Tiffany Huang ’08 experienced culture shock for the first time moving from Taipei to Omaha, Nebraska, at the age of 16. After being among so many Taiwanese American peers at Taipei American School, Tiffany felt like a fish out of water in Nebraska, questioning if she really knew what it was to be Asian American. Her experiences convinced her of the importance of storytelling. In 2018, Tiffany started Spill Stories, a storytelling platform which elevates intersectional stories for women of color. Most recently, in July 2020, Tiffany published Black in Asia, a compilation of 23 stories from Black writers who have lived in Asia. By publishing and sharing these stories, Tiffany hopes to amplify the voices of other women of color and at the same time broaden experiences for third culture kids like her who grew up in Taiwan.
Tiffany’s interest in writing started from an early age. “I attended fourth through tenth grade at TAS, and my favorite subjects were the humanities,” remembers Tiffany. “I was a mediocre student, but Ms. Aleasha Morris was able to tease out my talent in writing. In eighth grade, she taught us different units of creative writing and poetry. At the end of the school year, when I was awarded the award for English and walked across the stage, that was one of the defining moments of my life at TAS. As someone who was okay academically but not the best, this was the first time I felt like I was the best at something, and that gave me a lot of motivation that I could really excel.”
Tiffany’s journey took a turn after tenth grade. “After TAS, I finished high school in Nebraska. A lot of people in Omaha wondered, ‘Oh, you’re from Taiwan, why are you speaking English?’ And that was a step above the people who didn’t know Taiwan from Thailand.”
The experience of attending high school in a majority-white environment, as one of the only Asian Americans, was a jarring one for Tiffany, but one that had a silver lining. “I found that my time at TAS didn’t prepare me to mingle with people who aren’t Asian American or who aren’t from a certain kind of background. After attending high school in Omaha, I felt like I had better social skills because I was forced to learn, so when I went to the University of Michigan, it was really easy for me to make friends.
After college, Tiffany started working in management consulting, moved into user experience design, and is now working in marketing. She moved back to Asia in 2015, working for Marriott International in Hong Kong in the Asia Pacific region. She has always kept her interest in storytelling and amplifying the voices of people who had different experiences. “In 2018, I found myself wanting to carve out a space to talk about what people were really thinking and feeling because it’s easy to get caught up in this superficial atmosphere in Hong Kong where people are sizing you up all the time. I also have always been hyper aware of my identity as an Asian American and wanted to elevate stories of non-white women whose voices are underrepresented in pop culture.”
Thus, Spill Stories was born. Through Instagram posts, Tiffany has shared over 130 stories from over 110 writers, hailing from cities in Asia and the U.S. like Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
As discussions in the U.S. around racial identity gained broader awareness, Tiffany began to feel it was important to use the platform to amplify the voice of Black writers. In March, Tiffany invited Boipelo Sweswane, a South African woman living in Seoul, to manage a writing workshop for Black writers in Asia to write about their experiences. In a Spill Stories writing workshop, writers come to write and interpret prompts however they like. After writing for 40 minutes, each person reads their piece aloud, and other participants provide feedback, giving suggestions on how to make the piece stronger through more character development or a different ending. “I feel like these workshops often feel like therapy sessions,” Tiffany joked.
After George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, Tiffany decided it was time to bring these stories to a broader audience. They began with six stories, but more writers soon chimed in with their own stories, and thus, Black in Asia was born. The book encompasses 23 non-fiction diaspora stories from 22 writers who have lived in Asia. They recount their experiences of what it means to be Black in Asia; some are sad or whimsical, some are joyful and empowering.
One woman in Myanmar writes about managing her kinky hair in Asia and how much effort it took her to create her own hair care products. A man in Shanghai writes about his career in modeling and his experience with Chinese people, who were curious about whether he was grateful to be lighter-skinned. A woman in Seoul writes about how a hospital stay led to becoming friends with the elderly Korean women who shared her ward. A woman in Taiwan writes about meeting a souvenir vendor in Jiufen, who prayed for her to Buddha to make her skin whiter so she could find a job in Taiwan. The book was published in late July and has sold over 250 copies already, mostly through Amazon. Tiffany is enthused about the positive reception so far and hopes to get the book translated into Chinese in the future to reach even more readers.
Tiffany hopes to bring Black in Asia stories and writers to communities like TAS, because she wishes she had been exposed to a more diverse population and learned how to live with them. “When I was at TAS, I was surrounded by kids who were like me from the same social strata. So you don’t know how to talk or behave around people who don’t look like you. When I got to university, I didn’t even know if it was okay to call someone Black, because I thought it wasn’t polite.”
Tiffany’s reflections come at a time when TAS is working on its own anti-racist and anti-oppression efforts. Her thoughts illuminate some of the unique challenges that the school faces. “The challenge of talking about Black Lives Matter in Asia is that it’s so contextualized for America and the West. Kids in Taiwan will not necessarily know why this is relevant, or it could feel very far away to them. When I moved to Nebraska at 16, I knew about racism but I had never experienced it. When some people called me names, I didn’t know how to react. The good side of TAS is that it makes you proud of being Asian, but we didn’t experience racism against Asian Americans. Only when you experience something can you empathize with it.” She hopes Black in Asia can be an opportunity for the TAS community to learn more about other people’s experiences. “You need that education on how to move through a diverse society in the U.S. or anywhere,” Tiffany concludes. “Because education has done you a disservice if you’re book smart but don’t know how to interact with people.”