Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a retreat was the group’s single largest cost. A New York City summit was its largest cost.
NEW YORK CITY — “Asian Americans don’t have any culture.” An elderly Asian American woman told me this during an interview last year. It felt like an accusation. Or was it a condemnation? Maybe it was only one person’s jaded view.
2021 raised, and forced into popular discourse, a series of difficult questions: Why is there a rise of anti-Asian violence in the United States? What are the damaging stereotypes through which America continues to see Asian women, specifically? What does it mean to be Asian American? What is our culture?
In certain small pockets, Asian American women like me have been trying to answer those questions. Take, for instance, a sunny day last spring, when a group of strangers, all Asian women, met on a patch of grass in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. At a letter-writing workshop I found through Instagram, we were holding space and intentionally creating a community.
The event was put on by the Cosmos, a women-founded collective based in New York City. Led by Karen Mok and Cassandra “Cass” Lam, both 30-year-old former businesswomen transitioning into creatives, the group had set out to find answers.
I left my roots behind in the San Francisco Bay area when I set out to New York City last spring. I was on something of a quest myself. For years, I joined collective movements that focused on Black, Brown and Indigenous narratives, but I’d never found a group that served Asian American women. Joining the Cosmos has opened my eyes to what concentrating on my own cultural and ethnic identities can look like.
But now, the Cosmos’s future hangs in the balance. Mok and Lam are unsure whether they’ll be able to sustain the group past 2022. This points to the difficulties of community-building without relying on corporate donors and investors, Mok told me recently.
The Cosmos’s coming together was something of a big bang back in 2017. The group itself had started with a question: “What does it take for an Asian American female to flourish and thrive?”
Mok posed that question on her Facebook page that year. Dozens of responses later, it was clear a nerve had been struck among many millennial Asian American women.
“We started to have the privilege to get deeper into the stories of Asian American women,” Mok told me.
Soon after the Facebook post, Lam wrote a Medium post upping the ante: She announced a three-day retreat in Seattle in January 2018, specifically for women who identify as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and called for those interested to attend.
Twenty women answered the call and arrived from cities like Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. It was the first investment Mok and Lam made into the Cosmos, they said. A subsequent gathering in New York City cost $60,000 — to this day, that has been their single largest expense, they said.
“We’re trying to show that serving Asian women can be a sustainable business,” Mok said. “There’s value in it.”
Since summer 2019, Mok and Lam have made the Cosmos their main occupations. They’ve spent money from sponsors and partnerships (a major deal recently fell through, and Mok and Lam are now asking for $30,000 to keep the Cosmos going until the end of the year) on Upstate New York retreats, wilderness excursions, virtual wellness workshops and the big blowout Camp Cosmos.
Some programs are more expensive (the six-week Camp Cosmos costs $600 with an option to apply for financial aid) to sustain the business and perform work that’s deeper, Mok and Lam said. But there’s been many free events spread out over the years.
“But it being free means Karen and Cass don’t eat,” Lam said. “It has been a struggle for the four years that we have survived. I think that’s why you don’t see more communities growing beyond volunteer projects.”
The Cosmos brings out anywhere from five people at the more intimate events to dozens of attendees at virtual programs. There’s really no definition of who is a Cosmos member. Anyone who has engaged and participated with the Cosmos is considered a member, according to Mok and Lam.
The Cosmos isn’t the only Asian American group in New York City. Others that cater to women often address specific issues: gender-based violence (Womankind, Jahajee Sisters, Turning Point), breast cancer (Plum Blossom Tree), sex workers’ rights (Red Canary Song), abolition (Asian American Feminist Collective) or queer identities (Q-Wave).
The women who attend Cosmos events work at many places, including dating app companies, yoga studios, social work offices and start-up companies. Most learn about the Cosmos through word-of-mouth and social media, particularly Instagram. From there, anyone who’s online can sign up for events.
“We’ve always prioritized quality over quantity, so we don’t track membership numbers,” Mok said. She points to the Cosmos’s Instagram following, at roughly 11,500, as one “proxy, though imperfect, measure of the reach of the Cosmos.”
Some Cosmos members have acknowledged that South Asian and Southeast Asian women aren’t as visible at in-person events. Mok, who is Chinese American, has openly acknowledged this lack of representation in the Cosmos.
Born and raised in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Michelle Wu, 30, had the Cosmos on her radar for years, she said. She watched as the Cosmos evolved from what she thought was a more business-oriented platform to its current-day model, which she believes is more than just chitchat about work-life balance.
Wu wonders, too, whether the Cosmos is missing another demographic — specifically Asian women who work minimum-wage and blue-collar jobs.
“If the goal is to capture more stories, capture that wide spectrum of the Asian American experience, there’s more opportunities,” Wu said. “Whether it’s going directly to, speaking to workers who might not even have the time to go to Cosmos events. Being part of the Cosmos is a privilege.”
There’s also more to accessibility than what money can afford, said Jaimee Estreller, 33. They joined a recent glamping (or glamorous camping) trip, and reflected afterward that virtual programming and panels may provide better opportunities to engage people living with physical challenges.
“There’s financial accessibility, and then there’s accessibility when it comes to actual disabilities,” Estreller said.
Still, several members told me they have gotten a lot out of the organization.
“Over time, I noticed the messaging became more health- and wellness-focused,” Wu told me. “That really resonated with the type of community I want to surround myself with.”
Wu said she had the privilege of growing up in a community where her cultural roots were omnipresent. But she noticed how much the group of Asian women stuck out traveling in Upstate New York during her first Cosmos event last year. She didn’t dwell on it.
“We were setting the stage, creating that impression of what we, as Asian women, can be,” Wu said.
For Julie Moon, 27, who was raised for part of her life in Korea and attended Columbia University as an international student, the Cosmos has bridged what she previously felt was a gulf. She said she thinks the Cosmos “makes an effort of saying you don’t have to be Asian American, you can just be Asian.”
“With more political Asian American organizations, there were times where because I was on the student visa, I couldn’t relate so much,” Moon said. “Because I couldn’t even vote.”
Moon, who is a writer, recently attended events revolving around the literary arts — her first Cosmos event was a book swap in Brooklyn — including one organized by two Korean women.
“There was a panel on Asian American female rage,” Moon said. “That was amazing.”
2021 presented new challenges that left many Asian American women reeling for community. Michelle Fok, 27, found a Cosmos event the day after Atlanta-area shootings last March left six Asian women dead. It was led by Lam, who teaches yoga.
“I loved how it was just, ‘Come as you are,’ ” Fok told me. “And during a time when it was so isolating, that really saved my mental health.”
Fok, who hails from Toronto, hopes the Cosmos will keep some events free and leave room for financial aid and scholarships.
“If it were up to me, I would also like the option to donate and maybe sponsor someone else who might not be able to [pay],” Fok said. “I think that would just go with the ethos of the Cosmos.”
Linda Her, executive director of Asian American Organizing Project, and a second-generation Hmong American in Minnesota, told me a new dawn must come for AAPI women.
“As Asians coming together, we have to talk about our values, our beliefs, and our political or social histories,” Her, 40, told me. “We need to be aware of what's defining us, what’s limiting us.”
And that’s happening all over the country. Her’s Asian American Organizing Project is drumming up excitement in St. Paul, while AAPI Women Lead builds cross-cultural solidarity in Oakland, Calif. The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum continues its advocacy for stronger AAPI rights, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop just celebrated its 30th year of representation in the literary world.
If not for the Cosmos, I’m not sure when I would have hiked in Garrison, N.Y., where I could gaze across the Hudson River, or glamped a stone’s throw from a beach. But mostly it was the conversations that took my breath away. You know when you haven’t seen an old friend for a long time, but you pick up from where you left off almost immediately? The conversations I had at those events were like that. The bridges were already built, and I just needed to cross them.
It doesn’t surprise me that many Cosmos members say they want to change their corners of the world. One filed a lawsuit against a discriminatory employer; another writes stories about coming out queer; and one woman plans to direct her own movies one day. Together, in this group, I can’t help but think about how their stories will continue to raise and strengthen Asian American women’s voices.
For now, as they struggle financially, the Cosmos plans to go part-time or take a hiatus as it figures out next steps. But Mok and Lam aren’t ruling out passing on the batons to the next generation of Cosmos leaders who aim to uplift even more Asian American women than before.
Now that’s what I call culture.