Representation of minority ethnicity groups is often used as a marketing tool because it makes things look unique and colorful, and sometimes, even caring and insightful. Mixing minority culture has been being used as a tool to appeal to the dominant group audience by providing them with novel cultural experience and to the minority group audience by providing them with comfort and the sense that people “care” for them. As a person who identifies herself as a member of one of the minority groups, I sure am grateful for all these efforts of minority representation. I am, however, extremely disappointed with how little “real” representation is included – making use of widely-known stereotypes to label something Asian and such so that it can grab attention but never going beyond that. Call me nit-picky, but because of this, I am often times very offended by the voidity and ignorance of “Asian” plays and music. I am quite sick of all those being marketed as “Asian” pieces.
Let’s talk about the first Asian-American group to earn number one hit on Billboard 100, Far East Movement. The group is widely known in mainland Korea as well as in United States for incorporating Asian culture into its music, just as its name says. The group is composed of four Asian American identifying musicians and they try including Asian-ness by collaborating with Asian artists, using Asian languages in lyrics, and shooting its music videos at places with Asian ambience featuring Asian actors. Clearly, all these are enough to label its music “Asian” or “Asian American” but can one argue that the group is actually pursuing Asian-ness in its music? I say no to this; it is pretty clear even just from its most popular song, “Like a G6,” and one of its most recent songs, “Freal Luv.”
“Like a G6” music video starts off with a scene of people having dinner at a Korean restaurant, but as the music proceeds, the girls in the video get changed to fancy clothes and go to a party and have fun. So basically, the only Asian culture related scene was the first few seconds of the 4-minute video. This song does not feature any Asian artists or lyrics, and yet, this song is known as the Asian-themed song that earned number one hit on Billboard 100. Asian-ness of one of the group’s most recent songs so far, “Freal Luv,” is not that significantly different from “Like a G6.” “Freal Luv” music video is shot in locations that really show Asian vibes, and features an Asian artist, actors and lyrics. The problem is, all these Asian features the video tried including are very stereotypical – especially the scene in which people were playing mahjong and drinking bubble tea looked ridiculous to me because first of all, bubble tea is not a popular drink among people in their late 20s and 30s, or in other words, the people who play mahjong for their pastime, and second, mahjong and bubble tea don’t go along together at all, and people definitely prefers alcoholic drinks over bubble tea when they are playing games like mahjong – and is shot to feature a very stereotypical Asian female character hiring an Asian actress who has nothing to do with the song unlike the other actors in the video – reserved and submissive. My conclusion here is that Far East Movement’s effort to brand its music “Asian” and draw attention may have succeeded, but it clearly did not spend much time seriously and meticulously constructing Asian vibes and characters both in the music and in the video, which makes the title “Asian” a mere marketing tool.
Along with the mainstream pop music culture, Northwestern’s arts also frequently uses the term “Asian” to PR their performances, but never really dives into it to actually make their performances live up to the title. The most shocking Asian-labeled performance I saw so far is “The White Snake.” I appreciated the crew’s attempt to be experimental and try adapting one of the minority cultures on campus to stage, and I do understand that it should be extremely difficult to handle a production that one cannot draw any connections with, but even taking this into consideration, the way the play incorporated Chinese culture was extremely poorly done. It starred the stereotypical overly-courteous attitude of Asian people by inserting scenes inside a scene exaggerating the level of courtesy to the extent that it seemed as if the entire portion was there to mock it, stereotypical Buddhist monk by making the monk say “Amitabul Buddha” literally at the end of every single sentence (and please, I have been raised in a Buddhist family and this really never happens), stereotypical Asian woman who would sacrifice herself for her husband and would say things that she doesn’t really mean just to grab her husband’s attention and affection. Honestly speaking, all these criticisms I’ve brought up with could have been resolved with just a bit more interest and time commitment to truly understand Chinese, Buddhist, and Asian cultures. If one decides to do a production on something, it is his or her responsibility to fully understand and acquire knowledge on the topic and try to deliver an accurate and truthful reflection of it, however for this play, it feels like for some reason, all these people on the production team just chose this piece because they thought it was timely and cool so it can draw people’s attention – once again, Asian-ness used as a mere marketing tool.
A more shocking moment was when I heard so many positive comments from white audience on how the play was so “accurately Asian.” We always say that we should have a better say and representation, and here we are, giving people the “familiar version” of Asian-ness, with a small ribbon on top labeled “Asian.”