Asian Americans in the Media and an Alternative Exploration of Asian-American Identity

This post was originally submitted as a Final Assignment for Professor William Drummond’s class, “The Wire: Where Journalism meets Drama,” in Spring 2012.

Asian Americans in the Media

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(Image credit: http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/04/24/who-does-hbo-hope-is-watching-girls/)

On the first episode of the much buzzed-about HBO show, Girls, the show’s white, early twenty-something protagonist, Hannah, confronts the boss at the publishing house she interns at to let him know that “her circumstances have changed.” Namely, these circumstances refer to her parents’ abrupt declaration that they are no longer willing to support her post-collegiate, non-income-earning, Brooklyn-living lifestyle. Hannah’s conversation with her boss introduces “Joy Lin,” a glasses and high-ponytail-wearing Asian girl whose knowledge of photoshop puts her a leg-up from Hannah in the post-Great Depression job market. Hannah and her her boss’ exchange goes like this:

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(Image Credit: http://girlscaps.tumblr.com/search/joy+lin)

[Hannah] I know that Joy Lin got hired after interning so I thought that maybe…

[Alistair] Hannah – Joy Lin knows photoshop. Now in this economy, do you know how many internship requests I get everyday.

I felt a perplexing sting. There I was, Korean-American, three weeks away from graduating from Berkeley with a liberal arts degree, and guilty of the same sense of entitlement Hannah’s indignant response to her parents’ discontinuation of supporting her, displays. And yet, with one quippy exchange, I felt suddenly alienated the protagonist’s reality that I had so readily related with before. The implication was clear: In 2012, nerdy Asian American girls like me don’t have preoccupations with the lack of post-collegiate job opportunities because our lifetimes of studious diligence and navigational know-how of the education system prepare us to pull out the occupational carpet from under deserving white, female graduates like Hannah.

In recent months, Girls has been the object of much criticism based on not only its lack of non-white protagonists, but also the ease with which it unquestioningly reproduces racial stereotypes for the few persons of color it does depict. Anna Holmes recounts some of these characters in her New Yorker critique of the show:

In the pilot, we meet Joy Lin, a bespectacled, goody-goody Asian-American girl who is chosen over Hannah for a job at the publishing house where they are both intern because she has better computer-design skills. There’s also a black “homeless guy” who entreats Hannah to smile as she makes her way from her parents’ midtown hotel back to her Brooklyn apartment.

While Girls’ complicated and nuanced white female protagonists so effectively demonstrate a range of early twenties, girls-cum-women’s dialectically independent and dependent personhoods, it also embodies a feminism vs. racism paradigm so often accused of reproducing the rhetoric of oppression (see Bell Hooks). I will not go on to detail all the similar criticisms of the show. However, some other compelling ones have appeared on The Hairpin and The Huffington Post.

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(“Su-Chin is the teenaged Asian girl who stands outside in the cold alone at an abortion clinic. She holds a picket sign and tells Juno that her unborn baby now has finger nails. This part makes Su-Chin kind of look like a loser asshole, dim Conservative as compared to Juno’s hip and modern sensibilities.”)

For the most part, though, I agree with Holmes’ sense that some peoples’ aggravation over Girls’ racial depictions should be directed more to the people and institutions that have created the conditions for such a commonplace media practice than to the doe-eyed, twenty-five year old show’s creator. Indeed, the media depiction of Asian Americans as nerdy representatives of minority exceptions to the highly problematic rule of the white, male-dominated model of American success is nothing new, and Lena Dunham, in fact, does a nice job of creating an insightful, relate-able television show that chronicles her own experience, at the very least.

Hipster Racism

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(Me, left, circa 2007, in an embarrassingly unwitting display of hipster racism)

On the other hand, the show’s crass racial depictions may be more endemic to a generational ignorance of how to approach a racial discomfort rooted in events of our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes. In the recent blogosphere, this ignorance has been named ‘hipster racism.’ According to Racialicious.com, a site that claims the term to have been first coined by one of its bloggers to in 2005, hipster racism refers to the phenomenon of youthful millenials who ironically reproduce the images and tropes of racism circa our parents’ generation (think white girls flashing gang signs; casual usage of the words nigger, ghetto, or ebonics; making racist jokes) in order to collectively declare that racism is dead and they live in an age beyond the white/black spatial imaginaries described by George Lipsitz. In a recent LA Times article, Matt Pearce asks:

Is hipster racism real? Is it any different from more traditional racism? Or is all this talk just the byproduct of a generation that barely remembers Rodney King and O.J. Simpson and has no idea how to talk about race?

I would argue that millenials’ ignorance of racial events like the Los Angeles 1992 riots should not detract from the reality of hipster racism so much as explain precisely why it exists. Racial controversies of today like Linsanity, Kony 2012, Trayvon Martin, and Girls, illustrate that racism does still exists in today’s cultural dialogue. However, when confronted with such racial controversy, early twenty something like myself remain ill-equipped to address them, in contrast to the supposed racial sensibility of some present during the civil rights movement or 1992 L.A. Riots. Instead, we are bombarded with still-remaining images of ethnic stereotypes in the media. The continuous reproduction of these stereotypical images leads us to believe that such prejudices derive from the ‘reality’ of our primal, cultural otherness, rather than as the result of decades of political, and economic, systemic oppression, buried in a history left untold by television shows and hasty reporting. As a result, my early navigation of my Asian American identity throughout my adolescence remained much trapped within the prevalent media discourse of Asian Americanness – whether it was others’ characterization of me with the same rhetoric perpetuated by media portrayals of Asian stereotypes or my subsequent attempts to break from this mold.

Early Experiences of Being Asian-American

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Me and a friend in front of Walter Reed Middle School

I grew up in a relatively wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, called Studio City, in the San Fernando Valley. There, I attended Walter Reed Middle School. As a whole, Walter Reed was Latino/a majority environment, albeit the existence of a smaller, mostly-white demographic in an exclusive ‘highly-gifted’ program of which I was a part. As such, images of being the only Asian in my group of mostly white friends abound in my memories of middle school. Many of these friends often referred to my Asianness in disparaging remarks. I recall many jokes made at my expense that invoked the following stereotypes: Asians’ studious nature; Asians’ affinity for rice; Asian women’s inability to drive; Asian slanted eyes; etc. These elementary attempts to poke fun were more adolescent revelry than malice, but still symptom of the white spatial imaginary. In a recent conversation with a middle school friend, he asked, “Did you experience any racism growing up?” – a testament to how unaware of and unburdened by these mundane, but pernicious tropes of racial oppression most of my white peers were.

Despite these comments’ lack of malicious intent, I still took them to heart. In high school, I did everything I could to make myself look, act, and feel like my white peers, while rejecting most everything others had attributed to my Asianness. For example, I mimicked the polo shirt-wearing, pearls-donning attire of my affluent, white peers at my New England boarding school. I began to skip classes and my grades slipped as I spent most days holed up in my messy dorm room. I began to despise Korean food and rejected my mother’s offers of kimchi when I returned home over breaks. Meanwhile, my high school friends still relied on the dominant circulating stereotypes of Asians in the media. Whether or not my high school denial of stereotypical Asianness was a conscious rejection, my transformation represented a greater process of discovering my own identity in which traditional views of Asianness played a large part. However, despite my endeavors to unshackle myself from the tethers of Asian nerdiness or alleged Korean cultural norms, I only unwittingly reproduced the media discourse of Asiannesss by defining myself with everything Asian American’s supposedly were not. As such, I came to espouse an adopted white identity and left the books, rice, kimchi, and bad driving for other Asians to embody.

Towards an Alternate Exploration of Asian-American Identity

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From left: my great-aunt, my grandmother, and my mother

In college, I still struggle to understand where Asian American identity comes to bear in the highly subconscious process of identity-making where political questions of ethnic discourse often work to make sense of things only in hindsight. However, some recent experiences shed light on my own personal process. In the Spring of 2011, I wrote a paper on role of military prostitution in South Korean development. In doing so, I accidentally unearthed one context of my familial history that wove a fragile thread between my current self of my parents’ mother nation. In my research, I discovered that the diaspora of South Koreans to Los Angeles, California during the eighties resulted largely from the relationships of Korean, military camptown prostitutes with white, male, American G.I.’s. When I asked my mother about this, she told me that her family, too, had immigrated as a result of this phenomenon. During the Korean War, my mother’s aunt met an American G.I. in a military camptown where she had been a grocery store accountant. My grandparents were only granted a visa to immigrate to the United States because of their connection to my great aunt. In addition, Grace Cho, discusses how the collective forgetting of these prostitutes’ forsaken past identities allowed them to occupy more meaningful roles in society during their latter lives in the United States. Below, I excerpt part of my paper:

          Meanwhile, recent discourses of the camptown women have sought to move away from the masculinist, nationalist-oriented discourses of the 1980s, and argue from the perspective of the prostitutes. One such discussion comes from Grace Cho, who writes, “For feminists especially, the [camptown prostitute] became a site of negotiating meanings about female subjectivity in the Korean diaspora, about investing the female subject with the capacity to negotiate her own meanings” (Cho 2008: 119). Here, Cho’s argument accounts for the hundred thousand women who have migrated to the United States through marriage to U.S. servicemen. She argues that military brides are the “invisible backbone of the Korean American community” in that sponsorship by one of these hundred thousand women was the most common route for Korean immigrants to the U.S. since the Korean War (Cho 2008: 140). She argues that decades of marginalization of the camptown prostitutes, the collective ‘forgetting’ of their identities, has become part of the Korean adoption of the ‘American Dream.’ The Korean camptown prostitutes of the 1970s an 1980s viewed either death or marriage to an American as the sole means of escaping camptown lives. These routes are more linked than they appear since in marriage, the women often laid to rest their old identities in shame and embarrassment, and as a condition of achieving the American dream. She writes,

…perhaps it is the Korean diaspora that has been most physically invested in reading her mutually inconsistent fragments through a project of memory that projects a new image into the space of what has been forgotten…[this] diasporic “frame of cultural identity [is] determined not through ‘return’ but through difference,” and therefore her haunting effects have been uneven. Some would seek to find this woman by creating a vision of her, and others would reject her, for not seeing her is a condition of the American dream. (125)

And so, it is in the loss of self-definition that the Korean camptown prostitute is finally imbued with her own agency. Her escape from camptown life and purposeful shedding her old identity give birth to a new generation of Korean Americans defined by the absence of the scarlet letter worn by their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts in Cho’s narrative.

It is in this discovery that I relate most to my Asianness. In a familial, place-oriented history where my mother, grandmother, and great aunt all have agency in determining their own ethnic identities. In this historicized account of how my family came to exist from one place to another, I can define, for myself, a racial identity that accounts for my ethnic history and creates a space for me be at once: female, independent, intelligent, and Asian. I think it is with the confidence gleaned from truly knowing how and why I became Asian-American, that I can watch shows like ‘Girls,’ and still relate to its all-white protagonists. Because I can trace at least part of my ethnic and racial heritage through events in which my family members actually played active roles, I no longer watch television shows in a subconscious search for my own identity. Just as the Lipsitz finds the antidote to the white/black spatial imaginary through the inspiring tales of its victims’ self-empowerment, so, too, do I finally start to discover an Asian-American identity that truly feels my own through the histories of my mother, grandmother, and great aunts’ overcoming their own oppression.

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