Stephanie Liu Hjelmeseth | @stephhjelmeseth | Los Angeles, California
Mom of Jacob | English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish
Asian-American (Sichuan & Hakka)
Married to Kyle Hjelmeseth (Half White & Half Black)
We first discovered Stephanie (previously @honeynsilk) because we fell in love with her style! We started chatting though because she is a happy Habbi Habbi customer, having purchased books for her son Jacob. We were inspired to interview her after watching an Instagram video about her relationship journey with her non-Asian husband, Kyle (“How my parents nearly disowned me for being with the love of my life.”) While he is now a much-loved member of her family, it didn’t start out that way. We wanted to explore her story - one that many Asian-Americans who marry non-Asian can relate to and understand if and how it impacted how she thinks of raising her own children - the role of her heritage, culture, and the Chinese language in their lives. We loved our heart-to-heart and hope you do too.
Tell us about your background. You’re Asian-American - specifically, which Asian heritage?
My parents immigrated from China. My mom is from Sichuan, China. And my dad is Hakka (客家 - kè jiā - Chinese sub-group) and grew up in Calcutta, India. So I actually grew up with Chinese culture, with Indian influence. My dad speaks Hindi fluently. And he is the chef of the family, so I grew up eating Indian / Chinese food.
I grew up in North Carolina, as one of two Asian girls in our whole community. The other Asian girl was Korean and adopted. I was the only Asian child of Asian immigrants. My family ran the only Chinese restaurant in town and did pretty well. They were able to put me through private school - which was of course their dream, like so many immigrant families - to provide a better life and education for our family.
Do you speak Mandarin?
I did - when I was very young. I grew up with my Grandpa - he was the one who watched me every day, and we were quite close. That is how I started learning Mandarin; it was my first language, and I spoke it until I started preschool. That’s when I lost my fluency - I spoke English at school, and my parents started speaking to me in English too - maybe because I was speaking it more, maybe because we were trying to assimilate into our completely non-Asian community. My Grandpa was the only one who would still speak to me in Mandarin, and I would nod and listen. Over the years, I just lost my childhood fluency - and it’s so unfortunate and a huge regret of mine.
My Grandpa passed away from cancer when I was 22, and sometimes I think back to the days when he would talk to me in Mandarin, and I wish I could go back in time and hear all those stories again. There must have been so much wisdom in them that I couldn’t understand at the time. This is what really influences me - my heritage and my background. I really want to make sure my kids speak Mandarin. Even though my parents speak English, and I speak English - Mandarin is part of our culture and our blood.
Your husband, Kyle, is not Chinese, and your relationship story is something a lot of mixed couples can relate to. Could you share, for our audience who might not have watched your original video?
Before I start, I just have to say that I’m so happy and proud that my mom has had an evolution and journey herself.
As I mentioned, I grew up with my mom speaking to me in English, and because of where I lived, I had only White friends. We didn’t celebrate any traditional holidays like Lunar New Year. We just had big family dinners occasionally. So I never had the impression my mom was “traditional” Chinese.
But then I started dating Kyle; he is half White, half Black. I showed her his picture, and she saw he was not Chinese - and my world turned upside for what would be the next year. As you know from the video, she nearly disowned me.
But eventually time broke down the barrier. And when she finally agreed to meet him, she fell in love with him. He asked for permission to marry me in Chinese - and memorized the individual words. She could see his effort. And now that we’re married - and she has a beautiful grand-baby whom she adores - she always gushes how it is because of Kyle.
You know Chinese families - we are not big on the emotional expression - and I obviously never ever heard her apologize to me her entire life - but in this situation, she did. And I am so proud of her evolution and so happy about where we are as a family.
What does Kyle think about having your son learn Chinese (Mandarin)?
He is very supportive and also wants our son, Jacob, to be fluent in Mandarin. Kyle knows some Spanish too and would love for Jacob to learn Spanish or French. That way - he would know an Asian language and a European language - global exposure!
Kyle himself has also expressed interest in learning Chinese and has brought up wanting to find a tutor. I think that is something I want to do with him, so I can re-learn with him. He also sits down with Jacob and reads the Habbi Habbi books with him! It’s a fun activity for them, and he has learned a few words. That’s why I am such a huge fan of Habbi Habbi - and was so happy when I discovered your books, brand, and everything you stand for.
As you know, I bought some of the Spanish books as well, because it’s something our nanny can do with Jacob. That way, he can be exposed to both languages!
We are so happy to hear you love them! How do you interact with them?
Whenever Jacob has reading time, he loves picking up a Habbi Habbi book. His favorite one is the Family book. He just *loves* looking at all the different families on each page. As an aside, I think it’s just so incredible - the content that you provide. It helps open his eyes to everything that is real in this world - in a way that is approachable. Jacob loves looking at the Family Tree on the very last page, and he will attach names of family members to the different faces. It’s so fun to see! Some of his other favorites are Foodie Friends and Things That Go. He loves the trucks in that book. He will pick up the books independently and flip through them with his Wand.
Sometimes, we will sit down and play with him. For example, we might pick up First Phrases, pick one page and have a conversation together. Kyle will also do it with him when he gets off work. The Wand makes it so easy, for us parents who are not fluent! We can just tap on the word / phrase as many times as we want to keep hearing it.
We are so thrilled you love it! And we love how important language exposure and culture are to you.
You know, something happened when I became a mom. Something just clicked. Maybe it’s something about legacy? I feel a responsibility to pass my heritage down - the history of my family, their stories and struggles … a lot of immigrant families can relate. I love my parents so much and want future generations to understand the values that brought us to where we are today.
Also - I think of language as a representation, the start of cultural understanding and exploration. I think ultimately I want Jacob to understand his culture, everything from …
Food... My dad was a big chef (Indian-Chinese food), but actually when we moved to California, we eventually opened an authentic Sichuanese restaurant. Because it was my dad primarily cooking before, it was the first time I had real Sichuan cooking from my mom, and my mind was blown. So I want Jacob to know his Grandpa’s Indian-Chinese cooking and his Grandma’s Sichuan-Chinese cooking too!
There is also Traditional Chinese medicine. My mom is so big on it, and she got me into it. All the herbs, foods, information. There is so much knowledge and rich history that she verbalizes to me but that I wish I could write down. Ultimately I want to create a space and platform to help others learn too.
There has been increased attention on AAPI this year. While you are of course focused on fashion, we can see that your AAPI identity matters a lot to you. Is there anything you want to highlight here?
I think about the uptick in violence this year, which has made me anxious. I ponder what the 'solution' is - and I think it goes back to knowledge and acceptance. Just like we had to learn American history, to understand history, context, culture, and therefore community… I hope that there can be more knowledge about Asian cultures - our history and stories.
Ultimately, I think it will be an accumulation of efforts and small steps that will bring about some change. I’m just one voice - but a proud voice and hope to give space to my heritage, culture, and community … just like you guys (Habbi Habbi) are doing with language and making it more accessible for families! Hopefully our efforts help a little bit! I have honestly loved having the opportunity to reflect about all of this - so thank you!