The Joy of Being a Bad Asian

What is it like to be Asian American when you’re invisible within it?

Lisa Lee Herrick
Published in
7 min readJul 8, 2021


Illustrations courtesy of the author

I am a huge disappointment to my parents. There, I said it. But it’s not because I didn’t become a lawyer or a doctor, an accountant, a pharmacist, nurse — heck, not even a dental assistant — after university. And it’s not because I’ve dyed my hair every neon shade and pierced a few places, or because I joined a vegan hippie commune, or did some Burning Man stuff. It’s not because I cut weekend Hmong school, didn’t go to church, and seriously considered getting a full back tattoo in my twenties. It’s not even because I quit my job in television to become something even more impractical such as a full-time writer and artist.

No, I am a huge disappointment because I just can’t quite explain who I am to my parents, or why I’m compelled to share my messy thoughts out loud.

You see, my parents are all about flying under the radar. They fled the Communist regime and subsequent genocide in Laos during the 1970s, and arrived in the United States as teenaged refugees protected by both the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. They skipped the 1960s entirely, and missed the whole context of the civil rights movement. They didn’t know that Asian immigrants and American-born Asians had been barred from U.S. citizenship until 1952.

My parents couldn’t imagine protesting against the state without being inevitably crushed by it. My parents had never even met an American who wasn’t a soldier until they landed here. America wasn’t so much the “land of opportunity” or the “great society” touted by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — a superior republic compared to communist nations through the orthodox ideals of democracy, free markets, and the all-American dollar — than it was a bomb shelter for the shrapnel of their blasted lives. A safe place to hide indefinitely.

In America, my parents wanted to disappear. And we did, in a way.

Ali Wong tells this hilarious joke in her 2016 Netflix special Baby Cobra that cracks me up every time, about the difference between Fancy Asians (East Asians) and Jungle Asians (Southeast Asians). Of course, if it was anyone other than Ali Wong (who’s Vietnamese and Chinese) telling this inside joke riffing on class struggles between Asian immigrant communities, it would be totally tone deaf. Her joke just makes me feel seen.

Before Ali Wong came on the scene, it was all about the Souphanousinphone from the television show King of the Hill, largely because of this exchange between Kahn Souphanousinphone and Hank Hill, which sums up every interaction my family’s had up until today:

Hank: So are you Chinese or Japanese?

Kahn: I lived in California last 20 years, but first come from Laos.

Hank: Huh?

Kahn: Laos. We Laotian.

Bill: The ocean? What ocean?

Kahn: We are Laotian — from Laos, stupid! It’s a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It’s between Vietnam and Thailand, okay? Population 4.7 million.

Hank: (long awkward pause) So are you Chinese or Japanese?

Kahn: Ugh.

Should I credit King of the Hill for showing me that I could crawl out from under my family-sized invisibility cloak to talk about what it’s like to live in a Laotian refugee family and growing up Hmong American? I feel like I should.

I guess I just did that.

It’s taken a lifetime for me to understand the difference between immigrants and refugees, and how those distinctions influence identity formation. The first few waves of Southeast Asian refugees were granted asylum through Clause 7 of the 1965 Immigration Act. This token quota was expanded after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. My parents were part of this group of new Americans, even though they weren’t part of the Vietnam War. Their war would remain a national secret until the CIA declassified, then redacted, public documents in 2009 detailing the recruitment and training of Hmong soldiers to fight a proxy war for the United States in Laos. Spoiler alert: We didn’t win.

Unlike the majority of East Asian immigrants who came to the United States after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, the Hmong were not highly educated, exceptionally skilled, or independently wealthy before arriving in the United States. No Hmong refugee was going to pour $40,000 or more into a business within the first year of resettling. A college degree was an anomaly; illiteracy was the norm. The Hmong were not model minorities. In fact, most could barely function in their new homes.

My parents met and married in the United States. My father arrived in the first wave of Southeast Asian refugees in 1976 and tried his best to assimilate despite speaking every language except English, and graduated from a local community college. My mother was sponsored by her half-brother in Hawaii, and was enrolled in the local high school where she made friends with fellow refugees, a moon-faced Hmong girl and a Khmer girl with sparkling jet eyes, and had her first American boyfriend. My father spotted my mother while vacationing in Hawaii, decided that she was it for him, and they were married soon after. The next year, I was their American dream: the first of five American-born children with short and easy-to-pronounce American names, albeit my parents couldn’t foresee how or if we would be accepted in our new country.

For my parents, moving unnoticed through the world was the safest way to live. They were able to reinvent themselves far away from the former neighbors and colleagues who had gunned down their friends and family over political affiliations. They could start over fresh somewhere new.

I should also point out that the original intention of the 1965 Immigration Act was to increase chain migration from Europe in a post-World War II world in the name of family reunification: seven clauses detailed how U.S. citizens and permanent residents (especially military service members) could sponsor family members, spouses, and any foreign-born children for resettlement. At the time, Asian Americans composed less than 1% of the national population. The maximum annual quota for Asian immigrants was 20,000; of that quota, only 5% were allowed entry for political asylum. (There was never a maximum quota placed for European immigrants.) Beginning in 1971, more than 200,000 Lao refugees arrived in the United States. Today, there are more than 320,000 Hmong Americans largely concentrated in California and the Midwest. We represent only 1% of the total Asian American population, and it shows in media, arts, and culture. Or, rather, I should say that we don’t really show up at all.

For me, being invisible and having to prove, time and time again, my existence was exhausting, aka “the talk.” I can’t tell you how many times I have told someone that I am Hmong, and have been corrected that I meant to say Mongolian instead. I know what I said. And having “the talk” before Wikipedia? Forget about it. We weren’t in the encyclopedia. Or in television, movies, classroom materials, and history books either. You simply can’t accept what you don’t see.

But I will admit that there is one benefit to being unknowable: You can choose your own adventure.

This is how my parents found themselves sitting inside my living room at the vegan hippie commune, after my graduation ceremony, trying to guess when I had changed my major from biotechnology to comparative literature. Trying to comprehend why my housemates were barefoot but, as my mother put it, the “wrong kind of barefoot.” When I explained that they were hippies, my mother quipped right back, “I know all about hippies. They always showed up at our village from the jungle, wanting food and water, and asking stupid questions. ‘Why is this? Why is that?’ Smelled awful even from far away.” It was then that everyone asked me what my plan was for my future. I bit my lip and said, “I’m going to be a writer.”

There was a long and awkward pause. My parents said that they didn’t understand my choice to live a difficult and uncertain future, but that they loved me and would be there for me anyway. I wasn’t expecting that.

After they left, I felt a strange euphoria. Was this freedom? Clearly, I was on my own now.

I had let my parents down, in a way, because they no longer recognized me as the child they sheltered and raised protectively during those difficult years. I was my own person now, and in charge of making my own way, and always would be. My parents had tacitly promised not to get in my way, which showed me that they trusted my decisions. Some things don’t need to be said to be felt. Recently, my parents have started reading my writing and thanked me for showing them the liberation of being understood by another person. It’s brought us closer than ever before.

Bad Asian? No, I prefer to be called a Badass Asian because I’m defining myself on my own terms. And that’s a freedom worth protecting and fighting for whether or not you disappoint anyone else.



Lisa Lee Herrick

Lisa Lee Herrick is a Hmong American writer, artist, and media executive based in California. She is a 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. @lisaleeherrick