Monday, March 7, 2016

If You're Asian, the US Isn't the Place to be a Star

There's a part of me that's always been a little out of touch with American pop culture. For instance, I've never been a movie person. It's a good year if I see more than one in the theater, and usually when people ask me what the last movie I saw was, it takes me a moment or two to figure out what it probably was.

I say probably, because sometimes I'm honestly not sure. Though at the moment, I can say the last movie was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you ask me six months from now, the answer might be the same.

This past week there was a lot of #OscarsSoWhite going around on Twitter, along with Chris Rock's tasteless joke about Asians. A lot has already been written about that, but it touched a nerve in me as an American-born Asian. Part of it has to do with movies, but really, it's about any Asian who wants to perform in the public. One doesn't have to be a movie lover to see that Asians are invisible in the cultural zeitgeist, and it's a thought that started with me discovering a number of Asian pop stars who were born and/or grew up in the United States but make their livings abroad.

Because I am an anime fan, it was not surprising that I would end up with a taste for j-pop, but what is unusual, is that my favorite j-pop artist was not born in Japan. nano (stylized in lowercase) was born in New York and I suspect speaks better English than Japanese. For example, this interview with nano is clearly intended for a Japanese audience because of the subtitles, but nano is answering in English.

nano's music has been featured in a number of TV shows, video games, and of course collected in multiple studio albums.

You also might notice that I've been avoiding gender pronouns (which makes talking about nano a real pain), but near as I can tell this is intentional. Japanese is a non-gendered language and nano does not present as one or the other. Unfortunately, most of nano's music is currently blocked from American viewers on YouTube due to a snafu that occurred when YouTube Red landed (a lot of Japanese music got region blocked then), and I had trouble linking my favorite video from NicoNico, but this gives an idea of nano's voice and music aesthetic.



nano's face is never shown in full, though usually it's obscured by a hood (this is the first video without the hoodie). Gender is left ambiguous. And one might notice that nano's music is not bubbly j-pop either, but something a little harder. Could nano have had a multi-album career in the US?

Probably not.

Hikaru Utada is another American-born Japanese who tried her luck in Japan, and became huge in her ancestral country with multiple #1 hits. She then came back and tried the English language market, but even though she's released three albums here, she hasn't been able to make the same kind of in-roads.

This phenomenon isn't limited to Japanese either. I was surprised to discover that half of the Korean boy band Shinhwa had spent part of their formative years in America, and at least one was a citizen (though he eventually gave up his citizenship).

When Asians are in music at all in the US, they are generally part of a band, or they're biracial where they can pass as non-Asian (Norah Jones comes to mind).

Asian men in particular, don't get the opportunity to enjoy the kind of performance that Shinhwa does. Take a look at one of their videos, and even if they weren't an all Korean group, could you imagine seeing just one Asian guy getting to perform like that in an American music video as one of the main stars?



Asian men don't get to be sexy in American pop culture. I'm not surprised the Shinhwa members that went to middle school and high school in the US decided to move back to Korea, because what they are there is much better than what they could be here.

There was a round table interview with several minorities about diversity in TV and movies in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, and in it, the words that stuck out at me the most were from Ken Jeong.

He was quoting an acting professor of his who said, "You’re a good actor, which is why I’m telling you, stay the hell out of L.A. There’s not much of a future for you. Go to Asia."

For some Asian Americans, that's an option, because they have foreign born parents, speak the language, and/or have relatives who might be able to assist with getting them settled after they cross the ocean. But it's not an option for everyone.

For those like me, who are so far removed from our ancestral homes, all we've got is what's available in the US. These industries are rough enough even without being Asian.

I'm glad that TV is getting better about including us, but movies have a long way to go, and so does music.