This edition of #ModernAsian is particularly special because we had the privilege to speak with Bella C. Snow, an incredible multi-hyphenate creator who has been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Viet Beauty, Maxim, GQ, MTV, Desperate Housewives, and so much more. She began her career as a fashion model and since graduating from The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), she has committed her life’s mission to be a voice for transgender women and LGBTQIA+ youth in their journey of self-discovery.
Bella didn’t hold back at all in her conversation with us, and we’re honored to share her story in celebration of International Transgender Day of Visibility.
What does being a Modern Asian woman mean to you?
I was raised in a small city of southern Vietnam where the majority of all families are very traditional. The men would go to work on the farm or a small local store or small family business, and the women would be the ones to stay home, take care of the kids. And when a woman is married into a family, she is expected to ‘serve’ the new family… and is seen as a “maid” for the household.
Fast-forward when I was fresh eyes at eight years old. Lifted and thrown into an entirely different country, dealing with a total culture shock and a new society here in the US where everyone has a voice and an equal respect as their counterpart. And women are making a difference and an important part not just in their family but also making a huge contribution and are making changes in society! Honestly, I am still in the process of learning how to be a woman!
As for being a modern woman, I feel that would have to come with confidence! Knowing your worth and not being afraid to speak on what you believe in. Self-worth and confidence are what make a woman; doesn’t matter if you are a biological woman or transgender woman. Being unapologetic; having no problem saying no. And being a modern trans woman: knowing that my existence is not a play in anyone’s fantasy or here to please any demographic. But of course, also to carry ourselves with the perfect balance of power and grace.
How has the intersection of your trans and Asian identity shaped you?
When I first moved to the US, being Asian was the first thing people saw. As this new Asian kid that doesn't speak a lick of English moving into a new school and society, my sister and I were having to deal with many racist jokes right off the bat... But I think after many fights on and off school days, it made me have a very thick skin… those stereotypical comments really don't rattle me anymore.
As I am now learning more about my sexuality and who I really am inside all these years, and that I am a trans Asian woman! It took me a very long time to figure out who I really was. Because I wasn't as lucky to see anyone like me in the city I was born in. Or seeing much or any of the LGBTQ+ people on TV; this was a bit before cell phone or the internet was a thing. Or even social media started to be popular and LGBTQ culture was more widely accepted. I didn't start feeling safe and comfortable until I was in my mid-20s, and that was just a few years ago! I believe those years of being bullied just because I am Asian gave me more courage to be an open trans Asian woman today! Not only that, but I always have this inner fight for acceptance either culturally or sexually, but now as I get older and grow into myself more, I feel more self-acceptance. And recognize that I am not here to please everyone or attempt to change myself to fit into anyone's mold. I cannot change my nationality or who I am for society to be more accepting of me. Not anymore! And I think that is one of the hardest things I have to learn is to just be comfortable with who you are.
When was the first moment you truly felt seen—and how did you get to a place where you felt comfortable with just being?
The first moment I truly felt seen was when I started dating my then-boyfriend, now husband! And the time when I told him I was trans, and at that moment I think he was in just a second of shock, as I would expect. But he didn't hesitate to tell me that it didn't really matter to him if I was trans or a biological-born woman, I was always that girl that he first met at the wine bar on our first date! And he has always seen me for me and not what I physically look like. Furthermore, we haven't been a day apart ever since we first met! And a year later I walked down the aisle in my favorite dream wedding gowns saying “I do” to my partner for life, in front of all my family and close friends. And at that moment I felt the most comfortable and loved.
From then, more and more every day as my transition journey continues, I feel at ease and free to just be me knowing from now on, it doesn't matter what society says online or how people judge me for being Asian or trans. There's always that one person that will accept me for me no matter what.
What’s the greatest piece of wisdom ever shared with you by your parents or grandparents?
Growing up with a divorced parent since I was three years old and living with my dad, he always showed me a bit tougher love toward me than my older sister. Also being new to a foreign country working a long-hour job to keep the lights on, we don't really get much of “family time;” I always knew my place was to get good grades and don't get in trouble here in America! Just the typical Asian family lifestyle. The one quote from my dad that still stuck in my head was “You can do whatever you want, just make sure the cop doesn't call the house.”
Now that might sound harsh and careless to tell a young teenager, but since then, it really taught me to be self-independent and learn to be responsible for all my actions. From getting myself to school, to graduating. Going to college and thereafter. And in the midst of that, try not to get in too much trouble, of course, if at all.
What is the most valuable thing you learned at the beginning of your journey as a trans woman?
Every trans person's journey is a bit different. Due to lack of relatable information either online, on television or everyday life at the time I grew up. I was not exposed to what more is out there, what my options are, or the open possibility to help me understand exactly who I was until recent years! I just always knew there was something a little different about how I felt and how emotionally connected I was to the same gender rather than being attracted to the norm, opposite counterpart. Furthermore, I always thought I was just that gay kid exploring my sexuality in my teen years. After moving to LA for college to major in Fashion Design and Business, I was then exposed to more and more of what is a whole new world that I had yet to know.
West Hollywood changed everything for me and I felt I belonged! And a community that really support who you are and a much larger spectrum of just gay or straight, but trans, bi and nonbinary etc. there are more out there to learn and explore! For a long time, I wish I knew who I really was and accepted who I am earlier in my teen years as a trans woman. Rather than being in denial of who I was because back then being gay was a huge stereotype and frowned upon, and being trans I felt that was beyond the acceptance of both the straight and gay community. Being trans was practically being the bottom of the barrel of acceptance. So, I feel being bullied for so long as an Asian growing up, moving into being bullied as a gay kid in my teen years, and again finding acceptance as a transgender was super hard to comprehend!
And after all that, learning how to fit into society in the early years of being transgender was also a difficulty on its own when you are stuck between two worlds of being male transitioning to female. It is not an overnight magic pill that can make that happen. Being transgender is a long journey after you accept who you are, and that is when your journey really starts with hormone replacement therapy, many doctor’s visits, blood tests, therapy, and psychiatrist sessions. Being emotionally ready for the ups and downs with the emotional roller coaster or hormone treatments. You are practically going through a second awkward stage of puberty. Transition takes time, and every transgender has a different goal they want to achieve. All I can do is be patient, and hopefully in the end it'll be all worth it.
In moments, you’re met with resistance, judgment, or hatred: how do you deal with harmful stereotypes?
In my much younger years dealing with all the judgment and stereotypes honestly made me furious not just toward them but also at myself, saying why am I this way, why do I have to be different! I can't help where I was born or what nationality I was. I was an angry kid internally each time I heard hate comments or being bullied against, but externally, I really couldn't do anything but just listen and walk away. But in my head, I wish that kid had gotten a bloody nose! Lol.
Growing up I was a pretty calm person so being super focused on school, and luckily, I was surprisingly good at certain sports and being the star runner for track and field for many years. Being student body president and involved in many extra school curriculums like drama classes, marching band, dance, culinary art, fashion design. Those put me in a little spotlight where I was a bit more noticeable. And with that slowly more acceptance and support as I grew up, and with that, the bullies also died down as I got more support from my peers and faculties. So I guess focusing on what my goal is and not bothering with the outside noises does help. And being good in what you do, and many others will also be there to support you.
Now older, I have full acceptance of myself and know exactly what I want and who I want to be going forward… I can't say 100% that when I am met with resistance or hatred, stereotyping comments in any way doesn't hurt me. I do have feelings and emotions, but those are just yet another negative comments that I already dealt with and heard so many times before, so it doesn't really phase me much! Some actually sound comical now if I heard someone down the street yelling the “F” word at me, I would just smile and agree, well “Yes, yes I am!”
One of the biggest lessons I'd learn from dealing with any bullies or judgment and stereotypes came from some great authors and speakers like Brooks Gibbs, mentioning how the bullies just want to get a reaction from you and your negative anger and reaction back is precisely what they wanted—so don't give them that power! Your greatest power at that moment is to be calm and be friendly back! For example, if someone yells “You are so gay!” just could just calmly reply “Well yes, yes I am! Thank you for noticing and encouraging the existence of your community, very much appreciated.” Or, “I am not, but I am very much in support of our gay brother and sisters, and I hope you are too.” etc. So overall never let any stereotypes, judgment, or hatred comments affect your mood and judgments, they are not worth arguing over but in fact, just need to be more open and educated over the topics.
Kill them with kindness, I say.
What advice would you give to trans people of color who are trying to present their true selves to the world?
I can speak from my experience as an Asian trans minority. And my advice to all my brothers and sisters in the transgender community and especially for those who still in the midst of figuring out who you are and what you want to become is that. You have a very long difficult road of self-discovery, and it will take an emotional toll on you; it will not be easy. You are made extra strong and special to overcome every obstacle than some others, even though many times over it will not seem like it! Take your time to discover who you are, don't compare your journey to anyone else. This is your own journey in life. And once you really accept who you are and build the confidence to stand in the light, proudly say I am transgender with no shame or hesitance. You are halfway there to build a better life with self-acceptance and journey. The most important thing is to be you, don't change yourself because of someone else.
What advice would you give allies in better supporting trans people—especially trans people of color—in their journey of finding and expressing their true selves?
For the allies of the LGBTQIA+ community, I would like to thank you for all your love and support over the years! We all fought a good fight here in America for our right to be seen and notify our existence through media and televisions. And most of all the right to marry the one we love, the right to be in the same hospital room when our loved one is sick. The right to hold office and not be discriminated against in the workplace. They always seem as if we took one step forward. They constantly try to take us two-step back, but remember that our one step is momentous, fierce, and memorable!
With all of our great achievements in just these past few years. Some of our members in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum are still fighting to be seen and being accepted in our own community like the transgender and nonbinary brothers and sisters as our community spectrum growing larger as the year goes by. I would advise our allies to be supportive and not be biased against transgender people, we are also here! And to parent allies of transgender or gay kids alike, to help your transgender and gay youth to self-discover who they really are and to let them decide what they want to be. Do not encourage them to do what they don't want to be, or discourage them from what they wish to become! All we want is your approval, love, and support through the journey of self-discovery since you are and will be their biggest fear to open up to, and search for acceptance from!
How do you define beauty?
My definition has changed or rather been involved throughout the years! Physical appearance is always the first thing people see and judge you from anywhere in the world. Even way before they spend a moment to get to know who you are, what you do, or if you are rich or poor! It is that significant three seconds for someone to take you seriously or not… especially as a trans woman! Our physical appearance is just that critical moment if someone can “clock” you as being transgender, and that can move from either good or bad!
But to define beauty for me now, today, is the ability to self-love in every way and form. There's nothing wrong with putting yourself first. Once you love yourself and accept who you are, you will have this noticeable confidence that exudes what you really look like. It doesn't matter whether it is a bad hair day or good hair day, just that self-confidence of knowing who you are and what you want, that invisible energy that fills the room when you enter that's what beauty is to me… or as I call it “The Fabulousness of It All.”
How do we move the conversation forward?
It is important to understand that we have fought a long way for acceptance here in America. But there are many other countries that are still fighting for that basic right for the LGBTQIA+ to be seen and to have a voice. I was very fortunate for the great opportunity to vote for our right to marriage and get married with full support from family and friends: an opportunity that seems so far unimaginable for a person in the LGBTQIA+ community, especially for a transgender woman. Not only that, but the acceptance from the government with the opportunity to legally change my name and gender marker made it easy in recent years. Moreover, a special health care program that helped my transition made it easy and more affordable.
And with those great opportunities, I would love to continue pushing the limits of what is possible for the transgender community and to represent for my home country Vietnam of what is possible when the full acceptance from family and government can do going forward that can open door to the LGBTQIA+ youth to have a better easier future as they grow into what they are meant to be without any fear or doubt.
And to have an equal voice and to speak for the future generation of what is new to come.
To learn more about Bella, follow her on Instagram @bella.c.snow.