The fetishization and misconceptions of Asian-American culture

Courtesy of Wikimedia
Courtesy of Wikimedia

As a West Coast native, it is commonplace to joke about how the Midwest and East Coast must be very racist and white supremacist due to their disproportionately high white population. It is almost as if California’s diversity is so significant that racism here is suggested to be nearly nonexistent compared to the other parts of America. Yet, as an Asian-American raised in California, I find that America’s fetishization of Asian culture is a form of subtle racism that is stronger here than in the Midwest and East Coast.

Focusing on the model minority myth specifically, shows like ABC’s “Dr. Ken” and general media misconceptions tend to exaggerate the success of Asian-Americans as supposedly positive images. With mainstream images like these, it is harder to disprove that Asian-Americans fall prey to the model minority myth, especially when Asian-Americans have the highest income and higher education degrees in America out of all the races.

When I was invited to a friend’s family outing, I observed a series of racism that white Americans show in front of Asians, who are the honorary white aka model minority. In order to avoid using real names, we’ll call my friend Clarice, her boyfriend Erin and her family friend Jill. Initially, when Jill began asking Clarice about Erin, a Mexican-American, I was expecting for the questions to be in a joking manner. Instead of laughter, my stomach churned in reaction to Jill’s casual comment of, “oh, at least he doesn’t look like a terrorist” and questioning whether he was “born here.” In turn, Jill’s nice, almost fawning, attitude toward me spoke volumes.

Perhaps because I’d seen Jill’s racism toward Erin, I already doubted Jill’s sincerity toward me. During that same day, Jill encouraged me in hushed tones to close the elevator door early on an Asian family because she didn’t “like the look of them.” It still leaves me wondering why she reacted nicely to me and not to other Asians. Perhaps their FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) status made her uncomfortable enough to want to alienate them instead of treating them respectfully. My unease deepened further with Jill’s enthusiasm about reviving Los Angeles’ Chinatown with art and culture festivals. Although I told her I was an LA native, Jill treated me as if I was not aware of Chinatown’s history specifically and that she needed to introduce me to it. It actually bordered on exoticism when she mentioned how frequently she was there and “knew” the area’s culture. Maybe Jill’s appreciation seemed less honest because it was coming from a white American and not an Asian-American.

But somehow, with Jill’s repeated insistence of her knowledge and community participation, I got the feeling that I was being told what I should value and preserve as an Asian-American. Yet, when most Asian-Americans consider Chinatown to be a tourist destination, I think there’s something telling behind that agreed notion. If it’s easy to understand that places like Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and Starline Tours: Movie Stars’ Homes Tour are tourist destinations showing a fake and glamorized Los Angeles, then the same concept should apply to Chinatown and other ethnic enclaves like Koreatown and Filipinotown — where exoticism is over played for tourists. Indeed, many of Chinatown’s arts and culture event titles have tinges of it — such as “Chinatown After Dark” (note featured vendors like “Ramen Champ” — ramen is traditionally Japanese, not Chinese). On the other hand, when younger Asian-Americans tend to flock to newer Asian-American businesses like Afters Ice Cream, Din Tai Fung and RiceBar, you can hardly fault the older Asian-American crowd for using exoticism to generate revenue from non-Asians specifically.

Given these different issues and Jill’s overt racism toward un-Americanized minorities, perhaps it’s easier to see why I felt unnerved rather than flattered by Jill’s seeming appreciation of Asian culture. While I do appreciate Jill’s ardent activism for Chinatown, it feels less authentic and honest when preserving local history is supposed to create relatability rather than a glorification of that community’s exoticism. Chinatown and Jill’s mentality is one of America’s fetishization of Asian culture that is seemingly a positive representation, but is instead actually a negative one with lasting impacts like higher education’s bamboo ceiling and the unknown wealth inequality.

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