Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Making of Asian American

The video:

Disclaimer: Some of these things have been blogged about before and may seem repetitive, but I just wanted to give context as my experience as an Asian American in order to explain where my inspiration came from.  This entry is not supposed to reflect the normal experience for Asian Americans, but just my personal life and thoughts on American perceptions.


Towards the end of 2003, after my first semester of sophomore year, I had been struggling with a lot of things at once, a messy breakup, parents making my life miserable for mediocre grades and a lack of direction in life.  Life on campus wasn't great either, my friends and I were secluded to this remote area of campus called Edens, while fraternities and their ilk crowded the main campus.

I wish I could say that Kappa Sigma was an isolated incident against Asians at Duke, but the truth of the matter is that white fraternities for the most part treated Asians like shit.  I've heard numerous stories about raucous parties disturbing the peace, and when a friend of mine would go up to them, they simply responded matter-of-factly, "What are you going to do, you're Asian."


I grew up in the Westchester area of NY where there are a decent amount of minorities.  There is a large Jewish population and a few Black/Hispanics, so the high school that I went to was relatively diverse, even though it was pretty small (around 130 students in my class).  As a result, the amount of overt racism that I experienced was relatively low.  I would surmise that it was one of the least racially tense places in the country.  Combined with a relatively sheltered upbringing, I was blind to racism as a kid.

That's not to say that racism didn't exist in my area; when I was in middle school, there was a Korean boy around my age who was being harassed by another student with racial slurs continually for an extended period of time until finally he snapped and got into a fight with him.  When the school board decided to suspend him, I remember all the Korean mothers in the county banded together to protest.  They successfully appealed his suspension and it was a big victory for the community.  That was probably my first time being cognizant of an "us vs. them" mentality, though it was subconsciously ingrained in my head by my parents.

My parents grew up in the post Korean War era, when Korea saw a lot of economic hard times rebuilding and modernizing after Japanese colonization, WW II, and the looming threat of the communists in the North.  In addition to government appropriation of vast amounts of my mother's father's property causing his health problems and eventual demise, and my father's father being duped into a bad business deal that cost them almost their entire family savings, my parents were very familiar with financial instability.  They came to America in the late 70's/early 80's and were typical immigrant parents, working long hours to provide that sheltered life that I had.

However, with the opportunity they gave us came stipulations.  My sister and I were expected to make it into elite institutions, as they were seen as the holy grail to "making it" in America.  And after that, we were to go to good graduate programs and get stable jobs that no one could take away from us.  It didn't help that we grew up in what I considered probably the most academically competitive area in America for Asians, the NYC tristate area.  My parents also hung out with most of my dad's alumni group at Seoul National University, who pretty much used children as subtle (or not so subtle) bragging points.  My sister and I were in a pressure cooker; it was Harvard or bust.  I played an instrument I hated for 12 years everyday because it was seen as a way to improve my chances at getting into college.  When my best friend and I got 1510s on our SATs, we were both told to take it over.  My mother went to the teacher after my sister got a 4 on her French AP asking if she had failed it (she was probably one of a handful of students who got that score or higher in that class).

I still have nightmares at the age of 29 of somehow failing an exam, being late on an assignment or forgetting that I had a class completely and getting an F on my permanent record.  I didn't realize others had the same kind of nightmares until I asked my sister, and we both were like, "You have those nightmares too?"  We had been programmed with this pressure to perform.  There's a lot of pain and anxiety when you grow up and tie your identity to how well you do in school.

Towards the end of middle school/high school, I went through my adolescent phase of trying to find my identity.  I started to resent the way people viewed me as a result of media, perception and stereotypes, some of which were self fulfilling, as products of my inescapable upbringing.  But I also disapproved of the whole "Asian gangster" phase that a lot of my contemporaries seemed to go through, overly trying to be "hard" to compensate for their image of being repressed and submissive.  It felt like I had to choose between a bunch of bad options.

Going to Duke probably heightened my awareness of racial identity.  While technically in terms of statistical measures it is as diverse if not more diverse than my high school, there is definitely more polarization in college.  Students end up just hanging out with others with either similar interests or ethnic backgrounds, creating racial divisions.  I also didn't get along with the international Asians that were on campus, I thought most of them perpetuated stereotypes we were trying to get rid of, being antisocial and not really active in anything other than their academics.  I felt like the international Koreans were trying to impose their expectations of cultural norms on me when I was a freshman, because I was Korean.  As someone who is naturally inclined to rebel against established norms, it is easy to conclude that I did not get along with the FOBs.  But I resented the Asians who totally disassociated themselves with their Asian identity as well, trying so hard to be "white".  So the people I associated with were those that were in between, trying to fit in but also trying to retain their identity.

Because of the dominance of Greek life and selective housing, which rarely were inclusive of Asian people, it was easy to see how at Duke there was a repression of Asians built into the system.  I started to feel resentment at the unfair balance of power towards the "haves" who were definitely positioned to have a much better and different college experience.  I felt resentment towards Asians who were willing to "take it" because they can lead a comfortable existence if they keep a low profile.  I resented myself as I started to view Asians as how America saw them, as soulless creatures almost not even human.  I had been conditioned by so much media, programmed to think that Asian Americans didn't have narratives on their own.  I had a desire to be heard, to say that "yes, we are human, we have stories, we have lives that aren't the same as every other person like us, we are not like your portrayals of us in American media."


Part of my assimilation into American culture was liking stuff most Asian Americans didn't, like indie-ish artists like Ben Folds.  In 2001, Ben Folds released a song called "Rockin the Suburbs", which made fun of bands like Korn, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit for having overly explicit lyrics full of angst when the source of their supposed angst was questionable at best.  The main hook was "y'all don't know what it's like, being male, middle class and white."

At Duke, there's a culture show every year called Lunar New Year organized by the Asian Students Association that takes place in February of every year, during the Chinese New Year celebrations.  Although it's supposed to be a showcase that celebrates Asian culture, I decided to use it to take my soapbox and I submitted an act where I would cover Ben Folds' song, parodying it to reflect Asian American problems and airing out my grievances against American culture on the average Asian.  It was mostly supposed to be a comedic piece, but my underlying hope was to highlight the racism that still exists today against Asians although we are considered the "model minority" and show that we are not the sum of those stereotypes.

How I managed to get a band together in that short period of a time (a couple months), convince them that my idea was a good one, write lyrics and prepare practices was beyond me.  I was a man possessed those Christmas and New Years weeks, committed to seeing my vision through.  I felt like there were all these bottled up emotions that I needed to release and dictate to the world, like Troy Duffy when he wrote the Boondock Saints.

We performed to an audience of over 1,000, and it was a successful rock show in my humble opinion, as far as student rock shows go.  A tech guy there told me I sounded exactly like Ben Folds (he used to work for shows Ben Folds would perform around North Carolina, as that's where Ben Folds was from), and numerous students came up to me and told me how much they related to the piece, and asked me if I had any plans on doing other shows.  I gained some notoriety from that performance as being the outspoken Asian guy on campus.

Unfortunately, most of my exploits stopped there, I gave a few more performances the following years but none quite as epic as that show.  I didn't maintain the momentum that I had because I was too busy, well, being Asian American.  That nagging feeling of having a stable life outweighed any idea I had of continuing on with a passion that I held.  I ended up shelving my feelings on the topic after I graduated from college.


After I was laid off in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, I had decided to pursue a life as a creative instead of a businessman.  Part of this fueled my resurrection of my college performance of "Anthem of Asian American Angst" (I have changed the title to make it less whiny sounding, at the time I just wanted a title with a whole bunch of A's in it, GOT EM), and the idea of making it into a video, with the advent of youtube.  I got together with a comedic friend of mine, and we drafted up a preliminary script to the lyrics which were updated to reflect the trends of the time.

However, production in NYC is prohibitively expensive and finding an Asian director in the city who had the same vision as I did was just as difficult.  Convincing one to take on a parody of an old song that wasn't top 40 was like trying to convince people that the Earth was flat.  After shopping the idea to virtually every contact I knew that could be minutely involved in film, I gave up and shelved the project again.  But deep down I think I knew I wanted to eventually create it, in whatever shape or form I could.

As I was moving to LA, I again started my search to find anyone who might be interested.  I knew the concerns, that the issues I was going to touch upon weren't as current, that virality was predicated on being current with social media, but for me it was just something I wanted to create, it was a passion project.  So I made a few last ditch pitches to hit up anyone in the LA area that I thought might be interested in taking on the project.

Finally, upon meeting a Vietnamese director out here who had experience with music videos and loved the concept, I embarked on creating the music video that I had always envisioned when I wrote the lyrics to the song.  It was a very good experience for me overall, to just see how a concept turns into a finished product in the end, and having a big hand in all aspects of it, sound production, pre-production meetings, casting, performing, etc.  It's been a big relief for me to just make this and see what happens with it.


In the past couple of years, the issues of race and Asian Americans have been more salient then ever, and because of that, I decided to update the lyrics once again and rewrite the script (there have been countless iterations that I went through) to make it tighter and more fluid.

Amy Chua and her piece in the Wall Street Journal has been a sore subject for me for various reasons, the fact that she showcases her kids to the world as trophies of success, and proof that her way of raising children is the right way.  She alienates Asians from the rest of American society with her book, with her self righteous didactic ideologies.  She either coined or popularized the phrase "Tiger Mother", again providing a racially "otherness" by using an Asian animal to describe herself.  She sounds to me like someone who has just invested too much of her identity in her children's success, without considering emotional and psychological detriment that her parenting might cause.

Wesley Yang, in his rebuttal piece to Amy Chua in New York Magazine, doesn't do us any better.  Although there are some parts of the piece that I identify and agree with, such as the fact that the stereotypes are a combination of truth in self perpetuating behavoir stemming from Asian culture, and American media portrayal.  However, much of his tirade read as slightly misogynistic and resentment towards the fact that as an Asian man it is harder for him to get any with a white woman.  He basically says in so many words, "I wish I were white.  If that isn't possible, I wish Asians were seen as white."

These writers were writing to a predominately white male audience, and although the writers are Asian, the editors ultimately chose their content and because of that, I see these perspectives of Asians that white males want to portray and/or perpetuate.

Racism against Asians is not as overt as it is to other minority groups, such as Blacks or Latin Americans.  Because we have been seen as "making it", some Americans are content to believe that economic success is equivalent to being accepted in America.  However, Jeremy Lin has provided the neon yellow highlighter to the racism that America has towards Asian Americans.  His underdog story has shown how he had to fight through bigoted perceptions in order to be taken seriously.  In the Ivy Leagues, he was regularly thrown racial epithets by students in the crowd, where the fans were supposedly representing the elite intellectual population of America, people who essentially should know better.

Even when he had made it, some sports journalists covered news about him in overtly racist manners, ranging from references to fortune cookies to speculation about his penis size.  There was so much mishandling of his race in the media that eventually, SNL made a skit showing how it was somehow acceptable to make racist remarks against Asians instead of showing the same sensitivity we do about other races, such as Blacks.

Fortunately, Lin is a great ambassador for being an Asian American in the NBA.  He's humble, forgiving, generous and best of all he's relatable, making Youtube videos and showing his personality and humor.  He is one of the first real Asian American role models that young people can look up to and see as a source for inspiration, and not just for Asian Americans, but Americans in general.  Part of the reason Linsanity was so huge for Asian Americans was because many Asian Americans needed that "hero" to fill that void, to give them a voice and a narrative that people could follow and relate to.

I'm still a realist, I know that there will always be racism in some shape or form.  There are going to be a few bad apples in any group of people.  But when it still exists to the point where a UCLA student can feel like it's fine to publically post a video about "ching chong ling long ding dongs" (, or where moviegoers glorify killing Asians (it doesn't matter if they're Chinese or North Korean, apparently) as outsiders (, or where Duke students can actively send racist themed invitations without a second thought, it shows that America still has progress to be made when it comes to accepting Asians.  There is a lot of "go back to China" sentiment I feel exists that perpetuate these events, as if we're never really going to be accepted as "American".

And sometimes I can relate to why those feelings of anti-Asian sentiment exist.  I get mad at the Asian from abroad who comes here and doesn't make any effort to assimilate and thus comes off as standoffish and rude, perpetuating a stereotype.  I get mad at the William Hung for prolonging his 15 minutes of fame and setting the Asian man back a few decades with his off-key singing and his awful dance moves.  I get mad at my parents for doing things in public that I consider to be rude from an American viewpoint.  I get mad at the Asians who just want to be "white", and self hate on their on race in their efforts in doing so.  I get mad at Asians in American media who still act in roles that perpetuate stereotypes.

Ironically enough, I am a stereotypical Asian.  I used to be a math wunderkind, I play Starcraft, I was quiet and reserved as a kid, I worked as a management consultant, etc.  I fulfilled all the "model minority" checklists.  But just as I don't like being associated as "that poker guy" in certain social circles, I don't enjoy being compartmentalized by non-Asians who see me as nothing more than a replaceable part.  I'm a singer.  I'm a writer.  I'm an actor.  I have family, friends, hobbies, interests and emotions.  

I recently talked with a female Asian friend of mine who told me what offends her most about "yellow fever" that some white Americans have.  They would say, "What's wrong with having a preference of someone you're attracted to?  How is that different from being attracted to blondes or brunettes?"  She told me that when guys are attracted to her for being Asian, they've already put some sort of image of what they think she is on her, they've put her in a box.  Their interests in her are purely self serving, in order to fulfill their preferences and desires.  I think we both agree that there isn't a problem with whites being attracted to Asians, but when it is exclusively being attracted to their Asianness, it becomes creepy.  We both want our humanness to be recognized underneath our Asianness.


My biggest hope with the video is that it sparks conversation and raises awareness.  While many of the issues it brings to the table have been talked about before, I believe that awareness will eventually combat the ignorance that still exists in American culture today.  My goal is to be a person that American people can relate to and call one of their own without having to become "white".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making the video, Doug. Ben Folds was one of my favorites.
I feel connected with your underlying emotion. As an asian-american myself, I can definitely identify with some of your sentiments and resentments. Right now i am going through the identity-finding phase myself, just like you did. I am from NC State and maybe the only asian in my major (about to graduate). Most of all my close friends (rather, people I usually hang out with) are non-asian. Sometimes I feel that I just don’t fit in even with my closest friends, and none of them really understands what I am going through as an asian-american.
I have always been outspoken and assertive about my heritage. I think the community definitely needs more people like you to raise the public awareness about Asians-americans. Good political figures are also necessary to get asian-americans’ voice out.