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Oliver Wang shares thoughts on Asian American pop culture

<lign: left">Last week Dr. Oliver Wang, Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University-Long Beach, came to Carleton to teach a lesson on the art of “innovasian.”

This is not a misspelling, but a term he frequently employs as a writer and critic on pop music, culture and politics.  Wang’s May 7 convocation talk, “Something Borrowed, Something New,” focused on the young and evolving nature of Asian American popular culture. 

According to Wang, we are in “an era of considerable expansion and diversification in Asian American culture.”  His presentation was rich with commentary on the morphology of this culture and its implications on broader American society.

Wang kicked off the convocation with an MTV-flavored prologue: “Who is our Snooki?”  Alluding to an Italian American persona from the reality TV series Jersey Shore, he raised questions about who her Asian American equivalent might be.  In Wang’s opinion, the Asian American Snooki is embodied in the entertainer/model Tila Tequila.  He pointed out that, like Snooki and the rest from Jersey Shore, Tila Tequila has been controversial for reinforcing what many consider negative subcultural stereotypes. 

But Wang argued that Asian American pop culture has made progress to reach this age of Tila Tequila, coming a long way since the heavily caricatured role of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984).  And while he’s not sure whether the portrayal of Asian Americans has necessarily improved, he is quite certain that at least “we now live in an age of transnational Asian American culture” becoming more visible to the public eye. 

This age is marked by a wider range of Asian American representations—ranging from Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy, to Apolo Ohno of Winter Olympics fame, to John Cho as featured in the Harold and Kumar film series—in recent years.  According to Wang, then, we have been inundated with a wealth of alternative ideas about what it means to be Asian American.

This led to the main thrust of Wang’s presentation: thoughts on defining such an expanding and evolving subculture of American society.  He characterized Asian American culture as a hybrid, a cross between the adaptive (“something borrowed”) and the inventive (“something new”).  Migration, social adaptation and mass media are forces explaining why there is no pure culture associated with Asian America but rather various strains of “innovasian.”  To illustrate how these forces can combine, Wang offered three examples of adaptation-innovation interplay in Asian American pop culture.

The first example comes from the music industry.  The first self-proclaimed Asian American band, A Grain of Sand, released a song called “We are the Children” (1973) whose lyrics identified with Asian American roots.  Its musical elements were adapted, but its message was invented to articulate a sense of common heritage.

The second example comes from hip hop dance.  On America’s Best Dance Crew, four out of five season-winning dance crews have consisted mostly of Asian Americans.  Asian American dominance in hip hop traces back to Southern California’s Kaba Modern group, which has established a stable infrastructure for Asian American social and organizational networking through dance.  Wang pointed out how dance elements of the movement are adapted from the previously existing hip hop genre, but its structural innovation is inventive and unique to Asian American pop culture.

The third example concerns a song from Wang’s younger years.  Called “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order (1987), to Wang, the song illustrates the power of an anthem, any song that can represent a distinct group of people.  Wang recalled from his teenage years that at any dance, no matter how dull, the playing of this song would get all the Asian Americans moving and engaged with the environment.  It was their anthem.  This Asian American anthem is adaptive because it was not recorded by, about or for Asian Americans.  But it was inventive because it fostered a sense of collectivity in the young adult Asian American community and affirmed a sense of belonging to their evolving subculture.

Wrapping up with an epilogue focused on “the Next Generation Rising,” Wang shared his thoughts on challenges and complexities concerning a pan-ethnic Asian American identity that is barely 40 years old.  In order for such a transnational culture even to exist, it must overcome the obstacle of its own diversity: Asian American groups have different languages, traditions and histories that collide. 

He also characterized this culture as being continually renewed. 

 “We’ve long been a foreign-born culture,” he said, citing evidence that 64 percent of Asian Americans were first-generation Americans as of 2000. 

But Wang deemed himself no prognosticator; he could only guess what kind of future would be in store for his half-Japanese American, half-Chinese American five-year-old daughter.  The rising generation is growing up in an age of unprecedented Asian American visibility, an age when their President is of mixed race and when it isn’t uncommon to see Asian Americans on TV. 

This visibility will open up new avenues of opportunity for the next generation of Asian Americans, Wang said. 

“Few things are more powerful in life than seeing your peers do something and to realize that you can do it too.”

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