Houston Community News >> What does Asian mean to you?

5/16/2006 Houston (by Jeff Yang) -- "What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word Asian?"

Bad drivers. Zhang Ziyi. The good kid who can do no wrong. Banyan trees and animal intestines. Driving souped-up Hondas. My gambling grandfather. Adoption. Pocky. Really good food, because Asians seem to be obsessed with food. Hello Kitty. Chicken bones. Incense. Wedding banquets.

If there's one thing my unscientific survey made clear, it's that Asian means many things to many people. That's because, for much of Asia's history, it's been pointless to refer to Asian culture, Asian heritage or Asian identity because Asians never thought of themselves as Asian -- they thought of themselves as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian and, often, as members of even more granular constituencies.

"My parents would describe themselves as Indian American when talking to non-Indians," says Parag Mehta, a political staffer working in Washington, D.C. "Among Indians, they'd describe themselves as Gujarati -- the state in India from which my peeps come. I always described myself as Indian American right up until I started working in national politics, when I started using the term Asian American. Now I do think of myself as Asian American -- though I'm not sure that Indian people are always accepted in that terminology."

He's right. Though Asian American political coalitions always incorporate South Asians -- strength in numbers -- East Asians don't do the best job of outreaching to Desist socially and culturally (and, to be fair, the reverse is also true). But the idea of pan-Asian American solidarity is a relatively new one. The term Asian American was first popularized in the late '60s, making it about the same age as I am -- meaning that it's really still quite young. (Which is what I tell myself each morning when I look in the mirror.)

So given that Asian America has had just 38 years to grow, has it gotten to the point yet where we can define it? Has it really evolved and developed enough to be mature and meaningful? Some respondents acknowledge that Asian identity is still going through a gawky puberty, but maintain that it's headed for one of those junior-year prom-queen transformations. "Asians don't always agree on every political, economic and social issue," says Jason Pu, founder of L.A.-based jd8 Records. "But I believe there's an Asian American identity that's in the adolescence of its formation. There's a growing social consciousness among all Asian Americans -- a collective 'We're all in this together.'"

Others experience Asianness as something fundamental, bone-deep and natural, like breathing. "Every morning I wake up knowing that I'm a woman, and being Asian is just as ingrained a part of who I am," says Julie Chang, a broadcast journalist for WB11 in New York who was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., when she was 9. "For me, being Asian means being a kaleidoscope -- a person from a colorful fusion of many different cultures -- cultures that seem to have the most flavorful foods, vibrant textiles, disciplined people and a rich history of wars, philosophers and religions."

Not everyone is as anchored in their Asianness as Julie Chang. For most of us, Asianness is more like one of many outfits in our social wardrobe -- or more accurately, one of the countless facets in the jewels of our identities. It's something that can't be erased, but certainly can be filtered, shaded, muted or polished to shine like fire, depending on circumstances.

For her, and for many other respondents, Asianness is a matter of timing and context. "In America, when I'm with Caucasians or other races, I feel like I'm Asian," says Tung Nguyen, a San Francisco-based Vietnamese American physician and health educator who immigrated to the United States at age 11. "But when I'm trying to work with Asians who don't speak Vietnamese or English, I don't feel Asian."

Some of us feel Asian when we're with fellow Asians. Others, when we realize we're the only Asian in the crowd. Some feel Asian when we're in our safe zones, our hoods and hometown villages. Others, when we're out of our element -- fish out of water seeking a life-giving infusion of cultural oxygen. Some readers told me they do Asian things when they feel Asian. Others, that they feel Asian only when they do Asian things:

I save napkins and plastic utensils from restaurants. I cook Chinese food, like wonton soup, tomato beef and sticky rice. I push my kids to get good grades. I've eaten with chopsticks because that was the "Asian thing to do," even though Filipinos don't eat with chopsticks. I studied Indian classical dance for 10 years. I fell in love with and married an Asian woman. I've taken 10 Caucasian colleagues to lunch in a dim sum restaurant and ordered in Cantonese. I competed in a Miss Chinatown pageant. I fight for the dinner bill at the restaurant with my other Asian friends. We've resorted to trickery, where we would forewarn the waiter as to who's paying, or someone pretends to go to the bathroom but is actually paying the bill.

So if Asianness is, at least in part, a function of doing Asian things, is it possible to become Asian by doing Asian things? Some respondents think so. "You definitely don't have to be born Asian to be Asian. Being Asian is about having a sense of the history and culture," writes Teresa Lee, lead singer of the New York-based rock band Paper Doll. "I like seeing loads of non-Asian-looking people at Pearl River or in Houston Chinatown eating more 'adventurous' food. Then again, I like going to new places and experiencing things outside my own comfort zone, too. I think it's something everyone should be open to."

Teresa has a point. Asian has increasingly become a lifestyle, an aesthetic, a belief structure. For many -- white, black and other -- Asianness is a brave new world that anyone can migrate to and claim as their own ... a kind of America of the imagination, for huddled masses yearning to eat well. "The differences between the homelands of different peoples comprise refuges for those of us who were, so to speak, born in the wrong place with the wrong parents," writes Richard, 75, Caucasian, yet more familiar with Japan than I am and possibly will ever be.

"I spent six months recently in Kyoto, and the moment I stepped off the plane in Osaka, I felt I had returned home. My people are English and Swiss, without a drop of 'Asian' blood. But, 'home' is where the heart is, and Kyoto was where my heart said to me, 'HOME! AT LAST!'"

Ethnic identity is written in blood -- begging The Vapors' pardon, it's mostly impossible to turn Japanese, I really think so. But cultural identity? It not only seems possible to "turn Asian" (after all, we Asians are doing it all the time) -- it's starting to feel like it's necessary. Asia is rapidly becoming the center of the world, and its sheer scale and diversity mean that it's ground zero for the cool, the important, the essential.

"I sometimes refer to myself as being of 'West Asian descent,' but that's because I don't really see Europe as an actual continent," writes Brooklyn-based designer John. "European geographers called their largish peninsula a continent out of egoism, but really it's just a bit of Asia that sticks out. ... There's a lot of stuff I like, and a fair percentage of it comes from the largest land mass on the planet. That seems statistically normal, if you're open to new stuff."

On the other hand, the idea that Asianness can be adopted -- that you can be "Asian by Choice" -- is awkward to many Asian Americans. If done without respect or real comprehension, it can feel exploitative. "When I see non-Asians buying home-decorative accents -- fake Buddha heads and ginormous fans with pseudo-Chinese characters printed all over them -- I am irked," says Thai American Nora Boone, writing from Memphis, Tenn. "I think it's because they are buying and decorating their homes with items that are actually significant to some people. ... You would never find a huge crucifix plastered over someone's toilet like you find some Buddha statues."

The flip side of Asia being a cornucopia of cool is that dilettantes tend to perceive Asia as a bizarro medley of a culture, a fantastic world where Hello Kitty and Chow Yun Fat sit in lotus position drinking green tea and nibbling on Pocky and pad thai.

In a discussion with a friend back in college, I remember jokingly using the phrase "McAsians" -- which we ended up defining as institutions or individuals who casually use Asian symbols or artifacts or, for that matter, people as a medium for a kind of cultural transfusion. Athletes with meaningless Chinese tattoos. Celebrities who do photo ops with the Dalai Lama. Rappers whose videos bite on kung fu movies.

When we were talking, we used the term to rip on people we thought weren't "authentic." But the whole dialogue was painfully silly in retrospect. The more I've traveled in Asia, the more I realize how "McAsian" my own generationally and culturally removed perspective is. At the same time, I've also become increasingly aware that even things that aren't authentically Chinese or Korean or Indian can still grow a way to be "authentically Asian."

Last month, McDonald's unveiled a new healthy entree that tested so well the company decided to roll it out nationwide. As part of the rollout, through May 22, the "New Asian Salad" comes with a free yoga-and-fitness DVD. The salad contains 16 types of mixed greens, edamame, snow peas, red bell peppers, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds and grilled or crispy chicken -- a selection of ingredients that span a handful of Asian cuisines, topped with a shot of Newman's Own Lighten Up Sesame Ginger salad dressing. Calling it an authentic Asian dish might cause Old World purists to choke on their tofu. Yet looked at from another perspective, it is an authentic Asian dish.

When I asked readers what Asian tastes like, these are the top 10 responses they gave:

  1. Fresh and healthy
  2. Spicy
  3. Soy sauce
  4. Rice
  5. Fish
  6. Mixed flavors
  7. Curry
  8. MSG
  9. Sweet
  10. Garlic

No rice, fish, curry or (presumably) MSG, but Mickey D's New Asian Salad bullets pretty much everything else on that list. I went and tried one the other day, and it was pretty good -- good enough to drive from my taste-memory the lingering foulness of their earlier attempt to interpret Asian cuisine, 1998's infamous Shanghai Chicken McNuggets (served in a red takeout box, with chopsticks, fortune cookie and a free Mulan action figure in each orientalicious package!). By cultivating values -- and valuing culture -- McDonald's has moved the needle from nasty to not half bad.

Maybe that's a lesson that we Asians need to accept. We may not get the spotlight all to ourselves -- we'll always be divvying up time with moms and mental-health advocates and bikers and barbecuers -- but by sharing our culture family-style, we end up playing to a much bigger audience, on a much bigger stage.

Still, doesn't opening up the idea of Asian to include unusual fusions, funky remixes, adopted brethren and like-minded souls make Asianness even more diffuse, harder to define, more confusing to represent?

Sure. But that's a big reason why Asian identity and culture remain relevant today and will survive into generations beyond: because we haven't been defined into a corner. The meaning of Asian is flexible, adaptive -- still being written. It's an open-source identity, if you will, being collaboratively developed by every person who claims it and adds their input to the code. If Asian identity feels diffuse, that's not evidence of vulnerability -- it's a sign of opportunity.

"I've come to see the term Asian American as accommodating and encapsulating the hybridity that my own family represents," writes Jason Sperber, hapa Japanese daddyblogger and coordinator of the Asian-dad group blog Rice Daddies. "My daughter, in some ways, shows the way to a truly Asian American future: She's not just Filipino, nor just Japanese, nor just Jewish, nor just of American citizenship and nationality. She truly is an Asian American, and she can claim it all."

Asian is the story we're collectively writing, page by page and chapter by chapter, each of us an author, each of us a character. It's a narrative big enough not just to encompass the vast diversity of our community within America but, ultimately, the social network we're building that encircles the globe.

Now that's a heritage worth commemorating. Happy May!

Jeff Yang forecasts new Asian and Asian American consumer trends for the market research company Iconoculture www.iconoculture.com. He is the author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and "Eastern Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City. Go to www.ouatic.com/mojomail/mojo.pl to join Jeff Yang's biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian and Asian American pop-culture news.