Consuming Asia “Authentically” under Late Capitalism

In our globalized, post-industrial society, consumers increasingly choose to purchase experiences such as food and music rather than material things. The constant search for new experiences has led to the development of what Sunaina Maira terms “late capitalist orientalism,” the Western interest in an imagined Orient which is simultaneously exotic, disdained, and revered. “Asian” cultural experiences are packaged by corporations for global consumption. By comparing the audience receptions of a few selected experiences, this blog post seeks to illuminate the patterns of cultural consumption under late capitalism.

One widely-consumed Asian cultural export is K-pop. K-pop is a culture industry which heavily reflects the values of globalist neoliberalism. K-pop stars are controlled by their record labels, which have been criticized for exploitative and corrupt practices. As a result of its corporate origin, K-pop music is often derided for unoriginality and shallow lyricism, and is generally apolitical. Regardless, the K-pop industry has seen substantial growth in recent years. The biggest global K-pop hit to date is, of course, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (2012).

With 2.78 billion views (as of March 10, 2017), “Gangnam Style” is the most-viewed video on YouTube. As such, it has had a tremendous cultural impact. President Obama commented that he could do the “Gangnam Style” dance, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the song a “force for world peace.” While “Gangnam Style” is certainly catchy, well-produced, and choreographically unique, it is clear that its singularly immense global appeal stems from its absurd music video and cultural source. In the video, PSY dances in a stable, spit-takes on a young boy, runs through a snowy wind tunnel, and allows a man to gyrate above his prone body in an elevator. The South Korea of “Gangnam Style” is an exotic land, characterized by beautiful women and weird male antics. Global audiences watch the video, and without any other exposure to South Korean culture, consume an “exotic” cultural identity.

gangnamelevator

The Asian culinary scene has also thrived as a result of globalization. In the U.S., there are more and more restaurants specializing in Asian cuisines. Corresponding to the growth of the Asian foodscape is the rise of Asian-American food bloggers. In “Asian American Food Blogging as Racial Branding,” Lopez notes that 15 percent of Yelp reviewers are Asian-American, and that Asian-American food blogs are disproportionately common. The quantity of Asian-American food bloggers indicates that there exists a wider audience interested in reading the opinions of Asian-Americans on Asian foods.

At the intersection of music and food is an infamous music video. “Chinese Food” by Alison Gold is a product of music producer Patrice Wilson, most notable for producing the viral song “Friday.” Wilson’s business model involves finding aspiring young singers, and then charging their families thousands of dollars for Wilson to write and produce bad music videos. Like the K-pop industry, this is an example of capitalist exploitation. Beyond its generic pop melody, terrible production quality, and cringe-inducing rap verse (performed by Wilson himself), “Chinese Food” contains a healthy serving of cultural essentialism and ignorance.

The consumption of stereotypically Chinese-American food in “Chinese Food” is a stand-in for the consumption of the “Oriental” experience. The video begins with a chef talking in Mandarin, and ends with a gong crash. Along the way, protagonist Alison Gold announces her love of fried rice, noodles, and “chow m-m-m-m-mein.” The “make it rain” hand gestures she performs, followed by a shot of the cash register, directly links spending with this cultural experience. It is clear that Chinese food is more than just culinary when the waiter bows to Gold and gives her a fortune cookie that reads “you will find a new friend.” This new friend is Patrice Wilson in a panda suit, the panda being an animal commonly associated with China. Wilson proceeds to announce “get me broccoli, while I play Monopoly,” and places the dog piece on Oriental Ave, referring to the stereotype that Asians eat dogs. Gold and her friends perform a dance in kimonos, conflating Chinese and Japanese identities. Worst of all, her two Asian friends have their faces painted like geishas.

chinesefood.png

While “Gangnam Style” and Asian-American food blogs are globally well-received, “Chinese Food” is ridiculed, with 254 thousand dislikes on YouTube. While some of the criticism focuses on the music quality, the primary complaint is the racial ignorance at play. If the song featured an Asian-American performer singing about non-stereotypical food, it would not have been so derided. After all, “Gangnam Style” is not an especially great song. From these vastly different receptions, it can be inferred that orientalist consumption under late capitalism requires that the consumed culture be “authentic.” Neoliberal consumers want what they believe to be “real” experiences. Even though the South Korea of “Gangnam Style” is a caricature, the fact that the song originated in South Korea makes some believe in its truthfulness. Asian-American food bloggers mark Asian foods as worthy of consumption by bestowing authenticity upon them. Alison Gold and Patrice Wilson singing about Chinese food cannot possibly be authentic in the eyes of modern neoliberal consumers, therefore their cultural product is worthless.

If this trend of late capitalist orientalism continues, “Asian” cultural products will continue to appreciate in value. However, cooperating with neoliberalism will keep these products remain mired in hegemony, never challenging the dominant culture. White culture never has to prove its authenticity.

Works Cited:

Kelly, James. “Ban Ki-moon introduces Gangnam Style star to ‘UN style.’” BBC News, 24 October 2012. Web.

Lopez, Lori K. “Asian American Food Blogging as Racial Branding: Rewriting the Search for Authenticity.” Global Asian American Popular Cultures, edited by Shipa Dave, Leilani Nishime, and Tasha Oren, New York University Press, 2016, pp. 151-164.

Maira, Sunaina. “Indo-Chic Late Capitalist Orientalism and Imperial Culture.”

Tau, Bryan. “Obama: I can do ‘Gangnam Style’ dance.” Politico44 Blog, 6 November 2012. Web.

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