I grew up in North Dakota in the 1980s, where the dominant ethos was outwardly genial, quietly judgmental, cohesive — and very, very white. It never occurred to me that there was anything else outside this very middle-American way of being.
And nowadays, while some may think of pop culture as a specific lowbrow phenomenon, when I was growing up, it was simply what was popular. And everyone, including me, wanted to be popular.
Take my seventh-grade hairdo. At the time, images of Princess Di were everywhere — she who carried the feathered, big-hair look with such elegance and style — and I really, really wanted Princess Di hair. Our family mantra was: “If it can be done at home, it’s going to be done at home,” and so this was the result (see above). It never occurred to me that my hair could be an entirely different type than Princess Di’s; after all, there were exactly zero representations of Koreans, or any Asians, in the media. I would argue that given ’80s perming technology, the nonexistence of YouTube tutorials, and the absence of any discourse on ethnic hair, this was a pretty damn good try.
I stayed with perms into my first year of college. However, the prevailing influence among East Coast Ivy League students was definitely not middle-American pop culture, and after trying so hard to achieve the Princess Di look, I was mocked for not having “natural” straight Asian hair. When asked, “Who’s your favorite ----,” I learned to say, “Hmmm, not sure. Who’s yours?” My peers would then passionately declare their top five whatever, which is how I acquired lists of Very Important Cultural Influences Worth Mentioning to Others.
I’ve gone through multiple rounds of being an outsider — a Korean American teen in North Dakota, a rural public-school kid at Yale, a science geek in art school, and most recently, an artist, and woman, in the world of tech startups. Ever since I launched the dating app Siren, I’ve been thinking about this.
As far as dating apps go, Siren is different, focusing on empowering women and discouraging objectification. When looking at the “competition,” however, I’m yanked back to both those middle-America years and my time at college. The dominant influences on other apps are still genial, judgmental and very, very white. On these sites, what many straight men seem to find attractive is basically an updated version of Princess Di — something totally out of reach. Real women never look so perfect. And when I look at various dating profiles, the stuff each person says he or she likes sounds a lot like those college declarations of cultural influences, carefully curated to show how sophisticated or exclusive a person is — and a lot of it, I imagine, probably has no basis in reality. But real connections can only start when people are … real. So at Siren, we don’t pressure people to sell themselves; we create the space for them to be a little more who they really are.
Learning how to be yourself doesn’t come instantly. For me, it took being an outsider, many times, to discover the difference between what sounds inspiring and what actually is — and, at a broader level, to realize that mainstream influences aren’t great fits for those of us who don’t look like the ideals of the majority. And as we make our ways in the world, focusing too much on various cultural influences as points of inspiration can feel disingenuous as we realize our differences impede us as much as our efforts propel us towards what we aspire to.
Now, as I move into new spheres, what I bring forward each time is not so much a growing list of impressive influences but knowledge of the things I’ve let go. Of course, there are any number of major cultural figures and events that have had an impact on me, but the emptying process has been as equally profound.
What often inspires me now is not so much Big Important People, but a series of momentary, nonhierarchical, interstitial impressions. The way my foot touches a cold tiled floor, for instance. Or glancing at my dog lying in the sun, radiating pure relaxation. Or the nervous energy when I catch someone’s eye. These moments are private, singular, even sometimes banal, but they feel enormously right. They pass without labels or significance, but these little touchstones of being inform how I make and shape things. I want to create a space in Siren that has the potential to feel like that jolt, that bliss, that strangeness. So this fluidness and nonstickiness suits me for now. It feels feminine, outsider-y, quiet and simple. It feels fleeting and honest. Real.