How to be Other

My central preoccupations in this course focused on why young Asian-Americans so often feel like “others,” separated by the sense of abstract citizenship highlighted by Lowe. Yes, Asians born in America are legal citizens, but their right to cultural citizenship is denied through the historical exclusion of Asians through the Immigration Acts. This has persisted to the present day, and many young Asian-Americans can feel this effect in throughout their childhood and into their adult lives. Often, music becomes a defense mechanism either for or against assimilation, and what type of music they listen to becomes a statement. How then, do many young Asian Americans willingly and freely give away their own agency? Submitting to other hegemonic powers, many young Asian Americans use this as justification for why they cannot claim a unique Asian American music for their own.

In my first blog post, I noted how Asian Americans often find empowerment in classical music and view it as a colorblind music industry where everyone has equal opportunity. Yet young Asian Americans still unknowingly categorize themselves as others, not through their own actions, but their parent’s failure to assimilate. Through the case study of Jessica Cao, we see an example of a young Asian American classical musician who sees her enjoyment of music as connected to her parents. By letting her parents control her competitive playing to an extent where seat placement becomes a priority over just enjoying the music, classical music becomes something that Cao’s parents control. Saying this implies that some young Asian Americans have no agency to enjoy playing classical music without their parents’ permission, creating a divide that young Asian Americans themselves refuse to breach. While it is undeniable that parents play a role in creating a competitive atmosphere for their kids, young Asian Americans also have the option to move past their parents’ control and utilize their own agency. They don’t.

This theme is repeated in K-pop, a popular form of transnational media that many Asian Americans consume. While classical music and K-pop are two very different genres, they both operate within hegemonic power structures that require one dominant party over another. From Cao’s example, we see how she willingly surrenders her autonomy to her parents and let’s that dictate her ownership of classical music. Classical music requires huge monetary sacrifices (Cao’s violin costs around $15,000 as a first-year music major) that not everyone has access too; thus, the dominant hegemonic power is twofold in both the capitalistic economy that makes this necessary and the parents who are often the ones with the means of providing the instruments. In K-pop, young Asian Americans often give up their standards for a unique form of Asian American music by turning to K-pop and claiming it as “Asian American” despite it originating in Korea. Both classical music and K-pop are music forms developed in countries other than America and established by ethnic groups that do not occupy the same unique status of Asian Americans as legal citizens but cultural others.

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SM Entertainment Artists at their 2012 American Tour

As noted in my second blog post, Korea, as a foreign hegemonic power, takes advantage of young Asian Americans seeking pan-ethnic solidarity by marketing to Asian Americans specifically with English-speaking idols. However, K-pop is officially sanctioned by the Korean government and is a form of exported soft hegemonic power. Thus, K-pop’s main purpose is commercial and catered to marketing purposes rather than empowering Asian Americans. This is similar to how classical music and its economic sacrifices are normalized by music conservatories, such as the Bienen School of Music that Cao attends. Additionally, since K-pop is primarily performed by Koreans born and raised in Korea, it’s hard to claim K-pop as Asian American music. K-pop also doesn’t explore themes specifically related to Asian American struggles. In fact, K-pop’s only tenuous connection to Asian Americans is their shallow appeal of English speakers and pan-ethnic culturalism, yet young Asian Americans still try to claim K-pop as a progressive form of media and are keen to ignore these exploitive facets.

While K-pop might not be Asian American rallying music, some might argue that it’s a harmless pastime while ignoring the fact that is actively seeks to erase the Asian American identity within the industry. Through the example of Chocolat in my third blog post, we see that some companies use Asian Americanness and advertise its otherness. We generally think about “Asian American” as belonging in America with cultural citizenship and all its implications, but when it is transplanted to another country like the members of Chocolat, Asian Americans are still taken advantage of. Since there are few accepted Asian American artists in mainstream America, many turn to their “home country” for a chance at fame and stardom, only to find their Asian Americanness used as a tool in another country. Though Asian Americans themselves make a choice to go to a country that they feel is more accepting, if the reason they go back is only to find commercial success, their music is no different from other Asians, thus losing their Asian American agency and identity.

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(From left to right) Tablo, Gallant, and Eric Nam for W Magazine

Examples other than Chocolat include Eric Nam and Ailee, both of whom are commercially successful K-pop musicians, but their music does not advocate for Asian Americans specifically. They might collaborate with American artists, but their music does not address the significant divide between the Asian and the American. However, this is generally enough to satisfy Asian American consumers. Yet if Asian Americans are content with only K-pop as a category of Asian America music, they will always be forced into either “American” or “Asian,” never a cohesive blend of the two.

So what can we do to reclaim our agency in a distinctly “Asian American” way that celebrates otherness rather than reject? Throughout the course, we’ve examined how Asian Americans lack a cohesive voice in music. Though the Asian American movement began by unifying all Asian Americans as a pan-ethnic identity through the works of artists such as Chris Iijima, that pan-ethnicism has led Asian American youth to become lazy in capturing their own agency. From placing responsibility on their parents and refusing to beyond those pre-ordained expectations to accepting transnational Asian media as a voice for Asian Americans, Asian Americans in these areas do not struggle for an accurate representation.

Of course, I cannot merely point fingers without noticing my own complicity. As a diehard ardent K-pop fan myself, I too often turn to K-pop as escapism and enjoy the brightly colored music videos. What’s worse is that I recognize the toxicity of K-pop’s superficial marketing of Asian Americans and continue to consume that media, making excuses for myself and by extension, other Asian Americans falling into the same trap. Intent is crucial when considering the impact that our actions can have, and continuing to be spoon-fed music that, while enjoyable, is not uniquely Asian American does nothing to further our progress as Asian Americans. Without a form of music to call our own, we will always feel alienated from popular culture and keenly sense that divide between our otherness and a full sense of empowered belonging.

 

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