Recently I met some friends at a bar called Park, located in downtown Manhattan. Park is one of these trendy, well decorated bar/lounges that have sprung up all across NYC and cater mostly to a young professional/hipster crowd. Like other such places, Park contains its share of unusual artistic flourishes (a bamboo grove sits in the center of the space), overpriced drinks, and attractive people. It would be an utterly generic bar but for one thing: Park is an “Asian bar”.
By this I do not mean that Park serves Tsingtao, or that people go there to karaoke. As I have described, Park is like most other New York bars in its design and function. What makes Park different is that it caters to a mostly (but not exclusively) Asian clientele. This raises an obvious question of why Asian people choose to congregate there. I do not know the answer to this, but would like to hear other people’s thoughts. It also raises a subtle question (and this is what I am interested in exploring) of whether it is bad, in some social sense, for Asian people to congregate this way.
At first glance this question may seem ridiculous, even insulting. After all, people should be able to choose who they hang out with, and there’s nothing wrong (and many things right) about having an Asian American community. And at the end of the day there are many organizations still run primarily by and for white people (by which I don’t just mean WASPy country clubs; try going to a Foo Fighters concert), but no one is up in arms telling them to branch out more.
That said, I think there’s something to the notion of communal responsibility – I am a representative of the Asian American community, and my actions will impact perceptions not only of myself but also of my communal group. I also think there is some difference in communal responsibility between members of the dominant culture and various minority groups. One key difference between whites and all minority groups is that white people do not have to assimilate. Now technically we don’t have to assimilate either, and there’s nothing actually wrong with the idea of an Asian America that both exists within and outside of mainstream American culture.
Except, perhaps, for one thing: the Asian community seems to want it both ways. That is to say, Asians want the freedom to exclusively associate with other Asian people (and therefore not assimilate), but are also bothered by racism, glass ceilings, media stereotypes, and the like. Fair or not, these things go hand in hand. For example, I often hear complaints that Asians are portrayed in the media as geeky and uncool, and that as a result, other people stereotype and form preconceived notions of us in this light. But how quickly would those preconceived notions shatter if every time anyone walked into any bar the loudest, most fun guy who was the life of the party and had all the girls gravitating towards him was also Asian? It’s a shallow example, I know, but it gets at something important. People form their views based on what’s around them, and if what’s around them are lots of interesting and unique Asian people doing their thing, then inevitably Asians stop being viewed as a homogenized cultural blob with a set of stereotypical characteristics, and more as the individual people that we are. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening right now, not because there aren’t fun and charismatic Asian guys out there, but because they all go to Park.
Fixing the problems of racism and stereotyping requires engagement, not self segregation. This, to me, is what assimilation really means: not a way for us to adopt the broader culture and ‘act white’ (whatever that even means), but a way for the broader culture to connect to us and come to appreciate who we are as individuals. As far as I can tell, that’s the only way that perceptions begin to change, and if we as a community view that as being important then we need to put ourselves out there.