From Assimilation to Rejection

A man and a woman move to the United States from identifiably foreign countries. They fall in love, marry, and have kids. They settle in a small Midwestern city and move into a generic suburban house. Their children — one boy and one girl — are identifiably American. Their hobbies include basketball and volleyball, saxophone and ballet. They become friends with Americans of every ethnicity, and are grateful for the opportunities afforded to them. Through hard work and persistence, this family has realized the American DreamTM.

Champaign
My subdivision, surrounded by cornfields on three sides, is circled in red.

If I wanted to, I could tell the story of my origin this way. But I have long known that this narrative is not quite accurate. My breakthrough realization was that no matter how much I complained about Jay Cutler’s interceptions, or said “y’all” in casual conversation, there were many who would never conceive of me as a “normal” American. Even in my own hometown, I have been otherized. “Where are you really from” is legitimately a question that I have received countless times. The myth of the model minority and the perpetual foreigner have always been present in the lives of Asian-Americans. My long-held belief was that representation in popular culture was the answer. If broader America could be exposed to more Ali Wongs, more Jeremy Lins, more John Chos, we would finally be accepted as normal Americans, never again questioned for our heritage.

Cutler.png
But actually good riddance to this Trump-supporting anti-vaxxer

I entered this class under this assumption, and was primarily interested in learning about Asian-Americans challenging dominant narratives in the mainstream. I quickly realized how much I did not know about Asian-American history, and how deeply Asian-American issues are intertwined with larger discussions of race and economics. Understanding the ways in which we are influenced by the structures of white hegemony dismantled my belief in the power of representation. The idea that our primary goal should be to work hard for slow gains in mainstream representation is itself an internalization of the myth of the model minority. Overcoming marginalization requires more than diligence; it requires activism. Furthermore, I realized that my fixation on representation was centered on the narrative of assimilation — without realizing it, I was hoping that Asian-Americans could be a part of the dominant group in hegemony. My concern with the myth of the model minority centered only on how it affected Asian-Americans, and overlooked how it is used to control oppressed groups like black Americans. My first blog post was about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, which I believed to be radical for casting two Asian-American male leads as stoners. In retrospect, the film perfectly represents the tenets of neoliberalism, pushing the vision of a new, diverse, post-globalization elite. Though I love the movie, and recognize its benefits, it does not challenge hegemonic structures — it only shows how Asian-Americans can succeed under white hegemony. Hollywood cannot solve Asian-American problems on its own if it is itself one of the culture industries perpetuating hegemonic ideology.

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I also learned about the Asian-American identities and narratives which are marginalized even relative to Asian-Americans as a whole. My parents did not need to leave their countries for fear of violence; they sought to acquire advanced degrees. Even as I refer constantly to “Asian-Americans” in this statement, I recognize that Asian-Americans are not a monolithic entity. Before this class, I rarely thought about how the myth of the model minority affects different Asian-American cultures in different ways. My Asian-American experience is not universal. While it should have been obvious, I now understand just how different growing up as the son of a professor in central Illinois is than growing up as the children of Cambodian refugees in Lowell, Massachusetts.

I found hope and inspiration from those Asian-American individuals and groups who are operating outside of traditional media and engaging in radical activism. I had never heard of “A Grain of Sand,” nor was I especially familiar with the work of Blue Scholars and David Choe. These artists go beyond simply representing Asian-Americans. They challenge popular conceptions of Asian-Americans by engaging in non-stereotypical artistic genres: folk music, rap, and graffiti art. They confront hegemonic structures: in “Ordinary Guy” by Blue Scholars, the line “we work while they break, then they say that we play too much” is a critique of inequality under capitalism. Blue Scholars also recognizes that working outside the mainstream is difficult; despite having incredible rapping talent, the group has not found nearly as much commercial success as Far East Movement, an ideologically neoliberal Asian-American group. The final verse of “Ordinary Guy” notes: “sometimes I ponder if the consequence of all of this trying to be an artist is harder than it needs to be.”

Blue Scholars.jpg

Learning about the structures undergirding Asian-American popular cultures has challenged my preconceived notions. I have moved from favoring assimilation to rejecting many aspects of neoliberalism. In my final blog post, I discussed late-capitalist orientalism. I am wary of “diversity” discourse, which I interpret as the neoliberal desire to consume culture. While I will continue to support most visible Asian-Americans, I hope to see more radical Asian-American groups and individuals make waves in popular culture. Finally, I understand to a greater degree the privilege I do have as a straight, upper-middle-class Asian-American male, and am better-equipped to recognize and confront hegemony, even the parts that “benefit” me.

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