Jade Li - The Outlier
Jade grew up in Ha’erbin, China, moved to the U.S. with her mom when she's 12. Now she's an interior designer in LA, living in downtown with her fiancé and a cute corgi (@Lunacleo_corgi on Instagram).
"If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" - J.R.R. Tolkien
Can you talk about how it all started? (i.e., When did you come to the U.S.? Came alone or with family? What made you want to move to a different country?)
I grew up in Ha’erbin, China. The first time I came to the U.S. was when I was 12 years old, and it was 6th grade I think. My mom came here as an exchange scholar, so I came along and stayed with her. After her work contract was over, we went back to China, but only for a year. My mom really liked the job she had here, so she decided to come back. I came back to the U.S. with her and started my American journey.
Can you talk about how you choose which city to move to?
I landed in Columbia, Missouri first, because my mom's job is here. Columbia is a very gentrified city, unlike LA. Because I moved to the US at such a young age, I didn’t understand much about things at first. I didn't know any English, and what I knew about American culture is based on TV shows. I started with ESL classes first in school. However, we were also expected to take regular classes, trying to understand the teacher and content of the class was difficult.
I remember feeling lost, but there wasn’t much I could do but power through it. I think my personality of going with flow helped me a lot. At that age, I decided there is nothing I can do other than take things one step at a time. I am very lucky that my mom is not a typical Asian mom, she is very open minded and supportive. She gives me a lot of freedom and space to explore this unknown world, and to learn things at my own speed.
Because of the freedom and support, I remember I was able to learn English very quickly with my own methods. I loved watching the news as a child, and I remember waking up every morning at 6 am, watching BBC world news on PBS. I also adore all sorts of books, which helped me to expand my vocabulary. Funny thing is, I still have a bit of British Accent and colloquialism that pops out every now and then that is carried over from my younger days.
Can you talk about your education journey in America?
In middle school, there are some international students, and I quickly became friends with them. It was nice to belong to a group in a foreign country. However, I felt out of place most of the time with my Asian friends. Stereotypically, Asians are expected to be outstanding students, taking advanced classes, scoring As and excel academically (mainly math and science, but not the arts). If you do not fit the stereotype, you are perceived to be strange and less intelligent.
I didn’t want to fit into the stereotype, and I wanted to be immersed in the culture and environment. When it came to a choice between a heavily International student based high school and a high school that focused on arts and innovation, but have almost no international students, I choose the latter. In high school, I did not know where I'm falling on the spectrum. I'm not too Chinese and nor am I white. I was very confused about fitting in. I didn't know who I was because of all the culture clashes, and I felt very lost at the time. I remember I was expressing this to one of my instructors, and what she said helped me for the rest of my life. She said, "You know, international is a culture. There is no need to try to fit in anything. You are your own culture."
I was able to explore my interest in journalism and news by working on the high school newspaper and continued it through majoring in photojournalism at Uni. However, after a couple years in the program I realized that it is not my true passion. I explored a couple different options and landed with Interior Design. Luckily my Uni (The University of Missouri) also has an interior design program, so I didn't have to change schools. I end up graduating with a Bachelor in Human Environmental Science focusing on interior design.
Can you talk about your career journey in America? Could also be some interesting, unexpected work experiences.
My first job was in high school. I worked for the newspaper "the rock" for our high school as a photojournalist. The newspaper comes out once a month, and I write feature stories and took photos for it, which was a fun experience.
I also had a lot of part time jobs during college. Sometimes I had to juggle five jobs and school at the same time. I was a library assistant, printing assistant, and teaching young kids to paint on the side; I also help with stage setup and takedowns for the concerts and catering for University.
After graduating from college, I found a job in Beijing, China. So I moved to China to work there. I was there for about six months. During that time, a principal I used to know from HOK was there for a project, and he recruited me to their LA office. That's how I ended up moving to LA and have been here ever since.
Do you think being a multicultural and multi-lingual background has aided you or created struggles for you? Could be both, if so, please elaborate
It's both. It helps you to make friends quickly at the workplace. For example, all Latinos groups like to be together, and all Asian groups tend to be together. It helps to get into the group and make friends. I also don’t look like a typical Chinese girl, so when we have Chinese clients, I can secretly understand their off handed discussion. It was a good spying move.
There are many struggles for sure as well. For example, everyone I met expect my English to be poor, and people would say things like "oh, you don't have an accent." Or “You speak English so well. It is rude and frustrating because most people’s expectation when meeting anyone international is that they just arrived U.S. And most of the time in life, I feel like I have to ask extra hard to get attention or help, such as at stores or talking to customer service.
What's your biggest struggle at workplace?
One of the biggest struggles is the stereotype and expectations of how Asian females should act and behave at the workplace. Everyone expects Asians to work a lot, to work hard and not to have opinions or raise their voices. Many of my Asian friends have problems speaking up to authority figures, fear of saying the wrong things. I have the opposite problem, I'm outspoken, and I speak up and make sure my voices are heard. However, this is not what people are expecting from you. When people's expectations from you and how you act conflict, it creates problems. They will start to call you aggressive, bossy, demanding, difficult, and so on. But if my non-Asian counterpart behaves the same way, they will be praised for having an idea or be a go-getter.
Do you think being a multi-cultural and multi-lingual background affected your love life?
I know that I can't be with first generation immigrants or Americans who are not from immigrant families at a very young age. I'm looking for someone who is similar to me. Similarity doesn't mean he needs to be Asian or Chinese; it's more about the experiences growing up and personal values. I know that it will be difficult for me to understand or bond with anyone who did not share the same struggles. My fiancé is Latino American, his from an immigrant family and moved to the U.S. at a young age. We shared a lot of experiences growing up in an unknown culture that shaped who we are as an adult.