Growing up Korean American in a liberal Massachusetts town, I was aware that I was Asian, but never fully understood the implications and impact of race. As this was my very first Asian American course, I expected this class to simply remain a fun opportunity to watch movies and browse music. I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did. In essence, I learned to perform textual analysis with an intersectional lens and pushed my conceptual understanding of the Asian American community and culture.
Personally, I’ve always felt a disconnection between the visibility of my Asian looks and my American self. This dichotomy and separation was supported by my two lives: my Korean one at home and my American one at school. For example, my avid consumption of Korean dramas and music was something to be embarrassed about in front of my non-Asian friends, but a way to connect with my parents and Asian American friends. I turned to media to approach my racial identity, but as American mainstream media didn’t have many Asian faces, I used YouTube, my version of TV.
YouTube, an independent media platform, has allowed many Asian Americans to gain popularity. 88rising is a global media brand that recently caught my eye and discussed in my first blog post. 88rising presents a transnational and pan-ethnic hip hop scene, hybridizing the East and West through grassroots music production. Its alternative platform allows artists to create their own original art without focusing on marketing to the mainstream, yet this cultivation of uniqueness has produced viral artists such as Rich Chigga. 88rising rebels against dominant hegemonic powers as their popularity and hybridity redefine the hegemonic term, “Asian/American”. It particularly defies the “model minority” and hegemonic femininity stereotypes. They present a normalization of Asians in popular culture that doesn’t align with “Asian value” stereotypes, such as being a good student or joining the professional suit-and-tie world. In addition, the male artists of 88rising are not passive or feminine in mannerisms or swagger, taking charge of their masculinity. A flipside of the masculinity demonstrated is that it’s very “straitjacket”. Paired with 88rising’s portrayal of Asian women, these straitjacket sexualities perpetuate the heteronormativity present in Eastern cultures. For example, Lily Maymac is a Filipina model featured in 88rising music videos but remains an object present only for her body with no dialogue or agency, playing into hegemonic femininity and Orientalism. Like Linda Lo of Flower Drum Song, she perpetuates the stereotype caricature of an overly-sexualized, pretty Asian woman. Although 88rising does so much to fight hegemonic powers in terms of race by bringing Asian faces to the hip hop scene, it fails to fight hegemonic sexuality and gender norms.
Moving from one liberal bubble to another liberal bubble of Northwestern, I’m privileged enough to say I’ve been more directly faced with issues of race for the first time, particularly regarding the racial mundane. Obviously, I’d heard stereotypical Asian jokes of slanted eyes and being the math whiz, but I never felt defined by my race. At Northwestern, my non-Asian friends would joke around with me and always end up joking about my Asian-ness. This type of humor stems from stereotypes perpetuated by Asian American representation in mainstream media, particularly movies. In my second blog post, I explored the works of Ken Jeong. His character in the Hangover series has been criticized for over-the-top performances that perpetuate the de-masculinized and irrational Oriental stereotype, playing into hegemonic feminisms and Orientalism. On the other hand, his TV sitcom, “Dr. Ken,” presents a more three-dimensional character. Although his character is a doctor, he doesn’t play into the “model minority” stereotype, demonstrating his shortcomings and normality. Despite this, he has faced criticism for using self-deprecating humor, perpetuating hegemonic femininity stereotypes. Self-deprecating humor is expected to be in the sitcom bag-of-tricks, but, because Jeong is Asian, the visibility of the “Asian body” allows racialization of anything he does – the reality of the racial mundane. I personally have not found an effective way to combat this except to restrict my responses to discourage that type of “humor”. Sometimes, I’ve thought that it’d be nice to interact with my friends without race visibility, focusing on my substance, ignoring my looks. In special cases, it’s possible.
My third blog post was on Run River North (RRN), a fully Korean-American indie folk-rock band who don’t necessarily face stereotypic expectations as their music fronts their image. As the indie folk-rock genre is white-dominated, there is no expectation that they would be people of color. Hearing their music before seeing the band members would help listeners accept their authenticity in American music, ignoring the “forever foreigner” view. However, this may also be a neoliberalist thought as current public demonstrations of acceptance and diversity can perpetuate a false sense of a “post-racial” era. Since race has a lot to do with RRN’s background and grassroots organization story, I don’t doubt that there are people who see RRN’s race as a reason to deny their authenticity. This further supports reason to get more Asian/American representation in mainstream media so that Asian faces become a norm. It would defy the model minority myth and inspire other Asian/Americans to follow their dreams.
This class allowed me to understand the importance of getting involved socially and politically to support Asian American representation, visibility, and normalization in mass culture. Personally, I have started with educating my own friends. I’ve expressed my discomfort about racist jokes, discussed my Korean heritage, and shared my love of Korean music. I’ve found that the more I share detailed aspects of Korean culture, the less my friends can brush it off with an Asian stereotype. As I have become more self-aware of my racial identity, the more three-dimensional Korean, if not Asian, culture has become for my friends. Although I am more than my race, my identity remains Asian American and I realize that I should actively play a role in the Asian American community to help bring awareness and fight oppressive systematic powers. Ultimately, I’m left with a sense of power and agency that I have just begun to comprehend.