The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
This past weekend, I was invited to give a talk at Syracuse University as part of their celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (although APA Heritage Month is actually May, many colleges celebrate it in April because their finals and end of the semester is at the beginning of May). I had a great time there as I got a tour of their beautiful campus from my guide Jonathan, had lunch with many Asian American student leaders, and interacted with numerous staff and faculty.
I also had the opportunity to finally meet Jeff Yang, who was also invited to give a talk on the same day. Jeff was publisher of A. Magazine, one of the most popular and influential Asian American magazines during its run from 1989-2002. Since then, Jeff has published several books including co-editing Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology and is widely recognized and respected as an expert on Asian and Asian American pop culture. I have admired Jeff’s work for a long time but only finally got the chance to meet him at Syracuse.
Jeff and I had a great chat over dinner and he mentioned to me that in one of his recent columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, he profiled Keni Styles, the only heterosexual male porn star of Asian descent. I understand and respect that many people have different (and strong) objections to pornography and I’m not here to defend or promote porn. Instead, I only to point out that many of Keni Styles’ observations on Asian Americans have a lot of sociological value (full transcript is here). Some examples from Jeff’s article:
“I get tons of e-mails from Asian guys who want to get into porn, and I always e-mail them back saying, ‘If you really did, you’d be doing it,'” he says. “Nothing is blocking anyone from getting into this business — Asian, white, or black.” It’s obviously not an industry for everyone — the physical challenges are demanding, the lifestyle can be grueling and, for those prone to the worst temptations, self-destructive. But Styles thinks that the real barrier Asian men face, in porn and in society, is in no small part self-created.
“I often interact a lot with Asian American guys in online forums, talking about the issues they face. And many of them really feel hard done by American culture — they feel unattractive, they feel defeated,” says Styles. “While I have a lot of empathy, there’s a sense in which this is self-inflicted. I didn’t grow up in the States; I don’t know first-hand what they’ve been through. But I can say, I didn’t have an easy street of it myself, and you know, I’ve overcome.” . . .
[F]or someone who works with it every day, Styles’s attitude toward his penis is remarkably blase. “The whole size issue is ridiculous,” he says. You don’t just [have sex] with your penis, you use your whole body, your attitude, your presence. The moment you say, ‘Oh, I’m X inches long,’ you’ve let society win the battle of thinking it matters. And it just doesn’t. I’m not the biggest there is, and I’m not the smallest, but I’ve never measured my penis against anything other than a girl’s vagina. If it fits and she’s happy, I’m happy.”
As I describe elsewhere on this site, Asian American men have been subjected to a lot of demeaning stereotypes by the mainstream media and on the group level, are frequently overlooked and marginalized when it comes to dating and marriage. Having said that, Styles make some very good points in terms of recognizing the barriers in front of you but then doing something about it, instead of just internalizing the stereotypes and the racism and living your life with an implicit or even explicit self-defeatist attitude.
With that in mind, I think that Asian Americans as a whole but particularly males can learn from this approach. However, I don’t recommend that we become porn stars, or embrace the whole “playa” womanizer persona, or that we need to act hyper-masculine and risk making fools out of ourselves. Nonetheless, there are many ways in which we can personify our sense of pride and confidence and break out of the “traditional” roles we’ve been limited to, or have limited ourselves to.
Yes, there are still plenty of institutional barriers out there for Asian Americans and other historically-marginalized groups to overcome. But we’ve encountered them before, we’ve mobilized our individual and collective resources to confront them, and we’ve lost some battles but have won many others. Through it all and within many walks of life and personal endeavors, and we’re still here and moving forward.
2007: New Research on Race and Genetics New scientific research on genetics may challenge some long-held beliefs about whether there are distinct and inherent biological differences between members of particular racial groups.
A reader sent me a link to a recent article from the Seattle Weekly that follows and describes in detail the late-night activities of young Asian American hip-hop club goers in the Seattle area. The article itself is relatively long and to understand the debate that I’m going to discuss below, you should read it in its entirety. Here are just a few excerpts:
Pham is Vietnamese. He’s invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd. . . .
“I have some white friends who won’t even go [to Venom],” [22 year old Cambodian American Somealear] Mom says, laughing. “It’s too Asian for them. For us, it’s like family. Everybody knows each other there.”
That’s exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within “two to three degrees of separation,” according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. . . .
“Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools,” Truong says. “You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth.”
The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle’s Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene.
“A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don’t go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into,” Ho explains. “They aren’t going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they’re incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans.”
It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers. . . .
“Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That’s why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We’re constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there’s no tomorrow because we’re playing catch-up,” [Truong says].
As I said, the article includes many more details about the activities of these young Asian Americans, which as the article’s author writes, includes using the stereotype that all Asians look alike to get underage patrons into a club. Overall, the article spends a lot of time implicitly and explicitly focused on this “neon tetra fish” analogy — how young Asian Americans clustering together during the weekends has developed into this emerging trendy club scene in the Seattle area.
Therein lies the controversy. As illustrated by the readers’ comments at the end of it, this article seems to have unleashed a debate about whether it promotes racial/ethnic diversity by publicizing the real-life activities of an institutionally underrepresented ethnic group such as Asian Americans (particularly Vietnamese Americans) who have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream media, or whether the article promotes cultural stereotypes and a one-sided view of Asian Americans as clannish and materialistic alcoholics?
As a Vietnamese American myself who is also a sociologist specializing in Asian American Studies, I will first say that, at the risk of copping out, the answer is quite complicated and that ultimately, it does both.
On the one hand, I have to give the Seattle Weekly credit for doing a story that specifically profiles Asian Americans. It is indeed true that even in areas where Asian Americans are increasingly becoming more prominent demographically, politically, economically, and culturally, they are still frequently ignored by the mainstream media and other social institutions.
In other words, sadly we are still the “invisible minority” in a lot of areas of American society. With that in mind, articles like this at least show the rest of American society that in many ways, Asian Americans are just like everybody else — after a week of working hard at their jobs, we want to cut loose on the weekends, have a good time with our friends, and from time to time, indulge in some drinking and partying.
I also credit the article’s author for quoting the Vietnamese American party promoters and their observations that in many areas of mainstream American social life, Asian Americans have felt left out, unwelcomed, and even excluded. With that in mind, the party-goers in this article have sought to develop their own sense of community. In fact, their actions continue the long history of Asian Americans reacting to systematic discrimination by forging their own communities and institutions.
However, creating their own communities have paradoxically led to and perpetuated the stereotype that Asians are insular and cliquish and only want to hang out with “their own kind.” What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge however, is that Asian Americans had to associate within their own group because they were directly excluded from participating in mainstream American society in many cases. In other words, they had to choice but to cluster together.
Fast forward to today and we can recognize that almost all examples of direct, systematic segregation against Asian Americans are a thing of the past (although not entirely, at least when it comes to other groups of color). Nonetheless, in many instances where Asian Americans congregate together, we are still accused of being cliquish. The other point to consider is that in almost all cases, these young Asian Americans spend their entire workweek completely integrated and assimilated into mainstream American society. Nonetheless and sadly, old stereotypes are hard to kill.
So, like I said, I think that this article can serve a positive purpose in promoting the wider inclusion of Asian Americans in mainstream American society and to make other Americans think hard about this sociological question of what it means to hang out within your own ethnic/cultural group.
On the other hand, the picture that this particular article promotes may not be a positive one for the Asian American community. Specifically, a casual reader might read this article and come away with reinforced stereotypes that Asian Americans are like cliquish “neon tetra fish” as I just discussed, but also that we’re superficial and materialistic, closet alcoholics who can’t hold their liquor and like to relieve ourselves in parking lots, and/or that we all look alike.
That is exactly the drawback of this particular article — it presents only one picture, one example of Asian American life. In other words, it is only one set of observations about the Asian American community. But in its defense, it was not meant to be anything more than that — it was not intended to be a comprehensive portrayal of all Asian Americans, young Asian Americans, or even young Asian Americans in the Seattle area.
Nonetheless, the danger that some Americans will see this as representative of all Asian Americans is real.
In other words, the potential that this article will perpetuate stereotypes is especially pronounced precisely because Asian Americans have been and continue to be ignored by mainstream American media. Because of this exclusion, many Americans do not have a diverse picture of who Asian Americans are and therefore, are more likely to rely on the few images and portrayals that do exist, many of whom are rather biased or, at least with this particular article, unrepresentative of Asian Americans as a whole.
AsianWeek Magazine has a feature article about Hollywood’s 25 Worst Portrayals of Asian Americans. You should definitely read the article yourself to learn the details about each portrayal, but their top ten of the most notorious portrayals are:
10. The movie Year of the Dragon 9. Charlie Chan 8. Fu Manchu 7. William Hung 6. The sitcom All American Girl starring Margaret Cho 5. The movie The Good Earth 4. Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles 3. Injustices suffered by cinematographer James Wong Howe 2. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1. Deaths on the set of The Twilight Zone
Not all is doom and gloom — the article also describes the 10 Most Memorable Moments for Asian Americans:
10. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) 9. Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) 8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) 7. Flower Drum Song (1961) 6. Charlie’s Angels (2000) 5. Enter the Dragon (1973) 4. The Killing Fields (1984) 3. Shanghai Express (1932) 2. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) 1. Chan is Missing (1982)
In terms of most memorable moments, I would have taken out Charlie’s Angels myself and instead, would have included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for the most part, their lists make sense.
William Hung is a college student at U.S. Berkeley, majoring in engineering. Several months ago, he decided to appear on the tv show “American Idol,” singing Ricky Martin’s song “She Bangs.” The problem is, William can’t really sing that well. Combined with the Simon Cowell’s famous reputation for being blunt, the results were rather predictable. As expected, Simon ridiculed William by telling him, “You can’t sing, you can’t dance, what do you have to say for yourself?”
William’s response was basically, “I did my best and I have no regrets.” The public’s response to William since then has been anything but predictable. Literally overnight, William became an instant celebrity, not for his singing, but for his upbeat attitude and honest and genuine attempt to do something he always wanted to do, no matter who thought he was good enough to do it or not.
Since then, he has been signed to a record contract and now appears on his own music CD, has been written up and featured in several major media outlets, and has made appearances on such tv shows as The Tonight Show and the Jimmy Kimmel show.
However, not all Asian Americans have been enamoured by all this attention William has been getting. Some have started to question whether all this notoriety and publicity that he’s received is a genuine expression of appreciation and inspiration, or if it’s a form of ridicule and public humilation — sort of like a clown or freak show being paraded around for people to laugh at and that he’s reinforcing the image of Asians as geeky and nerdy.
In response, others have defended William as someone who’s not afraid to just be himself — flaws, quirks, and all. They also point out that in criticizing William and feeling embarrassed by him, his detractors seem to be wrestling with their own images of Asian masculinity, not William’s image of himself.
Where do I stand? As I’ve described repeatedly throughout Asian-Nation, both Asian and non-Asians cannot expect all Asian Americans to be alike — there is just too much diversity within our community as they apply to demographics, culture, politics, socioeconomic attainment, etc. That includes people (or more specifically cultural images) such as William.
Are some APAs embarrassed by him? Sure. I personally can’t tolerate more than about 15 seconds of his singing before I cringe. But is he doing a disservice to the APA community? I don’t think so. Rather than expecting all Asians to be the same, we should embrace the diversity within our community, even as we disagree on its ultimate meaning.