What Does it Mean to be an Asian Woman of Achievement?

4 minute read

When the Asian Women of Achievement organizing team announced me as a finalist, I didn’t tell my family. When the team then asked me if I planned on having guests attend the celebration dinner, I didn’t invite a soul. When, at that dinner, I was announced the Humanitarian winner, I didn’t move. I froze in disbelief.

The reason was simple: I didn’t think I could ever win. I didn’t think I’d even make it on the shortlist. On most days, when I wake up, I wonder if I’ve ever really ‘earned’ my place here at all.

Where is ‘here’, and who decides what ‘earning’ it means? That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer my whole life.

I received this award for my work as the founder and executive director of Letters to Strangers, the largest global youth-for-youth mental health NGO, for which I was generously awarded the Skoll Scholarship that allowed me to attend this MBA program. I always found this delightfully, bewilderingly ironic. When I founded the organization a decade ago at the age of 14, I had no grand vision. I simply wanted something that helped me find hope amidst my bipolar diagnosis - writing letters to strangers - be something others my age could try, too. 

On paper I wanted to build a community for others; in reality, I selfishly wanted to build a community for myself. How it grew to 72 countries took years of no-sleep, mistakes, learning from being exploited and underestimated, and a tremendous amount of teamwork, but it was not the sort of great mission statement or strategic plan that I always thought being a leader - especially one in business - must have in mind.

So when I got the Skoll Scholarship, and when I won this award, I caught myself slipping on my own self-doubt. But this award reminded me of another reason why I have to free myself and others like me from this vicious cycle of self-erasure: because our mothers and grandmothers already went through this, for centuries, and it’s time we gave all of us a break. It’s time to just take up space. And exist.

In my acceptance speech, I said: 'Today, on behalf of my grandmother who had her feet bound, on behalf of my aunt - and all the women in her generation who did not get the chance to go to school, who cannot to this day write her own name - I say "jolmbaais." That is "thank you" in [our] Buyi language. Thank you.'

Diana Chao in traditional Buyi clothing
Diana Chao in traditional Buyi clothing

My indigenous ethnic minority Buyi heritage taught me much, but it did not escape the violence of patriarchy. I was born in a rural village in the poorest province of China and abandoned and left to starve at six years old; my older sister’s name literally means 'second place to a man.' As a girl, my ambitions were a disease to be cured. When I was diagnosed with a mental illness, I was told that I was no longer marriageable. If I couldn’t be married off, what value did I have left?

A lot, it turns out. And dare I say - a lot more to come.

This award is not for me. It is for all the women who came before me who put in just as much work but could not write their name on an application; who could not dream of learning English; who could not dare speak of dreams.

It’s also a reminder that as an Asian woman, I still belong: in the west, and wherever else I want. I legally changed my first and last name when I moved to the US as a child after severe bullying; my family suffered race-based attacks and got rammed by a car for speaking Chinese at the height of COVID in our predominantly-white town. I still speak English with a tinge of an accent after growing up under the poverty line with parents who didn’t speak the language, delicately straddling that line between worlds, neither of which I felt like I fully belonged. I think I’ll probably get the question, 'where are you really from,' for the rest of my life.

But I belong. I have a place. ‘Here’ is not specific - ‘here’ is everywhere. And I do not have to ‘earn’ my right there.  

That’s what this award reminded me, and what I hope to remember everyday going forward. So scream it out loud with me: 'I’m of achievement, simply as I am!'

Isn’t that worthy of applause?