Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright: The Role of the Asian American in American Pop Culture

“How do you undo 18 years of a Chinese upbringing?”

That is Wesley Yang’s central question in “Paper Tigers”, his recent feature story in May 8th’s New York magazine. His argument is that negative perceptions of Asian men “are rooted in the way they behave, which are in turn rooted in the way they were raised.” He profiles young Asian American men who excelled in school but then realized that they had failed to learn American social norms, and he visits seminars that teach robotic Asian American professionals to express emotion and become take-charge seducers of women and the corporate world.

Months earlier, Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, incited a media frenzy over the merits of threatening to burn your daughter’s stuffed animals if her piano playing doesn’t improve — “Chinese” parenting methods, in short. “What Chinese parents understand,” Chua wrote, “is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

How, asks Wesley Yang, after being pushed by Tiger Moms to excel in school through rote memorization and “pumping the iron of math”, can Chinese kids learn to be defiant, “to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting”? Because, he claims, that is what it takes to be a leader in society and the corporate world — and to get laid.

Charlie Chan, the intelligent yet deferential detective of over fifty films from the 1930s through the 1950s, has returned. Much-reviled by critics today for reinforcing Asian male stereotypes (subservient, hardworking, asexual and unable to speak English well), Yang has only given the Asian Man a slight update: the contemporary Asian Man’s English is, unlike Chan’s, very good. Also, essentialist arguments about race having long been debunked, Yang has instead taken the “behavior as social construction” approach: the Asian male is portrayed this way because that’s what Asian men are like, because their Asian mothers made them so.

But a stereotype is a stereotype, and blaming the parents only sometimes clarifies why you turned out so badly (or so good). If the point is to grapple with the pressures and anxieties of being Asian American today better questions might be: How do you undo 18 years of racial profiling by your peers? Combined with 18 years of worshipping bands and identifying with films where Asian Americans are rarely seen?

The thing about Wesley Yang is that, despite how he fashions himself, he is not unique. What Asian American kid has not been made painfully aware of the difference between their face and the sea of white faces on TV and at school? How many millions of these kids were pegged as math geniuses and repressed bores, despite loving Kerouac and the Ramones? Like other teenagers growing up in America, whatever their race or ethnicity, many Asian Americans have no desire to be doctors or lawyers, or to uphold family honor, or respect ancient traditions, or to hold their tongues before elders and superiors.

But how would middle America know? How would the Asian kid who doesn’t live on either coast, who is one of only five Asian kids in his school, have any idea that he is not the only Asian kid who isn’t a “conformist, quasi-robot”, or the only Asian devotee of hardcore punk? Especially when Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu are the only A-list Asian Hollywood stars (typecast respectively as “asexual kung-fu whiz”, “asexual kung-fu whiz #2” and “mean, unapproachable, dragon lady who devours men then spits them out”)? Also, Jet Li and Jackie Chan are not actually American — they’re from Hong Kong. What about Asian American pop musicians who achieved mainstream success? Apart from the biracial Norah Jones, there was once James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins and two members (one biracial) of the Deftones (remember them? Didn’t think so). And no, M.I.A. doesn’t count — she’s British. Point is: there are loads more Asian American kids out there who don’t just study hard and do what their parents say, but if you live in middle America with hardly any other Asian people around, how would you know?

“But there is always the Internet,” one might say — that thing which is said to have democratized the media, given voice to independent bands and films, and connected weirdos with their obsessions. This is partially true: Asian American pop culture is covered by Giant Robot and Hyphen; sites are devoted to specific scenes like Taqwacore; and blogs like AngryAsianMan and Racialicious offer critical perspectives on race and culture — and there are many more. But just as the American news media continues to be largely shaped by a few institutions, despite the existence of countless citizen and independent reporting blogs, the pop culture mainstream remains the default mode for consuming culture, at least until you go out and actively search for something else. One of my favorite albums from the past few years happens to be from a Chinese American musician, Nosaj Thing, while another is from the French-Vietnamese DJ, Onra — but both are somewhat obscure in the grand scheme of things, even if they both have a following. Such is the nature of á la carte consumption. It is fragmented, and it preaches only to those who might already be sympathetic, leaving aside everyone else.

Granted, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ’70s literature and art exploring Asian American identity did begin to expand greatly. But, despite this largely academic expansion generalized pop culture representations of Asian Americans continued to languish. I came of age at the turn of the millennium, but didn’t read Maxine Hong Kingston or David Henry Hwang until half a decade later, when I discovered them for myself. However, most of their seminal works dealing with Asian American identity are over thirty years old. Eric Liu’s Accidental Asian, a memoir that explores this identity, was published as I was entering high school but until last week I had never heard of it before.

America’s only preeminent Asian filmmaker, Ang Lee, who has been living and filming in the US for over 15 years, does not make movies about Asian Americans (only Asians); in fact, they are conspicuously absent from his films. While Asian American novelists are far from rare, few confront the alienation of being a minority. A notable exception being Chang-Rae Lee whose Jhumpa Lahiri conveys some of the alienation felt by her first-generation characters, but always from an outsider’s perspective, like those of their children.

Maybe Asian American identity has disappeared from the mainstream because talking about racial oppression in the post-PC and the much hyped post-racial world reeks of an unpalatable earnestness. As in: it is always better to play it cool when you have been hurt. As in: don’t you have other things to worry about? Perhaps we do. 11.8% of Asian Americans lived below the poverty line in 2008.

But the problem of Asian stereotypes never disappeared, it’s that talking about them became passé. That is how new generations fail to inherit the previous generation’s memory, and why Wesley Yang can somehow think that his identity struggle is unique. If Asian dudes find it hard to date, it’s not because their moms didn’t teach them how to smile, and if Asian ladies are fetishized as subservient Geisha Girls and China Dolls, it is not because our parents trained us only to pour tea. A culture that perpetuates racist stereotypes, not eccentric parenting, is what makes Asian Americans “conspicuous person[s],” in Yang’s words, “standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality.”

The real question then is why, after all this time, has Charlie Chan returned? Why did Amy Chua cause such frenzy? Why did Wesley Yang get airtime in a major magazine?

One reason might be fear. American hegemony is said to be in decline. Though this has been in process for the past half-century, an alarmist media has made the fear of uncertainty more acute. Some major talking points from as recently as the last six months include: China’s economy will surpass America’s by 2016; the Arab Spring will reconfigure US power in the Middle East; Wikileaks has exposed America’s waning economic and military influence for all to see. Meanwhile, US unemployment remains high two years after the economic crash and the US, despite the Bin Laden assassination, remains fearful of outside attacks. Adding to these recent events tens of millions of jobs have been outsourced overseas in a race to the bottom, with Indian and Chinese workers being scapegoated for simply wanting to earn a wage.

A New York Times op-ed from January 2011 discussed how Confucian countries performed the highest on tests of science, math and reading. But the model minority is no longer something to be applauded. It is at once something to be feared, like an army of robots who can best us at our jobs, as well as something that can never measure up to what has become a new American standard, the “proud defiance” (to use Yang’s words) of the individual who blazes his own path: the American rogue.

It’s no longer enough to be successful or rich, or to achieve security and provide for your family. The American dream of the ’50s — also the immigrant’s dream — of stability is a half century past, now superseded by a new ideal: being not just successful but also well-rounded, passionate and, above all, interesting.

But being the best, like being cool, is relative; only some people can come out on top. America, forever-obsessed with achievement and being more impressive than everyone else, frets in the face of economic uncertainty. Perhaps the image of Asian (and Asian American) workers as mechanical and emotionless reassures the rest of America that, with the new ideal, it is still on top. And if it is now Asian Americans like Chua and Yang who are reinforcing these age-old stereotypes, all this means is that the complex struggle for assimilation — the struggle to become white — has far from disappeared.

On the other hand, this struggle for assimilation has largely disappeared from mainstream pop culture, leaving no counter-story to Yang’s. At the same time, it’s also possible that many Asian Americans have no desire to assimilate or become leaders of any kind, desiring no more than fantastic surf or to be wildly in love or to wage armed struggle against the man. But how would we know?

When I was 13 and cozy in my suburban house, under my immigrant Chinese parents’ roof, I copied these lines into my diary:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Kerouac’s words spoke to me then as something exciting yet absent from my suburban existence of school books and civility, organized team sports and manicured lawns. A couple of years later, I discovered punk with its righteous rage, and soon after that, the rave scene with its promise of utopian love, and those became my home. I was the only Asian kid in these two overlapping worlds, but that was an incidental fact since everyone agreed that I was “basically white” — including myself.

If only I had read Mimi Nguyen’s essay in Punk Planet, “It’s (Not) a White World: Looking for Race in Punk.” It was penned around this same time (1998), but I didn’t discover it until much later on. Things might have turned out differently. She wrote:

To get our official membership card, we’re supposed to give up or put certain parts of ourselves aside — or at least assign them to a secondary rung. Differences are seen as potentially divisive. Some — like race or gender — are seen as more divisive than others. The assumption is that somehow “we” — because punk is so progressive, blah blah — have “gotten over” these things. … So this abstract, conformist citizenship offered by punk to someone like me is a one-handed affair… If I keep my mouth shut and don’t “make an issue” of it, I’m told that I’ll get along fine — and never mind the psychic erasures I might have to endure.

I’m not sure how much has changed over the past decade. Hopefully some. The thing is, Mimi Nguyen’s words still speak to me, at the same time as Jack Kerouac’s do as well. It’s complicated, and I wish I had known that growing up. At least hindsight makes things funny: I see now that I was a Chinese girl striving to be a white teenage dude.

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