October 24, 2021

DO | Am I Asian Enough?

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I want to start this week’s column by conducting a short experiment with you all, the readers. 

When I took AP Psychology in high school, we learned about a concept called a “prototype.” A prototype is the first example that comes to mind when prompted to think about a certain category. For instance, if I asked you to imagine a tennis player and you immediately thought of Roger Federer, then Roger Federer would be your prototype of a tennis player. Similarly, if I asked you to imagine an opinion column that combined infectiously sharp wit with compelling subject matter and down-to-earth relatability, then you might imagine Noah’s Arc, in which case I would be quite flattered. You really didn’t have to say that.

Anyways, onto the experiment – I want all those reading to imagine their prototype of a human being. Don’t think about it too much; just picture whatever default image comes to mind when you think of a human.

So now that you have your prototype human in mind, I want to ask: What race are they? If you’re an American like me, then you probably imagined a white man, even if you’re neither white nor a man. For those curious, my prototype looks something like this.

Honestly, it is a bit strange to me that my prototype of a human being looks nothing like me. This realization becomes even stranger when you consider that, according to population research conducted by The National Geographic, the world’s most typical human being is a Han Chinese man. It turns out that Simu Liu was onto something: Asians belong in stock photos, too. In fact, maybe we should start calling One Direction the “white BTS” … just a thought.

Really, though, these results are fascinating. Asian-Americans, especially those of East Asian descent, are uniquely positioned as minorities in their home country while being the majority worldwide. The global proliferation of Asian culture through K-pop, anime, etc. only further magnifies this difference. 

As the simultaneous minority/majority, Asian-Americans often find themselves struggling to identify with any particular crowd. Our subtle Asian traits (see what I did there?) make us stand out from other Americans, but our Western ways of thinking alienate us from native Asians. In this strange generational transition period from immigrants to permanent fixtures in our country, Asian-Americans are forced to jerry-rig our own cultural minutiae to stand out from the crowd while still operating within a Western mindset.

A perfect example is the Asian-American community’s embrace of bubble tea. Originating from Taiwan, bubble tea is often used as a token of general Asian-ness in America. You’ll often see Asian-Americans of all ethnicities flaunting their compulsive boba consumption via social media, despite the fact that they have no real connection to the drink’s culture of origin. Bubble tea has effectively become a cultural symbol for all Asian-Americans.

As a Korean-American, I of course have to call out K-pop on this, as well. I could go on and on about K-pop in America, but really I think it represents how Asian-Americans wish to view their cultural heritages. Fans can enjoy the polish and charm of BTS while sidestepping the troubling cultural standards that the K-pop industry thrives on. Asian-Americans flock to K-pop because it allows them to flaunt the novelty and exoticness of being Asian through a glamorous medium in a country where Asian faces aren’t the norm. Consuming K-pop strictly as a cultural export is an easy way to express pride in our Asian-ness without having to stand by the pitfalls of the system. After all, we’re not Asian Asians, we’re Asian-Americans.

One last example I want to point to is Asian-American representation on TikTok. As the cultural epicenter of our generation, TikTok reveals a lot about what the Asian-American identity has evolved into. Look no further than popular trends like “Asian check”, “Wasian check”, or countless TikToks lamenting the well-intentioned (?) brutality of Asian parents. 

These videos … kind of annoy me, because they often resort to self-tokenization. Users will show off various Asian heirlooms around their homes while some vaguely stereotypical Asian-sounding music plays in the background. As if owning a rice cooker and taking your shoes off indoors make you some kind of worldly cultural ambassador. Boasting about the small ways their lives are reflective of their Asian-ness is their way of addressing the question that many Asian-Americans end up facing: What if I’m not Asian enough?

Ultimately, I think insecurity is at the foundation of a lot of Asian-Americans’ cultural identities. We fear that assimilation into Western society will rob us of a connection to our heritage, so we instead overtly embrace certain aspects of Asian cultures that we like, and try to move past the ones we dislike. As an Asian-American myself, I also worry that my family will completely lose any sense of Asian tradition within the next few generations.

Indulging in mainstream Asian culture helps remind both us and the people around us that we too have rich stories to tell. Asian-Americanness has evolved into its own identity, informed by the unique challenges of maintaining our backgrounds as immigrants. We’re not simply displaced Asians, and our roots don’t lie solely in America, either. So, as long as your whole personality isn’t matcha milk tea and Haikyuu!!, feel free to flex your Asian-ness every once in a while; you deserve it.

Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at  [email protected]Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.