After writing the first two posts on Asian 2.0 I’ve decided that listing and describing the myriad of Asian media influences in my life would prove both long-winded and inconclusive, as the exact sentiments I am wishing to express are unclear even to myself.
And so, let’s skip to the heart of the matter. Here is my proposal for the development of a new media culture that I think has potential synergy to it:
At it’s crux, this media culture is based on more than the desire to see oneself, insofar as one views him or herself as Asian, represented to the exact way and degree as individuals in the majority culture are represented. Nor is it simply about inclusion in the majority. There are those that identify strongly as part of the majority culture and to which this new culture will have no apparent or immediate appeal. This culture is about utilizing the unique condition of a particular group to push for a new way of looking at oneself in relation to the group, the society at large, and also oneself as well.
There is a common phrase used to describe the Asian American experience: Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? It’s a notion I encountered in academia, where ethnic studies is rooted in the ideas of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the term Asian American was promoted during this time as an alternative to Oriental, a term seen as somewhat derogatory due to its connection to colonialism. One could somewhat argue that these two terms and the phrase mentioned before them are somewhat analogous. Oriental is to foreign, from a Western perspective at least, as American is to white for many people in the US and abroad, for better or worse.
One thing that is sought with this new identity is a means to bypass the academic and similar discourses surrounding the Asian American experience. Not that these discussions aren’t of value. Quite the opposite, they are rife with insight into the condition of those included in the umbrella Asian American demographic. But there are apparent limits to the utility of such discussions due to the constraints of the broader discussion on race and ethnicity to which they belong to.
One need only look at the recent Gates controversy and ongoing Sotomayor confirmation hearing to understand the limits of this broader discourse. In the first case, we have each side of the dispute backing relatively polar positions, with each side believing they are clearly in the right. Many of Gates’ supporters use the argument that there was no legitimate reason to arrest him, that his reaction was justified given how black people are treated by police every day across the country, and that the arrest probably would not have occurred to the 60+ year old handicapped professor if he were simply a few shades lighter than he is. Officer Crowley supporters contend that he was simply doing his job and that Gates’ own racial prejudices were the principal instigating factor behind his arrest. Meanwhile, Sotomayor would face strong accusations of reverse racism from the GOP due to her comment that a wise Latina women would reach better conclusions than a white male given the richness of her life experiences.
It’s interesting that both controversies feature accusations of reverse racism towards white people. Regardless of which side you stand on either story, I think that taken together the stories and the ongoing discourses that have followed highlight just how difficult it is for many of the members in the majority culture to understand and empathize with individuals of a minority culture and the various social inequalities they must deal with. Without this understanding and empathy, no degree of militantism, defiance, or ideological opposition will ever appear justified in the eyes of members of the majority culture, and for this reason I think we must turn back the clock and unroot the ‘Asian American’ identity a bit, to find something else to ground our shared experience in outside of the ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement.
What is left to root this identity in? One perhaps unintuitive area to root this identity is in the modern history of Asia itself. The histories of colonization, modernization, and most recently globalisation of Asia are forever tied to the experience of Asians in America. The first significant wave of immigration into the United States occurred in the mid-1800s, as many Chinese and Japanese would immigrate because of poor economies back home. Coincidentally, it is around this time that two significant encounters between Asia and the West would occur. Britain and China would battle over Britain’s right to sell opium to China in the First Opium War of 1840, while the Perry Expeditions in the early 1850s would coerce the Japanese to open up trade with the US. The West’s use of military might to force desirable trade agreements with Japan and China would set up a social imbalance between the two regions that arguably still exists on some levels today.
In the 20th century we likewise see Asian immigration to the US as greatly being tied to encounters between Asia and the West. Filipino immigration would rise significantly as a result of its new status as an American colony at the turn of the century. Waves of Vietnamese and Korean immigrants would follow the Vietnam and Korean Wars, while Cambodians and Laotian immigration would rise following the political, social, and economic turmoil their countries encountered as a result of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile Taiwan immigration would skyrocket as a result of the political turmoil on the island that was due in no small part to mainland China’s struggle to swiftly transition from a dynastic definition of its country to the modern definition of the Western nation-state.
And so for us Asians, how we or those before us ended up in America can often be linked in significant ways to the historical relationship between Asia and the West, a relationship founded upon imposed socio-economic inequalities by the West towards Asia. It is a relatively lengthy and complex relationship that is not part of the dominant narrative of America’s history that is taught to every child growing up in America. But it is an important relationship that is full of insight into the condition of Asians in America, and perhaps elsewhere.