For this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I will take each day to pull one of my favourite posts or pieces from the archives highlighting some aspect of AAPI history and heritage, and add to it a short commentary and reflection. I invite you to check back every day for this #ReappropriateRevisited month-long feature!
With the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has come a series of important protests and uprisings, drawing attention to the persistent abuse that Black men and women face at the hands of police. Yet, even as mainstream attention is forced to focus on Blackness, a dubious narrative invariably also emerges: one that would pit Blacks against the supposedly more well-behaved and upwardly mobile Asian Americans. It took mere days for the media to distract from a larger discussion of Blackness and racial justice by focusing instead on Black-Asian tensions, told most recently by NPR through the lens of Asian American victims of Black protest movements.
Jeff Yang takes on this tired trope of Asian Americans distractingly pitted against Blacks in the struggle for Black uplift in his most recent editorial for CNN. His piece reminds me of David Shih’s recent viral article on the history of the Model Minority Myth, and its importance with regard to the Black Solidarity movement.
Meanwhile, for today’s ReappropriateRevisted, I pull from the archives one of my favourite pieces that I’ve written for the site. This post also dismantling the Model Minority Myth with relation to the Right’s stereotype of choice: Asian American cultural predispositions for academic achievement. It also ponders the question as to why some Asian Americans so deeply embrace this particular brand of the Model Minority Myth.
Yesterday, I wrote about what I called the Angry Asian Conflict (if you haven’t read it yet, go at least skim the intro to figure out what’s going on and who the players are because I’m about to jump in without giving more background). I had no idea that this post would so resonate with you all, and I’ve been overwhelmed (in a good way) by the positive reactions I’ve received from readers.
I’m honoured by those who have taken the time to reach out to me and thank me for the writing of the post, and flattered (and humbled) by the several people who, spurred by the post and my work in general, are calling me Asian America’s Wonder Woman.
"If Phil Yu is the Superman of Asian America, Lela Lee is the Wonder Woman." But Jenn Fang @reappropriate is Wonder Woman.
I don’t even know what to say except that I’m just so honoured, and I will endeavour to never disappoint those of you who decide to stick around and continue reading me after all the dust settles. But, I also want to emphasize that it is you, reader, who deserves all the kudos for staying engaged and involved, and above all for staying angry. So, thank you, everyone, for the outpouring of love I’ve received over the last 24 hours.
That same outpouring of love is emblematic, I think, of the many factors about online Asian America that Lela Lee failed to take into account when she published her first post on Friday evening outlining her ongoing trademark dispute with Phil Yu.
Middle-class families imagine their stereotypical dinner-time routine as an intimate setting when parents and children might gather over a hearty meal to share funny stories of the day; for mine, as (I suspect) many others, dinner-time conversation is too awkward to be fun. I didn’t care about workplace politics. My parents weren’t concerned about my classroom gossip. Here’s my confession: we really didn’t have much to talk about. Instead, for my family (as I suspect it was for many others), our family-time was watching our favourite family sitcoms over dinner. In some ways, we were inviting the characters of those shows into our lives, to become part of our families, to replace our own (boring) dinner conversation with their (hilarious) adventures.
Since the 1940’s and 1950’s, the American family sitcom has presented an idealized version of the American middle-class family: a nuclear (or oddball) family, facing obstacles with a grin and overcoming them with reaffirmations of love.
Not surprising, therefore, that these images — from Full House and Family Ties and Boy Meets World — are inextricably linked to my generation’s definitions of love, family and Americana. And, from its inception, the sitcom has also been a covertly political tool, pushing our definitions of those very same concepts.
Jeff also reviews many of the ongoing state-level efforts to make Lunar New Year a local and/or school-district holiday.
Efforts to recognize Lunar New Year at the state and local level have been afoot for years. In 1994, San Francisco decided to close public schools on Lunar New Year, but this was largely a response to demographic reality rather than political pressure: Given that nearly 40% of the city’s public school-going population and a similar chunk of its teaching and administrative staff are Chinese American, school representatives determined that running half-full classrooms wasn’t educationally feasible or budgetarily sound.
Maryland’s Coalition for the Recognition of the Asian Lunar New Year was able to gather over 6000 signatures to petition for recognition of Lunar New Year as a state holiday; though they didn’t succeed in moving the state legislature, their advocacy efforts are continuing.
And here in New York City, then-councilmember and now Comptroller John Liu proposed and passed a bill suspending alternate side of the street parking for Lunar New Year, which was promptly vetoed by Mayor Bloomberg as costing the city up to $300,000 a day in parking fines. Calling the bill a critical one for recognizing the contributions that Asian Americans have made to the city, Liu mobilized his council peers to override the veto.
While parking regulations seem like a rather small concession, Liu heralded it as an important step toward Asian New Yorkers getting “the same level of respect and attention that everybody else gets.”
“Everybody else” is a muddy term, of course; not every ethnicity or religiousheritage gets a parking holiday, though all the major Christian, Jewish and Islamic ones have been designated as such. But the real battle isn’t in the streets — it’s in the schools.
As Hwang Lynch alludes to above. Chinese American parents have long been enraged that classes continue for everyone else while their offspring are celebrating an important part of their cultural heritage. (After all, falling a whole day behind their peers could mean no Ivy League, begging in the streets, destitution, prostitution, et cetera.) And that’s where the definition of “everybody else” comes to a very sharp point.
New York City public schools have closed for the Jewish High Holy Days since at least the 1950s — again, for largely practical reasons: Then as now, a sizable percentage of the public school teaching staff were Jewish, making it challenging to find enough substitutes to hold classes effectively.
In 2010, the City Council passed a resolution to close public schools for another set of lunar-calendar denominated holidays: The Muslim holy days of Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha. Again, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the bill, bluntly stating that “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.” That said, between 10% and 12% of the city’s population are Muslim, numbers that are close to the size of the city’s Jewish population. Asians also make up over 10% of the New York population, though looking only at Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese, the cultures for whom Lunar New Year is a central holiday, the percentage is closer to 7%.
Is 10% of the city population a reasonable benchmark for establishing a cultural or religious holiday as an official New York commemoration? If it is, Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha should be given that status immediately. And, given the continued rapid growth of New York’s Chinese population, the Lunar New Year-celebrating contingent of New York’s population should pass that 10% mark by 2020.
Ever wonder where those ubiquitous pseudo-Asian “chopstick” fonts that are routinely used to mimic Asian languages come from? Jeff Yang tackles the history of this typeface, and the casual racism that arises from its usage, in his latest article: Is Your Font Racist?
The roots of the font seem to be an attempt to emulate the swashing brushstrokes used in Chinese calligraphy. “But of course, the problem is that they were drawing these fonts, not painting, and following pen conventions rather than brush ones,” he says. “That’s why you get these stark daggerlike shapes, that to the untrained eye, may look like ‘Asian’ script” — but which in reality simply signify a generic exotic, non-Western aesthetic.
Since they were first invented, chop suey/chopstick fonts have been used in a broad-spectrum manner to represent faux Asian culture, often paired with extremely stereotypical representations of Asian people. (“You’ll see caricatures with slanted eyes and buck teeth,” says Shaw.)
Given the unpleasant associations of the typeface, why did so many Asian eateries end up adopting it? “In many places it’s become a signaling device,” he says. “Fail to use this kind of lettering and you run the risk of being overlooked. If your sign is something really nice in Helvetica, people might go, ‘Is that really a Chinese restaurant?’ So there’s a commercial incentive for takeout places to use this typeface. And not just Chinese restaurants — I’ve seen Japanese, Korean, even Indian restaurants use this style of type, which of course makes absolutely no sense.”
This final paragraph also brings to mind the entire practice of naming one’s Asian eatery with stereotypical names, in addition to using a yellowface font. How many Asian restaurants and grocery stores include some combination of the words “Golden”, “Lucky”, “8”, “Jade”, “Palace”, and “Dragon”? Of course, unlike font choices (which is ideally arbitrary), the choice to name one’s business is often based on an English translation of a Chinese name that has been chosen to invite fortune and prosperity. But one wonders: if Chinese restaurant names are so stereotypical as to inspire multiplerandomChinese restaurantname generators on the Internet, is there a specific naming tradition (and associated imagery, e.g. dragons, pandas, cherry blossomes, etc) that have, themselves, become a Asian cultural signifiers? Further, is there a commercial incentive to Chinese restaurant owners to perpetuate these stereotypical names in order to signal their eatery’s Asian authenticity and thereby attract non-Asian clientele looking for their next Far Eastern fix?
The popular consequences of such stereotypes is a collection of cultural icons and imagery that are used by both Asians and non-Asians alike to evoke the East; and, the popular usage of these signifiers by Asians helps to maintain a sense of authenticity while assuaging any concerns over the casual racism of these icons. The long-term consequences are most galling when some enterprising businesses, hoping to titillate their clientele with exoticism, puts together a potpourri of Orientalist signifiers to build their own authentic-Asia-from-scratch. Take for example, Zynga’s new Jade Falls Farmville add-on, a vomitous blending of every East Asian icon one can imagine (irrespective of ethnicity), complete with dragons, pagodas, cherry blossoms, fishing boats, and even a shiba dog. This is cultural yellowface, at its finest.
The question remains: if members of the Asian community are in part contributing to the perpetuation of certain stereotypical Asian cultural signifiers, which are then used and abused by non-Asian enterprises to exoticize the Far East, how do we break the cycle? Do we discourage Asian business owners from falling into the stereotype? Do we put an intra-communal moratorium on chopstick fonts and “Lucky Dragon” restaurants?