Eva Chen, director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, knows how to tell a story expertly through clothes. “My job at Instagram is two glorious things: fashion and shopping.” But when she became a mother, she was eager for a children’s book that reflected her first-generation Chinese American background, which is why she wrote I Am Golden (Feiwel & Friends, February 1), a children’s book illustrated by Sophie Diao. “I tried to write a book that I didn’t have growing up. I didn’t feel reflected in most children’s books.” Chen, previously the editor in chief of Lucky magazine, has written other children’s books, but this one hits closer to home. “I just wrote my personal experience, about the first time I was bullied, about how sometimes I felt like I was a translator for my parents.” She wrote the book during the pandemic while pregnant with her third child, an experience she called a “hormonal bath of emotions at all times.” Ultimately, though, she hopes I Am Golden starts a conversation, “kind of break the ice and help explain to them the way some people might feel.”
Your new children’s book, I Am Golden, touches on the immigrant experience. What inspired you to write it?
I tried to write a book that I didn’t have growing up. I didn’t feel reflected in most children’s books. There were a lot of plucky, strong female protagonists, like in The Baby-Sitters Club, there was one Asian character, Claudia. And I remember she was my only Asian icon. But it didn’t really talk about the immigrant experience. I’m a first-generation American. My mom and dad are Chinese. They moved to the U.S. in the ’70s. It was very much a prototypical American story, my dad worked for a Chinese restaurant delivering food. They didn’t speak the language, and during COVID I remember the first time I heard the words “China virus,” I just felt such dread hearing that. I was like, “Oh my god, it’s going be bad.” Asians are going to be scapegoated because a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a Vietnamese American, a Chinese American, a Korean American, etc. I was like, anyone who’s Asian is going to be a target. And sure enough, within a few weeks, there were attacks in particular on the elderly. And in many cultures, not just Chinese culture, but in many cultures, elders are sacred.
The fact that a lot of these hate crimes were specifically targeting elderly Asians, it just made me so worried. Then there were more attacks and then Atlanta happened, the horrific shooting at the spa, and I just remember feeling kind of very helpless, to be honest. What can one person do? People were asking me, “What are you telling your kids about being Chinese? What are you telling your kids about their racial identity? Should we tell them to hide it?” I was like, no, if anything we need more narrative.
We need more conversations, we need ways to talk about our heritage and our background in a kid-friendly way. Kids respond so powerfully to pictures. So the book came about really quickly. I feel like it was probably a span of six weeks. I just wrote my personal experience. I wrote about the first time I was bullied, I wrote about how sometimes I felt like I was a translator for my parents. So it just kind of came about really quickly. I’m just so excited for it to be out in the world. Even when I think about the cover, the illustrator Sophie Diao and I literally spent so much time perfecting the body language of the girl on the cover, because we at first we were like, should she be standing there holding a Golden Flame because that reflects in her specialness? And I was like, I want it to feel like she’s basking in herself, basking in her beauty, basking in her strength and power. Whether you are Asian American or Chinese American, or just want to learn more about the immigrant experience, I hope that it’s a good teaching tool for teachers and parents. And I hope that the kids like looking at the pictures, even if they can’t read.
How do you grapple with writing a relatable children’s story and still grapple with those that will try and politicize it?
That’s the amazing thing about kids, they see things at different levels that you might not expect. For some kids, they might read this book and just be like, “Oh, this is a story about a little girl.” For others, it might be about the experience. Everyone will read into it in a different way. Think about the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. That is the saddest book I’ve ever read. You read it and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is really messed up. This tree is sacrificing itself. This tree needs some self-care.” When you’re a kid, you don’t really read into it at that level, you just might read it at a surface level. So my hope is that first of all, it’s not meant to be a political book. It’s meant to open the door to conversations. I feel like the best children’s books are ones that spark a conversation.
What was it like dealing with all things COVID-19 while writing a children’s book AND being pregnant? That’s a lot!
So many emotions, let me tell you. The first few months of COVID were really hard when schools suddenly shut. Teachers were trying to adapt to the realities. Parents suddenly were working from home, like two feet away from their kids who got really excited that their parents were home. Being pregnant during COVID was definitely tough because I was already so cautious. And then your body becomes this hormonal bath of emotions at all times. I did get vaccinated when I was pregnant, which some of my followers had some feelings about. I live in the Union Square area and I walked by a sign that said “Stop Chinese, Stop Japanese, Stop the Enemies.” I don’t even remember what else it said, but it was very much “stop these races.” That usual narrative around making America quote-unquote, “great again.” This is happening still. I remember getting comments like, “What hate against Asians? There is no hate against Asians.” Oh no, there’s hate against Asians. And my kids are going to start asking questions soon. So I hope a book like this can kind of break the ice and help explain to them the way some people might feel.
You’re the head of fashion and shopping partnerships for Instagram. What does that entail and how has Instagram changed how people look at fashion?
So my job at Instagram is two glorious things: fashion and shopping. Probably the simplest way to explain [what I do] is basically thinking about ways to help the fashion community and people in fashion, whether it’s a makeup artist, a model or a designer, understand how to use Instagram more deeply and more effectively. There are so many different ways to use Instagram now, right? There’s Reels, there’s IGTV, there are stories, there are guides, which a lot of people don’t know about and I think is a hidden gem. There’s of course the feed, DM, the list goes on, and constantly new features are coming out. So it’s really helping to educate that community. In terms of shopping, there’s a new feature on Instagram called Instagram Checkout where you can tap to shop with one click. I’ve used it. It’s very satisfying. Like I just bought this outdoor fire pit called a Solo Stove. I just tapped with one button and bought an outdoor firepit. I remember interviewing for the job and the co-founder, Kevin Systrom, at the time was like, “What’s your dream state for fashion on Instagram?” I remember saying I want to be able to see something that my friend is wearing and literally just tap and buy it without leaving Instagram. It took six years but we’re there now and it’s so exciting. Working on that experience has been a really big and fun part of my job.
When you tell people you work for Instagram, that must get some crazy responses. What are the wildest questions you get and how often do people ask you to verify them?
I get a lot of questions, mostly from family members. “I got locked out,” “I forgot my password,” or “I had an Instagram like nine years ago and I don’t remember my username.” So that happens a lot. I also get questions not even related to Instagram. I think there’s an aura of tech around me now. So I’ll get questions on how to fix a laptop, how to figure out what your Apple ID is. I will say, pre-COVID, one of my favorite things to do when I would travel would be to look around and see what people were doing. So often they were on Instagram, they were DMing, you could see them like liking a post or scrolling. Even now, when I’m on the subway sitting next to someone, it is really interesting to watch the way people scroll or what people do and how they engage. It’s just always really fun for me to watch how other people use it and to hear the impulse for small businesses.
The pan-Asian impact on fashion, music, film, TV has been so impressive in recent years. What do you see happening in 2022?
If you think about some of the most amazing designers, whether it’s Peter Do or the greats like Vera Wang, for instance, I think the Asian impact on fashion is so, so clear. I am hoping that 2022 will go down as a breakthrough year for Asians across all industries.