Ryan Alexander Holmes
"If you don't know who you are, society will dictate it for you."
What a way to start off this season! In this episode we talk to Ryan Alexander Holmes in the first of a two-part series and kick off Season 5 on the topic of identity. We talk about his mixed-ness, Black excellence, Asian American excellence, how he is always searching for narratives that put his culture at the centre of it and Ryan tells us family stories that he wishes lives on for generations to come. Perhaps most jaw-dropping is Ryan's respect for his Black Dad's encouragement for him to really understand his Chinese side as he grew up, best summarized in the line "If you don't know who you are, society will dictate it for you."
About our guest: Ryan Alexander Holmes is an actor, and content creator based out of Los Angeles. He is known for his strong presence on social media where he uses comedy and writing to explore and embrace his mixed Chinese/African American heritage. Follow Ryan on Instagram and Tik Tok @ryanalexh
Reminder to rate and review our podcast on Apple - it helps other like-minded people find our pod and grows this beautiful community! If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
Welcome back to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I’m your host, Anika Chabra.
We’ve missed you and while we’ve been up to so much in so many ways, coming back to interviewing and recording podcast episodes feels like coming home. We wanted to be sure that our next season felt just right and we couldn’t think of a better theme to explore than the idea of identity with a wonderful set of guests in season 5. In true form, we're starting off with impact. Honestly, this interview was a dream come true. We found an individual who embodied all the edges, nooks, and crannies of relationship with identity, family, culture, and heritage. And in many ways, Ryan Alexander Holmes speaks to the essence of Root & Seed in that he has taken on true, pure ownership of his stories and identity.
As an actor and content creator, we discovered Ryan on TikTok where he started posting content about his mixed heritage and relationship with his wonderful family as a direct result of some of the social movements during the height of the pandemic. Ryan takes on stereotypes in a loving and playful way and his honesty is endearing which has led his content to take off in ways that surprise even Ryan. For those of you who don't know Ryan, we encourage you to follow him on his social media immediately following this episode (@ryanalexh) and we will be sure to include his handles in our show notes. As promised we’ve kept editing to a minimum, letting you hear the real conversation that ensues when you speak to a passionate, self-aware individual like Ryan.
Ok, enough of this intro here’s our conversation.
Ryan, thank you so much for being on our show. We would love to start with your background. If you can introduce yourself to the audience that would be great.
Yeah. I'm Ryan Alexander Holmes, content creator, actor, people sometimes call me an activist and a speaker. And I'm black and Chinese, I think that's important.
Tell me about your background as it relates to your roots and your cultural background. What makes up those influences?
I think a lot of what I do now is sort of a reclamation because I grew up in a predominantly white and Chinese neighbourhood. I never expressed myself as Chinese outside of my household, but I was very Chinese in my household and we celebrated all the holidays and I learned the language from my grandparents and my mom, but I never felt like I really expressed that to the world. It was amazing that I got that acceptance from my family members, but I think it was only until like a year or two ago that I started making content about being mixed, specifically being Chinese and black. And it's been amazing because I first started just saying, I just want to talk about something I never talked about before.
I didn't know that it would have an impact. Didn't intend for it to have an impact on anybody but myself honestly. Just for that self-expression as an artist, but what I found out is that people resonated with it and they don't have to be black and Asian to resonate with it. It's a very universal thing to feel like you can express yourself as what you are and so I'm happy that I did it and I have a community that I can reach out to that reaches out to me and feels good. Yeah.
You talk about yourself being 100% black and 100% Asian. Talk to me a bit about that.
Yeah. I feel like that's really important because a lot of people that are mixed they think that they don't have permission to fully embrace the cultures that they are. And so for me, it's a rebellion against that. Not even really a rebellion against society, a rebellion against that internal idea that I had about myself. That's because I have one parent that's one thing, one parent, that's the other thing that I can only half embrace both. Society is going to say whatever society says, always, but that has nothing to do with me. So how do I want to interact as myself? What parts of my culture do I wanna embrace? And the answer is all of them because I have the right to.
I love that. It reminds me of, you know. I just thought that I was just South Asian. And I just thought, my family went from India to England and Canada like a million other people in the 1970s. But when I unpack it, my dad was actually born and brought up in East Africa. I have roots in England. We have all this richness that actually influences me. Like my dad's family did not have to face partition as an example, but my mother's family really had to face partition. So from a legacy standpoint, a hurt standpoint, a generational trauma standpoint, that is why she was a firecracker, and that's why he's a laid back, cool dude type of thing.
And so it's really interesting to start to think about those influences, not only on your parent's generation, but then the generational trauma and generational greatness that you inherit as well. And unless you understand your background and own it, like the way you have, it's not gonna be present, it's not gonna be intentional.
So I love, love, love the way you describe that.
Yeah. It's amazing what you said about your parents because same with me. I think when I started embracing and being very proud about my culture, it just makes you ask questions, do research down your own family lines, but also just research and history about your culture's lineage in the country that you're in. Or your culture's lineage throughout the world, throughout time and then that becomes a part of you too. Something that probably that you didn't know anything about and also probably weren't taught in school. Right. That's another thing. We can't really rely on these educational systems to tell us who we are. We have to figure that out on our own, which you know, is actually rewarding because when you find it on your own, you found it on your own. You did the hard work, you did the digging and therefore, it's more impactful to yourself and more valuable.
We're fed a lot of narratives in our educational system in America at least. You know, they didn't really talk about Frederick Douglass being pivotal in terms of abolishing slavery. They talked about Abraham Lincoln. They didn't talk about enslaved people, black people fighting for their own freedom. They talked about Abraham Lincoln in the emancipation. You know, he did it out of the kindness of his heart.
So there is this idea, just one example, that our liberation did not come from ourselves. That we didn't fight for it ourselves. Why would they not teach us that? Why would they not teach us power? So I'm always looking for narratives that actually put us at the center, put my cultures at the center of it.
What was our perspective during all this? What was our role in the fight in terms of our own liberation because these people did not do it out of the kindness of their heart. That's not how the world works. The world works in the sense that the power system will help you if it's advantageous to them. Right?
So first we have to build ourselves up to understand our power. Then we have to be like, "hey, you should ally with us because we can give you things." We're a power.
Absolutely. I love that. Tell me a story that you've heard about your parents just like, so shocking, so surprising, or something enlightening about them that was divulging to your upbringing or to them as personalities, as people.
A lot of things, a lot of things. I guess I'll start with my dad. My dad came from poverty in the south and he is always joking and he says we were so poor that the poor kids made fun of us for how poor we were. And I'm like, damn, thanks for never allowing me to experience that dad. And you know, he was the first one out of his family to graduate, go to college, graduate college. Go to Georgetown, get a law degree, become a lawyer. It was the first of many in his family to do all those things. So what I admire a lot about my dad is just his independence and, and not having anyone to tell him how to do it. He still did it, so when I'm blazing my path, I think of my dad and I'm just like, all right. Will you expect people to give you the answers? I'm privileged in the sense that I have my dad to go to my dad. My dad didn't have a dad. His dad passed when he was very young and his mother, my grandmother. Love her, she's still alive today, had nine other kids to raise. So he was the second oldest and he was basically like a father to his little siblings.
So that's my dad and my mom came to America to go to UPenn. Like one of the greatest schools that she could possibly get into, but she didn't even know that it was a good school. She just sort of applied to schools and then got into UPenn. And it wasn't Harvard or Yale, so it's like, oh, okay. Yeah, I guess I'll go there. And you know, she didn't have a grasp on English, but she still managed to learn English fluently and write her dissertation and get her master's in communications.
So within my own family, I think there's black excellence, there's Asian American immigrant excellence and just excellence in general. That's not really attributed to a culture. The things that my dad was against in America as a black man, that's cultural and the things that my mom was up against as an Asian American immigrant, those were cultural too. But it's still pure excellence, right? The culture just adds a little flavour to it, you know?
Yeah. Gosh, that's so true. Ok, so they're beautiful stories and like in their own kind of paths came together. What was growing up in your household like as it related to your cultural background?
My dad made it a point, which is funny, to get my mom and my grandparents to speak as much Chinese as they could to me. But also that we celebrated all the Chinese holidays in the way that my mom celebrated them. He made it clear from the jump, you're Chinese and told me and our brother, you're Chinese.
Don't forget that! The world is going to tell you that you're not. Doesn't matter, you're Chinese. Celebrate these holidays, speak the language, go to the grocery store, get stared at, go to these Chinese restaurants and get awkward looks when you go with your grandma. That's just how it's gonna be because you're not going to not participate in the culture.
And so I was really happy about that. I was really happy that my grandparents were very involved in my life and I would go to their house every weekend and we'd have huge family dinners with my cousins because we all lived in LA. So I would say my childhood was very cultural, just in the sense that our core family and our extended family was such a core unit that spent a lot of time together. So it never felt like, oh, this culture's being shoved down my throat. It's just like, oh no, I love my family and the cultural peculiarities just come out from the fact that you're spending so much time together.
What do you think your dad's motivation was? Why did he want you to learn so much about the Chinese side?
I think that's who I was and he wanted me to have a strong sense of identity. And I felt like he didn't want me to become someone that experiences his own culture as an outsider. I think it was also a rebellion against society because he knew society would tell me what I was if I didn't tell myself who I was.
Shivers like body, all from head to toe. My child is 18 and my other child is 15 and if we don't empower them to understand who they are, where they come from, they will not know where they're going and they will not show up in the world as their true self. Woo.
They won't know it. They won't know it. And I think that's the beauty of having parents like mine and your kids having parents like you because it's like, well, society's telling me that this culture isn't something to be proud of so then why should I be proud of it? That's dangerous. To try to fit into society sometimes because society will tell you the wrong thing. It will tell you that you're valueless. It'll tell you the things that make you the most unique in life aren't to be valued and that's a travesty.
So thank God for parents like you. Thank God for parents like mine to tell me like, listen. Forget what all these people outside of you are saying. You're one of a kind. The more that you embrace who you are and your specific cultures and your peculiarities even outside of your culture, the more awesome you're going to be.
The more unique and one-of-a-kind, the more shiny, the more precious you're going to be, so just do that. And that's easy actually when you learn to do it and people start gravitating towards you and you're like, wait, this is effortless. I'm just beating myself and doing what I want to do. I thought it was supposed to be hard, you know? That's the beauty of it.
Anika It doesn't have to be hard. I love that. Oh, so good. So a happenstance of our platform has been a lot around identity. We thought we were just like story collectors in the beginning. Let's put together an heirloom book and let's have all the reasons and meanings behind the recipes and the heirlooms and the stories and the facts and the genealogy and all those other things.
And in many ways, we're actually less about those things, there's other companies that do that. There's Ancestry, there's 23 and Me. There's all these other things that tell you the things to satisfy the cerebral part of your brain or the fact part of your brain. The magic of our platform has been around empowering people around identity, understanding your past, sifting and sorting and really understanding what you wanna take forward.
How has your past influenced you as a person and what you believe your gifts are.
I like this question. I have no regrets in my life at all because everything that I've gone through has brought me to this place. I'm very fortunate to have a lot of experiences and I think that comes from my parents. My dad and my mom would send me to these leadership camps all over the country. Went to Northern Georgia to do a military boot camp in my sophomore year in high school. I went to China when I was 18 to do a leadership conference there in three different cities, Xi'an, Shanghai, and Beijing. But I think the biggest thing that was installed into me was a love for learning.
So I just want to learn as much as I can about things that I find interesting and about myself. And yeah, in my past there's been a lot of turmoil, there's been letdowns, there's been failures. But I think because I actually experienced all those things when I do run up against a failure now in what I'm doing artistically, it's not a be all end all because I'll be like, okay, yeah, I've been here before. Putting them into perspective has accurately catapulted me even further. Like oh, it's a learning experience and that sounds cliche, but like, if you apply perspective, every time you fail, it helps you immensely.
It's really just the time that you spend wallowing in your failure. If you can truncate that down and down and down as you progress, then it makes the progress faster. And if you do fail a lot, then it doesn't hurt as much and if you're applying that to not wallowing in your failure and make that amount of time that you wallow on your failure, smaller to the amount of time that you put that failure into perspective and use it as a trampoline to keep going forward.
I think the biggest failure was majoring in business, an undergrad at Berkeley and dabbling in it for a little bit. You know, every summer I would work at a financial firm and make a ton of money, but be extremely unhappy because I didn't want to do it. So when I graduated I moved to New York and just decided I wanted to be an actor. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no resources, I had no friends who were actors, no artists, friends, nothing. Everyone was a business person and my dad's a lawyer, so I had all his lawyer connects. My brother had majored in engineering at Yale and I had all his friends that worked in finance and engineering out east when I was in New York. So I had a place to stay and stuff like that, but in terms of trying to figure out what it meant to be an actor, I had no idea and I was just failing left and right.
But something was different because I think for one of the first times in my life pursuing something that I wanted to do. That was my particular dream and no one supported me, but it didn't matter because I was like, I'm young, I can do this. This is embarrassing, I know I suck at it, but this is something that I want to get better at and I will work just as hard as I worked in track because I was an All-American Junior Olympic champion. I know that I have the work ethic to do what I want to do. It's just gonna take some time. So even though I was failing and bombing auditions and getting laughed out of casting offices. It was like, well, this is what I want to do, so how much embarrassment am I willing to take. A lot, until I get to what I want to get to. So if that answers your question, I hope it does.
It does and I mean, you're talking about just the human experience. Again, a very cliche term, but if you're not in it for it, then there's no point, right? So if you're not in for the highs or the lows, then I don't know what kind of rosy life you lead.
Ok. Conversation card question. I'm gonna tell you three and actually, interestingly, I believe that you might be able to answer all three. The universe made me pick these for you. So you're gonna pick one.
So the first one I picked for you was, what about your culture or heritage do you most wish to reclaim? Something specific. Is there a family pastime, a hobby or sport that brings out your family's competitive spirit?
See how great these are for you. And the third one is, what did you do for birthdays when you were a kid? A little bit more light.
Oh, I picked the middle one.
It's mahjong. Oh my God, it's so fun. We played it last week. My brother and I were a team and then it was my mom, my dad and my grandma. My grandma's so competitive when it comes to mahjong. It's insane, and she's talking trash the whole game. And my dad's talking trash and then my brother's talking trash to me while we're on the same team and I'm talking trash to him. But it's, it's never personal, it's always fun and there's no animosity or hate. Like I'll tell you though, when I was a kid and we played Monopoly with my dad, when I didn't know how the rules worked and how the world worked, and he would take all my money away and be like, no.
Well no, Ryan, you can't keep playing because I've literally taken all your money. You don't have any money and see all those houses, those are mine now. Like that wasn't fun to me, but mahjong it's fun because there is like an element of chance, but also a large element of skill. It's also very cultural.
Also, my brother's wife was at the table when we were doing it and she was learning along the way. And you're also learning the language because there's Chinese phrases that you yell out when you take a certain piece or you win and it's just a game you play together. That sort of forces you to spend time with each other and not just spend time with each other because you could spend time in a room with your family and not say a word. You could watch a show and not say a word. No words have been exchanged. No stories have been exchanged, but with mahjong it's different. You're telling stories, you're drinking, you're laughing, you're talking trash, you're learning Chinese, you're, you're learning about the competitive sides of your family members.
You're learning what parts of their personality do they erase when they're in game mode? How they lose, how they win. Do they rub it in your face or do they win with grace? Do they lose with grace or do they lose and blame everybody else? My dad when he loses he just blames everybody else, but in a joking way. So definitely mahjong. I wanna play like right now.
So fun. It's a game with byproducts, which I love. Of all the things that you talked about, I knew that would be a good question for you. I knew it.
Honestly, that was the perfect question for Ryan! In fact, just following our interview Ryan posted a TikTok about his family’s love of mahjong and we definitely suggest you check it out.
Outside of Ryan’s sweet giggle and engaging conversation style, this interview blew our minds. His reclamation journey is broadly appealing and therefore relatable at the same time nuanced with his choice-fullness of language and expression of values that can only come from someone who has done some real introspection. Stitching together a narrative that like he says, “puts culture at the centre of it”. Perhaps most compelling is the notion that he learned from his Dad, the idea that if you don’t know who you are, society will dictate it for you.
Remarkably, this is only half of the conversation I had with Ryan. So we decided to bring you the second half of our interview in our next episode when you’ll hear the softer side of Ryan’s appreciation for his mixed heritage including his deep love and respect for his grandmothers and if you know us well, we love grandmothers!
Can’t wait to have you continue to hear Ryan’s story next time.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU
Blog postsView all >
7 Heartwarming Children’s Books About Grandparents
Stories to appreciate our grandparents, and all the lessons and traditions they have to share.
Why “Getting to Know You” Matters in the Workplace
How to actually break the ice and grow together through the art of conversation.