As a kid, I loved watching martial arts movies. Drunken Master starring Jackie Chan was one of my favorites. So when I stumbled across a new old show called Kung Fu starring David Carradine, I was thrilled!
I was eight years old and attending Taipei American School at the time. Each summer, I'd go back to my paternal grandparent's home in Honolulu. In the mornings before breakfast, my grandparents would let me watch TV. I'd usually just stick to watching the cartoons like Thundercats or GI Joe. But not this particular morning.
The first thing I thought when I watched Kung Fu was why was this show so slow and gloomy? The second thing I thought was why did the main character look so strange? He looked like a white guy trying to play an Asian guy's role. Ah hah, he was a white guy playing an Asian monk! As a kid, the topics were also too advanced for me, so I quickly lost interest in the show.
It wasn't until I was older did I learn about the controversy regarding Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee's widow asserts that Bruce came up with the show's concept and expected to be cast in the lead role. But Warner Brothers supposedly stole the idea and shut him out. The studio thought it was too risky to have a “non-American” be the lead.
Apparently, Kung Fu was a huge hit with American TV viewers in the 1970s. However, I just didn't get it as a kid who grew up watching much more amazing martial arts shows in Taiwan and Malaysia.
Race As A Business Decision
As a businessman myself, I understand the rationale for casting a white person as the lead character in a martial arts TV show in America. After all, roughly 87% of the American population in 1970 was white.
In contrast, Asian people only accounted for 0.75% of the U.S. population back then. Even if you got 100% of the Asian population to watch Kung Fung, it wouldn't bring enough business compared to having just 1% of the white population watch.
If the show flopped, it might adversely affect the careers of the producers, writers, and directors, all of whom were white. Hence, race was mainly a business decision for the show.
Today, 50 years later, race is clearly still a factor in business decisions. Let me explain with my own recent experience. Instead of visual, it has to do with audio.
Could Have Been A White Man But Remained Asian
After finishing the written production of the hard copy of my book, Buy This, Not That: How To Spend Your Way To Wealth And Freedom, it was time for me to do an audio version. Note, if purchasing a hard copy is the best version due to the charts and art.
I was contacted by a nice audio producer with the following message:
Hello! I’m the producer at Penguin Random House Audio working on BUY THIS, NOT THAT, and I am excited to create this audiobook with you. I think you have a wonderful and relaxed writing style, and I think it will come across well in audio.
We can also include the charts from the book in a PDF that listeners can download from their audiobook app/retailer of choice. We’ll publish BUY THIS, NOT THAT as an unabridged digital audiobook for both the retail and library markets on July 19, 2022.
The audiobook should run about 11 hours.
Concerning narrators, I’d like to recommend some narrators below:
Sean Patrick Hopkins (click to hear a sample of his voice)
Mike Carnes (click to hear a sample of his voice)
Sunil Malhotra (click to hear a sample of his voice)
Ultimately, I’m thinking of the voice of a young male, approachable and earnest, who can suggest that the advice in this book comes from someone who has been there themselves. If none of these specific voices is the one you imagine for your audiobook, I’m happy to suggest other options.
The Decision To Narrate Myself Or Not
As someone who has published a podcast for several years, I could definitely narrate the book myself. Therefore, I was initially a little dismayed he didn't first ask if I was interested in narrating. Me narrating would be the most authentic way to go. Besides, I feel like my voice sounds fine.
However, upon doing more research and surveying my newsletter subscribers, I changed my mind. Roughly 70% of my newsletter subscribers said I should narrate the book while 30% said I should get a professional narrator.
I had read 1-star complaints from listeners of other audiobooks who said the authors sounded terrible and were “unlistenable.” After all, we are professional writers, not speakers. It's kind of like when star sales people become managers and screw things up.
Even though I think my smooth jazz voice would do fine narrating my own book, I came up with a compromise. I would narrate the intro and the conclusion, and a professional would narrate the 15 chapters. A win-win!
Now it was off to find the right narrator.
More Narrator Options That Didn't Fit
While walking around the San Francisco Zoo with my daughter, I listened to Sean Patrick Hopkins, Mike Carnes, and Sunil Malhotra and for some reason, they just didn't sound quite right for my book.
I let my wife listen to their sample audios as well and she felt they weren't a good fit either. We both played voices on our phones without knowing their names.
Therefore, I asked the audio producer to send me more options when we got to the gorilla sanctuary. It's our daughter's favorite attraction.
The producer e-mailed me, Sean Runnette (click link to hear audio sample) as another potential. The producer said he didn't want the narrator to sound just like me, but rather someone that would be in the same ballpark.
He said, “We're not trying to fool the listeners. Instead, we're trying to find a voice that will sound natural saying your works.”
What the producer said totally made sense. So I gave Sean Runnette a listen and for some reason, he still didn't sound quite right to me either. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I imagined him as a 64-year-old college professor in a wool sweater that didn't fit the bill.
Overcoming Awkwardness And A Realization
As I was playing back all the audio samples with my wife, it suddenly dawned on me. Not only did I have to get over the fact someone else would be narrating my words (felt strange), but it was also weird that I was given three white guys and one Indian guy as my possible choices.
Yes, I could have been an Indian guy too! I didn't think about the race of these narrators until after I listened to their audio samples three times each.
Maybe if a Taiwanese American guy from Hawaii narrated my words, I would feel more comfortable. Because in my mind, I want the narrator to be as closely representative of me as possible. But I suspected the number of professional narrators with my background was small.
Nevertheless, I asked the producer for more options, specifically Asian-American narrators and he delivered.
Please note, all this happened within an hour while we walked around the zoo with our daughter.
Final Narration Options: Vietnamese-American And Chinese-American Narrators
Finally, I was presented with the two following narrators:
- David Lee Huynh, a talented fellow who is relatively new to audio according to the producer.
- Feodor Chin, a veteran to book narration and acting according to the producer.
I liked both narrators. David sounds like how I may have sounded when I was in my 20s or early 30s. I enjoyed his energy and wanted to go with him. Feodor, on the other hand, sounds like how I might sound in 10 years when I'm in my 50s. I enjoyed his gravity.
Once again, my wife quizzed each other on all the voices without revealing their names to try and remove bias. We just played different sections of each narration example as we walked around and ranked our top three choices.
In the end, I decided to go with Feodor because he sounded like the best fit. I'm only getting older, not younger. In my mind, Feodor provides a 10-year “voice runway” for Buy This, Not That. I'm hoping Feodor will read my book with more enthusiasm and freeness than he did in his sample book narration above, which has a more solemn topic.
At the end of the day, all the narrators would have been fine. I just went with one that felt and sounded the most natural to me.
After I chose Feodor, I looked up his background. It turns out Feodor Chin was born and raised in San Francisco, California, and is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. He has also trained at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. As a 21-year resident of San Francisco, I guess my feeling about him was spot on!
Let's Change The Default Setting
When I initially got the narrator options, I thought nothing of race. This was my first merry-go-round narrating a book, so I just tried to understand the narration production process.
But by the end of the e-mail exchange, I realized several things.
1) The default setting for narrators weren't East Asian guys, even though I'm Taiwanese American.
I'm not sure if it occurred to the white audio producer that an Asian author may want to have an Asian narrator. It didn't even occur to me until the end what my preferences may be. In his defense, the producer didn't know what I looked like.
But after living overseas attending international schools and working in international equities, maybe my ears are more sensitive to identifying the races of different voices. I think I can tell if you're Korean American, Japanese American, Chinese American, Caucasian American, and Black American. There's got to be a fun test somewhere we can all do.
The audio producer did choose all males as potential narrators, which I assume is because I'm a male. It is obvious from my name and my podcast recordings.
2) You have to speak up, literally, if you want your preferences to be heard.
In no way was I forced to choose only from the narrators the producer had given me. He was very open to suggesting more narrators. I just had to keep on asking for more options until one felt right. This took me knowing what I wanted and self-advocating.
If you're in a situation that doesn't feel right, please find a way to speak up in a professional manner. Otherwise, it's going to forever bug you. To get ahead, you must self-advocate. And to be a better advocate of yourself, you must know thyself.
Once Buy This, Not That was released, every single person who purchased the audiobook version said they preferred it if I narrated the entire book.
3) Job opportunities are not equal.
If the default assumption is to go with white narrators, then that means non-white narrators will get less opportunity. If the audio producer was Taiwanese American, there may have been a higher chance he might have introduced me to more East Asian narrators. The same thing goes for if the audio producer was any other race.
I believe the audio producer just wanted to choose the best narrator for the book, which is a discovery process. However, many of us are naturally biased for those who look and sound like us. We're just not really aware of our biases, which is why some job opportunities and admissions are often not equal.
4) It's harder to speak up if your livelihood is at risk.
Pretend you are an Asian professional voice narrator looking for work in America. You're getting passed over for people with less experience because the affinity process works both ways.
It felt weird having a white guy narrate my book, so I went with an Asian guy. Again, this was based on doing a blind sound test without knowing their names. It also felt weird for Feodor Chin to narrate my entire book, so I felt I needed to at least narrate the intro and conclusion.
Given it felt weird for me, it probably feels equally as weird for some white authors to get narrated by an Asian person. Given the majority of authors and audio producers are white, if you are an Asian narrator, you've likely got fewer opportunities.
For more job opportunities, you may want to change your name so people think you're part of the majority. Depending on your genre, you may want to change your name to sound like a different sex.
You could write an op-ed piece during Asian heritage month elucidating the struggles you face as a minority narrator. However, you run the risk of getting blackballed from people in the industry who don't give a damn.
Do you dare speak out if you are not financially independent yet? Most people do not, hence why things are very slow to change. Change needs to also come from those in power. However, when you're in control, it's hard to give up opportunities you have for your people.
If there is one thing I love about being financially independent is that you can always speak your mind without fear of financial ruin. You don't have to put up with BS if you don't want to.
Personal Finance Is Relevant For Everyone
I highlight this voice narration example to share what some minorities have to contend with in order to advance. This example and others you might hear may sound trivial. But I assure you, they add up over time.
If the examples get to be too many, you might start questioning your own abilities and whether you should bother even trying. However, a large part about succeeding is believing you deserve to be there and can succeed.
I don't think people are inherently racist. We just have default settings and are taught a certain way growing up. It's easy for stereotypes to perpetuate, especially if we continue to mainly associate with people like us. The path of least resistance is to do that thing we've always been comfortable doing.
Below is a great chart that shows the racial makeup of published authors. If people who work at publishing companies are majority white and book reviewers at major publications are mostly white, then of course there will be more biased for white authors. Even the book blurbs are all quite homogenous.
Only about 1% of all writers land literary agents. And only about 10% of literary agents will successfully ink you a book deal with a top publisher. Hence, if you're a minority author, give yourself a big pat on the back! You beat the odds and then some!
Facing Hard Truths But Trying Anyway
I know it will be harder for Buy This, Not That to hit the mainstream due to demographics and embedded biases. I won't get the same type of coverage or support and that's just the way it is.
Regardless, I've tried my best to add as much value as possible in the book. Hopefully, my words will transcend all types of people, as they have on Financial Samurai where more than 90 million people have visited so far since 2009.
But I also LOVE being the underdog. Trying to defy the odds is so much fun! Because if you succeed when the odds are highly stacked against you, you then eradicate any doubt as to whether you succeeded because of you or because of an advantage. Your courage to take action grows exponentially. If you fail, you were expected to fail anyway, so no big deal.
Imagine if you grew up rich and had well-connected parents. Throughout your entire life, they strategically donated ahead to the right privates schools where you always ended up. You might wonder whether you really got in based on merit.
When you graduate college, you end up at Goldman Sachs where your parents also so happen to be private clients. Did you get the job due to your stellar interviewing skills and academics? Or did your parents shoot an email to their wealth advisor to get you in front of the line? You'll never know because your parents are too smart to tell you.
There may be no more satisfying feeling professionally than making it on your own. It's why being an entrepreneur can be so addicting. Without you, there would be no product. The same cannot be said if you join a big organization that has already built a brand. And the worse your odds of succeeding, the greater the satisfaction!
Financial Education Is For Everyone
No matter who you are or what you look like, my goal is to help you get your money right so you can do more of what you want. I've got the experience and the results to show you how. Finance is not just the language of the elite.
Thanks for reading and listening. I'm confident Buy This, Not That is one of the best personal finance books today. It became an instant Wall Street Journal bestseller and now has over 330 5-start reviews on Amazon.
Finally, for this post, I looked up what all my potential narrators look like. It's fun to imagine what people look like only based off their voices and to finally see their faces. Only Mike Carnes was a little different than what I had imagined because I didn't expect the beard.
If you buy a hard copy of BTNT, you'll see my Asian face on the back cover. Will I look like what you imagine? And by the way, Buy This Not That became an instant Wall Street Journal bestseller. Not bad!
Readers, have you ever had the opportunity to be another race? Have you ever considered changing your name, the way you sound, or the way you look to gain an advantage? Do you think my decision to be true to myself will hurt book sales?
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