Asian-American Self-Segregation and Assimilation

In Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology, I found the comic “Occupy Ethnic Foods” on page 193 by Tak Toyoshima both hilarious and a decent representation of how Asian-Americans occupy social spaces in the discourse of white American society and how that representation permeates through dominant American pop culture.  By seeing how such representations are portrayed not just in Asian-American comics, but also how they have found their way to the mainstream media, we can recognize how the manner in which people self-organize can reveal Asian-American social positions within a larger nation.

In the comic, the personification of different food items and condiments, some of which are considered “ethnic food,” and some of which are considered mainstream food is a clever play on symbolizing the common position of Asian-American social groups within a broader dominant social setting.

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Ah-So Sauce and Kikkoman Soy Sauce want to start a revolution, a movement that will allow them to integrate with the rest of mainstream food items while La Choy and Nissin Cup Noodles find their position with their fellow Asian food items more comfortable and secure. This immediately reminds me of my own high school days. My high school had a rather large proportion of Asian-American students (more than 30% to be exact) yet most of the Asian students voluntarily stuck together. We all hung out together in a group in the hallways before class, and we all sat together in large groups of Asian students in the cafeteria during lunch time. That was where we felt comfortable for some reason. We were among our similar peers and felt just fine with this self-reinforced status quo. Hearing from Asian friends at other schools all around the country, the same can be said elsewhere as well.

This social “phenomenon” of voluntarily grouping oneself into ethnic groups within a larger society has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream cultural media. Even one of the most popular and influential teen movies of the past decade, Mark Waters’ Mean Girls, referenced this form of social organization.

Even in such a diverse school, students still feel the need to self-segregate, enforcing hegemonic relations among “white” students and “minority” students.  And as Mean Girls portrays, there are even hegemonic dominance and subordinance within the ethnic social groups themselves with “cool Asians” versus “nerdy Asians.” This ideology essentially classifies which minority is worthy of being socially ranked higher above the rest.

The same type of non-verbal but understood classification was evident at my own high school. There were Asian groups that were noticeably the “cool Asians,” the ones that partied, drank, and did drugs in addition to or in place of excelling academically. And then there were noticeably the “nerdy Asians,” the ones that were skinny and lanky, fashionably “lacking,” socially awkward, and almost exclusively academically driven. It is important to observe and recognize these real-life situations in order to appreciate or problematize the humor behind mainstream portrayals as well as comic strips like that of Toyoshima’s without stereotyping.

In “Occupy Ethnic Foods,” I find the genius lies behind the author identifying which “ethnic foods” are of more popular use among a mainstream society. Nissin Cup Noodle, as Toyoshima accurately describes, is “a staple food of the 99% [that] dominate college student diets.” That kind of relation to hegemonic power and dominant society therefore allows Nissin Cup Noodle to enjoy his place in society while still being classified as “Asian.”  However, as a result, he is accused by Ah-So Sauce of assimilating and abandoning his Asian roots by adapting to more “un-Asian” flavors, becoming a “sellout.” The same kind of accusation can be found in real Asian-American communities. Too many times have I heard the term “white-washed” or “twinkie.” By having a group of majority white friends or being in the “popular” social crowd, one risks the chance of alienating one’s own racial group and being labeled a “race traitor.” For some reason, i have noticed that some Asian-Americans subconsciously believe that Asians must stick together with predominantly Asians in order to still be Asian. What does this say about hegemonic relations between Asian-American society and general mainstream society? Does this self-segregation mean that these Asians view themselves as superior or inferior to white Americans?

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The most interesting point of all in Toyoshima’s comic, is that while Ah-So Sauce is spouting off about how he is proud to have stuck to his Asian roots, he is also demanding to be integrated into mainstream “food society.” Yet at the same time, he is against assimilating. In a sense, he is viewing “ethnic foods” as a subjectless discourse and wishes for “equality.” However, it kills him (literally) to learn that he is in fact “Made in America.” This is hilarious to me because most Asian-Americans in the high school scenarios I mentioned are also American-born, second- or third-generation Asian-Americans. However, even being born into American society does not make them any more comfortable with emerging themselves into mainstream social orders and they still see outer race as the main classifying factor, and in a sense, reveals their own sense of comfort, value, and worth and more importantly, dominant social conditions that led them to feel this way.

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