Mental Illness. There are other organizations or even local churches, even if you’re not a Christian, it doesn’t matter. There are organizations, churches, community groups that offer mental health services that they’re just support groups. It’s like Alcoholic Anonymous. We know about that, you go to support group if you’re an alcoholic or a drug user.

A lot of times when we have mental emotional issues, we don’t think we need a support group. That is also an issue, just like being an alcoholic. The first step is admitting you have a problem and if you don’t know you have a problem then you can’t get help. If you know someone in your family or your friend that is going through something, be able to identify that and be able to help them go through that or point them in the right direction.

It is important that we address this issue and let the community know that it exists and that they can do something about it. There are so many outlets that they can go to. What does the word “power” mean to you? 

Power can mean a lot of different things to different people. It can have a negative connotation, people who are power hungry, that’s like “That’s selfish, that’s wrong.” At the same time, I like to use the word power as meaning strength and confidence, the ability to determine your own destination. I’ve always thought of myself as someone with power and again, this goes back to my father. It’s very atypical, very unusual for a Chinese father to empower their daughter. My father has always brought me up to be strong. He’s always said like, “Don’t take advantage of anyone and don’t let anyone take advantage of you.”

Because of that, it made me believe I could accomplish anything and it made me believe that I can do things that no one has ever done before, as foolish as that sometimes sounds. We established that I’m not perfect and I have flaws but we all aspire to be superheroes, to have the power to do something to affect change, which is what I want to do with my music. I want to affect change with my music and hopefully encouraging someone who is struggling through something in life. If they listened to one of my songs, I did a whole suicide prevention campaigns centered around one of my songs called I Feel Alive, that there’s something to live for, that you can accomplish great things, even songs about identity where people feel like they are on the margins or feel like they’re powerless. I wrote a song called Wonder Woman, that’s about needing to team up with other people and to be able to change the world. We all want to be superheroes, even though we’re not having super powers and we’re ordinary, we all can do extraordinary things. That’s the message of my music.

Balance Between Two Cultures: If you’re having an identity crisis, realize that you are uniquely made, that God made you who you are.

In the film,Finding Cleveland, and our new film, it’s like you have the power.This is a small film.My husband and I were not filmmakers before this. We’re not big time,we’re not Steven Spielberg, we’re not big-time filmmakers,yet we’re trying to effect change with our small little story and evenmy husband’s father and my father in law says like, “Who am I? I’m nobody. Why do people care about my story?”It’s because his story and his family is every person’s story that I think it’s been resonating, that we’re trying to change schools. We’re literally going into schools and changing the way US history is taught, which has already happened in several schools. In our larger form this is our campaign is that we’re going to include more of the Chinese history in American history, not just an Asian-American class in college but in middle schools and high schools. These are big dreams and big goals and I think you can only do that if you feel like you have the power to do that and to do something positive.

What do you do for fun? 

It’s funny because when you’re self-employed and I also freelance, we run our own company and take on other jobs, work is almost like 24/7. I have to say having a five-year-old daughter, that’s probably what we do for fun. Fun involves her, we go to Lego Land, we go try to see some movies. Although because I work in film now, I’m seeing movies as part of work because I’m analyzing everything, it’s research. Occasionally if we get a chance to vacation like on a beach somewhere or going to amusement parks, taking my daughter to the aquarium or to the zoo. That’s what we ended up doing things for fun now. Fun isn’t as fun as it used to be because what a lot of people do for fun is considered work now. Like watching TV, watching movies, going to concerts, it’s all research for me but we’ll try, thanks for asking that. That reminds me, I need to have more fun.

That’s what life is about. We try to make a difference. If we cannot fulfill our soul, we don’t reward our soul, mental, spirit need to have fun too. 

Honestly to some extent, I do enjoy being able to speak to people in a short film and do our concerts. We do something called the Finding Cleveland experience with our short film where we do about a twenty-minute concert, songs about Asian-American identity, where my husband gets a rap about dim sum and then we show our film. We have a little bit of a TED Talk afterwards and then we have time for Q and A with the audience. Honestly, we have a lot of fun doing that, my husband and I, it’s great to be able to work with my husband. Sometimes we lock horns and we get into some arguments and creative differences as well as we like to call it, but for the most part it’s been a blessing to be able to travel with him and sometimes take our daughter as a family and really changing the world together. That’s why my husband and I were together because we have the same parts to impact, the entertainment industry and the world and the education system. It’s fun to us but we can have more fun.

What are your top three advices for Asian women who have identity crisis? 

If you’re having an identity crisis, realize that you are uniquely made, that God made you who you are. A lot of times, especially as Asians, we think like we want to just hide all the bad stuff and the negative stuff .If anything, my journey of depression taught me is that that actually gave me power and even the negative parts of my story gave me power to inspire and empower someone else. At one point I actually had this women’s campaign called Beautiful Faith and it was all about how our stories that are ugly or things that we think are insignificant, we sometimes pushed it aside but if we actually shine a spotlight on them then we can make that beautiful and then it turns into the story of beautiful faith instead of ugly or painful.

If you have pain or if you were wrestling with these issues of identity, embrace it. Embrace what is uniquely yours, whether it’s negative or positive. In my case, sharing my story of depression, sharing my story of identity struggles, about wanting to be white and wanting to be blonde, that’s actually important in letting me accept who I am. If you’re struggling with those sides, again look at yourself as an ambassador, as a bridge, we’re talking about that earlier. When you start realizing that you have strengths for being bicultural, then you can use that for positivity instead of keeping it to yourself and be like, “Woe is me, I don’t know what to do. I’m so depressed because I don’t know who I am. I feel paralyzed.”

I wrote a song called Paralyzed, about feeling like you’re trapped in your situation and wanting to break free from it and the songs about breaking free from fears of failure or fears of not knowing who you are, not knowing what the future is. You said three advices. The third one I would just say is you’re not alone. You mentioned, Kimchi, that there are other women like you who wrestled with this. As a woman, you have all the advantages in the world, men are having a tough time of it right now with the #MeToo Movement. It’s your time, women. It’s your time to rise up because now your voices are finally being heard and what you might think is a detriment. I know being a woman, being Asian in this industry, I had to fight, being in the minority, double. It’s something that now is your positive monetary value because people are finally listening to women and you’re going to have a story that only you can share. I hope you use that voice for good.

If our readers want to find out more about the movie, Finding Cleveland, where do they go? 

There’s our website, FindingCleveland.com. Currently, we are in the middle of a fundraising crowdfunding campaign for our second film. If you are interested and want to be part of the movie that’s going to be effecting change in terms of including more Asian voices in and not just entertainment but also in education, in our history and our stories, then go visit our website. You can watch our trailer there. We’re currently targeting a budget of $160,000 to make an Oscar caliber film. We really want to make a high-quality film and we’re in talks with a lot of major companies about distributing our film and we’ve already raised almost $90,000.

If you want to be part of that community that’s really helping us to get this film out, there are different sponsorship levels that you can find out from our website. Just click on the link under the donate link and it’ll take you to our crowdfunding page. You can also keep up on where you can see the film. The film isn’t available online yet, it’s only exclusively available to our donors and also at our community screenings and we would love to see you and meet you at one of those screenings. There’s a mailing list, you can sign up on our mailing list or follow us on social media on our website there.

What about U Talk?

You can go to our radio website, UTalkRadio.com. You can listen to our podcast there. We are also going to be doing some live events around the country soon so if you can stay tuned for that, but you can listen to us. All our different podcasts in the past and upcoming ones are there. I’ve been involved with all these projects, but primarily what I started out was in music. They can go to my website, LarissaLam.com. My music is on Spotify, it’s on iTunes, it’s on Google Play, everywhere. You can listen to my music. You can find me on YouTube, see some of my videos. I hope you enjoy that music and feel empowered by the music and share my music with other people as well.

It’s been wonderful to spend time with you, Larissa. I wish you the best of luck on whatever you do. Reach out to me and I will share whatever you need in our community. 

Thank you.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Quotes 

"Be a bridge in both cultures."

"My ethnicity doesn't matter that much behind the scene."

"There is no perfect person in this world. You just aspire to things that are positive and the people that you admire."

"All our stories are valuable and hopefully we can learn something from each other. If you don't know you have a problem then you can't get help."

"If you don't know you have a problem then you can't get help"


About Larissa Lam

Larissa Lam is an award-winning singer-songwriter, filmmaker and TV/radio host. Graduated from UCLA with a degree in Business Economics, she worked as the CFO of NSoul Records and one the lead singers of the EDM gospel group, Nitro Praise. She has released four solo albums and performed all across the U.S. She has composed music for The Oprah Winfrey Show among other film, TV and video game projects. Her song “I Feel Alive” won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for Best Dance Song and was the theme song for a national suicide prevention campaign. She hosted a weekly talk show, “Top 3,” on youth network JUCE TV. Recently, she directed the award-winning documentary, Finding Cleveland. This documentary film is about the early Chinese immigrants who lived in Mississippi, and how the Chinese played a major role in the American history. Larissa is co-hosting a new advice show for teens, UTalk Radio, with speaker and author, Steve Russo. She has been a keynote speaker at numerous events and at universities such as TEDx, Yale, UCLA and MIT promoting diversity in media. Larissa is currently based in Los Angeles with her husband and fellow artist, Only Won and five year old daughter.
Contact Larissa Lam at:
Facebook and twitter @larissalam
Instagram & youtube @larissalammusic
Social media for my documentary film
facebook, instagram @findingcleveland
twitter @findcleveland

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