Asian Creative Network: In conversation with Han Ju Seo
Apart from laughs and relatable content, the viral Facebook group ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ has also inspired connections between like-minded individuals around the world. With over 15,000 members since its inception in late November 2018, Asian Creative Network (ACN) is a rapidly growing platform for Asian individuals immersed in the creative sector. From dancing to drawing to DJ-ing, there is a multitude of talent to be showcased and shared. We had a chance to talk to ACN’s founder, Han Ju Seo, about how it started, her personal creative journey, and where ACN is headed next.
Hi Han Ju! Thanks so much for chatting to us. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself - who you are, what your cultural heritage is, and where you call home?
It’s my pleasure! My name is Han Ju Seo and I am a current 3rd year student at Washington University in St. Louis. I’m pursuing a double major in Psychology and Anthropology at the moment, but what I want to do with that degree I honestly couldn’t tell you. I have spent most of my college career heavily involved in several performance groups as an actor and dancer, as well as an Asian Christian group on campus. I was born in South Korea, where I lived up until about the age of 4, when my parents decided to immigrate to Seattle, Washington. We moved a few more times, going back to Korea, then to Chicago, then finally to Vancouver, Canada where my family resides now. So while I have 100% Korean blood in me, I am not 100% sure where I would call home.
Tell us about your project, Asian Creative Network (ACN). When did you decide to create the group, and why?
Quite honestly, ACN was created on a complete whim. I am an avid member of Subtle Asian Traits (SAT), another Facebook group that has been stirring up the global Asian community. While SAT is mainly used for memes and laughs, some discussions popped up about non-traditional career paths and the intense struggles that Asian creatives often faced. I have always been the artsy type, so I was all too familiar with the frustrations and heartbreak that this could bring. So one day I decided to post on SAT about these issues. What I thought would be a simple had blown up in a matter of minutes. So, in the heat of the moment, I decided to create a Facebook group, expecting maybe 100 people to join; 5,000 people joined within the span of a day. ACN’s exponential growth has nothing to do with me and everything to do with how desperately our Asian diaspora has needed this kind of community. Through ACN Asians can come together to express their creativity, collaborate on passion projects, and lament with each other. We all felt rage at the whitewashing of Asian faces, the exoticization of our culture, and the ignorant portrayal of our narrative, and the culmination of decades of misrepresentation is what led us to ACN. I made this group because it had to be done.
Are you a creative yourself? How does it make you feel knowing you’ve created a space where so many Asian creatives have been able to share their work?
Yes! My creative passions are super scattered actually. I have been dancing since 7th grade, started my craft obsession in high school, was sewing my own clothes throughout sophomore year, got into book making in college, and I performed in several shows last year. I’ve always had a hyperactive imagination, so naturally whenever I need to blow off steam I jump into my notebook and sketch out my next project. My creative endeavours are not just hobbies to me; they keep me sane.
Honestly I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around it. I know it’s so cliche to say, but just 2 months ago I was having a major existential crisis about where my life was going. I wanted to make an impact, to change the world somehow, but I just felt like a small nobody with a “useless” degree. I would have panic attacks and days where I couldn’t even get out of bed, completely immobilized by the seemingly meaningless path I was on. I couldn’t even create, my motivation running dry as I couldn’t find the point of it anymore. So when I say that ACN was a literal miracle that changed my life that is no exaggeration. I can’t even explain all of the feelings I have for this group. Seeing all of the intense talent, heart, and fierce energy of my members blows me away time and time again. These are the people I needed as a kid who felt like her work was worthless. These are the faces I needed to see in my youth when I thought I was alone. This is the movement that should have shaped my childhood. It’s tremendously intimidating as I tend to put all of the responsibility on my shoulders, but everyday I’m reminded that it wasn’t me that made ACN so extraordinary. I am merely here to serve the community that is driving our creative revolution, and I hope to continue for as long as I possibly can.
Why do you think the group grew so rapidly? What do you think makes the group special?
I kind of answered this before, but really the wild growth of ACN points to the huge need it fills. The group didn’t expand because I did a great job of marketing or I took advantage of an opportune time, but because people have been searching for a community like this for years. Asian representation in mass media has been a hot button issue for decades, and while the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat has been inspiring there is an itch for more. We’ve been fighting against the ‘model minority’ stereotype, but it still straps us down to a position in society we can’t escape. Our culture has been belittled all throughout our childhood and then whitewashed to fit an exotic trend. The narrative of 60% of this planet’s population has been forced into one tiny box and it’s time for some breakthrough.
What are some insights that you have drawn from running and managing such a large group of Asian individuals with such talent, from all over the world?
You can’t do things alone has been my biggest takeaway. There was a time in freshman year of college, where I handmade 20+ hardcover books for our graduating senior class. I bought all of the materials, learned how to kettle-stitch on YouTube, and proceeded to spend about half the semester sewing, gluing, and constructing these journals. I was pretty proud of myself for doing all of the work then, but looking back I want to smack myself for being so stupid. I’ve been an independent all of my life, refusing to let other people into my passions and work because I am both too proud and too scared. My projects are my babies and no one else can understand them like I do. People are going to think this is a waste of time, so I’ll just keep it to myself. This mentality barely brought me through, but with ACN I quickly realized it had to go. Yes, ACN is a group that I created and care deeply about, but I had to trust that other people wanted to see it succeed too. My vision of what it should be does matter, but other people have brought incredible value to ACN that I would never have thought of myself. It’s scary to let go of that desire to control everything, but the product is so much sweeter, and I doubt the community would keep growing if I kept that iron-grip.
What have been some challenges in running the group? What about opportunities?
In terms of challenges what has stood in my way the most is my own fear and uncertainty. A few months ago I was a nobody college student wondering if there was a future for me; now I’m the founder of a network of nearly 15,000 people, doing work that I hadn’t even dared to dream about. It’s been exhilarating, but I can’t quite erase the nagging doubt that lingers in the back of my head. I don’t feel prepared, ready, qualified, worthy, or deserving of this group. I’m not enough in so many ways, and it is frustratingly easy to fall into these thoughts. I see these great people who lead these amazing companies, and I feel so small in comparison. But it is in these insecurities that I have found the most opportunity for growth. ACN has not only been an amazing opportunity to connect with creatives everywhere, but also to reflect on myself. It’s been the most unexpected wake up call, a stark reminder that feeling sorry for myself isn’t going to take me anywhere. I have been spending a lot of time journaling and praying, digging through my heart and thoughts to better myself. ACN isn’t just a small project that I’m twiddling with; this group has the potential to disrupt the entire conversation. So, I am facing my demons head on, not only for my sake but for everyone in ACN. I want to be a someone who leads with compassion and empathy, striving to expand not for profit but to restore what has been broken, and working to promote collaboration instead of exploitation. But this isn’t someone I can become by just sitting on my butt all day, so I am beyond grateful for this opportunity to really become the person God created me to be.
Do you have any highlights or stories you can share from your experiences running the group?
I think my biggest “Oh crap, this is really turning into something, huh!” moments are when people actually meet and collaborate with each other. I remember the first meet-up happened in California (of course) and from there it just kept happening one after the other. From a huge holiday mixer in LA, a chill hangout in Taipei, to a full-day adventure in Sydney it’s weird in the best way to see these people who were complete strangers before coming together through ACN. Honestly I’m just everyone’s biggest fangirl, and 9/10 I am squealing to the nearest person about the latest meet-up that happened, crying about how cute everyone is. It makes my heart so happy.
Do you think Asian artists and creatives are fairly represented in the media/online? How do you think ACN is helping to work towards Asian representation?
As I’m sure you can tell in my previous answers that would be a resounding no. Asians make up more than half of this world’s population, but how many times have you seen our narrative reduced down to chopsticks, chinky eyes, and bad accents? We have hundreds of cultures and ethnicities that fall under the pan-asian identity, but what little representation we have is focused on the select few. Thousands of years of rich history and culture, pulverized and encapsulated by one token Asian in the name of cheap diversity. I am a part of a group in college called Lunar New Year Festival, a performance put on every year to celebrate Asian culture. We have dances, intricate costumes, and a skit that tackles a small part of what it means to be Asian. I have been a part of this group every single year of my college career, and every year I am so frustrated by the fact it took 18 years to see my culture being honoured in this way. 18 years. I don’t want the next generation to have to wait that long. No child should have to grow up being ridiculed on the basis of their tongue or blood. ACN is not only working to push diversity for current Asian creatives to pursue their passions, but for the next generation to fully embrace everything that they are. ACN might be young, but we have the potential to continue and spread that wave that Crazy Rich Asians, the Pixar short film Bao, Kim’s Convenience, and hundreds of grassroots movements have started. It should have started long ago, but it’s here now and it’s our responsibility to carry that momentum forward.
What are your thoughts on subtle asian traits and its associated sub-groups?
Also unexpected yet remarkable. I have never seen such a large collective of Asians coming together over anything in my lifetime, and I think it’s further proof of the great need that surrounds Asians, particularly cross-cultural ones. Many of us grew up in a country that wasn’t our own, with parents who lived a completely life than we did, and with experiences that differed greatly from the norm. So when subtle asian trains (SAT) was made there was suddenly a space for Asians to express themselves through a format that was lighthearted about these deeper issues. I think that as of now SAT is getting a little out of control, as is expected for a group that grew from 0 to a million within the span of a few months, but I’ve found the sub-groups to be great sources of community.
With the creation of city and specialisation sub-groups, a job notice board, and an Instagram account already happening, where do you see ACN going next?
Honestly, I can’t clearly tell you. All of this started a little over a month ago, and everyday people come to me with new ideas and fresh perspectives. The vision gets clearer as more time passes, but I’m trying to take it a day at a time. If you want my big dreams though, I had to write my own obituary for an anthropology class this past semester. Kind of dark, I know, but I would recommend doing it for everyone to focus their eyes on what’s really important. At the heart of it all, beyond the money and the numbers, I want ACN to change lives. I can talk all I want about websites and publications and YouTube channels, but if all of those things aren’t centered around serving the Asian community it’s all for nothing. This world is filled with so much pain and injustice, and I believe that ACN can act to alleviate a small portion of it. How many years, decades, even centuries have we seen our community marginalized to the corners of society? How long do we have to wait to see our story given the recognition it deserves? Well I say that it’s about time. Call me naive, but, like I said, I’ve always had a hyperactive imagination. I inherited it from my parents, who had hopes for a better future for their daughter in a country far away. It runs in my veins, like it did for centuries in my ancestors through colonization, suffering, and war. It was planted in me before I was even born, by a Creator who has greater plans for me than I can even fathom. So I dare to dream.
About the contributor
Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Han Ju Seo is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis studying Psychology and Anthropology. Founder of Asian Creative Network, Han Ju hopes that she can take this new platform to uplift the voices and push forward the narratives of Asians all across the globe.