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model minority

Asian American YouTube performance

transnational media fandom

CHAPTER
05
Threatening Model
Minorities: The Asian
American Horatio Alger
·Story1
early work in the field of Asian American studies noted
the 1960s, amid protests for civil rights, educational equal­
Iity,that,andinsocial
justice, mainstream media began characterizing Asian
MPORTANT
Americans as model minorities. In his pivotal essay “Asian Americans
as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the
1960s and 1980s” {1988), Keith Osajima suggested that this concept
was, in fact, used by the popular news media to refer to Asian
Americans in the mid-1960s. Osajima discovered that the term first
appeared in 1966 in an article by William Petersen in the New York Times
Magazine, “Success Story: Japan,ese-American Style,” 2 and then later
that same year, this time in an article focusing on Chinese Americans,
in U.S. News and World Report, “Success story of One Minority in the
U.S.”3 News media discourse characterized Asian Americans as having
high test scores and financial success and being unlikely to commit
crimes. Osajima sought to debunk the model minority myth, suggest­
ing that this image pitted Asian Americans against African Americans,
constructed Asian Americans as racially exceptional yet not of the
mainstream, and suggested they needed no social services or federal
support, in contrast to other racial minorities. Thus, model minority
discourse drove a political wedge. between racially disadvantaged
groups and undermined legitimate struggles, activism, and legisla­
tion for social justice by describing the “@odel” minority as one who
is quiet,.hardworking, stays out of trouble, listens to elders, and takes
upon themselves the responsibility for change rather than assigning
blame and advocating for social change to the government.
More recently, Deborah Woo has described additional elements of
the model minority stereotype and demonstrated that it continues
in present-day news media discourse. Articles assert that Asian
Threatening Model Minorities
Americans are highly educated, have successful careers and high
employment, and experience low rates of divorce, mental illness, and
rates of crime (2000, 23). Woo describes model minority discourse as
drawing on the myth of Horatio Alger and applying it to Asian
Americans as immigrants overcoming obstacles on the road to success.
As she writes: “Underlying it all is a theme of hard work and determin­
ation reminiscent of stories told by Horatio Alger (1832-1899), a
Harvard-educated ordained minister with celebrated stories about
penniless boys who pulled themselves up by their own ‘bootstraps”‘
(ibid., 24). Woo suggests that media stories about Asian American
entrepreneurial s�ccess abound within the mass media, ranging from
the narrative of billionaire Jeong Kim, who i;n.ade his way from rags to
riches, to stories of hard workers such as David Tsang and Chong-Moon
Lee, who gained success in the high tech indµstry.
While both Osajima and Woo describe important aspects of the
model minority stereotype as it functions in public discourse, recently
Yuko Kawai (2005) has highlighted the significant effect of one variant
of the model minority media.discourse – the model minority as yell�w
peril. The subtext of this variant, which we discuss in more detail later
in this chapter, is that Asians and Asian Americans who have become
successful in fact pose a looming threat to the US nation-state.
In this chapter, we trace scholarship, .as well as contemporary and
historical media representations, of the model minority stereotype.4
First, we discuss it historically, then contemporarily, beginning with
an examination of Charlie Chan, an early example of model minority
imagery. Then we consider the stereotype of Jsian and Asian
Americans as journalists and medical persoJ?.nel an.d assess the model
minority image as it appears on Asian and Asian American TV food
programs and in discourse about mixed-race Asian Americans. Second,
we trace ways model minority discourse doubles as a yellow peril
discourse. In particular, we look at the theme of educational over­
achievement, which simultaneously constructs Asians and Asian
Americans as threats to universities and ultimately to the nation. This
particular doubling of the model minority and yellow peril produces a
racial ambivalence, one that appears to compliment Asians and Asian
Americans and yet constructs their succe.ss as a threat to the �ation,
and builds a divisive, competitive discourse about racial minorities.
Ultimately, we argue that the model minority myth overtly masks
racist policies,- attitudes, and representations by alternating-between
admiration for and fear of Asians and �ian Americans, thereby
dishing up tired problematic stereotypes such as yellow peril mas­
querading as flattery, and by doing s� rending it difficult to challenge
and critique such representations.
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HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
The .Asian .American Horatio .Alger
While, as Osajima demonstrateq, the concept of the model minority as
applied to Asian Americans emerged in the 1960s in public news dis­
course,Jachinson Chan (2001) has suggested that Charlie Chan5 was an
early precursor to the model minority stereotype.6 Unlike arch-villain
Fu Manchu, who is the ultimate embodiment of yellow,peril, Chan is
dedicated to the United States and to its people. He gets along well with
others and, as such, is a successful example of immigrant assimilation.
He is also dedicated to his family and, unlike Fu Manchu, does not chal­
lenge the “hegemonic hetero-masculine order” (2001, 53). Sexually, he
is an “emasculated breeder,” the father of ten children, but thoroughly
stoic, submissive, and lacking sexual potency and agency. As Chan
suggests, “Chan’s asexuality is consistently juxtaposed against the
sexual exploits of the protagonist. It can be argued that Chan’s subor­
dinate role is an essential element in his popularity: he is an intelli­
gent, culturally different, ornament that adds color to a monocultural
society” (ibid., 63). Finally, his language skills, which do not improve
over time, mark him indelibly as unassimilable. He serves as a repre­
sentative of a particular social and class position, that of the social
serv�nt, a “detective-sergeant,” someone successful even as he is dis­
empowered. Thus, Charlie Chan represents an early version of the
model minority stereotype, one who does not challenge the dominant
social order and who is submissive, obedient, sexually non­
threatening, intelligent, competent, and dependable, thereby provid­
ing a decorative and exotic flavor for monocultural dominant white US
society.
More recently, two other kinds of Asian and Asian American model
minorities have appeared: one, a stereotype of journalists fashioned
after the successful news anchor Connie Chung; the other, a typecast­
ing of TV characters as medical professionals. Connie Chung ,. as a suc­
cessful TV journalist, unwittingly became a representation of the
model minority myth ;for women. News organizations considering
hiring Asian American women as newscasters deployed her image as
one to which prospective newscasters would have to live up to. In
the film Slaying the Dragon (1988), Emerald Yeh, a form.er anchor for San
Francisco’s KRON-TV, recounts a past interview with CNN in which
someone commented, “You look different. You’ve cut your hair.” Yeh
states that CNN wanted her to look more like Connie Chung and to
be more “exotic.” Emil Guillermo, an €ditorialist for the SFGate
(the online portal for the San Francisco Chronicle) and columnist
for Asianweek.tom, writes, “So now there’s a Connie stereotype in every
city, in every market. Wherever there’s a TV newscast, you’ll find one.”7
Thus, the model minority myth continues to be Connie Chung, limit-
Threatening Model Minorities
ing possibilities for Asian and Asian American women journalists,
even as it might also provide for opportunities. 8
· The discourse of the model minority also extends to prime-time tel­
evision representations. A study of prime-time television representa­
tions of Asi�n Pacific Islander Americans in 2004 found that, “Of the
eight APIA characters with known occupations, five hold advanced
degrees, often in the medical sciences.” While in early media Asians
and Asian Americans were often typecast in a variety of roles – Fu
Manchu, Charlie Chan, Lotus Blossom, Madame Butterfly, and the
Dragon Lady- today’s mainstream media stereotype, the model minor­
ity, appears in the form of a medical professional.
Whether it is the real Dr Sanjay Gupta, the famous medical
correspondent for CNN, the fictional Mahesh Vijayaraghavensaty­
anaryanamurth (“Bug”) (Ravi Kapoor), famed forensic entomologist on
television’s Crossing]ordan, surgeon Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra)
in ER, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) in Grey’s Anatomy, forensic psychiatrist
George Huang (B. D. Wong) in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Ken
Jeong as Dr Kuni in Knocked Up (2007), or geneticist Mohinder Suresh
(Sendhil Ramamurthy) in Heroes, all of these Asian and Asian American
characters are conspicuously members of the medical profession.9
It is instructive to spend some time considering the roles of Ming-Na
Wen and Sandra Oh, two female actors who have played high-profile
roles as medical professionals on television, in order to understand the
way their characters figure in relationship to the model minority
stereotype.10 Ming-Na Wen is well known for her voice-over narration
and her role as Jing-Mei “June” in Wayne Wang’s film TheJoy Luck Club,11
and for her performance as a series regular, a medical student and
then a doctor, in ER. We will first look at her character D�b Chen, in the
television show ER, and then discuss Sandra Oh’s character Cristina
Yang in Grey’s Anatomy. By examining the similar yet different ways the
characters embody a model minority stereotype, we can begin to
understand its ambivalent nature.
In his essay about the television narrative in ER, Michael]. Porter dis­
cusses the episode “House of Cards,” in which one substory in the
episode concerns two medical students, Deb Chen (Ming-Na Wen) and
John Carter (Noah Wyle). Carter is the primary character, through
whom audiences are to understand the story.As Porter suggests, “John
serves as a thematic foil to another medical student, Deb Chen.”
Whereas Carter is interested in the ·patient, Chen “seems more con­
cerned with the science of medicine” (1988, 147-8). The episode allows
us to learn more about Carter’s character and to understand the stark
differences between Carter and Chen. When Chen finds out she has not
completed as many procedures as Carter, she worries she will fail as a
medical student and sets out to perform more procedures. As a result
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HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
she becomes envious that Carter is allowed to conduct a difficult pro­
cedure and then, without being asked, performs one on her own on a
patient after bribing the nurse to leave the room. Of course, Chen
endangers the patient by doing this, but other doctors, who take over
once her attempt at the central line has failed, are able to remedy the
situation. Later in the episode, Chen is at her parent’s home, appar­
ently there while her parents are throwing a lavish party. She tells
Carter she is quitting and says, “I didn’t care about the patient, I just
wanted the procedure.” She continues, “I like the science of it. But the
patients, the sickness; sometimes it almost scares me” (ibid., 149). Even
she compares Carter, who she sees as caring about the patients, to
herself.
This narrative constructs Chen in stereotypical fashio� as the Asian
American model minority, but with the additional characterization of
her being more interested in science than in people, rich, shamefully
competitive, and desperate to get ahead. What is implied is that she is
. incapable of being the kind of doctor who cares about patients in the
way that Carter can and does. In this episode, then, the white man
becomes the “ideal doctor,” and the Asian American woman is bright,
but too unconcerned about the welfare of patients to succeed. Indeed,
while we use this example here to demonstrate the construction of the
· model minority stereotype in media ,. one can see that there is .also a
degree of threat implied in Deb Chen’s representation (which we will
discuss at length later on in the chapter) that goes something like this:
“If more competitive, unscrupulous, career-driven Asians and Asian
Americans become docfors, patients will be in danger, because such
doctors really do not care about the patient’s life.” Thus, Asians and
Asian Americans are a threat in so far as they become too successful,
or perhaps too bent on success. Additionally, because she lacks
empathy, does not put people ahead of herself, and is career-driven
rather than compassionate, Deb Chen alsO’ figures as a failed woman,
and a failed Asian American woman at that.
Interestingly, the role of contemporary film and television phenom
Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy is similar in important ways.12 In fact, one
narrative thread in Grey’s Anatomy is strikingly similar to that of ER. In
one episode of ER, after giving birth to a mixed-race African American­
Chinese American baby, conceived during a one-night stand with an
African American man, Jing-Mei (Deb)1 3 Chen painfully gives up the
baby, fearing her parents wil� not approve. In Grey’s Anatomy, Cristina
falls in love with Dr Preston Burke, an African American medical col­
league, chief cardiothoracic surgeon and her superior. She becomes
pregnant by Burke and schedules an abortion without telling him,
only.then to suffer from an ectopic pregnancy. Thus, at least in these
early seasons, Cristina directly references Jing-Mei on the show.
I
Threatening Model Minorities
Figure 5.1 Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) in a public, yet intimate shot with Preston
Burke (Isaiah Washington) in Grey’.s Anatomy
As with Chen in ER, Yang’s romantic interest is not another Asian
American. Nor is it someone white, which might reinforce the stereo­
type of Asian and Asian American women as romantic objects for
white men but on the other hand would fly in the face of anti­
miscegenationist views.14 Indeed, the representation of Cristina (while
brilliantly played by Oh) has changed little since Chen’s role in ER.
Cristina is a highly competitive medical student whose main romantic
interest is an African American man. She worries about what her
mother thinks about her and even goes so far as to hide the fact that
she and Burke are together.
Some might argue that it is better to be portrayed stereotypically as
a doctor than to be played stereotypically as a villain. However, as we
have shown, the model minority stereotype is not a compliment, but a
divisive discourse, one that in fact constructs Asian Americans as
“exceptional” minorities, but minorities nevertheless, hence not of
the mainst_ream. Furthermore, as we show later, representing Asian
Americans as overachievers in media functions as an implicit threat, a
villainy of a different magnitude.
Even in the show, itself, being good at one’s job is not viewed as
admirable. For instance, both Cristina and Deb are treated as robots
within the hospital. Deb wants to build her technical skill at the
expense of the patient. Cristina attains the most proficiency in cardio­
thoracic surgery because of her robot-like skill and is well known for
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HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
being the best among the interns. She is so robotic that one of the new
doctors is unimpressed, because she lacks the emotional skills and
interactions to be a good surgeon. One example of this representation
• of “smart but robotic” is the film Akeeiah and the Bee (2006), where the
primary competitor of the lead character, Akeelah, is an Asian
American boy, Dylan Chu. �n one scene, Dr Larabee, Akeelah’s mentor,
teaches Akeelah new vocabulary by having her read a passage written
by W. E. B. DuBois. Akeelah becomes upset, stating that, “in the time it
took to learn that one word, Dylan probably learned twenty.” Dr
Larabee replies, ”And those twenty words won’t mean anything to hi111:.
He’s just a little robot memorizing lists of words.” Thus, the implica­
tion is twofold: both that Asian Americans like Dylan do not know the
significance of words and that such word memorizers are little robots,
more machine than human, rote learners who will struggle to apply
their knowledge because they are simply widgets on the assembly line
of modernist, capitalist, industrial society.
Thus, as Kawai (2005) suggests, the role of the doctor can double,
ambivalently, for the villainous yellow peril image of yesteryear. In
other words, by overrepresenting Asian Americans as doctors while
underrepresenting them overall, the media evoke anxiety about a
potential Asian “takeover” of yet another set of US jobs. It is clear that
roles are still incredibly limited for Asian Americans, that single­
occupational typecasting significantly restricts possible jobs for Asian
and Asian American actors, and that limiting actors to such roles rad­
kally reduces the ability to represent Asians and Asian Americans as
diverse human beings.
Horatio Alger stories generally appear in PBS biographies of famous
Asian Americans, not only in the specific cases of Asians and Asian
Americans as media personnel on TV, as in ER and Grey’s Anatomy. The
film Searchingfor Asian America (2003)15 represents Governor Gary Locke
(ofWashington) and Lela Lee (creator ofAngry Little Asian Girl) as having
“made it.” Gary Locke emerges as a political hero by not falling in line
with political interests and lobbying, but by working hard. And Lela
Lee does not have a mainstream cartoon, but continues efforts to estab­
lish herself as an Asian American who does not speak the standard
line. The film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994) also follows the Asian
American Horatio Alger narrative. Architect Maya Lin, who was chosen
in a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans’ War Memorial,
demonstrates courage, forthrightness,· and determination, going
against great odds to win the right to make an artistic work that rep­
resents the nation’s continuing dis-ease with the history of the
Vietnam War. In the end, what is implied by this representation is that,
while they may struggle as racial minorities, and in the case ofLin and
Lee as minority women, these thr�e do not need the help of main-
Threatening Model Minorities
stream society (as do other minorities) to succeed; rather, they and
other Asians and Asian Americans like them can do it on their own, by
sheer dint of determination, hard work, and intelligence, and by main­
taining good moral values.
Even television shows about food are not immune from Asian
American Horatio Alger myth-making. According to Anita Mannur
(2005a), model minority representations .of Asians and Asian
Americans also appear in live or seemingly live televisual contexts,
such as cooking shows. These images construct a desire for “fusion
cuisine,” which is seen to cross borders between East and West, and
through the use of multicultural themes such shows assert America is
a democratic place, offering full and equal access to immigrants.
Mannur suggests in her study of Ming Tsai and Padma Laksp.mi,
however, that these images mask exclusion, conflict, and resistance.
According to Mannur, Ming Tsai, of East Meets West and Ming’s Quest, is
represented as being thoroughly comfortable in the worlds of both
East and West. He is often depicted in high-class settings, appears to
blend in easily, and is figured as the ideal US transnational citizen of
the future. His brand of food offers a hybrid of both Eastern and
Western cultures. He and his food are hybrids.
Padma Lakshmi, of Padma’s Passport, offers another version of model
minority. Mannur suggests that Lakshmi is Orientalized and eroti­
cized. Access to her sexuality is constructed as being interconnected
with access to the food she prepares. Unlike Tsai, Lakshmi is not com­
fortable in the kitchen, and her representation as exotically ethnic
draws attention away from her cooking. Cooking, in this case, is not
central to her marketability. Her portrayal as a model minority is
dependent on her bodily construction as erotic and sexually available.
As Mannur writes, “Lakshmi is the alluring temptress who is a cosmo­
politan world traveler and still remembers her roots. Ming Tsai is the
hyperassimilated Asian American but is also comfortable with his tra­
ditional upbringing in an immigrant Taiwanese American family”
(2005b, 82).
Perhaps no other Asian or Asian American represents the
“American dream” and the myth of Horatio Alger better, however,
than Tiger Woods. A child phenom in golf, born on December 30,
1975, in Cypress, California, Woods is reputed to be one of the great­
est golfers of all time, if not the greatest. He burst onto the scene at a
time when he was not allowed to play on some golf greens because of
the color of his sldn. He was the youngest player to win the Master’s
tournament, at Augusta, Georgia, a course that had one of the longest
histories of racial restrictions, and he was the first racial minority to
win a major golf event (golf being considered by many to be the
whitest of sports). In addition to his golfing success, his image as a
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HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
multiracial celebrity who identifies himself as mixed race was suc­
cessfully used as a catalyst for the policy efforts to include mixed
racial identification options on the 2000 US Census. In June 1995, he
voiced his opinion on the matter of his racial identity in a press
release, claiming his pride in being multiracial. While more about his
father and his African American heritage has been made by media, he
is also a popular figure in Thailand and among Thai Americans and
Asian Americans, more generally.
Since the media have gone to great extremes to play up his African
Americanness, some might wonder why we are discussing Woods here
as an Asian American. In addition, historically, people of mixed racial
heritage have been represented tragically as products of cross-racial
rapes, as maladroit specimens contaminated by tainted racialized
blood, or as psychologically deranged or mentally afflicted because of
the inevitable biological degeneracy that emerges when the racial line
is crossed by sex. How did. mixed race move from the category of faulty
and inferior· biological offspring to today’s representation of Tiger
Woods as the great mixed-race hope?
Perez (2005) suggests Woods shuttles between race consciousness
and race elision. On th� one hand, Woods himself coined the term
“Cablinasian” – Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian – to describe the
white, African American, Native American, Chinese, and Thai parts of
his identity. On the other hand, Perez suggests, Woods figures as a
Horatio Alger figure and is mythically read into a narrative of America
as a multicultural nation where the racial future will be universally
color neutral. Unlike Woods’s race-conscious moniker, the Horatio
Alger mythology is premised on an organized forgetting of racism and
racial harm and suffering in the United States. As Horatio Alger, every­
one can imagine themselves to be a Tiger Woods. Thus, Woods hails the
arrival of race as no longer mattering at all.
Similarly, historian Henry Yu (2002) suggests Woods is constructed
as a fantasy figure who single-handedly promises the elimination of
racial problems from the past. Woods’s mixed raceness becomes a
metaphor for America’s as-yet unattained future. Through commer­
cialization, his image promises people from different racial groups
will get along; if one buys the right products, the illusion of racial
wholen�ss can be attained qnd maintained.
It is important to discuss mixed-race Asian Americans like Tiger
Woods when considering the model minority stereotype. Students have
often commented that Asian American men do not become models
unless they are mixed race. Thus, media appear to strive for represen­
tations of Asian Americans that appear closer to the Anglo-Saxon norm.
Mixed-race figures such as Keanu Reeves, Dean Cain.Jimmy Smits, and
Rob Schneider come to be acceptable stars, even heroes, in contemper.
Threatening Model Minorities
rary media. And yet, despite their heritage, little is made of their
Asianness and Asian Americanness. It is as if they become stars and
heroes, in part, because general audiences do not know of their Asian
backgrounds.
Perhaps t�is is the reason why there is a practice of”outing” within
the mixed-race Asian American community (Nishime, 2005). Because
of their feeling of a lack of representation or acknowledgement,
perhaps because of the culture’s broader inability to see them as
“whole,” because their “Asian” and “Asian American” identities are
suppressed, and hence because of feelings of indeterminacy, some
mixed=race Asian Americans strive to “out” stars of mixed-race Asian
American identity, to call attention to their status and to challenge
the media’s masking of their complete racial identity.. In short,
some mixed-race Asian Americans make mixed-race racial identity
matter.
Despite these challenging and resisting strategies, mixed-race Asian
Americans in media will continue to face the trend toward being char­
acterized as model minorities. Their status of appearing in the media
as the hope for the future, thus offering utopic possibilities for the
racial future of the nation, should be challenged, as should the larger
Horatio Alger mythology.16 Critical work should be undertaken to draw
attention to the way the model minority myth divides, to show that
Asians and Asian Americans are typecast in limiting ways, and to
suggest that the model minority is a discourse that participates in his­
torical and continuing racism, rather than challenges that legacy, our
present, and our future.
While it is clear from the discussion in the previous section that stereo­
typical model minority imagery is alive and well (indeed, we argue
that it is the prevailing stereotypical discourse of Asians and Asian
Americans), one variant that has much significance is of the model
mino�ity who pose a threat, very often to the US nation-state. Thus the
stereotype is problematic, because it disguises an assertion of fear, dis­
trust, and danger as a compliment (one that, as we have argued, is in
fact a putdown).
Yuko Kawai (2005) has suggested that there is an ambivalent dis­
course at work, with the model minority stereotype being tightly
interwoven· with another racialized representation of Asians and
Asian Americans, yellow peril.17 Kawai notes how pervasive the model
minority stereotype is today, and she sees both interpational and
national representations of both stereotypes. Thus, on the one hand,
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HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
Asian Americans as the model minority represent well-educated,
familial, submissive minorities and are economically competitive;
on the other hand they are a threat and pose a danger to the West
and to the United States specifically. In her article Kawai analyzes
the film Rising Sun (1993), tracing both model minority and yellow peril
themes.
Kawai suggests Rising Sun emerges “in the background ofJapan’s eco­
nomic threat to the United States and ‘Japan-bashing’ in the 1980s”
(2005, 111). While it appears to be a yellow peril film, it is Kawai’s con­
tention that it also functions to reproduce the model minority myth.
As she argues, “The Asian man in the film is a ‘good’ guy in the sense
that he is willing to assimilate to the White rules of the game (i.e.,
dressing exactly like the White cowboys do and attacking them in a
‘cowboy style’) but is a ‘bad’ guy who disrupts what the White cowboys
_attempt to achieve (i.e., taking away their woman)” (ibid., 120). In addition,Japan figures as both model minority and yellow peril country .to
the United States. For instance, the film juxtaposes “japan’s affluence
and America’s poverty” (ibid., 121). However, this representation is not
unproblematic. As Kawai notes, while the film stresses Japan’s superi­
ority, it simultaneously “exaggerates the [country’s] foreignness”
(ibid., 122). It pits African Americans against Asian Americans and
aligns African Americans with white America, 18 and “It is surely an
advantage for White America to have African Americans to protect its
interests” (ibid., 125). Essentially, whites benefit. from blacks despising
Asians, which prevents n;inorities from joining hands against white
supremacy. According to Kawai, the model minority image is impli­
cated in the depiction ofJapanes.e as villains and gangsters, since “the
Japanese characters are associated with ‘passivity’ and ‘docility,’ which
are part of the model minority stereotype, even when they are gang­
sters” (ibid.).
Building on Kawai’s theorization of model minority discourse dou­
bling as yellow peril discourse, we discuss two articles about Asian and
Asian American educational success, both of which use success to
develop a model minority mythology that simultaneously character­
izes Asians and Asian Americans as threatening the US nation-state. A
November 19, 2005, Wall Street Journal article tells of two Silicon Valley
high schools where white students are fleeing because of an influx of
Asian students •(Hwang, 2005). The story suggests that, while “white
flight” historically was used to refer to th_e way whites moved from
inner cities into ·the suburbs when the inner cities became “overruh”
by racial minorities, primarily African Americans, this new “white
flight” refers to white families leaving top-notch academically superb
high schools because of the influx of highly competitive, educationally
superior Asians.
Threatening Model Minorities
As this story goes, white parents have taken their children out of
these two schools and sent them “to private schools or . . . whiter
public schools.” According to the white parents, the Silicon Valley
schools “are too Asian.” The article maintains that both some
white and spmeAsian parents think the environment in the schools is
too intensely competitive and that such competition creates “an
unhealthy cultural isolation.” It also suggests that the phenomenon of
white parents taking their kids out ofAsian�dominated public schools
is not specific to the Silicon Valley and exists at other competitive
public high schools in the United States: at “Wootton High School in
Rockville, Md., known flippantly to some locals as ‘Won Ton,’ roughly
35% of students are of Asian descent.” The school is stereotyped, and
so are Asians as being “good at math.” The article suggests, “Some
parents and students say these various forces are creating an
unhealthy cultural isolation in the schools.”
Such discourse, while focused in the Wall Street Journal article on
Asians and Asian Americans in elite high schools, also exists in dis­
course apout public university education. For instance, an article by
Timothy Egan titled “Little Asia on the Hill,’,.. in the “EducationLife”
section of the New York Times newspaper in January 2007, asks, “Is this
the new face of higher education?” 19 The article is the cover story of the
section of the newspaper, with a front headline that reads “TheAsian
Campus,” and with pictures of onlyAsians andAsianAmericans.20 The
article describes how “Asian” UC Berkeley is. While it provides a “bal­
anced” assessment of the overrepresentation of Asian and Asian
American students at Berkeley and at US colleges and universities
more generally, 21 its main emphasis is on creating an image of
Berkeley as beset by an overabundance of Asians andAsianAmericans.
It reads,
This fall and last, the number of ,isian freshmen at Berkeley has been
at a record high, about 46 percent. The overall undergraduate popula­
tion is 41 percent Asian. On this golden campus, where a creek runs
through a redwood grove, there are residence halls with Asian themes;
good dim sum is never more than a five-minute walk away; heaping,
spicy bowls of pho are served up in the Bear’s Lair cafeteria; and numer­
ous social clubs are linked by common ancestry to countries far across
the Pacific. (Egan, 2007, 24)
The article goes on to question Berkeley’s “diversity,” implying that
having so manyAsians andAsianAmericans makes it un-diverse. Egan
then comments on the face of public universities in California and
writes, “But it is the new face of the state’s vaunted public univers�ty
system.Asians make up the largest single ethnic group, 37 percent, at
· its nine undergraduate campuses” (ibid.). The article further implies
that the large Asian and Asian American population at Berkeley
91
92
HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
creates an image problem for the university: “Berkeley is freighted
with. the baggage of stereotypes – that it is boring socially, full of
science nerds; a hard place to make friends.”
Not only does the article trot out well-chiseled, yet also well­
weathered, stereotypes of Asian Americans as cloistered (“selective self­
racial segregation” in Egan’s phrase) or ghettoized in Little Tokyos or
Chinatowns, but it also reproduces contemporary stereotypes of Asian
Americans as computer nerds and study geeks, as if college is not about
_studying. It insults Asians and Asian Americans as boring people, with
narrow interests in academics to a fault, rendering Berkeley un-fun,
like a rectory or monastery. Not only are Asian Americans limited
socially, according to Egan but also they tend not to speak in class, tend
to revere authority, do not want to buck the system, and emphasize
book and computer “learning” over the “back-and-forth Socratic tradi­
tion” associated with traditional US classroom participation.
Perhaps what is even more troubling in the article is the reproduc­
tion of the forever foreigner stereotype. Egan describes “numerous
social clubs” that “are linked by common ancestry to countries far
across the Pacific.” He says that, more and more, Berkeley is turning
“toward the setting sun for its identity.” His desoription diminishes
the experiences and cultural lives of Asian Americans in favor of
images of distanced Asians “far” from America. The article emphasizes
that 95 percent of the parents of the students from the first-year class
come from Asia, hence downplaying the fact that the students “are pre­
dominantly first-generation American,” hence American citizens (Egan,
2007, 26). It implies that one of America’s vaunted institutions of
higher learning, populated by so many first-generation students, is
somehow more Asian and hence less American.
This reference to Asian, in an article largely about Asian Americans,
is part of historical model minority discourse,22 as Thomas Nakayama
suggests. In his study Nakayama finds that “Asi_�nAmericans who have
lived in this country for generation� [are] treated, discursively, as iden­
tical tq Asians who have never left Asia.” The media articles he looks
at distinguish Asian Americans from “Americans.” As he suggests,
“Implicit here is the claim that Asian (Americans?) are not Americans.”
Thus, the discourse “returns” to Asia to make sense of why Asian
Americans are succeeding, hence marking them as forever foreigners
(1988, 68).
While there are historically _black colleges, tribal colleges, Jewish­
sponsored universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, Baptist, Catholic,
and other religious colleges, and of course innumerable informal his­
torically. white colleges and universities, there is not a compar�ble
Asian American-sponsored college or university in the United States.23
Yet, Egan’s article relies on the problematic notion that there are too
Threatening Model Minorities
many Asians and Asian Americans at Berkeley, that Berkeley is not the
“real America,” that being Asian or Asian American is not being
American. Thus it implies that doing well in school, using computers,
and not partying or carousing is a bad and boring thing; in essence, the
cultural lif� Asians and Asian Americans have created at Berkeley is dis­
missed out of hand. It is not seen as something positive that contributes
to the success of the university or the United States, and ultimately
benefits all students who attend Berkeley. Egan does not consider that
being studious at one of the world’s leading public institutions of
higher learning ought to be admired rather than disparaged.
Egan’s article also does what Keith Osajima argued early writing
that defined Asian Americans as “model minorities” did: it attempts to
drive a wedge between Asians and Asian Americans and blacks,
Latinos, and Native Americans. He writes, “What is troubling to some
is that the big public school on the hill certainly does not look like the
ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, more than twice
the national average,” and “In California, the rise of the Asian campus,
of the strict meritocracy, has come at the expense of historically under­
represented blacks and Hispanics” (2007, 24). He also suggests that
“highly credentialed Asian applicants” are being chosen over “stu­
dents of color with less stellar test scores and grades” (ibid.) and that
increasing enrollments of Asian Americans occur simultaneously with
rollbacks of affirmative action policies. Thus, rather than examine
carefully the way poor and urban minorities, including Asian
Americans, suffer fr6m a lack of access, the article positions Asians
and Asian Americans as against all other groups, including (but not
saying so outright) whites.
This kind of article is not directed toward Asian Americans as
readers and carries the message that Asian Americans are, once again,
taking over. It functions by highlighting the dramatic, surprising, and
possibly shocking realization that Berkeley and the UC system, indeed
elite universities broadly (the article mentions Stanford, Harvard,
Princeton, MIT, Amherst, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Carnegie­
Mellon, Stony Brook (SUNY), the California Institute of Technology,
Cornell, Cooper Union, Wellesley, the University of Texas at Austin,
Columbia, and Rutgers), are either no longer predominantly white or
have relatively large As’ian and Asian American student enrollments.
The article downplays the fact that only recently has white dominance
in higher education in California’s top public schools changed. While
it sprinkles some nods to the positives created by the Asian and Asian
American feel of the campus, especially referencing Asians and Asian
Americans saying so, the bulk of the article does not see the Asian and
Asian American presence as a contribution but rather as a threat to
Berkeley, the education system, and ultim�tely white students. How
93
94
HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
such an article can assert that Asians and Asian Americans have
increased the studious atmosphere and educational competition on
campus and how this can then be cast solely as a liability, not some­
thing that should be revered, celebrated, and embraced as a positive
move toward higher education; how the essay can imply in the
strongest terms that it is well-qu�lified Asians and Asian Americans
and not rich, privileged, well-connected, and highly educated whites
who are edging out African Americans and Latinos; and how it
can imply that Berkeley is less attractive for non-Asians and non­
Asian Americans because of the large numbers of Asians an4 Asian
Americans suggests the powerful way a neo-conservative, yellow peril
discourse continues to reverberate in the mainstream US media.
Model Minority Discourse as Exclusionary Discourse
Given our discussion of model minority yellow peril discourse, it
becomes clear that racism has not gone away, and that there is no pro­
gression, not even a slow one, toward a better representation of Asians
and Asian Americans in mainstream media. Instead, as is apparent in
the article “Little Asia on the Hill,” what is constructed as “overrepre-,
sentation” of Asians and Asian Americans on college campuses masks
the continuing mass underrepresentation and effective exclusion of
Asians and Asian Americans in management and leadership positions,
in literature, arts, and humanities fields, in federal social service and
welfare programs, in sports, in the legal profession, and, for the pur­
poses of this book, the mainstream media.
While, educationally, Asians and Asian Americans have greater rep­
resentation in some areas, in the media, despite dramatic discourses
of yellow peril, it is clear that representation is still at·exclusion-era
and segregation-era lows. The Asian American Justice Center found
that,
In 2004, the estimated APIA population numbered approximately 14
million, or 5% of the total U.S. population. However, the percentage of
APIAs in prime time television consistently falls below that of the
actual population. The public tends to rely on characterizations from
the media to formulate beliefs about racial groups with whom they
have little contact. Thus, many television viewers may believe that
APIAs in prime time are representative of APIAs in the Uni�ed States.
(2006, 3)
The study examines prime-time APIA regulars on the six national tel­
evision netwo�ks during fall 2005 and compares those findings with
that of the earlier 2004 report, Asian Pacific Americans in Prime Time:
Light, Camera and Little Action. The many findings in the report are that
Threatening Model Minorities
“APIAS comprise only 2.6% of all prime time television regulars,” that
“among the 102 prime time programs, only 14 feature at least one APIA
regular, and only one program (ABC’s Lost) includes more than one,”
and that “�mly 16 APIAs are featured as regulars on prime time televi­
sion” (ibid., 4-5). If we were to compare “Little Asia on the Hill” to this
report, then college students in the University of California system
have vastly more opportunities to interact and be influenced by a
variety of Asians and Asian Americans than to gain access to famous
and not-so-famous Asians and Asian Americans on network television.
Thus, the underrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans empha­
sizes how the model minority myth works to disavow the continued
exclusion of Asian Americans. And the number of examples of Asian
Americans in the media that we discuss help us show how the model
minority myth functions alongside and in concert with yellow peril
discourses.
What these statistics also suggest is that Asian Americans continue to
be little represented on mainstream television. Indeed, one could argue
that they are not represented in most mainstream media – television,
radio, film, newspapers, and journals. One must begin to wonder, after
the Asian American movement of the 1960s and 1970s, after c�anges
that have taken place in parts of society, if it is even possible to change
the situation in commercial visual media,· given the degree of stereo­
typing and negative representation, and the prominence of a model
minority stereotype that preaches Asian American success and suggests
that Asian Americans have no problems to worry about.
As we saw in this chapter, the model minority stereotype is more
than simply “Asians and Asian. Americans are smart and good at
math.” Rather, it is a complex and problematic representation which,
at the surface level, appears to compliment Asian and Asian American
achievements but in fact functions as a yellow peril discourse. First, we
explored the historical bases for the model minority, from Charlie
Chan and its manifestation as an enduring Asian American Horatio
Alger myth. From _this arose the model minority representations of
successfuljournalists, successful doctors, and successful students, but
not without the added insult of being robotic, uncaring, and asocial.
We saw that the myth crosses the boundaries of fictional television and
non-fictional and reality televisual contexts, as in PBS specials and the
food television genre. However, the model minority/Asian American
Horatio Alger is aptly embodied by Tiger Woods and mixed-race Asian
Americans, who read into the narrative of a color-neutral United
States. The masking of the Asian and Asian American part of their
racial identities wo�ld seem to explain why mixed-race Asian
Americans “out” other mixed-race Asian Americans, and thus draw
attention to discriminating aspects of model minority discourses. In
95
96
HISTORICAL AND MAINSTREAM MEDIA REPRESENTATIONS
the end, the model minority representation, as Kawai (2005) has
argued, is am�ivalent, doubling with a yellow p·eril discourse that per­
meates such films as Rising Sun, as well as educational discourses in the
United States.
As we stated earlier, racism has not gone away. Asians and Asian
Americans are underrepresented and when represented are con­
structed in troubling and limiting ways. Media suggest that they are
succeeding in education, distinguishing them from other minorities,
but, as a result, they should be feared and possibly eliminated. Model
minority discourse as it has been applied to Asians and Asian
Americans both saturates the media landscape and serves as an obsta­
cle to those who wish to challenge and protest continuing discrimina­
tion, racism, and racial exclusion. In its Asian and Asian American
guise, the Horatio Alger myth continues to be a threatening one.
204
Notes to pp. 75-83
23 As of February 12, 2008, Kristina Wong’s “Big Bad Chinese Mama” website was
located at http:flwww.bigbadchinesemama.com/. Nguyen’s “Exoticize my Fist”
was down when we checked.
24 A nanchaku is a weapon made from two short sticks connected by rope, chain,
or some other flexible material.
25 Chan quotes a production executive, Fred Weintraub, as suggesting that a
Chinese could not be a lead in a US television series(2001, 73). The notion that
Asian Americans can be “workers” but not “leaders” is a common experience
of “glass ceiling” power relations that limit Asian American opportunities for
leadership in professional life generally.
Chapter 5 Threatening Model Minorities
1 Deborah Woo uses the term “Asian Horatio Alger” in her work as well(2000, 24).
2 January 9, 1966, pp. 20-1, 33, 36, 38, 40-1, 43.
3 December26, 1966, pp. 73-8.
4 This stereotype ha,s been called interchangeably the “model minority myth”
and the “model minority stereotype.”
5 The first Charlie Chan film emerged in the 1920s. Wong(1978) lists the follow­
ing: The House without a Key(1926), Behind that Curtain (1927), The Chinese Parrot
(1928), and Charlie Chan ‘Carries On(1931).
6 He writes: “Indeed, Charlie Chan is one of the earliest representations of a
model minority in American popular fiction – someone who assimilates into
mainstream American culture by moving from a working-class status to a
middle-class professional one. Charlie Chan symbolizes the American dream
of success: a minority who is allowed to interact with a predominantly white
American society, living a life ·of relative economic comfort, and raising a
nuclear family” (Chan, 2001, 51).
7 Emil Guillermo, “C-100 Loses by Honoring Chung,” April 1, 2005,
http://news.asianweek.com/news/view_article.html?article_id=6931b422036d
10377691396e6a4e248f(accessed February 15, 2008).
8 It is important to say that Connie Chung did blaze a trail that was much
admired· in newscasting. And, by suggesting that she has created a constrain­
ing stereotype, we are by no means taking anything away from her or her
impressive career. Furthermore, it is possible to argue that, without·her, the
desire for and existence of Asian and Asian American women news anchors
would not be as prevalent as it is today. However, it is our contention that such
a limitation is, in fact, consistent within the ambivalence of model minority
discourse – promising liberation while simultaneously enacting constraint and that this does much harm even as it may produce opportunities.
9 For most of the ones we list here, see the study “Setting the Stage” (Asian
American Justice Center, 2006). It is also notable that South Asians and South
Asian Americans are centrally typecast in this medical professional role.
10 As the film Roots helped African American actors such as Levar Burton, John
Amos, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, 0. J. Simpson, and Louis Gossett Jr.: the
breakout hit The Joy Luck Club played a significant role in advancing the-careers
of such actors as Tamlyn Tomita, Lauren Tom, Rosalind Chao, Michael Paul
Chan, and Russell Wong.
11 Despite not knowing the Chinese language well, and despite having learned
mah-jong from her Jewish friends, by the end of the film June accesses her
“best heart” qualities by reuniting with her long-lost sisters in China and
informing them in person of their mother’s death.
Notes to pp. 84-91
12 While Oh was a serious stage and screen actor before landing her role in the
2004 indie hit Sideways and then becoming a regular in the television show
Grey’s Anatomy, there is little mention of her early career in her biographies on
the Internet. A native of Ottawa, Ontario, Oh played roles on stage as a child and
began working professionally at age fifteen with a role in the CBC television
film The Diary of Evelyn Lau {1994). She had the lead part in Double Happiness,
played Rita Wu in the HBO comedy Arli$$, co-starred in the film Last,Night {1998)
and Dandng at the Blue Iguana (2000), and also played Sarah Chaulke in Scrubs
(information drawn from http:flwww.sandraoh.com as of September 12, 2007).
13 Ming-Na Wen left the cast of ER, only to return in 1999. On her return, Carter
initially calls her “Deb,” to which she responds that her name is Jing-Mei. From
that point on she is known as Jing-Mei.
14 Given neocolonial logics, which representation meets the needs of contempo­
rary colonial relations better in the depiction of Asian American women?
Should they be partners of white men, thus playing into the neocolonial
rescue from oppressive male Oriental patriarchy narrative, or not be partners
of white men, thus reproducing anti-miscegenation and anti-desegregation
sentiments from the pre-reconstruction and Jim Crow racist era?
15 Video {2003), co-produced by NAATA and KVIE-TV, Sacramento. Producer
Donald Young.
16 See, for instance, Grice (2002). See also Nakashima (1992, 2005).
17 Kawai does not take credit for having been the ij.rst to notice this ambivalence,
even as her work expands significantly its theorization. She cites Gary Okihiro
as linking the model minority myth and yellow peril discourse when he
writes: “the concepts of the yellow peril and the model minority, although at
apparent disjunction, form a seamless continuum” (1994, 141). Kawai also
quotes Robert Lee, drawing a connection between the two stereotypes: “Lee
(1999) pointed out that ‘the model minority has two faces. The myth presents
Asian Americans as silent and disciplined; this is their secret to success. At the
same time, this silence and discipline is used in constructing the Asian
American as a new yellow peril’ (p. 190)” (2005, 115).
18 Reports of tensions between African Americans and Asian Americans were
also prevalent in the media in the early 1990s and drew attention away from
black-white and Asian American-white racial tensions. In media discourse
about the Los Angeles rebellion, African Americans were pitted against Korean
Americans, especially after the death of Latasha Harlins, who was killed by a
Korean grocery store owner, Soon Ja Du, while shopping in her store. Korean
Americans were constructed as a particular variant of yellow peril, coming in
to exploit the African American community economically, while AfricaJ:I
Americans were represented as lazy or violent and as unsympathetic to the
Korean American community. Additionally, conspicuous information was
missing in such discourse, such as the structural and economic conditions of
both African Americans and Asian Americans – indeed all racial minorities in US inner cities.
19 S�ction 4A. Later in the article Egan suggests this might be a larger question to
be posed to universities in the United States more generally when he writes: “If
Berkeley is now a pure meritocracy, what does that say about the future of
great American universities in the post-affirmative action age? Are we headed
toward a day when all elite colleges will look something like Berkeley: rela­
tively wealthy whites (about 60 percent of white freshmen’s families make
$100,000 or more) and a large Asian plurality and everyone else underrepre­
sented? Is that the inevitable result of color-blind admissions?”
205
206
Notes to pp. 91-103
20 As of May 11, 2008, the online version of the article includes a moving image
of a person’s eyes – presumably of an Asian or Asian American – looking left,
then right, then left, then forward. Given the context of the article, this frag­
mented bodily image is objectifying and disturbing.
21 There are quotations defending meritocracy as a value, the bad press Asians
and Asian Americans receive because of the model minority stereotype, and
the fact that they often fail to be admitted to universities at the same rate as
other minorities. Yet most of this appears in the latter half of the article, and
the vast majority is dedicated to emphasizing the “Asianness” of Berkeley.
22 It is important to note that Asian Americans are not the only group that has
been configured as a “model minority” in discourse. Indeed, racial exception­
alism is perhaps a better term to describe the general tendency within a hier­
archical racial context to position some members of select groups as
outstanding, thus as worthy of inclusion within the dominant culture. As
Herman Gray suggests, racial exceptionalism has been significant in the rep­
resentation of blacks on television and in politics. He writes: “People such as
former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Clarence Pendleton or U.S.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (and commercial television’s Cliff
Huxtable) were seen by conservatives as possessing the requisite moral char­
acter, individual responsibility, and personal determination to succeed in
spite of residual social impediments” (1995, 18-19).
23 There is an interesting corollary to Asian and Asian American underrepresen­
tation in the formation of colleges (Valdivia, 2005). While there -are black,
Latina, Native American and white American girls in the Historical Characters
line of American girl dolls, an Asian American doll appears only as a sidekick
to a white doll.
Chapter 6 Asian American Public Criticisms and Community Protests
1 Scott Kurashige takes Espiritu’s concept of “reactive solidarity” and asks
whether or not it can be sustained in long-term community efforts and not
just as a reactive coalition protest (2000, 164).
2 Dorinne Kondo’s book About Face: Performing Race in- Fashion and Theater (1997)
has a chapter that provides a good overview of the Miss Saigon protests and
events, while Yoko Yoshikawa’s article “The Heat is on ‘Miss Saigon’ Coalition”
(1994) provides a first-hand account of the difficulties of communicating Asian
American issues to other marginalized groups. We attribute large portions of
the Miss Saigon account to these two articles.
3 Kawai (2005) also analyzes the film Rising Sun, which we discuss in chapter 5.
4 In the 1984 Vincent Chin case, the Asiarr American community rallied to
protest the lax punishment of Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, one of whom
was an unemployed autoworker, who beat and killed Chin after assuming he
was Japanese. Of course, many other examples of Asian American activism
could be discussed.
5 Aithough one might argue that theater is not a “medium,” we argue that it is..
Rather than, for example, the silver screen mediating the image, it is the pres­
ence of the stage that mediates the performance for the audience.
6 Helen Zia, an Asian American journalist, calls attention to the role of the
media in the Chin case in the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?
7 See Locke (1998).
8 In our essay ‘”Artful Bigotry & Kitsch’: A Study of Stereotype, Mimicry, and
Satire in Asian American T-Shirt Rhetoric” (Pham and Ono, forthcoming), we
How It Feels to Be Viral Me: Affective Labor and Asian American YouTube Performance
Author(s): Christine Bacareza Balance
Source: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1/2, VIRAL (SPRING/SUMMER 2012), pp.
138-152
Published by: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me: Affective Labor and
Asian American YouTube Performance
Christine Bacareza Balance
On March 15, 2011, just days after University of California-Los Angeles
undergraduate Alexandra Wallace posted (and subsequently took down)
her incendiary “Asians in the Library” video log (vlog) on YouTube,
another video set ablaze Facebook walls and Twitter accounts. Jimmy
Wong’s “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song”—a satirical love
song addressed to Wallace—distinguished itself from the hundreds of
other ranting and remix response videos. Opening with an excerpt from
the offending party’s original post—as she mockingly renders a scene of
Asians answering their cell phones in the library with an “Ooooh, Ching
Chong Ling Long Ting Tong,” Wong’s video quickly shifts into a style
and staging commonly associated with online vlogs. Seated and directly
addressing the camera, he is framed by his home studio’s accoutrements:
computer and electronic keyboard on his left side and a row of cables
neatly hanging on the wall behind him. Stuttering in a thick Asian accent
and, in turn, deriding Wallace’s own orientalist rendition, a guitar-strapped
Wong introduces his song into a boom microphone that hangs near his
face: “Greetings, Miss Alexandra Wallace. I’m not most… how you say…
politically correct person. So please…” (head bows quickly) “do not take
offensive. Thank you.”
Viewers familiar with the “Asians in the Library” video would rec
ognize that this introduction riffs on Wallace’s own preface: while she is
not the most “politically correct person,” she does have Asian friends, and
hopes, in the end, that viewers do not take offense. Wong strums a single
chord, signaling a magical transformation, as the video again cuts to Wong,
now guitarless but seated in the same position. This new version of Wong
138
WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 40:1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2012) © 2012 by Christine Bacareza
Balance. All rights reserved.
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 139
purrs into the microphone without an Asian accent or tone of deference.
With his recording studio-style headphones on, his seductive vocal style
recalls Asian American radio disc jockey Theo Mizuhara (“Theo” on Los
Angeles R&B/hip-hop station 92.3 the Beat), often assumed to be Afri
can American by unsuspecting listeners because of his deep and soothing
voice. This sexier Wong calls to Wallace—”Oooh girl”—before launch
ing into his own rendition of her library scene: “Don’t think I didn’t see
you watching me talking on my phone yesterday… all sexy… All Ching
Chong Ling Long… Baby, it’s just code … It’s just the way that I tell the
ladies that it’s time for me to get funky.”
For Wong, “getting funky” means launching into an acoustic ode to
Wallace, a remix and reclamation of words and phrases lifted from her
original video post. The song culminates in a repeating chorus, one that
“wrings the musicality of the original Ching Chong” bit while satirizing its
incommensurability: “Ching Chong… It means I love you … Ling Long
… I really need you… Ching Chong… I still don’t know what that means.”
The song’s arrangement of vocal melody and harmony, acoustic guitar, and
lo-fi percussion are simple and catchy. Yet the video’s visual elements—
the main frame of Wong is surrounded by small boxes or PiPs (picture in
pictures) of him performing each portion of the music—requires a pro
fessional style of multichannel editing. Here, Wong’s video evidences the
unstable divisions between amateur and professional that is characteristic
of the video-sharing website YouTube, ones that have helped redefine con
temporary media production.
Since its initial posting, “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song”
has garnered almost 4 million hits worldwide, received coverage from
both Asian American and mainstream U.S. press outlets, and landed the
twenty-three-year-old actor/musician a role in an upcoming indie film.
As a video that was able to spread quickly and across many screens, the
“Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song,” in all respects, was a viral hit.
While its popularity must be characterized as unexpected or accidental,
in order for a YouTube video to “go viral,” it must actually incorporate
emotional hooks: key signifiers that catch the attention and sensibility of
a particular audience. While sites like YouTube, by hosting such videos,
enable the process of viral video making, these videos’ successful trans
mission—from one user to the next—requires what media scholar Henry
Jenkins has termed a larger participatory culture of related blogs, social
networking sites, and mass media coverage (Jenkins 2006).
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140 Christine Bacareza Balance
With these paradoxical and performative features, viral media has
ushered in, according to journalists and industry insiders, a new genera
tion of “Asian American YouTube stars.” All but absent in the Hollywood
star system and on the Billboard charts, Asian Americans—such as Ryan
Higa (NigaHiga), Kevin Wu (Kevjumba), and Wong Fu Productions—
dominate YouTube s Most Subscribed lists.1 Paying serious attention to
this phenomenon of Asian American YouTube stars, either lauded for its
democratizing potential (giving Asian American “unseen talents” a per
formance stage) or disparaged for its industry-driven tendencies (mak
ing visible an otherwise “unseen niche market”), I instead imagine other
types of value that the stars hold for their youth audiences. It requires that
we revisit this phenomenon, one branded as unforeseen, and locate it
within a longer cultural history produced by the laborious acts of “feeling
Asian American.” As “production(s) defined by combination of cybernet
ics and affect” (Hardt 1999, 97), these YouTube performances—vlogs,
webisodes, and musical covers—function as forms of affective labor for
young Asian Americans today. While I respectfully engage the analytical
language of media studies, my purpose falls more in line with a central
theoretical concern of performance studies: to envision what these enact
ments might mean for their audiences. It is a perspective that falls out of
reception studies’ qualitative scope and one often concealed by the white
wash of fan studies.
I also want to think beyond a prevalent discourse that celebrates You
Tube as a means for Asian Americans to infiltrate the mainstream and,
therefore, “change da game.”2 With breakthrough celebrities such as Legaci
(pop star Justin Bieber s touring backup vocalists) and Charice Pempengco
(child star turned daytime television darling), many critics have heralded
YouTube as a launching pad for Asian Americans, a group otherwise lack
ing representation in U.S. mainstream pop culture. Yet others maintain
the opposite view: it is actually young Asian Americans whose “aesthet
ics and business sense have helped change the face of online video” (Kun
2010). As illustrated in discussions at the Conference for Creative Content
(C3), which took place in June 2011 at Visual Communications’ annual
Los Angeles Asian American film festival, today’s Asian American creative
hopefuls do not merely accede to but actively exploit social media and
information-sharing platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and
blogs as what was described at C3 as their “new calling card.” To further
aid this generation in “negotiating and navigating between community
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 141
and commerce,” C3 panels focused on the entrepreneurial nuts and bolts
necessary to succeed online: copyright and intellectual property rights;
effective modes of branding, distribution, and news reporting; and craft
ing performances to capture audiences. And if their hands-on approach to
“becoming a YouTube star” was not enough of a draw, the organizers also
summoned Asian Americas celebrity power as panelists—bloggers PhilYu
and Diana Nguyen, YouTube trendsetter Wong Fu Productions, and Glee
star Harry Shum.
Along with its ability to infiltrate and infect, the viral has the power
to replicate. So, while some journalists and media organizations view You
Tube as an open stage for Asian American performers, artists themselves
look to the website as an alternative avenue of cultural production. As
twenty-four-year-old Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead (Jonathan
Park) noted in a recent Koream magazine article, “Asians got tired of wait
ing to get into the mainstream. With YouTube, you don’t have to wait for
somebody to sign you, or give you a budget of millions of dollars to make a
film; you can just do it. We’re like,’ YouTube’s here. We’re going to smash it
up with this YouTube thing”‘ (Eun and Ma 2010). With “no third party, no
money-sucking managers, or closed-minded Hollywood executives,” Asian
Americans do not simply leverage but actually dominate YouTube’s top
ten-channel lists, designating them as celebrities on the video-sharing site.
Encompassing “highly visible and successful ‘homegrown’ performers and
producers,” as defined by Joshua Green and Jean Burgess, the category of
“YouTube celebrity” or “YouTube star” consists of entrepreneurial vloggers
such as Jimmy Wong, cultural producers who collaborate with other art
ists and partake in the site’s daily life as active consumers (2009,91). As a
communication genre, vlogs derive from such media antecedents as “web
cam culture, personal blogging, and the more widespread ‘confessional
culture’ that characterizes television talk shows and reality television—
while also adhering to current social media mandates to ‘invite critique,
debate, and discussion ” (94). At the same time, while “digital visuality”
online “can reinstate an understanding of race as always visible and avail
able to the naked eye,” according to media scholar Lisa Nakamura, on the
Internet (unlike in cinema) “users have the option to perform their identi
ties in ways that are not possible elsewhere” (2008, 205). No longer sim
ply broadcasting media, YouTube’s celebrity system also requires its stars
to post responses to their viewers’ comments, follow other users’ videos,
and maintain public profiles through other Web 2.0 channels (Facebook,
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142 Christine Bacareza Balance
Myspace, Twitter). Tapping into and taking part in the “affective econo
mies” of these media and networking platforms, YouTube stars are often
required to extend their performances beyond these virtual arenas.3
To succeed in today’s participatory culture, with its own logic of affec
tive economics, the larger U.S. entertainment industry has had to rethink
how it does business. No longer able to merely distribute content in a top
down fashion, organizations and performers—whether amateur or pro
fessional, nonprofit or profit driven—are forced to devise new forms of
audience outreach and engagement. In Asian America, the International
Secret Agents (ISA) showcase and nonprofit organization Kollaboration
are two grassroots examples of this new affective economics model as they
both capitalize on a niche audiences’ emotional attachment to performers
(“people like me”) by presenting YouTube celebrities live in performance.
Started in 2008 by Southern California’s Wong Fu Productions and hip
hop group Far East Movement, ISA has since showcased popular Asian
American performers, from YouTube celebrities A. J. Rafael, Ryan Higa,
and Jennifer Chung to reality TV contestants/hip-hop dance crews Quest
Crew and Poreotics, in cities such as Seattle and New York as well as the
Los Angeles ethnoburbs San Gabriel and Cerritos. With five sold-out con
certs in the past three years, according to Wong Fu Productions’ website,
ISA “prov[es] that there is a voice, face, and desire for Asian Americans in
the mainstream world” (see ISA [http://isatv.com/?page_id=66]). While
both ISA and Kollaboration employ YouTube for the purposes of publi
cizing and programming their events, Kollaboration—with its tagline
“Empowerment Through Entertainment”—actually auditions brand-new
performers on YouTube for its seasonal acoustic as well as electric concert
competitions. Established eleven years ago in Los Angeles’ Koreatown
(where its headquarters are still based), Kollaboration has spread across
the nation, with local chapters, or Kollaboration Cities, in Asian Ameri
can centers: San Francisco, Seatde; New York; Washington, DC; Toronto;
Chicago; Atlanta; Houston; and Tulsa. Extending the reach of YouTube
stars—from home computer screens onto concert stages—ISA and Kol
laboration’s community-based efforts also map today’s Asian America.
According to Koream writers Elizabeth Eun and Julie Ma (2010),
before YouTube’s advent in 2005, “it all seemed self-indulgent and border
line narcissistic … uploading videos of yourself belting out pop songs or
talking to an invisible audience.” Yet despite the ways online media has
changed the aesthetics and business of entertainment, most YouTube video
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 143
performances are still popularly perceived as being amateurish in their
look and feel—”narcissistic” and “self-indulgent” musical or spoken solo
performances addressed to a built-in computer camera, with little else in
terms of lighting, backdrop, or editing. These are consumer-based produc
tions. However, as critics have noted, the probability of a YouTube video s
“going viral” hinges precisely on the qualities of authenticity and earnest
ness. “Not targeted nor read as necessarily containing material for general
audiences,” Patricia Lange notes, these viral hits often contain “stereo
typical, spontaneous, and … numerous in-jokes and references that many
general viewers would not understand in the way the creators intended”
(2009, 73). In other words, to catch an already distracted viewer’s atten
tion, viral videos must exude an air of amateur production—versus the
slick, professional, and therefore controlled aesthetics of mainstream Hol
lywood or television sources—and mobilize key signifiers that resonate
with a particular community or subculture.
Once struggling in a constrictive media system that viewed its films
and performances as unprofitable and the idea of an Asian American audi
ence as moot, indie Asian American artists have reaped the most benefit
from social media’s democratic promise. Already engaged in analog forms
of virality (such as DIY filmmaking, word-of-mouth advertising, and
informal networks of production), Asian American artists and entrepre
neurs have easily shifted into digital mode. In the nonprofit sector, Asian
American theaters and arts organizations mobilize social media in order
to publicize upcoming productions, assist in fund-raising campaigns, and
archive highlights from past productions or major events. At the same
time, some of the most successful Asian American artists on YouTube—
Wong Fu, Legaci, Charice, and Kevjumba, for example—had years of per
formance experience and training under their belt before uploading their
first YouTube video. In the case of Wong Fu Productions, which started
circulating its work via email in the late 1990s, the video-sharing website
was merely a cheap and easy alternative for sharing film shorts and music
videos, especially with friends who lacked high-speed Internet connec
tions. In all these cases, YouTube was the means, not the ends, to produc
ing and distributing their work.
Yet how do we account for the popularity of YouTube stars and their
performances among todays Asian American youth? In other words,
besides just continuing a tradition of DIY cultural production, what pur
pose do these Asian American YouTube performers—their videos and
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144 Christine Bacareza Balance
the ways in which they are shared—actually serve? These questions arise
for me not only in the space of this essay or during my private moments
of writing and researching but also, and more so, in the public spaces of
teaching, when students share and retell their fandom for certain YouTube
performers and performances—or when I notice swooning from thirty
and-under Asian Americans huddled around computer screens, see them
standing in line for tickets to a YouTube college tour show, or hear them
screaming from their seats at a recent Kollaboration Acoustic 5 showcase. Is
there something about YouTube—a genre of new media dependent upon
the viral, as a “politics of form and form of politics”—that speaks to the
simultaneously virtual and material aspects of Asian American identity?4
At once an all-too-easy catchall term (among census takers, public
health researchers, and marketers) for an endlessly diverse population—of
various ethnicities, nations, and classes, fluent in a number of different lan
guages/ dialects and with divergent immigration histories—”Asian Ameri
can” originated as a highly contested, simultaneously political and cultural
term during the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and student movements of
the 1960s and 1970s. Purposefully pan-ethnic, it signaled the interlock
ing, oft-forgotten histories of U.S. war and empire in Asia and earlier Asian
immigration to the United States as well as the mutually material and rep
resentational effects of these historical events and conditions. According
to early Yellow Power proponents, while early twentieth-century U.S. pop
ular representation of Asians focused on “contagious divides”—the dis
cursive lines between U.S. modernity and Orientalized otherness drawn
across Asian bodies—since the end of World War II and the Cold War’s
onset, one particular myth of racialization has prevailed (Shah 2001).
Published in 1966, in the aftermath of the Moynihan report and amid ris
ing domestic racial tensions, the main themes of the U.S. World and News
Report article “Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.” continue
on in the “model minority” myth. Painting a portrait of the Chinese and
Japanese as hardworking, obedient, self-reliant individuals whose drive
toward assimilation is matched only by their fervent adherence to “tra
ditional Asian values”—filial piety, humility, and sacrifice—the model
minority myth is a neoliberal form of racialization.5 It at once promises
U.S. citizenship and belonging to those Asian subjects (“obedient, self
reliant individuals) who must also perform a racialized script that marks
them as forever foreign (“traditional Asian values”). In this frequent col
lapse between “Asian” and “Asian American,” model minority discourse
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 145
has prescribed the parameters of Asian American-ness, setting the terms
for political debate within Asian America.6
Against this discursive containment, scholars such as Kandice Chuh,
Laura Kang, Lisa Lowe, and Karen Shimawaka have helped us fine-tune a
working definition of “Asian American” one that reminds us of its supple
and performative nature, an identity constituted by multiple and compet
ing epistemologies. As Chuh has cautioned, “rather than looking to com
plete the category [of] Asian American”‘ we must instead recognize how
we are “positioned to critique the effects of the various configurations of
power and knowledge through which the term comes to have meaning”
(2003, 10-11). These configurations are simultaneously domestic and
transnational—the Asian in the United States as well as the American in
Asia—with the battle for meaning, both aesthetic and political—fought
on the grounds of culture. Culture here operates through “affiliation(s)
of meaning” that “occur(s) in negotiation with the material conditions of
existence shaped by politics and economics” (Lowe 1996, 2). As Lowe
eloquently outlined in her seminal Immigrant Acts, Asian American cul
ture is a “countersite to U.S. national culture” where “contradictions are
read, performed, and critiqued”; it functions as a “medium of the present”
that “mediates the past,” remembering fragmented histories while reimag
ining political futures (65). Likewise, against community-based discur
sive containment—the kind that espouses notions of Asian Americans as
culturally, socially, and politically homogeneous, attempts to expel radical
Asian otherness through anti-immigrant sentiments, or even falls prey to
the assimilationist lure of performing “model minority”-ness—I want to
consider the political potential and critical possibilities offered by Asian
American YouTube performances, as staged and everyday performances
of affect and participation. By examining them along the formalistic lines
of the “viral” a category characterized as corruptive, mobile, and infec
tious, we are forced to remember and reckon with Asian Americas com
plicated historical path to U.S. citizenship and the forms of political and
social belonging it has engendered.7
As mentioned above, the success of viral media depends upon (l) a
niche or subcultures active participation through online networks (i.e.,
websites, blogs, and social networking directed at its particular needs/
concerns) and (2) its knowledge of and ability to craft emotional hooks,
key signifiers that touch upon a shared set of affective investments and
affiliations. Asian Americas particular use of viral media points to this
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146 Christine Bacareza Balance
virtual diaspora’s simulated and representational elements and, in turn, to
the performative and affective dimensions of the “symbolic ethnicity” of
Asian Americans.
A 2001 Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that “fully
75% of English- speaking Asian-American adults have used the Internet”
surpassing the numbers for all other English-speaking ethnic and even
white American groups and making them “the most wired racial or eth
nic group in America/’ “the young and the connected” (Spooner 2001, 2).
Unlike their ethnic or even white counterparts, Asian American Internet
users were “proportionally much more likely than others to get informa
tion about financial matters, travel, and political information” as well as
“to use the Internet as a resource at school or at work” (2). In this com
parative race-based research study, the report s author cites the challenges
to surveying and collecting coherent data within this pan-ethnic commu
nity: heterogeneity of languages, high levels of language retention, and a
lack of proper translation services. Thus, with its English-only survey, the
Pew report depends upon and, in turn, perpetuates a limited definition of
“Asian American.”
Alongside a critique of this domesticating discourse, the trope of Asian
American “hyperconnectivity” requires a deeper inquiry into the causes
and effects of this group s long-standing Internet use and early adoption of
Web 2.0 technologies—social networking sites like Friendster, Myspace,
Facebook; short message services; and Internet telephone providers such
as Skype. For both U.S. and foreign-born Asian Americans who maintain
connections to homeland politics and family networks, these digital tech
nologies allow for quick, inexpensive communication across time zones
and national borders. Therefore, as Linda Leung has noted, the Asian
diaspora is an imagined community “experienced largely over the Inter
net” and best “characterized as ‘virtual”‘ (2008, 10). While the virtuality
of Asian America traffics in both the simulated and representational, it
also gestures toward an extensive cluster of real-world implications and
everyday situations. The explosion of Korean pop (K-pop) culture glob
ally, in the past decade, exemplifies this interplay between the virtual and
material. Although the Internet’s role in disseminating state-sponsored
and market-driven forms of K-Pop culture is vital, as cultural anthropolo
gist Jung-Sun Park observes, Korean American youth (U.S.-born and 1.5
generations as well as yuhaksaeng, students who study abroad) and their
“consumption, dissemination, and to some extent, creation of trans-Pacific
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 147
popular culture”—as they participate in K-Pop-oriented websites and
forums and share with friends, family, and other fans the latest news and
songs from abroad—plays an equally crucial role (2008, 161). Alienated
from mainstream U.S. popular culture, the Korean American youth whom
Park interviews find a sense of belonging, a “feeling at home,” in K-Pop’s
style and culture.
In the registers of emotion and affect, Asian American youth also
work through and against the specter of the model minority as a prescrip
tive racial fiction. Throughout its popular cultural history, Asian America
has propagated the “grander passions” of anger, rage, and shame (Ngai
2005, 6). Like todays YouTube videos, ‘zines of the 1990s yesteryears,
with their espousal of punk and indie subcultures’ DIY credo, also toed the
lines “between commercial and D.I.Y., between mainstream and marginal”
(Rubin 2003, 14). In the case of highly successful print publications that
survived their digital transformation into online ‘zines—Eric Nakamura
and Martin Wong’s Giant Robot, Mimi Thi Nguyen’s Exoticize This.’, and
Sabrina Alcantara-Tan’s Bamboo Girl—the tone of Asian America’s talk
back to mainstream U.S. industries and representation took on the punk
aesthetic of “gleeful opposition to decorum and propriety” by expressing
itself in ways that “fl [y] directly in the face of the ‘polite Asian’ stereotype”
(Rubin 2003, 15-16). If model minority status was maintained through
deference, then these cultural forerunners instead chose to express anger
and rage, emotions falling outside the boundaries of this racial fiction.
Ironically, model minority rhetoric actually figures Asians as unfeeling or,
as Wesley Yang vividly described in his recent New York magazine article
“Asian Like Me,” “a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi
robots” (2011, 22). Derived as they are from this ‘zine publishing tradi
tion, it is no wonder that some of today s most popular Asian American
blogs still contain emotionally charged terms—the blogs Angry Asian
Man, Disgrasian, and You Offend Me You Offend My Family (YOMYOMF).
Through these particularly salient examples, we might hone our under
standing of Asian American as a “symbolic ethnicity.” According to Rachel
Rubin, the categorical term of “Asian American” is “symbolic, because of
its rhetorical and deliberative nature, but, nonetheless possessed of real
world implications” (2003, 5). As a mode of identification, it holds the
possibility of being a “deliberative and motivated thing: experiential rather
than biological, grounded in the present as much or more than in the
past” (5). For Asian American ‘zine writers, this “deliberative and moti
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148 Christine Bacareza Balance
vated thing” registered as an “attitude,” a particular way of expressing one s
being-in-the-world. In the case of YouTube performances, such as Jimmy
Wong’s “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library” parody the Asian American
attitude today references a broader set of emotions than just anger and
rage but still performs the affective labor of transforming alienating epi
sodes into a common understanding.
From Europe’s capitals to California’s Silicon Valley, in hospitals and
call centers, Asians and Asian Americans constitute a greater part of the
world’s affective labor force. According to theorist Michael Hardt, affective
labor runs throughout “todays dominant economic forms” (1999, 96).
Whereas some forms of caregiving activities continue “the production and
reproduction of life, [has become] firmly embedded as a necessary foun
dation for capitalist accumulation and patriarchal order,” Asian American
YouTube artists, through their “production of affects, subjectivities, and
forms of life” instead “present an enormous potential for autonomous cir
cuits of valorization, and perhaps for liberation” (lOO).8 This is not to say
that these artists are safe from critique, for the majority of Asian American
YouTube performances still tend toward reinforcing community-driven
norms. Yet, like their cultural predecessors—from the earliest protest
poems and plays, literary anthologies, and documentaries of the Yellow
Power movement to the recent past of online magazines, forums, blogs,
and cyberzines—these Asian American YouTube performers express
their own shared political and social affects, feelings that are produced in
response to discourses of virality and that are otherwise absent from most
mainstream popular representations of Asian America.
For Davis Jung, producer of the recent Conference for Creative Con
tent, Wong Fu Productions’ 2006 “Yellow Fever”—the group’s first You
Tube video and response to the common narratives of Asian American
masculinity—arrived at a critical point in his life. In his online essay “How
New Media Gave Me a Voice,” Jung narrates familiar tales for Asian Ameri
cans—the perpetual mispronunciation of one’s name, the attempt to cul
tivate a love for genres of whiteness (country music, Classical Civilization
major), and, of course, the lack of “role models” or “words” to articulate
one s self—in order to capture the paradoxical feelings of Asian America:
cultural alienation and, yet, the desire to belong. Bored and procrastinat
ing, one fall evening in 2007, the then college-age Jung stumbled upon the
University of California-San Diego collective’s video link and clicked it. “I
cannot tell you how many times I watched that video. It reached out and
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 149
shook me. It made me laugh, and later on, it made me cry. It excited me, it
incited me. It made me question everything that I had ever assumed about
myself. It made me question what it meant to be ‘normal’.”
Appearing at the end of his essay, this moment of cultural discovery
serves as Jung’s final word, his response to the question continually raised
regarding the value of YouTube for Asian Americans. Pivoting between the
dualities of culture and commerce, business and cultural resource, node
and network, the rhetoric regarding the content-sharing website vacil
lates between characterizing it as “culturally generative” (for the several
roles it plays as “high volume website, broadcast platform, media archive,
social network”) and seeing it as merely another “‘top-down’ platform for
distributing popular culture” (Snickars and Vondereau 2009, 13). Yet, as
Jung’s anecdote so vividly reminds us, we need another set of protocols:
an audience-centered analysis of the value of Asian American YouTube
performances. By invoking a certain set of shared affects for these Asian
American youth audiences, these YouTube stars’ vlogs, song parodies,
skits, and cover performances produce something “intangible: a feeling of
ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, passion—even a sense of con
nectedness or community” (Hardt 1999, 96). Breaking out of the model
minority myth’s discursive containment, these emerging online personali
ties restage and respond to the banal and ridiculously racist moments of
Asian America’s everyday life, performing the affective labor of transform
ing alienation into humor, hate into love. Unexpectedly, a story or a song
might catch us. Moved by these performances, we cannot help but share
them, infecting others with the feeling.
Christine Bacareza Balance is currently an assistant professor of Asian American stud
ies at the University of California-Irvine. Her writing has appeared in print in Women
and Performance: A Feminist Journal, the Journal of Asian American Studies (JAAS),
and Theatre Journal and online in In Media Res. Balance is currently writing a book on
popular music and performance in post-World War II Filipino America. She would like
to thank this special issue’s editors, her anonymous reviewer, and colleagues Patricia
Ahn and Sonjia Hyon for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.
Notes
1. The most spectacular examples: comedic vlogger “Kevjumba” (Kevin Wu):
no. 9 Most Subscribed Comedian (All Time), 1.4 million subscribers, over
150 million views; character actor/comedian “NigaHiga” (Ryan Higa): You
Tube no. 1 Most Subscribed (All Time), 3.4 million subscribers, over 746
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150 Christine Bacareza Balance
million views; directorial/writing collective Wong Fu Productions (Wesley
Chan, Ted Fu, and Philip Wang): 785,394 subscribers, over 95 million views.
2. From the title of a panel at the 2010 San Francisco Asian American Film
Festival: “Changing da Game: YouTube Legends and the Future of Online
Media” (Center for Asian American Media 2010).
3. In this particular case, I am referencing Burgess and Green’s use of “affective
economies” to describe the participatory culture of emotional attachments
and investments expressed on YouTube. Other scholars such as Sara Ahmed
and Henryjenkins have also written about the “affective economies” of polit
ical language and actions between racialized individuals within the nation
state (Ahmed 2004) and the logics of “affective economics” as propagated
and perpetuated by reality television shows such as American Idol (Jenkins
2006).
4. I am borrowing this notion of “the politics of form and the form of politics”
to discuss the critical and political work enacted by cultural productions
from Jodi Kim’s (2010) recently released Ends of Empire: Asian American Cri
tique and the Cold War. Thanks also to Joshua Chambers-Letson (2009) for
his essay “Contracting Justice: the Viral Strategy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,”
which models different ways that a term such as the “viral” can be mobilized
as a conceptual meeting point for an interdisciplinary discussion of bodies,
the law, and artistic form.
5. In some aspects, the political difficulties faced by a term such as “Asian Amer
ican” find a kinship with the similarly vexed identity category of “Latino.” As
Jose Esteban Munoz has questioned, “Latino does not subscribe to a com
mon racial, class, gender, religious, or national category, and if a Latino can
be from any country in Latin America, a member of any race, religion, class,
or gender/sex orientation, who then is she? What, if any, nodes of com
monality do Latinas/os share?” (Munoz 2000, 67) Yet, in other ways, “Asian
American” has historically served as an umbrella term that has unified seem
ingly disparate groups. For the purposes of this essay, I draw on the spirit of
Munoz’s focus on affective performances, or ways of “feeling brown,” as a site
for mobilizing different forms of what Norma Alarcon (1996) has designated
an “identity-in-difference.”
6. It bears repeating here that, within this containment logic of the “model
minority,” “Asian” more often refers to East Asian Americans (i.e., Chinese,
Japanese, and sometimes Korean) rather than Asian/Asian American eth
nicities such as Filipinos, South Asians, and Southeast Asians.
7. As Karen Shimakawa writes, “The conceptual U.S. citizen-subject comes into
being, in other words, through the expulsion of Asianness in the figure of the
Asian immigrant” (2002, 5). See also Soyoung Sonjia Hyon’s (2011) disser
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How It Feels to Be Viral Me 151
tation, “Anxieties of the Fictive: The Immigrant and Asian American Politics
ofVisibility.”
8. For future conversations and reading, we might think of these affective labors
alongside what Alan Bryman (2004) has famously termed the “performa
tive labor” within tourist economies, especially that performed by Asian and
American women. Thanks to Patricia Ahn for sharing her proposed work
(a dissertation tentatively tided “Disorganized Convergence: Global Music
Television and Channels of Asian American Production”) concerned with
ideas on these particular connections.
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