Sunday Apr 17

Storm the Gates: Jeff Yang on the eMerging Asian America


Saturday April 16th was the date for the Fifth Annual New York City Asian American Student Conference, a student run, student led event run by a coalition of New York City schools. NYCAASC, which is part of the ongoing Asian Heritage Month programming, is an amazing event- due mainly to the unrenumerated blood, sweat and tears poured into it by the executive board, members and volunteers. But NYCAASC is also an incredible resource, for scholars of Asian/Pacific/American issues, A/P/A students but also people who are interested in the evolving political and social fabric of this country.
Jeff Yang, is, well is there really a word that could encompass him? This man is the founder of Amagazine which was literally the first publication for Asian Americans by Asian Americans. He writes a column for the San Francisco Gate Chronicle called AsianPop, edited the first Asian American superhero anthology Secret Identities, blogs all over the internet and he does all of this as a hobby. He (like many other Asian American cultural standard bearers by the by) is a trend analyst by day and some sort of supercharged dynamo at night. I walked in when he was explaining that part of the writing process of Jackie Chan’s biography was interpreting his hand gestures in a series of interviews Jeff did while trapising around sets with him.
As Jeff pointed out, the dialogue of the 2010 Political races in this country proves that the theme of ‘the alien Asian’ is still alive and well (Nikki Haley’s race for the governorship of South Carolina still comes to mind. A senior Republican, i.e. someone from her party, upon hearing that she, a Sikh-American, won the ticket remarked “We already have a raghead in the White House, are we going to have another one here!?”) .
Jeff walked his rapt audience through the ins and outs of racial discrimination against Asians in the United States, covering about two hundred years of history from Chinese immigration in the late 1800’s to today. He identified the change in immigration statutes in 1965, which eliminated the quota system for Asians that had barred so many from coming to the States; as being the moment in American conciousness where Asia was defined as the “new, new World” and Asians “the new, new people”.
In the 1980’s, came the “Model Minority” myth, albatross, what have you. Jeff suggested, as have others, that this was considered a kind of olive branch moment. To borrow from the Arab-American comedian Dean Obedallah- we were the peaceful, friendly minority.   
The 1990’s marked the dominance of multiculturalist mindset, in the sense that “an open war around culture” was storming the discourse.
Multiculturalism is considered by some people in the discussion, though certainly not all, to be the softest of imperialisms by creating and demanding adherence to token categories. Multiculturalism is about being ‘with it’, with coffee table books, curios that you bought along a dusty road side and your culinary appreciation for ‘curry’.

(To lay this to rest: there is no food called curry in the Indian culinary lexicon. The only place where curry exists is the U.K., where it lingers as an imperial relic of their racism and destruction on the subcontinent. Period).

Who can capitalize, brand, and sometimes inadvertently (and often deliberately) fetishsize this demographic fastest? Only time will tell!   

The part that really fascinated me was his description of the 2000’s as the rise of metaculturalism. I have never heard anyone use this term before but it is apt beyond words. Jeff Yang described it as the moment when “identity politics become more complicated, fluid and less discrete. Self-definitions have emerged”. There is a blurring in the lines between local and transnational, Asian Americans and Asians. I think my favorite part of the talk was when he broke it down like this:

“Asians are…                 ‘Asian’ is
    multiculturalists               an expression
    metaculturalists               an option ”

Well…maybe not that far. There’s all kind of racism out there and will always be- but how loud that element is and how much sway it holds is always up for debate. We are a cosmopolitan peoples, and increasingly a bigger slice of the pie. In 2040, the United States will be minority white and although a small percentage of that will be an Asian American presence in 2050 Asia will account for 59% of the world’s population. Does that necessarily mean anything? Who knows, but it is a provocative thought.

And p.s. Asian America might well become the kind of polyglot that we strive to envision. By 2020, it is predicted that 1 out of 5 Asians in America will be multiracial and by 2050 that fraction has jumped to 1 in 3. Then there are, what Jeff called, ABC’s- Asians By Choice (too late! He’s got the rights for that book), people who choose to embrace Asian-ness as a lifestyle choice.

“Being Asian isn’t a liability, its a renewable resource,” Jeff said, “it’s sustainable or something”.
Indeed. Jeff closed his speech by talking about the subject that, acquaintance has led me to believe, is close to his heart- pop culture.
Basically Jeff said that the paradigmatic approach to pop culture success- paying dues, breaking in, being given an opportunity- is archaic and not actually how it goes down. He played us a brilliant mashup of Asian American artists, from Far East Movement, to Das Racist, to Vienna Tieng, from hip hop to alternative piano ballads, to underscore his point. A) that there is an incredible range of talent in Asian America, B) that no one gave these artists an opportunity they had to work for it every day.

“If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em”. Many of these artists survive by building their own following, their own tribe- because a tribe will look after their own. To mix a few metaphors, if we wait to be invited into the castle that train will leave the station.

eMerging was definitely the theme of Jeff’s speech, the internet, YouTube- all of these are tools by which Asian Americans can assert their voices in this cultural project. Four years ago, I interviewed Wong Fu Productions for GenerAsian and I remember Ted Fu saying to me that without YouTube they never would have made it.

So just you know, think about it. People are coming up from around all the time, and the important thing is that we remember each other and keep building connections.    

Ready? Let’s burn it all down.

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