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QUESTION: In the past few years, it seems like Asian culture is "in" - whether it's food, clothes, kung fu movies or feng shui, it's everywhere you look. Do you think awareness of Asian culture helps people understand and be more sympathetic towards Asian American concerns or is it just about commodification and money?
QUANG: First of all, there's probably two levels to talk about this. The first is appropriation to market a product. We've seen popular culture do this in spades - everybody from Madonna to the fashion industry. The question really is, do they do it in a respectful way? Most of the time the answer is no.
The second level is how deep do people investigate beyond a superficial level into what we mean by culture, how easily that culture blends in, and how much room people allow for it. So I think the answer is complex. These trends and fads are constantly declared. Being "in" to me suggests a short period of time. But the examples listed have been going on for a really long time. I think it would be highly sick and insane and naive for someone to think that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave anybody any more rights.
The more problematic aspect of what's going on here is that it contributes to confusion and conflation between what is Asian American and what is Asian. It also becomes very reductive and therefore distancing. You don't see the person. You see the tropes that you're familiar with from popular culture. So in this era of role models, the question of whether we become victimized or helped by something that we see on the screen or in the pages of a magazine is not really an interesting one. That stuff will continue to happen as long as somebody's trying to turn a dime.
MITRA: In the arts, there are a few South Asian artists who have done quite well in the mainstream - movies like "Monsoon Wedding" and books like Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. I think these do lead to a greater understanding of Asianness in some ways because they're redefining the mainstream to include us. It's a starting point to a conversation.
I just wrote a book myself called Suburban Sahibs - one of the families that I interviewed was a blue-collar family. A lot of Indians read this book and said, you know, that's a side of our community that I feel like I've never interacted with. So it's not just the education of the mainstream, but also our community at large.
Last month I wrote about a dance competition that draws 6,000 people to George Washington University every year. The dance form is called bhangra. It's a very upbeat folk music from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. Even Britney Spears has a bhangra number on her new album. So it's really penetrated into the so-called mainstream. As I sat at this competition, I was shocked that the students weren't mixing their music with hip hop or rock pop, but they were using authentic drummers and trying to make their performances as traditional as possible. When I asked them about it, they said, "You know, we've gone with this stuff for so many years and Americans are just catching onto it now. We really felt like it was time for someone to educate people about what the real bhangra is."
So I thought that was an interesting comment on something going mainstream and then the community taking it back and making it even more traditional than their parents. I think with the arts especially, it's a layered question and in some ways it depends on who you're asking, how comfortable they are with the appropriation, and sometimes the community will take back something that's their own.
HELEN: With the power of popular culture, appropriation is often used to define who Asian Americans are, even though we have no input into this kind of stereotyping. There¹s a direct line between the racist imagery of Breakfast at Tiffany¹s, 16 Candles, and Abercrombie and Fitch. In a reactive way, this can be an organizing opportunity for Asian Americans - for example, to boycott businesses that try to cash in on racist images of Asians. Unfortunately one alternative to the stereotype is being invisible, which is arguably even more difficult to counter.
I'd like to see us actually define that culture for ourselves, given our growing numbers and what I believe is now a critical mass of Asian Americans. We should learn from Spike Lee¹s example, when his career was taking off and Interview magazine asked him for an interview for the cover of their magazine, He asked if they had any African American writers because he wasn¹t going to talk to anybody who wasn't Black, because they wouldn¹t understand his work. Of course, Interview magazine and so many other publications had no people of color at all working for them. So if they wanted an interview with Spike Lee, they had to hire a Black writer, and they did. He used his celebrity and his power in the culture to actually force some change. We need to use our influence to gain greater rights.
On a fantasy level, I have felt for years that it's too bad we can't use the popularity of various Asian cuisines in a more subversive way. If people like to eat our food, why can't they absorb some culture and a little understanding? Within the menus, the place mats or fortune cookies, instead of horoscopes or whatever, we could put subliminal messages, so people can start seeing other images of us and learn something from the culture that they are consuming. Anyway, it's a fantasy of mine, and I would love to do something with that.
SHERYL: Cultural appropriation can occur, will occur, but in dealing with the stereotypes or representations that come out of that, it can serve to open up the market. Like Quang mentioned with book publishing, when corporate publishers realized that Asians do buy books and that Asian writers are ready to supply that market - they began publishing more books by and about Asians. As a result we have more books and more access into the industry.
QUANG: Let me add one thing. Look at the phenomenon within publishing of Indian chic, which started 10 years ago. Part of it has to do with Sonny Mehta being an incredibly powerful presence in publishing, but other editors at major houses have followed suit. Something once thought of as a trend - out of which came Jhumpa Lahiri's book The Interpreter of Maladies - has continued. Like the butterfly that flapped its wing in China, let's say, a passing phenomenon has obviously lived and lived and lived. And this is how mainstream culture changes itself. It's how publishing changes its mind.
I also think we have to be careful because some of the things that we cite are a very tiny portion of what we talk about when we talk about culture. Jhumpa Lahiri's books are not an example of what I mean in terms of where the more provocative, challenging, politically engaging work is happening in literary arts and production. I do think that the battle is more for that big swell in the middle related to films and things we see on TV and how people are treated. In this short time, we've already seen the positive changes of people at least understanding that there has to be representation, that there has to be some consideration for different types of casting and different kinds of quotas and so forth. Overall it's fast, and this is the beauty of America in a way.
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