Cultural Blackmail: The Hipsterization of Asian America


Very few things can get me to pop in while I’m still vagabonding and give even an inkling of attention for something in another universe. Unfortunately for you all, the recent article about being “hip” to be Asian-American, which coincides with this idea that’s been idling in my mind before I bowed out are what both compelled me to make a few statements before continuing back on the road.

So let me ask what is this nonsense about being Asian-American? With most of the popular media about Asian America circulating the grapevine, it has a very Southern California-centric mentality, and Southern California does not speak for all of Asian America. Not surprising, since SoCal is where some of the best departments for Asian-American Studies is at the university level, and most of the new media hacks are based there in that town where the archetypal person is an unholy amalgamation of Leona Helmsley’s personality, with the body (and self-righteous pretentiousness) of Ignatius J. Reilly trying to fit in a bikini that Kate Moss finds too loose, all screaming about their greatness in the voice of Gilbert Gottfried and Fran Drescher’s illegitimate lovechild.

Southern California does not represent Asian America, contrary to what YouTube and many of the opinions polluting popular and social media seemingly convey. True, a large number of the API community is found in California, but I cringe when more often than not, I come across people who are surprised there are large pockets of Asians back east and the Midwest (places I’ve lived in), and then assume that there is a gravity-like pull that inspires people to inevitably migrate out west.

Let’s look at the problem with the bad romance of 1) the hipsterization of culture, and 2) the commercialization of culture. Liberals are annoying, we know that. That self-righteous, moral blackmail that does nothing more than shock and shame those who do not agree or keep up with the futile race to see who can be most “open-minded”–and “open-minded” itself at times being a badge of pride in nothing as it loses meaning. To me, I go by a classic definition of being open-minded: being able to consider things without necessarily agreeing with them, the reasoning behind those perspectives, and appreciation; whereas this self-righteous liberal and bandwagon hipster mentality is to follow the trend of whatever seems “cool” at the moment and scorn whatever isn’t with copy-and-paste wit.

An irritating facet of this trend in Asian America is the tendency to “support” Asian America by “buying into the culture” without actually questioning if it’s “good” simply because it’s Asian. I don’t care if it’s David Choi, it’s not my sound, and I won’t support something I don’t care about, regardless of race. It is a trend that does happen, as Slavoj Zizek discusses here in this must-watch video about cultural capitalism:

It comes down to another point I find a bit unconvincing: this glorification of “other” culture. The problem I have with this “Asians are hip” outlook is that it has potential to encourage “otherness”; this whole thinking of themselves as being more diverse yet is essentially them being unable to make up their fucking minds about wanting to blend in and be “normal” Americans, or sticking out and being better than everyone else with their “Asians are hip” mentality, almost like that “AzN pRiDe” from the late 90s/early 2000s.

And part of this glorification is this idiotic idea that you can “buy” culture as Zizek describes here and as characteristic of hipsters buying causes. Drink bubble tea and speak “legitimate” Asian languages? What the hell does “legitimate” mean, really and who decides what is and isn’t? I certainly don’t need to argue with know-it-alls who’ve never left their YouTube and SoCal bubble (let alone Orange County) tell me and my friends what is and isn’t Asian because it doesn’t fit into their little bagombo snuff box of what characterizes and defines someone as being “Asian” now.

[By the way, someone once told me that “boba”/波霸 (the other term people use for bubble tea) also means “big boobs” according to some playful dickery with the etymology of the double entendre and tonal nature of both Cantonese and Mandarin.]

What is the problem with racing to be open-minded for the sake of having that moral blackmail, in combination with glorifying Asian-American popular (SoCal) culture for its “otherness” and trendiness? Well, if you rationalize that something should be tolerated and accepted because it’s another culture, the extent of considering how and why people think and act the way they do is important, yes. But considering is the first step–which includes thinking–something most of humanity has not been known to do well.

If the argument that “it is their culture, you can’t tell them it’s not okay to beat and spank their children” stands true, then what about a hypothetical culture that makes it mandatory for their adult men to sodomize and fellatio young boys under the pretense that it will give them sperm since they are not born with it? I’m not condemning that culture or encouraging its practice–my call here is to consider why people think and act the way they do rather than accepting anything because it’s hip to be an open-minded liberal.

In accepting this Southern California, YouTube underwear-dancing and idiot parading, bubble tea-chugging culture as representative of all of Asian America, it’s an insult to Asian America. I don’t know what part of SoCal you live in, but aside from West L.A., Monterey Park, Koreatown, Japantown, Chinatown, pockets of The Valley and Orange County, there’s a failure to understand geography if that’s all one thinks of when thinking of Southern California. And even if it were representative of all of Southern California (it’s not), it is not definitively Asian America–even in the same state.

The nonsense goes on, as one of my fellow creative authors here has experienced. If you fit outside of someone’s idea of what being “Asian” is, the automatic assumption is you must be whitewashed, or if you fit outside of their definition of open-minded, you are therefore ignorant and uncultured. Logic check: just because something is not A does not mean mean that it must be B. Not familiar with practices of Indian culture that are celebrated in UC Irvine by the Indian students? Maybe it’s because he’s Indian from another one of the states, which has its own culture too (which he is), and no, he’s not whitewashed because he has grown up in Kansas. What is being Asian? Who the hell knows, but I don’t waste my time asking what it is anymore because I’m happier being me instead of trying to fit into someone else’s criteria for what’s “legitimately” Asian.

Or, in my own experience, travelers come in all shapes and sizes, and I happen to be a vagabond (and coincidentally, a Third Culture Kid). Moral blackmail, again, comes when people assume that if you are not “open-minded” by their definition, you are a) a whiny bitch, or 2) ignorant and arrogant. Those often tend to be people who haven’t traveled and have funny ideas of what encountering other cultures is like and how they would act, but no amount of reading and research in preparation will ever be the same as immersion elsewhere (speaking from experience).

Try this common moral blackmail scenario too: the attempt to be open-minded, for one, fails when one makes assumptions about something like Islam and assuming it’s all the same, and any comments that don’t speak in favor of it, with an apologetic tone, or defending it from bigotry, are immediately pegged as ignorant, bigoted, and narrow-minded. It’s as if the Arabization of Islam right now is the standard for all Islam (it’s not). Again: a fine example of trying to be open-minded without using the mind to actually think for themselves, which, if they did, would prove that they are defending something they know nothing about.

There are indeed consequences for making an “un-cool” and “not hip” statement as I have here. Many will immediately rush to declare that I’m “not very likeable, (that I) hate people, (that I) just want to be left alone, and (that I) feel too superior to mingle with the average person.”

Nothing beats good references.

But I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not, and if I’m not “hip” or “Asian” enough then bully that–swagger for whatever your skin color is, or how much bubble tea you drink, doesn’t impress me or represent me; I represent me.

Now I shall leave you with a small gift for you to print out and attach to your dartboards. Enjoy.


hipster glasses photo credit: Travelling_Artist via photopin cc

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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