FEBRUARY 24, 2017
I HAVE THIS FEAR that once I write about my experience as an Asian American just a little too much, I have consigned this writing to a shelf only to be read by other Asian Americans, if it’s published at all. Yet like other minority writers I know, I write just as much with others in mind. And not to further screw up these smooth categorizations with my unwieldy wrench, sometimes I write to my father, who was Caucasian. What shelf do I go on today?
I think of this as I page through Global Asian American Popular Cultures, a collection of academic articles for Asian-American studies courses, which means — if we look at the race/ethnicity breakdown of this major — it will mostly be read by other Asian Americans. Yet in an era that is increasingly interracial but far from post-racial, a digital age when national boundaries blur or increasingly reveal their artifice, a book like this merits a far wider reach — and not just because of Cool Japan or because Sriracha and Korean taco trucks have really taken off. Marrying Asian-American studies with the interdisciplinary worlds of film, music, fashion, food, technology, and beyond, the scope of this collection is enormous, with the 22 essays exploring everything from how Cambodian-American rappers have lent a voice to the Khmerican deportation crisis to the deep racism leveled at Indian IT professionals and Bollywood’s exploration of the immigrant South Asian and South Asian-American experience post-9/11, an area that popular Hollywood films like Zero Dark Thirty largely overlooked.
Such a fascinating group of articles, packaged under such a bland title: Global Asian American Popular Cultures. I get it, it’s an academic text, complete with a cover illustration of three saucy Asian-American women with layered haircuts and hoodies hugging in the corner. The essays are structured like the scholarly papers they are, from the abstracts in the beginning to the self-evident conclusion labeled “Conclusion.” Still, this collection offers deeper, more engrossing cultural analysis than the mainstream media’s short trend pieces and slideshow click-bait, and it is worthy of being repackaged and targeted at a larger (lay) audience.
The book is split up into four sections. Part one focuses on individual stars and celebrities like Manny Pacquiao and Bruce Lee, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother author Amy Chua, and YouTube/Amazing Race star KevJumba. Part two moves beyond the individual into communities: Asian-American food bloggers; Cambodian-American rappers coming out of Lowell, Massachusetts (home to the second-largest Cambodian-American population in the United States); Pakistani radio station listeners in Houston who use radio as an outlet to voice their concerns about Muslim racism; and more. Part three widens into TV shows and phenomena with mainstream appeal, like Iron Chef, Battlestar Galactica, and spelling bees. And part four explores larger global exchanges, from trends that have crossed back and forth along borders like circle contact lenses to the cultural aspects of labor migration vis-à-vis H-1B visas and transnational returnees. These sections are a bit arbitrary — one could argue that both the Pacquiao and Iron Chef essay could move into the last section, with their transnational reach. When it comes to Asian-American popular culture, we’re always talking about the diaspora.
As a reader, I skipped first to the topics I found most intriguing, starting with “‘I’m Thankful for Manny’: Manny Pacquiao, Pugilistic Nationalism, and the Filipina/o Body,” Constancio Arnaldo’s look at the broader cultural impact of Pacquiao, the Filipino boxer. While it’s clear that his success challenges the stereotype of the wimpy, timid Asian male, the essay goes further and places Pacquiao within the larger context of US–Philippines relations and a 20-plus-year study on working-class Filipinos in Los Angeles. American sports became part of the Filipino education system during US colonial rule, as a way to transform “effeminate” Filipinos into better “colonial subjects,” and boxing was seen as a way for Filipinos and Filipino Americans to assert their masculinity.
Arnaldo describes Pacquiao’s “assimilable masculinity” — tough and aggressive in the ring, he was a repentant Catholic and family man outside of it — and the way advertisers like Nike have marketed this masculinity to his fan base. (According to Pew Research’s 2010 estimates, 81 percent of Filipinos and 65 percent of Filipino-Americans identify as Catholic.) In anticipation of an upcoming match with Oscar De La Hoya, the apparel sponsor created a website with imagery equating his body with Jesus Christ: Pacquiao kneels in a Christlike pose above the title “Give Us This Day.”
Such religious symbolism invites consumers to identify with its overtly Christian meanings. This is particularly significant when placed within the context of the sociopolitical climate of the “war on terror” in which Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities have been subjected to increased state surveillance in the aftermath of 9/11. As a “safer” and less “threatening” masculinity, Pacquiao’s Catholicism is celebrated to create a “particular definition of nation and of ‘other’”…
(Since this essay was written, Pacquiao has converted to Protestantism and was dropped by Nike after his derogatory remarks about same-sex couples.) Arnaldo also juxtaposes the marketing of Asian-American versus African-American athletes, both of which rely on the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, before veering off into the related Pacquiao-themed artwork of Filipino-American artist and activist Manila Ryce. I wish he would have shelved Ryce for a separate essay; it seems a little tacked on, and the remaining few pages would have been put to better use exploring the first three topics.
Some of the stronger, more focused essays in this collection focus on the tech industry. In “Making Whales Out of Peacocks: Virtual Fashion and Asian Female Factory Hands,” Christopher B. Patterson begins his discussion of tech culture from a more personal stance: his and his brother’s obsession with purchasing virtual clothing for their video-game avatars in Saints Row IV. Since the advent of games like Second Life, the author explains, virtual fashion has been heralded as a way to “peacock” without spending a lot of money or using sweatshops. Add up enough of these peacocks, and they become a moneymaking “whale” for the industry. Comparing virtual fashion with real fashion is a little like apples and oranges; even Patterson himself notes that buying virtual fashion obviously doesn’t alleviate the need for actual clothes, and that revenues from fast-fashion, sweatshop-employing companies like Zara, H&M, and Gap have increased despite the popularity of these games. But Patterson uses virtual fashion as a jumping-off point to compare the illusive marketing of real fashion and information technology, both of which rely heavily on sweatshop labor. “While in fashion the consumer is distanced from factory work through the representation of clothing design as a form of artistry,” Patterson writes, “the obscurity around the production of iPhones, computers, and game consoles has been deeply embedded in the narrative of progress and innovation.” But while clothing sweatshops have been around for hundreds of years, “people in the Global North are often shocked to find similar working conditions in factories that produce information technology.” Patterson points to the Foxconn suicides in 2010 (Foxconn was Apple’s Taiwanese supplier) and the 83-page report from 20 Asian universities that described “inhumane” factory conditions. How much do stories like these disappear from memory, Patterson asks, or become obscured by the innocent, egalitarian veneer of the free-to-play online game?
Some pieces in the book are less convincing, like Linda Trinh Võ’s essay “Transnational Beauty Circuits: Asian American Women, Technology, and Circle Contact Lenses.” Covering the iris and part of the white of the eye, circle lenses are supposed to give the wearer a big-eyed, anime-like appearance. Võ traces the trend from its beginnings in Japanese gyaru fashion to an online push by internet beauty guru Michelle Phan and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” music video. Võ then digs deeper into the transnational history of Japanese anime characters — starting with Osamu Tezuka’s seminal Astro Boy, inspired in part by large-eyed US creations like Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse. In looking at the circle contact trend through gyaru fashion, popular online beauty tutorials, and anime, Võ argues that its cultural origins are hard to trace, “given the processes of cross-fertilization or cross-pollination.” I appreciated this cultural and historical analysis, but I remained unconvinced that this is not still another selling of a Western beauty ideal. The trend started as contacts that Asian and Asian-American women used to make their eyes look larger and rounder; that some white women have adopted circle contact lens as well “complicates a merely straightforward mimicry of whiteness,” as Võ says, but it does not change that it is, at its core, a mimicry of whiteness. It’s just added a level of irony, as white women try to look like Asian women trying to look like white women.
Most of the essays in the book offer compelling arguments and fresh perspectives on common cultural debates. In “Asian American Food Blogging as Racial Branding: Rewriting the Search for Authenticity,” Lori Kido Lopez analyzes 20 popular Asian-American food blogs to learn how bloggers work to build their sense of authority when it comes to authenticity, while often questioning the very notion itself. “Authenticity is a social construction that is always tenuous and under attack,” Lopez writes, “always necessitating work to maintain a claim on it” — something I relate to as an Asian-American food writer myself.
Like Patterson’s look at virtual fashion, Madhavi Mallapragada’s essay takes a look behind tech’s glossy veil of progress in “Curry as Code: Food, Race, and Technology.” Mallapragada questions the myth of technological neutrality, the idea that because technology relies on “neutral” facts, this same neutrality extends to a meritocratic, “utopian” tech culture, “where only talent, ability, performance, and innovation are the prerequisites for success and recognition.”
The author does not have to look further than online comments directed at Indian IT professionals on the tech job website Dice to note that this is not always the case. On some discussion threads, Indian nationals who received the H-1B visa were regarded as an “infestation” of smelly foreigners taking over American jobs and invading workplace lunchrooms with “god-awful” curry lunches. “The association of Indians with H-1B armies and the smell of curry is reiterated so often that the use of ‘curry’ seems like a code word, a word whose meaning, the posters assume, is common knowledge,” Mallapragada writes. This use of curry as a pejorative term is fairly common online, according to Mallapragada, who begins her essay by referencing Urban Dictionary’s definition of the slang term “stindian”: “a stinky Indian, typically an IT professional on H1B visa status.”
In linking this specific example of Yellow Peril fear to a discussion of “ethnic” lunches in the workplace, Mallapragada pinpoints a global reality that some Americans refuse to accept and the Trump presidency is fighting strongly against:
Although mainstream America needs its immigrant workforce to keep the digital capitalist system working smoothly, it is as if it will not be forced into a serious engagement with what that association means for its shifting cultural identity. The presence of a transnational labor force in the United States changes not just the political and financial domains of work but also, and perhaps most crucially, the cultural and social dimensions of work cultures and workplace practices.
The discussions and experiences in Global Asian America Popular Cultures are too important and far-reaching not to be shared beyond the world of an Asian-American studies class, just like the discussions and experiences of Asian Americans are too important and far-reaching not to be shared beyond an allotted bookstore shelf. When we deem something too niche, how much is lost?