MTV’s digital design director is using his podcast to spark a conversation about work, identity and how the children of immigrants are changing the creative space.
Rich Tu knows how to stay busy. The New Jersey native and first generation Filipino-American has made a name for himself at institutions like SVA, ADC, Nike, and MTV, where he is the VP of Digital Design. He’s on the board of AIGA NY, continues to do freelance illustration work, and somehow still makes time to record a podcast called First Generation Burden. Launched in 2016, First Generation Burden, now in its fourth season, is a free-flowing conversation with creatives who have recent roots that reach around the globe. We caught up with Tu as he prepared for an AIGA-hosted conversation and live podcast on the creative first generation experience.
When I came across First Generation Burden, it seemed like such an important conversation. I’m curious about why you chose the word ‘burden’, as opposed to ‘experience’ or ‘journey’ or something…?
Something a little less heavy? To be honest, it was inspired by the Master of None series that Aziz Ansari did. It was 2016 and I was living in Portland, Oregon, working at Nike. I knew I wanted to create a podcast that focused on immigrants and the creative space. A friend was talking about first generation burden in reference to Master of None. To be honest, I’ve never actually seen the show. [laughs] I just knew that the phrase resonated with me, specifically then, in the summer of 2016. It was still Trump versus Hillary. There was so much rhetoric around the immigrant experience, and the creation of the ‘other’ through Trump’s rhetoric. So the name resonated because it felt like it spoke to that negativity. But there’s also the underlying thought that when you are the child of an immigrant or an immigrant yourself, you’re part of a history and a cultural exchange by being in this new place—say America—and there is a burden on you to do right by the sacrifice that your parents or your family made on your behalf. So it is both the burden upon the immigrant to make right by their family sacrifice and the burden of being the ‘other’.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in New Jersey. My parents immigrated from the Philippines in the ‘60s. I’ve only been back to the Philippines a handful of times but there’s a large immigrant contingent, specifically Filipino, in New Jersey. It’s a big community, so you still grew up in the Filipino culture, but through the lens of Americanization.
I’m guessing the seeds of your own ‘first generation burden’ story were always percolating. Why did you decide to make it a public conversation?
Well, a couple of things. I knew how to make a podcast and how to make content. So the actual creation part wasn’t a barrier to entry. And then from a storytelling perspective; it was just something that I was talking about with my friends of different cultures and races and backgrounds. It was something that was in our DNA literally, but also in our everyday conversation. And also, I’ve always been around creatives and makers. So it all just kinda fall into place.
Of course, everyone’s story is unique, but generally speaking, do you feel you’ve been able to pull out any common threads in the interviews you’ve done?
Absolutely. I think the main common thread is that everyone I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to speak to is a hard-working individual. They are articulate and highly creative and effective in their life and in their work. But another thread is that they want to be here, but they all feel that the conversation turned recently and became more of a weight on their shoulders. It was like a bad romance. Imagine you have a partner you love, and all of a sudden your partner completely rejects you; emotionally, physically, in every single way. Now it’s about, do you negotiate a break-up? Do you try to save the relationship? Is anything even within your own control? I have friends that have been here for decades that are now considering, “Can I even exist here or am I going to be asked to leave forcibly?”
My guess—or rather my hope—is that creative fields celebrate diversity of background and perspective more than other industries, and so might be more attractive to first generation individuals. Do you think that’s true? Do you think the story of first generation ‘creatives’ is different from other industries?
There are things that I find relate across a lot of different boards. There’s a different sense of obligation, which filters into a lot of life roles. That goes back to the ‘burden’ of living up to the sacrifice of your family. Also, that there’s a high percentage of business owners that are immigrants I think speaks to immigrants taking to heart the idea that this country is the ‘land of opportunity’. And I’m talking very broadly, but I do think there’s a similar value system across the board. There’s a working class mentality that I really, truly respect and I think that working class mindset keeps you on that grind, longer and more intensely so you can at least keep a life focus.
Is there any truth to the stereotype of parents encouraging their first generation children to pursue fields that are more traditionally associated with ‘success’?
For a lot of first generation kids, this rings very true. I think a lot of it has to do with perceptions of successful professions around the world, and fields like law, med, and finance are pretty universally accepted as lucrative. I think America is unique in its value of individualism, and by extension creative fields, though of course there are other countries that value this. A lot of the people I’ve spoken to expressed the hurdle of explaining their creative desire to their parents. I think that those who go through it are taking another big generational leap: First, their parents leaving their homeland; second, the desire to excel in a hard-to-penetrate and competitive creative field.
Specifically regarding professional work, do you find there’s pressure for first generation designers to incorporate elements of cultural heritage into their work?
I can only really speak to my own experience on this one, but for me (since I’m primarily in a commercial creative space working at MTV, among other places), I want to make sure that what I do serves the brief and pushes some sort of creative boundary if possible. “American” isn’t really a visual aesthetic (aside from Stars and Stripes I suppose). I often react to trend, or to a creative landscape to help visually contextualize what I create, but I won’t enforce a cultural agenda when it might not be a necessary tone. However, I do feel it’s important to provide validity towards underserved communities through a diverse visual vocabulary.
Do you see any major distinction in the professional work of first gen’ers and first-hand immigrants?
First gen’ers usually go through the same academic programs that non-immigrant-related kids go through, so our POVs are usually based in, or a reaction to a Western lens. Only in the past 5-7 years have I truly begun to unspool that Eurocentric POV in an attempt to reclaim some form of my indigenous self. For actual immigrants, their basic principles of communication are possibly very different, so that may provide a variety of fresh POVs. Even if it’s not an overt aesthetic, it could involve pacing, non left-to-right reading logic, or even color choices.
When I first heard about your podcast I expected some deep political conversation. But what I found is conversations about design that happen to be between two people from first generation backgrounds. The first generation aspect is often its context more than content.
That’s true and I’m glad that you’re calling that out because I think a lot of people get tripped up on the name. Or at least they think it’s something else when it is another thing. The first generation label is something that we all sit under, like an umbrella that connects us. If we want to talk about politics we will, but the mindset is more about immigrant excellent and how to showcase excellence through all these different cultures. So it’s really more celebratory. The label is heavy, but when people dig into it they’re like, ‘Wow, that was way more chill that I thought it would be.”
Is that context versus content dynamic intentionally how you structure the conversations?
In the beginning there was an intent to kind of hit the issues and talk about heavy shit. But then, through the natural flow of conversation, we just naturally landed on certain commonalities and topics. What I realized was that it’s hard to talk to someone if you’re forcing it and if you can’t speak intelligently on politics. So I just naturally gravitated away from that. What I ended up doing was always starting with the premise of here’s who they [the guest] are and where they’re from, so you set up that context. And after that, it can literally go anywhere. The joy for me is the discovery part of the process and how you navigate the conversation in general. The selfish part for me is wanting to just connect with them as a human being and not having anything be preplanned.
For anyone out there wanting to start a wider conversation about something important to them, whether it’s first generation issues or something else, what are some lessons you can share? Where should they start?
I would say do what feels natural. Because in the world where content is king or queen, you really have to set yourself up to able to create and do it for a long period of time. With First Gen, what I was able to land on was that I can actually do this and I can maintain it and I won’t get tired of it because I care about the people and I care about the topic. And from a base level, I can talk for at least an hour with someone on this simple premise. So the key is being able to create a platform where you can work very naturally and within your own wheelhouse.
Learn more about Rich Tu and his podcast First Generation Burden @rich_tu. Catch Rich in person on September 12 in New York as part of a live conversation and podcast recording with Benjamin Evans, presented by AIGA NY.