Inadequate. That’s a word that describes the narrative of how I have perceived my own value as an Asian American living in the United States. In 2004, I immigrated to the United States from South Korea, leaving behind a place where the culture was dominated by a people that looked and thought like I did. Moving to the United States instilled in me an immense sense of “otherness”. White people were American. Black people were American. Latinx people were American. But Asian people, with their thick accents and laundromat jobs, were pretenders, as far as I could tell. I remember turning on the TV for the first time in the United States, and seeing two white people, one with blonde hair and blue eyes, one with brown hair and brown eyes, acting in a drama. To me, that was America. And I was strangely satisfied with that. Satisfied with being a foreigner. Satisfied with being an afterthought. Because as far as I could tell, that’s what I was. But these past 13 years, and especially with the topics we discussed in this class, I have been on a journey of feeling adequate as an Asian American, and using this feeling of adequacy to act for other groups that struggle with feeling inadequate.
The first four weeks of this class, in all honesty, was highly discouraging. Through much of the four weeks of this class we studied the history of Asian American representation in popular culture, like the band A Grain of Sand, or James Shigeta and Bruce Lee’s films, and Flower Drum Song. We studied the effect of the political lyrics of A Grain of Sand and the rise of Asian American youth movements. We thought about how James Shigeta and Bruce Lee transformed the cultural definition of Asian American masculinity. We considered the cultural significance of an all-Asian-American film in the 1960s. But as we studied all this I was dissatisfied. “How many Americans still remember the message of A Grain of Sand, much less who they even were?” “Does the work of James Shigeta and Bruce Lee even matter, seeing how Asian American men are so emasculated today?” “Doesn’t Flower Drum Song just reinforce the stereotype of the Dragon Lady and the quiet Asian-American woman?” With this mentality of pessimism, I wrote my first blog on the persistence of yellow-face in the movie “Aloha”, starring Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper. The 2015 film, in which Emma Stone plays an Asian-American woman, served as evidence that even in a modern society that preaches diversity, white people are still considered more valuable to film and media than Asian-Americans.
But then came the lesson of food blogging and authenticity. This was a turning point for me in the class. As we studied the definition of what it meant for food to be authentic, I realized that this idea of authenticity was entirely an Asian American construction. For Asians, Asian food is just that, Asian food. But for Asian Americans, food is a both a representation and a preservation of culture in a society that deprives them of their own culture. As I argued in my second blog, Asian-American fight for authenticity not because of the quality of the food; they fight for authenticity because they know that food is the little of their culture that gives them a sense of ownership, and so they hold onto it fiercely. So when Asian Americans blog about authenticity or have discussions about it like we did in our class, it represents a sense of agency. It was the first time I realized in our class that Asian-Americans had the power today to change something, and that we were not just helpless victims of a dominant culture.
With this in mind, the discussions we had on Asian-Americans in YouTube gave me a greater sense that Asian-Americans had a voice that allows them to utilize their agency. Although not a massive portion of the YouTube space, Asian-Americans have always used YouTube to put their faces and voices online. Ryan Higa and KevJumba were two of YouTube’s first biggest stars. Wong Fu Productions have been responsible for some of the most viewed sketches in YouTube history. A key characteristic of YouTube that has allowed these YouTubers to gain such massive popularity is the fact that anyone can bypass Hollywood, along with its bureaucratic measures, to go straight from content creator to audience. Visibility on YouTube has allowed several Asian-American YouTubers to create business brands, charity funds, popular music, and more. YouTube has changed not only how Asian Americans use their agency, but it has changed how Asian Americans perceive themselves and what they can do. They believe in their own creativity, that they belong with the other white, black, and Latinx YouTubers on the site, that they can pursue careers in media and entertainment, that they can create whatever image they want for themselves and break out of society’s perception of Asian Americans. I know that YouTube has instilled all those beliefs in me.
My third blog was a result of this realization that Asian-Americans hold privileges afforded to them by both the fact that they are Asian-American and the fact that modern forms of media have opened the doors for those privileges. The first thing that I, as an Asian-American, must do is to acknowledge that I often feel that it is acceptable for me to ignore the problems of other groups because I feel that Asian-Americans themselves are victimized, so I should deal with my problems first. But this class has taught me that although in many ways Asian-Americans have a long way to go in terms of proper representation in media and society, my response should not be to wallow in helplessness but instead utilize the form of media that I have to speak not only for my own Asian-American community but for other groups as well. For example when I see the Asian-American community siding against the black community during a police shooting for the sake of being accepted by white dominant culture, it’s my duty to use my agency to speak out against that. When I see Asian-Americans adopting African-American music, fashion, or speech without regard to the history, oppression, and sense of identity that are rooted in those aspects, it’s my part to speak out against that as well. This principle must apply to marginalized groups of all kinds. Now that I have learned the level of agency that Asian-Americans can have in society, it’s not my job to pat myself on the back and feel satisfied with that. It’s my job to be uncomfortable sometimes to speak for as many people as I can.