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Finding Beauty: Four Asian American Stories

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Photographed by Andrew Kung in New York.

A funny thing happened when I interviewed Asian Americans in New York's beauty industry. In the stories I heard, featuring four incredible business owners, I heard my own story too. I was born in Kyoto, Japan and my family immigrated to the US when I was just six months old. I spent the first five years of my life on the tiny Hawaiian island of Kauai amongst a large Asian community—a slow and comforting introduction into American culture. After that, my family relocated to a predominantly Caucasian town in the suburbs right outside Manhattan.

Compared to my older family members, I was more malleable and therefore excelled at assimilating to life in America. I quickly learned from my classmates what I should and shouldn’t be doing—I should go to the local deli for a salad and fries, I shouldn’t be bringing my mom’s homemade bento box for lunch. The older I got, the more I learned. Classmates on my school bus ranked the different “types of Asians,” while I got complimented on being “pretty for an Asian” and told numerous times that since “hooking up with an Asian is on every boy’s bucket list,” I was lucky.

Rather than feeling the pain of microaggressions, the confusion of social imposter syndrome, or the discomfort of calling someone out on their racism, I learned at a young age to distance myself from my culture and emotions. It was the easy fix. Typical to many who grew up in Asian households, I rarely received emotional support from my parents and never spoke about the struggles I went through with my sisters.

I hope that reading these stories will help non-Asians in America better appreciate the unique faces and stories behind Asian beauty products and services commonly enjoyed here. I also hope Asian American readers will take comfort in our similarities, and feel encouraged to share their own stories. I've spent this last year opening up to close friends who have listened to my experiences, and it's helped me start to accept my Asian identity. It’s time that we start talking about our experiences and cultures—the conversation begins here.

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Dr. Debbie Kung, DAOM, LAc.

Founder and Owner, Kung Acupuncture

"My dad was born in China and raised in Taiwan, and my mom was both born and raised in Taiwan. In the '70s they immigrated to Virginia Beach and had me and my siblings—there weren't many Asian families in our town, and at that point they just wanted us to assimilate. They stopped speaking Chinese at home and made us learn English. I remember I’d be upset if I came home from school and my dad had the rice cooker on—I just wanted hamburgers and hot dogs. I laid out to get a tan, I lightened my hair, I begged my mom to get me blue contacts... I thought I had to look like my white classmates to be American. I got really sucked into appearances because I always felt like an outsider. Another layer to this is that in many Asian households there’s a clear distinction between parents and children—we weren’t friends, we didn’t have that kind of dynamic. I couldn’t go to my parents to talk about what happened in school or ask what somebody may have meant by a certain comment. It’s still hard to discern what I’m doing to fit in and what I actually like.

When I moved to New York it was the first time I was exposed to so much diversity, and seeing more Asians made me feel more positive about myself. I worked in fashion for 10 years, and at a certain point I felt really burnt out. Someone suggested I try acupuncture, and after my first session in Chinatown I felt like someone had pushed my reset button. I ended up quitting my job and getting my doctorate in traditional Chinese medicine. People here don’t see acupuncture as medicine, and I’ve had friends ask me if I’m a ‘real doctor.’ Ironically people don’t realize that all pharmaceutical drugs are derived from plants—Asian medicine just acknowledges that these things come from nature. This practice has been around for thousands of years.

At my practice I offer acupuncture, Gua Sha, facial rejuvenation, cupping, and herbal remedies. It’s nice that Gua Sha is being spotlighted right now, but I don’t think people understand why it works or anything about its origin. Gua Sha has been around for thousands of years as a homemade remedy—grandmothers would take a flat, smooth surface, like a coin or the side of a spoon, and use it on their grandkids if they had a stiff neck or a cold. It can also be preventative to help Qi circulation. Qi is the energy of life forces, and it pushes everything along smoothly—think of it as a highway system with no traffic jams. When the Qi is blocked and unable to circulate properly, ailments start to occur.

The cool thing about Chinese medicine is that we look at everyone as an individual. The body is constantly changing, and I can adjust treatment based on how each client’s body is at that exact moment. That connects with an Asian method of diagnosis called face reading, where we look at someone’s face to see reflections of what’s going on throughout the body. Like, if I see a client is breaking out on their chin, they could be having hormonal or kidney issues. Or if they’re having trouble along the jawline, it could point to diet or issues in the stomach. Most women come here for help with fertility or facial rejuvenation, which are related anyway. Having spent so many years paying attention to other people’s features and my features and how I looked in certain lighting, that was fascinating to me. The face is the first thing you see when you see someone, and it always gives signs of what it’s dealing with."

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Min Ree

Co-Founder, Besfren Beauty

"I was born in Korea, but I’ve spent most of my life in New York—my whole family immigrated to the US over 20 years ago. We've kept many Korean traditions here. My mom has alway made Korean meals, and I would introduce my non-Asian friends to Korean dishes and culture. My mom didn’t pack traditional Korean lunches when I went to school because she didn’t want me to stand out—she would pack a sandwich with a Capri Sun instead. But I was always really proud of my Korean roots. My school had this day called International Fair, where kids from different countries would set up booths in the cafeteria to promote different cultures. I remember I was always the most active in promoting Korean music and food. It's thrilling to see so many people enjoying K-pop, K-Drama, and even Mukbangs now.

The name Besfren phonetically comes from the word ‘best friend,’ and we chose it because we wanted our Korean products to be easily approachable even if they were unfamiliar. We opened our brick and mortar store in 2015, but Besfren started as a dessert catering business. We made traditional Korean rice cake desserts and incorporated American flavors like cream cheese, Oreo, and strawberry. At one point we started making konjac jellies. Konjac is an ingredient that comes in noodles and rice, and in its jelly form we added different flavors like peach and grape, on top of collagen and vitamin C to to help the skin.

We saw a growing interest in our products with the K-beauty boom. But even before that terminology became big in the states, I knew how high-quality and innovative the skincare products in Korea were. To showcase that to the people here we created Besfren Beauty. At first the majority of customers who came in were already familiar with our brand and products. We started carrying a lot of sheet masks because we thought that they were the easiest to start with—if you already had your skincare routine at home, you could pick up one treatment without switching your other products. Then, as time went by, customers who loved the sheet masks would come back and buy things like toner, eye cream, and lotion.

Everyone wants to look like they have flawless skin—not nice foundation. We've been increasing our skincare selection, and anyway, Korean makeup brands don't offer the full spectrum of shades for different skin colors. We didn't want our customers to feel disappointed, so we've been decreasing our makeup too. When people ask me for beauty advice, I tell them to not expect immediate results. Think of skincare as a way to train your skin to look its best in the future. My second best piece of advice would be to start applying eye cream ASAP!"

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Akiko Sugiyama

Founder and Owner, Akiko Nails

"I’ve lived around many different cultures, so it’s hard to say which has had the biggest influence on me. I was born in Saitama, Japan. When I was younger, my mom would talk about this dream she had of moving our family to Europe. That sounded so exciting to me, and I wanted to explore different countries too. Eventually my mom realized that it would be difficult to move my dad’s job, obtain a Visa, and overcome the language barrier. But I still wanted to go. I traveled to New Zealand for high school, which was a little hard because I was different and couldn’t speak English. I had a bullying situation with a few girls who would laugh when I walked by—even though I stood up for myself, it bothered me enough that I switched schools. I met another Japanese girl at my second school, and the fact that we could talk in Japanese and share our experiences really comforted me. After that I moved to London for college and lived there for eight years, and I lived in Sweden for a little while too. I moved to New York almost 13 years ago, when I was 28.

When I first got here I was working as a hairstylist. I rented a little booth in Market NYC on Bleeker street and set up a space there. Because there were a lot of tourists passing through, I thought it would be interesting to do some fun nails for them with pictures of New York or the Empire State Building. I changed the name from Akiko Hair to Akiko Hair and Nails, and specialized in nail art. There weren’t many nail art salons at the time, and our popularity grew really quickly. In 2015 I moved to a space in the Lower East Side to just focus on nails, and started with a team of all Japanese nail artists. When it comes to my business, I’m very particular about the products I use and the customer service I provide. We only use Japanese gel because it’s the highest quality available here. Many people in Japan are perfectionists, so I guess that’s where it comes from.

When people get their nails done in Japan they get really feminine stones or glitter, but in the US a lot of customers prefer dainty drawings. We have a wide range of customers coming in—white, Asian, Black, and Hispanic… Some people come in from different states to get their nails done before a special occasion, like their birthday or wedding. I was talking to one of our nail artists who started recently to see how she was liking the job, and she said she really likes how our customers come from all backgrounds. The most rewarding thing to me is watching customers leave the salon happy—it’s simple, but that’s what I love about my business.

People think that Japanese people don’t age, and when my mom comes in people ask if she’s my sister. Maybe it’s just our skin or our features, but we also eat well—diet is one of the most important things for our skin. I eat Japanese food all the time. I go to Sunrise Mart quite often and get cooking supplies from Mitsuwa Marketplace in New Jersey every two weeks. They also have a Japanese bookstore called Kinokuniya where I like to buy my kids books—I’m teaching them Japanese. Western culture is more about expressing yourself, and Japanese culture is more about discipline and following the rules. As I’m raising my kids I'm taking the good from both cultures and finding my own balance. You can respect other people and still have freedom."

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Mona Baltazar

Founder and Owner, The Mona Cut

"When we were 10 years old, my sister and I moved from the Philippines to San Jose. Coming from a country where all of my neighbors looked like me, the US was a culture shock. There were girls in my grade who towered over me and looked very different. My sister and I were a team, and we’d come home from school every day and discuss things we picked up from our classmates so we could blend in as quickly as possible.

My family was not well-off in the US, and college was never a conversation. On career day in high school I found a cosmetology pamphlet with a man with long, luscious hair on the front. If you ask anyone, being Filipino is all about having long hair, and I wanted to do what he was doing. While I was working in a salon in California I won a sales contest to fly to New York for a four-day Redken class. It was my second time on an airplane, and I fell in love with the city. I told my boss I was putting in my one year notice and when I was ready he bought me a one-way ticket. Now I’ve been here for 16 years.

In 2015 a woman named Edgy came to see me for a haircut. It was the beginning of a huge movement towards natural, curly hair in Black and mixed communities, but there weren’t many curly-hair cutters in New York. A lot of stylists would say, ‘Oh, you have too much hair, we’re going to have to straighten it,’ or huff and puff like curly hair was such a chore. Curly hair was new to me but it didn’t stop me—I’m a hairdresser, and my job is to help you understand your hair and feel good about it. Edgy posted a photo of her haircut on Instagram and tagged me, and it was a chain reaction from there. Textured hair is very sensitive and has so many personalities, which is the beauty of it. I want a client to feel really comfortable with their own texture, and I’m here to hold their hand on that journey. A client of mine gave me the name ‘The Mona Cut,’ and in March 2018 I officially opened as The Mona Cut independently.

Beauty is so limitless right now, and it’s amazing that everyone has the opportunity to choose how they want to look, but at this moment I’m actively trying to not stand out. My mom is very open-minded and bold, and raised my sisters and I to never feel like we had to look a certain way. She just turned 66 the other day, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look more fabulous—her hair is silver and she wears it really short. A few years ago I was running errands on my lunch break, and some guy came up behind me and said under his breath, ‘real American, so American.’ I remember wondering if that meant I’m not supposed to have tattoos because I’m Asian, or if because I have tattoos I’m trying to fit an American visual. The other day I worried about leaving my house in a bright yellow Nike jacket, and I just bought sunglasses to try to hide that I’m Asian. But something exciting about being Filipino here in New York is that young entrepreneurs are highlighting street food from the Philippines more and more. Project Barkada highlights a lot of Filipino small businesses, which is how I found Kabisera and FromKora donuts, which became huge this year like how Cronuts were huge. I miss home, and food is home."

—as told to ITG