Figments of Asian culture are everywhere. From music, films to food and fashion, Asian culture has cracked into the mainstream Western media and society, gradually dominating pop culture worldwide. However, contrary to its popularity in recent years, the pandemic has exposed a saddening and depressing paradox of newfound anti-Asian narratives. Asians continue to face injustice and discrimination which is deeply ingrained in a history full of constant struggles to gain acceptance in the Western-dominated world. And now, it’s our job to talk about it.
The Golden Age of Asian Culture in the West
Ask yourself this question: When was the last time you remember having no idea about Chinese food or sushi or bubble tea? From the simplest things as food, Asian influences have grounded their position in Western discourses with the long history of immigration and globalization.
But in recent years, Asian culture has become increasingly prevalent in Western media with the rise of entertainment forms such as K-pop and Asian films. For instance, South Korean artists like BTS and BlackPink have revolutionized the global music industry with BTS becoming the first Asian act to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and perform at all four major music award ceremonies in the U.S., including the Grammys. BlackPink also made headlines for being the first South Korean artist to perform at Coachella in 2019 and breaking many YouTube records. K-pop-related events and concerts are no longer an uncommon sight for K-pop fanatics around the world, where you would no longer blink twice if YouTube ever recommended any Western talk shows with K-pop stars’ appearances. This is the new world we live in.
Films portraying Asian and Asian-American stories have also found success in both commercial and critical departments. Crazy Rich Asians, an extravagant story about well, crazy rich Asians, opened a new era for Asian representation with its full Asian cast. The subsequent releases of critically acclaimed Asian films, from The Farewell to the monumental Best Picture winner Parasite and Oscar-nominated Minari, have again shown the prowess of Asian cinema in Western media. Even conglomerates like Disney have also “flirted” with the massive Asian population by bringing in more Asian representation on screen. Their latest attempts include the Mulan live-action, the Southeast Asian-themed animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, and the upcoming Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starring Simu Liu from the beloved TV series Kim’s Convenience.
The Stark Reality
As the pandemic broke out, Asians became targets for discrimination, microaggressions and hate crimes in countries where they are considered a minority group.
However, even in the 21st century, Asians are being discriminated against and the outbreak of the pandemic exposes this dark side of humanity. As the pandemic broke out, Asians became targets for discrimination, microaggressions and hate crimes in countries where they are considered a minority group. From mainstream media and fake news antagonizing Asians to outdated anti-Asian stereotypes resurfacing, the Asian community once again finds itself buried in misleading and inaccurate accusations and conspiracies. And it has brought real consequences.
The statistics are jarring. According to research conducted by Yale University, 80% of self-reported anti-Asian incidents took place in public places such as grocery stores, bus stops, and shops by June 2020. A more recent statistic from Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center revealed nearly 3,800 reports of anti-Asian racism, according to The New York Times. Asian businesses are also under attack, as their properties are vandalized and damaged, ridden with racist slurs such as “take the corona back you ch*nk”. An Asian-American business owner even temporarily closed down her food truck because some customers had “come up and basically just take the masks off their face, throw them at the window” and told her to “go back to China” and “stop eating bats”.
While mainstream media has showcased the prevalence of this issue mostly in the USA, Asians in other parts of the world share painfully similar stories. In London, the Metropolitan Police reported more than 200 incidents of hate crimes against people with East Asian appearance between June and September 2020. The pattern continues, in Spain, in Berlin and sadly, even in the Netherlands, where various incidents took place during the pandemic.
The experience of trying to fight back and defend oneself can be extremely daunting as shown by how Wang, a 37-year-old Chinese man, was punched and kicked to the ground.
Even though microaggressions are prevalent, anti-Asian racism more often comes in the form of verbal assaults, insensitive jokes and racial slurs, from “coronavirus,” “Chinese virus,” to “diseased.” The experience of trying to fight back and defend oneself can be extremely daunting as shown by how Wang, a 37-year-old Chinese man, was punched and kicked to the ground. This lingering sentiment can leave severe trauma and anxiety in Asian communities, taking a toll on people’s mental health. Thus, many have resorted to refrain from coughing in public spaces and even hiding their identity to prevent getting attacked.
Unmasking The Paradox
The question remains why and how does this paradox exist? Perhaps, one of the explanations lies in how Asian public figures are treated in the public sphere. Even well-loved representatives of Asian culture like the BTS members are no strangers to instances of microaggression. To date, the septet has been publicly associated with the coronavirus a total of three times, twice on radio and once on a comedy show. As the only Asian act nominated in this year’s Grammys, they were also presented as bloodied and bruised in the 2021 Grammy-themed Garbage Pail Kids collection at the height of anti-Asian hate crimes and on the day of the Atlanta spa shootings, while other non-Asian artists were depicted as fairy tale characters. The fact that the caricature cards were marketed to children makes the whole debacle even more worrisome.
One can only imagine the extent of racism regular Asians face seeing how racism towards Asian public figures is often publicly downplayed as well.
What’s worse is that BTS never received an apology. The only “apologies” issued addressed fans and “people who were offended” instead and failed to acknowledge the racism and harm that was done. In the case of the caricature cards, Billboard who initially promoted it merely deleted the particular sentence referencing BTS (“[…] BTS gets smashed by a gilded gramophone as ‘BTS Bruisers’”) when the issue caught attention. When state-funded radio stations and large corporations publicly spread anti-Asian sentiments and actually get away with it; when usually opinionated public figures stay radio silent about the hate crimes; this sends a message to the mass audience, loud and clear, that it’s “OK” to hate on Asians with zilch consequences. One can only imagine the extent of racism regular Asians face seeing how racism towards Asian public figures is often publicly downplayed as well.
“Love our people like you love our food”
With all the love Asian cultural goods are receiving, it is understandably tempting to demand the world to “love our people like you love our food”. As a matter of fact, this slogan and other similar variants have been widely used in protests and reiterated across various social media platforms. This is meant to call out people who benefit from Asian culture (whether leisurely or economically) and yet refuse to stand in solidarity with the Asian community when we are struggling the most. The message seems straightforward: If you indulge in or profit from Dim Sum or chicken tikka masala, Blackpink or Naruto, yoga or muay Thai, then you should love Asian people too. Or is it?
Not only do these statements reduce human beings to mere objects for consumption but they also perpetuate the idea that Asian lives are valuable only because of the cultural products that we offer, and not because we are, simply, human.
While well-intended, such transactional statements are potentially problematic, especially in the long run. The message seems to fulfil its purpose of “encouraging love not hate” at first glance, yet the implied logic within the message is not as pretty. “When it comes to addressing racism, commodification and consumption are flawed methods of appreciation,” argues Asian American food writer Makalintal. Not only do these statements reduce human beings to mere objects for consumption but they also perpetuate the idea that Asian lives are valuable only because of the cultural products that we offer, and not because we are, simply, human. What’s more, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one can respect the human behind the craft without liking the craft itself. Asians are not “hip”, unanimated manifestations of our cultural contributions. After all, no one should be required to offer something or anything in exchange for basic human rights.
Cover photo: Illustrated by Laura Ciamei (@curlyinklines)
Edited By: Sajal Bhateja