Empowering AAPI Voices

Q&A with Marvelites on AAPI Heritage, their influences, and favorite food

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IMG_1487_Edited-8 · Empowering AAPI Voices
LA's Koreatown. Photography by: Ellen Park.
Alyanna de Vera
29 May 2024 All, Research, News

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’ve invited some of our talented Marvelites who identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI)–  Ishita Gaur, Chieh Huang, Aneela Jain, Erin Janicki, Yavar Khonsari, Sharon Kim, Angelina Li, Chit Yee Ng, and Ellen Park–  to share their personal stories and insights. Their voices not only enrich our community but also drive the innovative spirit that defines Marvel. 

We recognize the unique experiences of our AAPI colleagues and believe it's essential to share and highlight these important conversations.


Heritage and Inspiration 

Q/ The term Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) encompasses a diverse group of people from various countries in the Asia-Pacific region. How do you identify within this group, and what personal significance does the term AAPI hold for you?

Ishita Gaur: “Being Indian, people often do not think we are a part of the Asian American population. I think we definitely have the same family and cultural values that most east asian cultures have, and therefore feel there is a kinship and cultural understanding that is valuable to me personally.”

Chieh Huang: “I am from Taiwan, geographically at the intersection of Asia and the Pacific Islands, and I have mixed feelings about the term AAPI. On one hand, it feels slightly empowering when it unites small minority groups like us in the U.S.; On the other hand, AAPI is just a catch-all term that screams “Other” to me. If  you look at the globe, this group covers a huge piece of the planet – The fact that it spans across two oceans speaks a lot about the overgeneralization.”    

Aneela Jain: “The term AAPI holds significant personal meaning for me as it represents both my Indian heritage and my American upbringing. It acknowledges diversity within the group, various cultures, histories, and experiences of people from the Asia-Pacific region. My parents immigrated to New York from India, and I was born and raised here in America. Growing up, my parents made sure we stayed connected to our Indian heritage by finding and integrating into an Indian community. For me, being part of the AAPI community means embracing my dual identity and finding a sense of belonging among others who share similar experiences of navigating life between two cultures.”

‘Arch’ by Ai Wei Wei, representing ‘in-between spaces’. Photography by: Sharon Kim.

Erin Janicki: “I would identify myself as a Chinese American adoptee - an experience that is both very specific and shared by a pretty big group. I don’t think that being Asian and being adopted can be considered separate experiences or identities for me. I feel conflicted about AAPI as a term. AAPI is such an all-encompassing term that I sometimes find it unwieldy - despite the sense of connection that I feel can form quickly between me and other AAPIs.“

Yavar Khonsari: “I’m from Iran, one of the countries towards the western edge of the continent of Asia. Our people are called both Iranian and Persian (Persia was the old name for the country). Growing up in Iran, and because of sporting tournaments and other international events, I felt a strong association with the continent of Asia, and being Asian. When I moved to the US after highschool  I was considered and categorized more as a middle eastern, an identity that was somewhat new to me. Also in colloquial American English, Asian is not used for people from the Middle East.

(A quick subtext is that Iran is located in between the Arab countries, Central Asia, and Southern Asia. So we don’t feel similar to any of our neighbors, while having many similar values.)

These days I consider myself more of a middle eastern than Asian, and I think the American perspective has had an influence on it. Still my response would be different if you ask me the question in English or in Farsi :) I was a bit surprised to be asked to take this survey, but I was happy to reclaim my Asian identity.”

Sharon Kim: “Korean American– AAPI to me is a mixed bag; we have different cultures, cuisines, languages, appearances. It’s spread across a wide region encircling the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. It’s a dichotomy of being part of the largest racial group in the world, yet one of the smallest minority groups in America that is regularly discounted as statistically insignificant.”

Angelina Li: “My parents are from Shandong Province in China. They immigrated from China to Singapore, where I was born. Then, when I was 3, we immigrated to the US - it was always my mom’s dream for her children to grow up here. Even though my time in Singapore was short, my parents have always ingrained in me that I was born Singaporean. It’s always been hard to put a label to my identity, but I always land on a mix of Chinese, Singaporean, and American.”

Chit Yee Ng: “Chinese American? I cannot identify as a specific group, maybe the group that acts like couch potatoes on weekends.”

Ellen Park: “Being part of the larger AAPI community as a Korean American, especially in LA, means engaging in a collective of shared experiences rooted in heritage and cultural legacy.”


Q/ How has your cultural background influenced your perspective and approach in your professional work?

Ishita Gaur: “May not be directly cultural, but as a brown immigrant woman, I have often been left out of conversations that directly affect me. I am vocal enough to speak up during those occasions, but I think there are many who are left out but do not feel comfortable speaking up. I hope to bring a social equity lens to my work especially as an urban designer and planner at Marvel, to ensure that our projects are inclusive and allow a platform for all voices to be heard.”

Chieh Huang:  “Public spaces and public transit! Growing up in Taiwan, one of the densest countries in the world where public spaces are sacred, has likely shaped my focus and love for the public realm.”

Aneela Jain: “Having a multicultural background has taught me the importance of inclusivity and diversity in design. I strive to create spaces that reflect the diverse needs and backgrounds of their users, ensuring that the spaces are accessible and welcoming to all.”

Pictured: Ishita during the Resilience+ Expo in New York.

Yavar Khonsari: “I think my background has influenced me in all ways. The things you learn and take from your community at a young age, remain part of your hard wiring throughout your life. For me the main aspects should be my attitude towards people I consider as my community and my peers; I tend to quickly become warm and friendly with people I work with. 

I also grew up in a country that was going through a complicated era. I grew up under an oppressive government, in a war ridden country, and while I wasn’t directly a victim to them, it has deeply shaped my views, to prioritize personal, social, and political freedoms in public realms, and to value the ability for all people to express themselves freely.

Also coming from a culture that deeply embraces the importance of family, community, and friendship, has meant that I naturally try to explore opportunities to bring people together: to meet up, to eat together, to sit and chat, and to be comfortable in intimate spaces.”

Sharon Kim: “As a child of immigrant parents, I straddle a space that is foreign to both my parents’ culture and the larger American culture. I am viewed as not part of mainstream American culture, and yet I am too American to blend into Korean culture. I think this interstitial existence prompts me to search for what makes the end users resonate with the final design, to search for the nuanced layers and complexity of the end users’ culture, neighborhood, and community.”

Angelina Li: “I do my best to design with inclusivity and diversity in mind. Different cultures and groups of people might use space in a different way, so designers should be mindful to design for all types of users.”

Chit Yee Ng: “In my culture, food is very important in bringing people together, it orients where people socialize and interact in spaces. I believe a successful public space must be incorporated with food as a component and process of design.”


Inclusivity and Diversity 

Q/ How do you think diversity, particularly cultural diversity, enhances the field of architecture and leads to more innovative and inclusive designs?

Ishita Gaur: “We design for people. We should account for what makes people feel safe and welcomed in spaces. Cultural diversity is key for this - including how different cultures relate to their elders, their children, and use the built environment as a way to represent gender identities.”  

Chieh Huang: “Different cultures plan, organize, and use spaces differently. More culturally diverse designers means more distinct life experiences are brought to the drawing board, and more to share and learn from each other.” 

Aneela Jain: “In order to design something more innovative and inclusive it is important to first understand the people you are designing for. By embracing multiple perspectives, architects can gain a deeper understanding of the diverse needs and aspirations of the communities they serve.”

Yavar Khonsari: “Besides the unfairness in excluding some voices (by race, age, gender, ethnicity, etc.), limiting the pools where the design ideas come from, to not include diverse cultural backgrounds results in missed opportunities in approaches and implementing ideas tried in other societies.”

Angelina Li: “When you have designers coming from a range of diverse backgrounds, they bring their culture, knowledge, and perspectives into their work. Representation is so important, not only to ensure we’re creating inclusive spaces, but to encourage everyones’ needs and voices to be heard.”

Chit Yee Ng: “I believe having diversity in your design team is crucial in designing inclusive spaces, especially when focusing on diverse user groups (for example latinos focused communities or other minorities/communities). Sometimes, it is as simple as understanding the terms that do not have direct translations to English that connect people. People want to be understood, especially the underserved communities.”

Ellen Park: “I’ve always been fascinated by the nuances of languages: what can be expressed in one language can’t truly ever be captured by another.  I believe design allows us to bridge these thoughts, ideas and perspectives.”

Chieh during a community engagement event with James River Park System in Richmond. Photography by: Erin Janicki.


Q/ What specific challenges do AAPI designers face in the industry, and what progress have you observed in overcoming these barriers?

Ishita Gaur: “Being a woman of color, I often have been told that I look young to be the project manager or team leader. Having more representation in the profession can help overcome these.”

Chieh Huang: “In speaking with an ASLA Fellow recently, I’ve been made aware that AAPI designers are generally underrepresented at the leadership level in the industry. I think we as a group are often considered as talented but less outspoken designers, which might have contributed to the underrepresentation. I personally have been inspired by this mentor and their commitment to advocating for more Asian representation, and I think raising awareness is the first step towards addressing the challenge, so I will do my part by bringing it to more people’s attention by having conversations like the one that inspired me.”

Yavar Khonsari: “Perhaps an important challenge for AAPI designers is the ability to rise to positions of leadership solely based on their qualifications. This challenge is not only imposed from within the industry but by the wider surrounding environment that provides opportunities for individuals. However, that seems to be slowly moving towards a path to improvement.”

Sharon Kim: “I think a challenge for AAPI designers is dealing with microaggressions. I am encouraged to see small steps of AAPI designers in positions of leadership, and I look forward to seeing how this influences the industry.”

Angelina Li: “AAPI designers are one of the minority groups in the design industry, and are not only under-represented, but often overlooked. I think we have a lot to offer to our communities. I’ve witnessed a growing camaraderie and community between AAPI designers as we work to overcome these barriers.”

Chit Yee Ng: “AAPI designers sometimes face the challenge of looking younger than our age and experience. And in the field of architecture and design, it is a long journey and experience is very important. It seems that we (AAPI) need to work harder to 'prove our worth' in order to gain trust from consultants, clients, or peers, and make up for the lacking from our first impressions.”


Personal Influences and Lessons 

Q/ Can you name some architects, mentors, or designers who have significantly influenced your career, and share key lessons you've learned from them?

Ishita Gaur: “Dr. Geeta Mehta (my professor at Columbia, and founder of non-profit Asia Initiatives) has been a key influence. She looks at the built environment through a special lens of equity for women and children. She also has a unique energy about her that motivates people to buy into her vision of a kind, equal, and just society.”

Indian Institute of Management Campus, Bangalore, India by B.V. Doshi Photography by: Vinay Panjwani.

Aneela Jain: “B.V. Doshi– ‘Design is nothing but a humble understanding of materials, a natural instinct for solutions and respect for nature.’”

Erin Janicki: “Many of my former professors have been the biggest influences on my design process, since they were all working graphic designers while also being professors. I feel really lucky that my experience in college led me to meet graphic design mentors who felt like my graphic design voice was important. Some of these include Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Anthony Nguyen, Jamie Mahoney, and Anthony Walsh-Lister.”

Sharon Kim: “Before I left for grad school, I had an associate principal share this piece of advice: wherever you go, look to the leadership in the office because intentionally or not they will shape you to become like them.”


Q/ What is currently inspiring you in your work and creative process?

Ishita Gaur: “More and more representation in the design field, especially in leadership positions is inspiring to me.”

Erin Janicki: “I feel most inspired by my peers in the graphic design field and the zine-creating community, especially here in Richmond. It would be impossible to name them all but some zine creators include One Dimensional Bear, Other Publishing, Little Mountain Press, Alexis DeJesus, and C.A.P. Ward.”

Yavar Khonsari: “Japanese woodworking has been a source of inspiration and a fun rabbit hole for me recently. The respect for the material, the refined craft, and patience needed to achieve the final result makes it a meditative experience.”

Sharon Kim: “I think it goes back again to being in this interstitial subculture that doesn’t quite fit in with either American or Korean culture. It’s removed and yet still includes both, which I think is an interesting place to exist. I notice the commonalities with other (sub)cultures, like how many Latinx cultures live in generational households or how Thanksgiving for hyphenated Americans usually include ethnic dishes alongside the turkey and stuffing. And I think uncovering the nuances unique to each client inspires design to be more than just something that works, but rather works well for the intended end users.

Angelina Li: “Nature. I love being outside and exploring the world. I believe spaces we inhabit should be connected to our environment. These days, I’m interested in using natural materials in my design projects, such as mass timber, stone, etc. “

Chit Yee Ng: “What has been inspiring me is all the community engagements I am doing inside and outside the office. It is very important to me that I am making a difference for the broader community, and that their voices are heard. 

Chit leading an activity during a community engagement event at Campos Plaza in New York.


Q/ Tell us about your time at Marvel or about a favorite project you have worked on.

Ishita Gaur: “Just celebrated my 7 year anniversary at Marvel! My favorite project is the Snug Harbor Master Plan.”

Chieh Huang: “It’s been exhilarating! I’m so glad to be a part of the exciting growth of work in the public realm. My favorite project is the Belle Isle Vision Plan and its ongoing implementation!”

Yavar Khonsari: “126 Lafayette is my favorite project at Marvel. We went through interesting contextual explorations to arrive at the latest design scheme. Hoping it comes back out of sleep soon.”

Sharon Kim: “This past holiday season, our office participated in the first NYC installation of The Gingerbread City exhibition. I think the best part was how our group had someone from architecture, interiors, landscape, and urban planning in the NY office, people who we don’t always work with on an everyday basis. It was great to spend time collaborating on a gingerbread project, to take a break outside of our normal office lives. Also it was a nice bonus that we got 3rd place out of 50 firms.”

Angelina Li: “My favorite project I’ve worked on so far is 107th St Pier & Bobby Wagner Walk! It was fun to step away from working on buildings and work on a landscape architecture project.”

Chit Yee Ng: “I worked on a project called DaRT, which is a response to a NYC envisioning project to rethink ways to improve NYC’s current waste and recycling system in order to achieve the city’s goal of “zero waste” by the year of 2030.  I really liked this project because it is futuristic, real, and a topic that everyone in the city is so used to neglecting.”


Q/ What is your favorite asian food, snack, drink, etc?

Chieh Huang: “Food - 紅燒肉, or Crispy Red Roast Pork, Snack - Senbei (or Japanese rice crackers), Drink - Oolong tea + milk + herbal jelly, 30% sugar.”

Aneela Jain: “Oooooo…. Its so hard to pick just one! Ok, if I had to pick right now, sitting in this 80 degree weather (27 degrees celsius) I want nothing more than 20 gol guppas. “

Erin Janicki: “Hard to decide! If this counts, maybe this Taiwanese pork chop recipe from Woks of Life? It’s a pretty easy one to cook and me and my roommates love it. Woks of Life literally taught me how to cook so shout out to them.”

Yavar Khonsari: “ I could write a whole book on this: Agedashi tofu, Biryani, Curry,  Peking Duck, Egg fried rice … I’ll spare you the next 21, you get the idea.”

Angelina Li: “I love shrimp chips! Especially the spicy flavor, though I don’t think it’s very spicy at all. I also love seaweed and lychee jelly.”

Chit Yee Ng: “My favorite food is a potato because it is basic, yet exists in many shapes and forms. It exists in more dishes that you can think of but you don’t even realize its importance. I believe spatial designers share a similar existence as potatoes.”

Ellen Park: “Rice: the staple piece to every substantial Asian meal, and banchan, these small side dishes that are usually served with most korean meals."

Korean banchan. Photography by Ellen Park.


Shaping the Future of Marvel 

Q/ What are ways that designers can better foster inclusivity and support the success of their AAPI colleagues?

Chieh Huang: "Listen carefully when they speak up! They may not be outspoken, so when they do, it usually means they have something really important to share."

Sharon Kim: “To make space at the table for these voices to be heard, to listen without preconceptions, and to celebrate many different cultures in our multifaceted design community.”

Chit Yee Ng: “Similar to how Marvel has been making significant impacts on designing inclusive spaces for different latino focused communities, it would help foster the overall AAPI community, within and outside of Marvel, if we can get involved with AAPI specific projects and communities.”


Q/ What advice would you offer to aspiring designers entering the field?

Chieh Huang: "Come join us if you truly love a life-long learning career and enjoy making things as a team."

Erin Janicki: “Find your community! Easier said than done, I just think it’s always great to feel like you’re able to get inspiration from not just the things you look at but the people around you.”

Chit Yee Ng: “Think twice! It is not an easy journey!”

Ellen Park: “Be receptive and open-minded: there’s always something to be gained from every situation.”

Erin’s personal graphic design work: a collaborative illustration fanzine with Deirra Clyburn and Dasha Loidap.


As we conclude our celebration of AAPI Heritage Month at Marvel, we reflect on how the  unique perspectives and experiences of our AAPI colleagues not only enhance our projects but also drive our commitment to inclusivity and innovation. From Ishita's dedication to social equity in urban design to Sharon's pursuit of nuanced, culturally resonant solutions, our team's diverse backgrounds inform and inspire their professional journeys. As we continue to embrace and promote diversity within our ranks, we remain dedicated to fostering a workplace where all voices are heard and valued. Together, we celebrate the invaluable impact of our AAPI colleagues and look forward to a future enriched by their ongoing contributions.


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