Asian American freelancers face a unique set of challenges that, while not exclusive to Asian Americans, tend to occur in our community at a higher frequency because many of us are immigrants and/or the children of immigrants and because of racial triangulation, aka our weirdly ambiguous place in America’s racial hierarchy. These challenges include racial bias from clients, limiting cultural expectations about work and money, and generational trauma caused by poverty and immigration.
- Why I wrote this guide (and started this business)
- A quick privilege check
- What if clients can’t pronounce my name and think I can’t speak English?
- How do I tell my parents I’m not going to be a doctor?
- What if my business fails?
- How do I approach trying to change my scarcity mindset?
Why I wrote this guide (and started this business)
For the first two years of my business, I tried to become this chirpy, white mommy blogger which…LOL on multiple levels. I didn’t know any other Asians or Asian Americans who were running creative businesses. Most Asian small businesses I saw were in the service industry, and I didn’t know any Asian American graphic designers or writers or web designers—so I emulated what I saw. Which was wypipo. I didn’t know where else to look.
Once I actually started looking, however, I started finding more and more Asians and Asian American entrepreneurs. Thanks to the Year of Asian Reading Challenge, I spent a year reading solely Asian and Asian American authors. The only time I broke my streak was when I wanted to read business books—but there were no business books, or even blogs, really, that were written by and for Asian Americans. So what do I do when I don’t see a resource I want? I make my own—and thus, Chief Executive Auntie was born.
A quick privilege check
I want to first acknowledge the perspective I write from, and the privilege that comes from my various identities. I’m a cishet woman of East Asian descent and a birthright American citizen. I have highly educated parents, and I’ve also obtained higher education degrees without incurring debt. I’m thin, tall, able-bodied, and light-skinned. I have a white-passing English name and am married to a cishet male. All of these identities grant me a level of privilege not shared by everyone who identifies as Asian American. Hence, this blog post is “AN Asian Americans’ Guide to Running a Creative (Freelance) Business” and not “THE.” I don’t speak for all Asians and Asian Americans, but I want to share my experience so that others may benefit from what I’ve learned as an entrepreneur.
A guide for Asian American entrepreneurs
In this blog post, I’d like to address some of the common business questions I’ve heard from fellow Asians and Asian Americans. I’d love to know if you can relate, or if you have your own thoughts of these issues.
What if clients can’t pronounce my name and think I can’t speak English?
There is the (terrible, wrong, awful, and very racist) perception that folks with non-English names may not understand or write in English well. This is particularly vicious on sites like Upwork and Fivrr, where the interactions between client and contractor can be very limited. The client sees a name, maybe a profile photo, and makes a snap judgment about your abilities. Honestly, I’d GTFO of those sites ASAP. It’s a good place to start, but the opportunities there are super limited—so my first piece of advice here is to just get off of those sites and start building your own authority.
When you make the decision to hang out your own shingle, I encourage you to build your business as an Asian American—not despite being an Asian American. Publish your own blog posts, start your own podcast, write your own social media. Let yourself be visible and don’t hide the fact that you’re an Asian American. Clients will recognize your authority and your identity, and you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not to get work.
Now, I have a white-presenting name, and I’ll be honest, I leveraged that a bit while I was still in the job market. But once I had my own business and started doing my own internal work of figuring out what being an Asian American meant to me, I specifically chose to make other signalers of my identity very, very visible in my branding. I commissioned my Auntie illustration, and I use her frequently in my marketing. It has certainly seemed like every person of color—whether they’re Asian or not—understands what an Auntie is. (Well-intentioned meddling knows no boundaries, after all.) That’s an intentional signal I include in my visual branding, in addition to other signals throughout my website and social media. I wanted these signals to attract other people of color, and I think it’s pretty effective. Besides, the people who judge you by your name—are those really the people you want to work with in the first place?
Should I call myself a freelancer or a business owner?
The term “freelancer” can have negative connotations, especially with folks from older generations. They hear freelancer or gig worker and they think taxi driver or house cleaner. I personally am trying to use the term business owner rather than freelancer, not just to calm my parents down but because it more accurately describes what I do. It places me in a position of greater authority, both internally, to myself, as well as to clients and family members.
The difference between a freelancer and a business owner is not about skill—it’s about how you operate. A freelancer does what a client wants. They take orders, complete the work, and get paid. A business owner is an authority figure, a leader in their field, an expert who you want to pay lots of money to work with. A good client (i.e. a client who will pay you MORE THAN HALF A CENT A WORD) doesn’t want an order taker. They want your expertise and perspective, and they will pay for it. They will also pay for you to lead the process—which means extra time for customer service and extra time for exceptional onboarding (which you should charge extra for).
How do I tell my parents I’m not going to be a doctor?
Man, there’s so much to unpack here. The tiger parent trope is legendary in Asian American communities, and I’m not saying it’s not true. A lot of Asian parents do put a lot of pressure on their children to enter specific professions. But if we stop to think about why they might do that, it might open the door for empathy and understanding.
Having grown up in this country, I often forget that I am but one generation removed from using open pit toilets. I was born the year martial law ended in Taiwan. My parents came to this country in search of something better than all of that. Our Asian parents want us to be doctors/lawyers/engineers because they believe those professions are safe, secure, and prestigious (in the eyes of white people). They see those professions as a way to fit in and move up, so that you don’t have to go through what they went through. But what they don’t know is that those professions aren’t the only ways to avoid that.
You can run your own business and be very secure. You can run your own business and buy your own health insurance, pay yourself a good salary, take vacations, send their grandchildren to college. We may feel adversarial toward our parents because we think they want us to be unhappy—but they don’t. They may just have a very narrow idea of what happiness and safety means because a white-collar job is the only path to security they have personally seen or experienced. But if you can show them that the work you do makes you happy, pays your bills, and enables you to have the life you want—a life they couldn’t even imagine—what real objection can they raise to that?
One of my podcast guests, Dae Jeong, put it really well: “[Your parents] just want you to be happy and are concerned for your health…. My parents are always concerned that [my business is] affecting my life…and I keep showing them that it’s not, that I’m happier—you do that, then they really don’t have anything to say.”
So how do you tell your parents you’re going to start your own business? Go into that conversation with a plan, and spell it out for them: This is how much money I have saved. I’m going to try this for however long and these are the indicators of success I’m tracking. This is my plan to make money, this is my plan to pay for healthcare, this is my backup plan if it doesn’t work out. If you go in with a plan, they’ll probably still grumble and fret—possibly a lot—but they won’t have much legitimate argument to raise against you. At this point, you can draw the appropriate boundaries by telling them what kind of support you need from them.
I also encourage you to question the assumption that “OMG, I’m throwing away my parents’ sacrifices by walking away from law school/med school/this stable job.” Is that something they’ve actually told you (maybe it is), or is this a mindset you’ve internalized from other immigrant kids? Regardless, remember this: our parents came and worked and left their homes behind so that we would not have to go through the same thing. They want us to be safe and secure, but they don’t want us to suffer. Wouldn’t it be even more of a waste if they raised you the way they did just for you to be miserable at a job that you never wanted in the first place?
What if my business fails?
The barrage of questions will come: What if no one hires you? What if you can’t make any money? How will you eat? How will you pay rent? What’s your backup plan?
As much as those questions may sting, it doesn’t mean your parents are not supportive. It means they want to know that you’ll be safe and well if you pursue a creative career. And they’re right.
Your parents’ concerns are in fact quite valid—a lot of Asian Americans don’t have safety nets like white people. We don’t have generational wealth or a trust fund to fall back on, so their probing questions and doubts are worth listening to. One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was a ruthless practicality when it comes to money. Dreams are great, but what are the numbers? We all still need to eat and put food on the table.
Counterintuitive truth: The best way to keep your creative dream alive is by knowing all the ways it can die. And preparing for them.
My business coach once asked me: What would make you quit? This is a fantastic question to answer, because if you know what would kill your business, then you know to do the opposite to keep your business alive. I knew I would have to quit if my business took up too much time without making enough money. Knowing that, I’ve built my systems, processes, prices, and services around avoiding that fate.
A lot of us have internalized a catastrophic fear of failure, and that probably comes from having parents that have immigrated. Immigration is a traumatic experience, whether it’s immigrating for education, for a job, or as refugees to avoid danger in your home. Immigrants in the United States have to survive; if your parents were immigrants, they had to do everything they could to stay alive. There was no room for failure.
But that (hopefully) isn’t your life. You have room in your life to experiment, and fail, because your parents did not. I think approaching these conversations with gratitude can go a long way.
So what if your business fails? It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a backup plan. Prior to running my own business, I was a high school teacher. I’m now four years out of the field. I don’t think I’m going to go back to teaching, but I’m still going to renew my teaching license, just to have it in case I need it.
Years ago I read some well-meaning advice about removing your safety nets so that you have no choice but to succeed. I call bullshit, and not just because it’s easier for white people to go out and get a job if their business folds. Fear and stress is the worst place from which to be creative, and as Asian Americans, we are likely coming in with inherited trauma. Keep a savings cushion and a backup plan. There are no medals for falling on your face because you weren’t prepared.
How do I change my scarcity mindset?
A scarcity mindset is the belief that resources like time and money are limited. This kind of mindset often pushes business owners to take on low-paying, shitty clients or offer discounts or backpedal on quotes, because they believe money is going to be difficult to find—so they suffer for less pay than they believe they deserve.
There’s obviously a lot of internal work to be done here for many of us, but it’s first important to acknowledge where we may have internalized this kind of messaging from. No one is born with a scarcity mindset. Examining where your scarcity mindset may have originated will help you root it out in a more sustainable way.
Guess what? For many of us, it comes from our parents. Again, I’m one generation removed from a pit toilet. One of my grandmothers was functionally illiterate. My other grandparents were displaced by war. If your parents grew up in poverty or war or displacement, that changes their perspective and how they address money with you.
But that doesn’t have to be your story.
For example: when I was a senior in high school, I wanted to get senior pictures done, but my parents didn’t really understand the point of senior pictures. They went ahead and booked my session anyways, with the one photographer the high school recommended, which was the cheapest we could find. I later became a freelance photographer, and I was plagued with doubt about whether or not parents would be willing to pay my rates—but I wasn’t selling my services to my parents. And you aren’t selling to your parents either. So don’t set your prices for them!
I started overcoming my pricing doubts by just…trying stuff, honestly. What happened if I quoted this client X, even if it feels uncomfortable? Surprisingly, more often than not, the answer was yes. When clients said yes, I used those instances as evidence that helped support me in gradually raising my prices later on. We do not receive if we do not ask. And when we do ask, we will never get more than what we ask for.
I did a little bit of VA work a while ago, and I had the opportunity to check out this client’s price list. I found out that her lowest offer, a family portrait package, was more expensive than my entire wedding photography suite—and I didn’t hire someone cheap! This is all to say: there are clients for every single price point.
It was also helpful to hang out with people who were ahead of me in their businesses. I used to often look around me to survey comparable price points, but as I looked at peers who were more seasoned business owners, I saw the same products/services at higher price points, and that helped me feel more confident in raising my prices as well.
If you wait until you “feel” like a professional to charge higher prices…you’re going to be waiting forever. Go ahead and raise your prices and your level of customer service to a professional level, and then you’ll feel like a professional.
Building an honorable creative business
As Asian Americans, our parents and ancestors lived through war and famine and disease and poverty so that we could be here. What better way to honor everything they’ve been through than by being our best selves? Building a business means having the opportunity to do meaningful, creative work and making a living through it, and if that’s what it means for you to be fulfilled and happy, why wouldn’t your parents want that for you?