Published on October 9, 2020

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Photography by Michelle Li

The most beloved things in our homes aren’t just things—they hold the stories of where we come from and where we’re going. In Conversation Piece, creatives explore their roots through one meaningful object.

As Teen Vogue’s fashion and beauty editor, it’s no surprise that Michelle Li’s Instagram feed is a virtual runway full of unexpected pops of color and mixed materials. But it’s her captions—unabashedly honest and sincere ruminations on family, friends, and home—where Li’s true self shines through. 

Born and raised in Greenwood, Indiana, to two Chinese immigrants (both her parents moved to the U.S. in 1985 to pursue graduate degrees in math and the sciences), Li always knew she would carve her own path. A creative child, she understood from an early age that numbers weren’t for her. “My family was super-supportive about it,” Li recalls. “Surprisingly, my mom said, ‘Math is done for you. Just do what makes you happy.’” When she was little, Li loved to dress up in crazy outfits and take pictures of herself, a hobby that would not only continue into adulthood but help define her creative identity. In 2012 she moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design, majoring in design and management. From there, it was straight to the media industry, where she landed her first job as a social media editor at Refinery29 and debuted her signature bubblegum pink–hued hair. 

Li takes a moment to reflect on where she came from with a little help from a jade pendant necklace gifted by her father at the beginning of 2018, a particularly transformative year. The necklace is a reminder of her family’s culture, her dad’s love and support, and that a little luck goes a long way. Here, she shares her story. 

The Object 

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Photography by Michelle Li

The necklace is simple, a piece of jade on a red braided string. The pendant is shaped like a dog, because that’s my Chinese zodiac sign. (My family is obsessed with the Chinese zodiac; my dad always gives my mom cow-shaped things because she was born in the year of the bull.) 

The Backstory 

Growing up, I felt like we were so Chinese. We were one of the only Chinese families in Greenwood, so I was always very aware of my culture. For instance, my dad is very superstitious. We always had a lot of red around the house, more so than other families; my parents grew up wearing jade on a red rope for luck. We didn’t have a lot, but we had this jewelry box that held all of our special pieces, jade included. I loved looking through it as a kid—just before bed I’d sit with my mom and admire the items.

In China, you have your Ben Ming Nian, which is your Chinese zodiac year. When it comes around (every 12 years), it’s supposed to be very meaningful—you either get really lucky or really unlucky. In 2018, it was my year, the year of the dog—and it was the year I graduated, settled on my path, and entered adulthood. To offset any potential bad luck, my dad told me to wear as much red and jade as possible. He always said that he wanted to be the one to get me my first piece, and that’s when he gave me this pendant. That year I wore the necklace every day.

After graduation, I couldn’t find a job for a while. I was freaking out and calling my dad a lot because he’s my go-to for career advice. He would always ask if I was wearing the jade and tell me it was going to be okay. I think he realized that I was growing up. We started having deeper conversations, and he opened up a lot more about his experiences when he first immigrated to America, working in a restaurant and getting his graduate degree simultaneously. I saw a side of my dad that I really loved. All in all, the year ended up being very lucky.

The Journey 

If I’m being honest, at first I was a little embarrassed to wear the pendant. I mostly wear simple gold jewelry. But as my dad and I became closer, I started to love the way it looked. I’m very drawn to the color. Plus something my dad said that stuck with me is that jade warms up the more you wear it. I like to feel it against my skin. By the end of the day, I feel as though it’s absorbed all of my stress and energy. 

These days, I don’t wear it every day because I’m afraid of losing it. But I’ll tuck it under my shirt when I need extra luck. I showcase a lot of my life online—my style is very public in that way—but this piece has always been just for me. It’s my secret. 

The Whereabouts 

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Photography by Michelle Li

I keep it in a little ceramic seashell box that I painted at Color Me Mine a long time ago. I throw all of my really special jewelry into it. It’s like the grown-up version of my mom’s jewelry box that I always admired. 

In the future, I would love to bring more jade into my home, like with a flowerpot or earrings. But I think the Asian part of me is afraid of getting scammed. My dad really nailed it into my head that real jade is hard to recognize. So I think I would only get more if my dad gifted it to me himself.

The Bigger Picture

My Chinese language skills aren’t the best, but this piece is a way to feel connected to where I come from. When I wear it and walk through Chinatown, or go to a Chinese restaurant and see all of the other people wearing similar items, it makes me so happy; I feel like a part of the culture. 

The Lesson 

My Chinese culture has heavily influenced the person I am now. Besides physical objects like the necklace, my parents passed down a strong work ethic and moral compass to my brother and me. When things get tough, I find ways to fight through it, rather than just giving up. They helped me learn to push myself. They did everything for us, which will always inspire me.

It’s easy to forget that they emigrated here from China, but I’ve really internalized it recently, especially when wearing the jade. It’s funny to say as their kid, but it’s true: I’m so, so proud of them.

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