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Reporter who was called 'very Asian' writes kids book on Korean food to instill pride

"I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed about food because food is who we are," news anchor and author Michelle Li said.
Author Michelle Li and her new book, "A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food."
Author Michelle Li and her new book, "A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food."Rosemary Dai Ross; Gloo Books

Michelle Li, a St. Louis-based news anchor who went viral after a viewer left a racist voice message in response to Li saying she ate dumplings to celebrate New Year's Eve, has written a new children’s book about Korean food.

The book, "A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food," comes out Friday and aims to introduce commonly eaten Korean and Korean-fusion dishes to kids using colorful illustrations and brief trivia, such as their origins and how they’re prepared. 

Earlier this year, the hashtag #VeryAsian went viral after Li posted a tweet reacting to a caller complaining about a segment where Li, who is Korean American and an anchor at NBC affiliate KSDK, recalled eating dumplings on New Year’s Day.

“I kind of take offense to that,” the caller said, according to the tweeted video. “What if one of your white anchors said well, white people eat this on New Year’s Day? I don’t think it was appropriate that she said that. She’s being very Asian. ... She can keep her Korean to herself.”

After her viral tweet, Li appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," receiving a $15,000 check, which she used to start the Very Asian Foundation.

Li said the voicemail and her sudden success provided an impetus for her to write a book, so she can discuss the incident with her son, JJ.

“When the voicemail went viral, I was like, first of all, Korean food is not offensive, you know?” Li told NBC News. “And second of all, actually, I don’t have a book like that. Like, I actually don’t have a book that I can bring to my son that we can talk about this.”

Her book includes more than a dozen traditional Korean dishes, including kimchi, mandu (Korean dumplings) and bingsu (Korean shaved ice dessert), with factoids describing the history and customs of the meal.

“We identified things that we thought were not really popular in the United States,” Li said. “I thought it would be nice to see a more modern representation of Korean food available for kids and really anyone.”

The book also contains the names of the dishes in Korean characters, known as Hangul, alongside English pronunciations, which Li noted was important for her to include.

“I think people want to know how to say things correctly,” Li said. “I feel like it just empowers you to maybe order something or maybe talk about it with people because you might be so embarrassed because you don’t want to say it wrong that you won’t say it at all.”

Li worked with Korean Canadian illustrator Sunnu Rebecca Choi to further make sure that the book was inclusive of race, religion and abilities, featuring characters in a wheelchair, wearing cochlear implants and donning a Jewish kippah.

She also followed the APALA Rubric, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association’s guide to evaluate Asian American and Pacific Islander youth literature, to avoid problematic illustrations like depicting the “slanted Asian eye” trope.

In the last decade, the term “lunchbox moment,” describing childhood stories of being bullied for “ethnic” lunches, has gained traction, as numerous Asian Americans have shared their experiences of feeling shame about their cultural cuisine. Even celebrities like Eddie Huang, Margaret Cho and David Chang have opened up about their own lunchbox moments. 

Li said she hopes her book can teach kids, including her son, to be confident about their native cuisine, so they can learn to be respectful of other cultures.

“There are a lot of people still yucking other people’s yums,” Li said.

“I don’t want [my son] to be embarrassed about Korean food,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed about food because food is who we are. You know, food connects us in so many ways, and food can really center our entire existence.”