( ENSPIRE Community Spotlight ) Mike Yam Releases a Children’s Picture Book To Honor Heritage
ENSPIRE Contributor: Wesley Tran
NFL Network sportscaster Mike Yam released a delicious debut picture book celebrating intercultural identity and cuisine, “Fried Rice and Marinara” (Vooks). Inspired by his experiences growing up with a Chinese immigrant father and an Italian mother, his book demonstrates how a multicultural identity can give you a unique, creative perspective. In a world where Asian male leads are underrepresented, Mike Yam’s book adds a new character that young readers can see themselves in. The animated video version of his book has over 350K views, and it’s releasing later this summer in print.
The book takes place on Mikey Yam’s fourth birthday, and he’s facing a big dilemma: Should he serve Chinese or Italian food at his birthday party? Both his Chinese and Italian family members will be there, and he doesn’t know which one to pick! With the help of his trusty food gurus, his grandmother, Mikey embarks on a mouth-watering adventure to create a one-of-a-kind fusion dish that will make his party the talk of the town. Mikey discovers that the best parties are the ones that celebrate diversity and bring people together through the power of food. Join Mikey’s journey and find out how two cultures can collide for a fusion of flavors to unite everyone!
What made you decide to write children’s books to reach your goal to spread awareness of multicultural identities?
As a kid, I didn’t think anything of the different cultures. I always knew I was Chinese and Italian, but as I got older, I realized my friends didn’t have to think about or balance multiple cultural experiences that were very different. What I also realized that many stories available for children didn’t always feature diverse characters. I do think for my generation not seeing much diversity in characters playing a leading role alters your thinking about a career path.
Part of the reason I wanted to write Fried Rice and Marinara was to have young readers see a multiethnic character in a lead role. I also wanted to spark the thought that families with diverse backgrounds are normal. In my childhood, I thought I had to “pick a side,” which is weird to think about now. I really want young kids to embrace their heritage and be proud of their background. I have also been fortunate to speak to college students over the course of my career. It’s painfully obvious the lack of diversity in those classrooms. I don’t think you can flip a switch and hope for immediate change. Strengthening the pipeline is one way I think things change. If young kids can see themselves in stories, I think it can spark an interest in storytelling.
What do you think are some key differences between multicultural life and Monocultural life?
I think there are more similarities than differences. Love of family and friends, wanting them to be truly happy as well as a desire to take care of those around you are common threads no matter what culture you are. Those foundational pieces may be expressed differently but are still at the core of any culture. There are some real advantages to being raised in a multicultural home, like open-mindedness and flexibility. The biggest advantage is what I call a “cultural ringer” — you can float between groups. You have in your DNA the ability to bridge the gaps between various groups of people. I have seen myself playing that role in various parts of my life.
If you asked someone to think about a favorite moment, I think most of us will have a fond memory with food as the backdrop of it. Food was a vehicle to bring my family together as I’m sure it was for many families. Our table might have looked different than yours, but I think people can relate to the concept. In Fried Rice and Marinara, I wanted to use food as a way to link two cultures. I was pulling from my own personal experiences but made it relatable to everyone.
What life lessons/messages do you hope that kids will gain from reading your book? What kinds of actions/experiences do you think/hope will change?
I hope being exposed to a story of a mixed-race child can be a touch point for all kids. One of the beautiful things about living in the United States is being able to meet, interact and live with people from various backgrounds. We’re fortunate to live in a truly diverse country.
As for changing actions, I don’t think of life experience as one giant event that can have a dramatic shift in how we think or feel. I’m a believer in the accumulation of various experiences, big and small, that help inform our thought process. Ideally, Fried Rice and Marinara can be either a subtle nudge or a significant story that helps instill confidence in Asian and bi-racial children. I do think the message is important for all kids though. Exposure to two cultures in one story can help expand perspectives and promote inclusivity.
What are some things that you are working on/hope to work on to further spread awareness? How are you planning to spread awareness to adults who don’t read children’s books?
I’m trying to really focus on broadening the stories around Asian characters. When I was a child, I absolutely loved watching anything that included martial arts. I didn’t know it but I was really proud that Asian characters were cool because of that skill. As I’ve gotten older, I still really love those shows, but I’m frustrated that the stories don’t seem to always evolve into other verticals. In my next children’s book, I’m really focused on trying to incorporate my personal experiences as a backdrop to stories in which the characters are in more than just “traditional Asian situations.” I really think it’s important for diverse authors to think more about well-rounded characters in situations that go beyond surface-level representation. As for adults, I have written op-eds on immigration pulling from my family’s journey to the United States and columns on empathy and the attacks on the Asian American community. I will absolutely continue to look for opportunities to add thought to those really complex issues.
What does this book mean to you personally? Are there any experiences in your past that you think would have been easier if this book had existed then?
Fried Rice and Marinara represent something I never had as a child: a book with an Asian character or a mixed-race family. I think about my personal career path and how, despite loving sports, I never thought about being a sportscaster as a kid. I never saw someone who looked like me on TV covering sports. When I got to Fordham, it was the first time I had cable tv, and I saw Michael Kim on ESPN. If you would have told me my freshman year that I would eventually become an anchor at ESPN and work with and become friends with Michael, I wouldn’t have believed it. I really wish I was exposed to media through that lens when I was a child. I was lucky enough to find the path, but as I mentioned before, the lack of diversity in the college media classrooms I have spoken to is embarrassingly low.
Mike Yam is a sportscaster and studio host for NFL Network and SiriusXM Radio. Yam is a graduate of Fordham University and now resides in Southern California. He has worked at big companies such as ESPN, NBA TV, and Pac-12 Network. “Fried Rice and Marinara” marks his debut in children’s literature. Growing up with a Chinese immigrant father from Hong Kong and an Italian mother, Mike Yam has always been fascinated by diverse cultures and perspectives. He is a passionate advocate for social issues and has authored op-eds on immigration and the Asian American community. With this official debut, Mike Yam continues to spread his perspective on multicultural identities and give back to the community that raised and nurtured him.
Watch the animated version of Fried Rice and Marinara below!