When I first came across Julia Kim Smith’s “Why” digital installation," I was particularly struck by the “Why do Asians” part of her work. A Korean conceptual artist, Kim Smith’s widely varied work often explores issues of identity, memory, and the artistic, social, and political landscape. In this case, she used Google’s Autocomplete feature and posed the question “why do … ?”about different ethnic groups, an interesting and provocative way of examining latent stereotypes we as a society hold about others.
As an admittedly opinionated and relatively loud-spoken Asian-American woman, my first reaction was to angrily dismiss all the stereotypical suggestions captured by the Autocomplete. Why do Asian women age slower? My weekend-long hangovers are proof of the exact opposite. Why do Asians have big heads? Because we’re smarter than you, dumbass.
Upon second thought (and after the hangover lifted), it became evident that some stereotypes remain entrenched simply because we, as Asian-Americans, simply aren’t playing a strong enough role in shaping societal perceptions for ourselves. Ultimately, not enough is being done by Asians and Asian-Americans to proactively drive and shape more well-rounded, more comprehensive and more — dare I say it — authentic perceptions of themselves in the media and within society more broadly.
For example, New York magazine’s flashy “The Year of Asian Hipster Cuisine” spread last year received a certain amount of backlash from both readers and the featured chefs themselves. Noodles and pork belly buns have been stalwarts of Asian kitchens for hundreds of years, unlike trendy moustache shot glasses, and to call the decidedly fantastic food of Asian-American chefs like Danny Bowien and Dave Talde simply a hipster phenomenon is doing them a massive disservice.
Articles like the one in NY mag either dismiss the credible and serious work of serious chefs like those featured in the spread or worse, mask the true message of why these folks are doing what they’re doing. Baohaus owner and all-round hilarious dude Eddie Huang laments in a Q&A with Francis Lam of Gilt Taste, that “I wish that Americans didn't have the need to cut off the narrative from the motherland and butcher our culture into components for a tasting menu. You can be successful like Xi’an Famous Foods or Baohaus serving largely unadultered food that is true to the pantry and palate with better messaging.”
This sort of stereotypical distortion clearly doesn’t just apply to the world of food and dining. Wall Street Journal cultural columnist Jeff Yang recently organized “Beyond the Bad and the Ugly” in Los Angeles, a conference featuring writers, academics, and activists alike to discuss persistently negative cultural labels affecting Asians/Asian-Americans, and to explore what can be done about it. Perhaps one of the key takeaways from the discussion is that the changing and increasingly hybrid nature of content production in the media really puts the power in our own hands.
Film critic and investigative journalist Inkoo Kang points out in the Atlantic that, for better or for worse, the recent influx of Chinese funding into the Hollywood system is driving change in terms of how the American mainstream media portrays Asians and Asian-Americans. Kang hopes that “Asian/American perspectives can one day coexist in multiplexes alongside ‘mainstream’ ones,” which is certainly a sentiment that I share.
A good example is the Jeremy Lin documentary Linsanity which received a highly anticipated premiere at Sundance, having been successfully funded through a Kickstarter campaign and some good old Internet viral hype. Platforms like Kickstarter and social media channels like Twitter and YouTube in particular, can potentially provide Asian-Americans with the tools to shape perceptions of their ethnic group in a way that is modern and multifaceted. Contributing to “Brow Beat”, Slate magazine’s culture blog, writer Tim Wu points out in his review of the Lin documentary, “if Asian-Americans want to get serious about the movie business, it may be time to create studios with a real interest in supporting such work — to build, in other words, an empire of their own.”