“If you were an outsider, hip hop was your answer.” –Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat
The collective “otherness” of minority identification in the United States: Asian Americans within ethnic sub-cultures
In the pilot for Life in the the Fab Lane, there is a part where Kimora Lee Simmons (KLS) explains how her relationship with Russell Simmons began. Although no longer available online*, she credits him for the life she has now: he was her mentor, partner, friend, etc. As she speaks of Russell taking her under his wing and helping her find herself, a slideshow assortment of 1990’s hip hop royalty flashes across the screen.
The reading highlights KLS’s use of her bi-raciality to profit from her “camp” image and promote Baby Phat. However, underlying her “fabulousity” marketing scheme is a real connection to her consumer. As she explains in an interview with bestie and fellow fashion outsider Tyra Banks, it is an authentic connection that has allowed her brand to earn profits while other celebrity fashion houses struggle.
That same authenticity is what allows Eddie Huang’s obsession with 1990’s hip hop to remain a plausible, concurrent theme throughout the season. (Also, this was a golden era of the genre and any chance to listen to Biggie or O.D.B. is welcome within the whitewashed world of TV).
Opposites Attract. (source)
In a later episode, we see the other end of the Asian American experience when Eddie meets a rival in fellow transplant Phillip Goldstein. Although viscerally at odds with our protagonist, Phillip’s devout judaism represents an equally legitimate ethnic enclave in which Asian Americans were able to subsume their otherness and find kinship. [P.G. also acts as a counterpoint to Eddie that fulfills an interesting aspect of Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp essay, mentioned by Leilani. His over-the-top enjoyment of refinement and high culture is an example of “serious[ness] about the frivolous,” while Eddie’s street-cred realness–i.e., trying to get out of making a science fair project or gaining detention to talk to his crush–translates into a “frivolous[ness] about the serious” that drives his mother crazy.
Possibly, definitely, in part due to the demography of my hometown, where I attended shabbat sleepovers with two adopted sisters from China, Phillip’s obsession with the finer things is more of an exaggerated characterization than a farcical parody. [Also see, my Christmas spent in New York watching the Lion King on broadway Channukah present in the fourth grade.]
At opposite ends of the melanin spectrum, enclaves of marginalized ethnicities have provided a place for Asian Americans to feel comfortable and connect with an established culture. The bottom line is a genuine connection to a shared “otherness;” in popular culture, these figures (KLS, the real Eddie Huang) american dream is a triumphant narrative of not fitting in and making that something to celebrate and envy: “camp becomes camp in the gap between convention and an alternative insider perspective.”
The downside of cultivating a unique “Asian American identity” is that it must be done within the context of the collective consciousness, or what LeiLani Nishime defines as camp: “recognizing stereotypes and loving the hold and power of those stereotypes.”
Within the cloistered fashion world, we see this divergence between KLS’s “ghetto fabulous” and Anna Sui/Vera Wang/etc’s “oriental chic.” Kimora’s rag-to-riches story appeals to her target demographic and largest fan base –the ‘women in the low-income group’ who see self-confidence and control in the ‘stereotypical Asia’ setting that is seen as ‘decadent, perverse, and sleazy’ by the ‘affluent’ members of the focus group– that she must cater to.
High aesthetic is also unable to escape this predicament; the 1990’s oriental trend filtered down from geisha/heroin-chic on the runway to mass production: confused suburban girls wearing traditional Chinese bridal dresses to their proms.The collage pictured above is from a now-defunct blog post by Model Rocks, a brand featured on Nasty Gal [read, “risqué, “alternative”, 1990’s revival” aesthetic]. Maybe they realized that however well intentioned, a post romanticizing the “oriental dragon print” trend redux requires treading lightly.
In the television realm, Fresh Off the Boat has faced similar criticism. While it has gained praise as a “fresh new comedy” from critics, it has the gigantic burden of representing an immense and diverse group (the Asian American and Pacific Islander as a census racial category/community consists of more than 30 diverse ethnicities).
After the pilot aired, I heard comments along the same vein “it was funnier and less offensive than I thought it would be, but I was still offended by Candace Wu’s accent.” At other times, niche moments were appreciated by fellow Asian Americans in ways that outsiders were unaware existed.
Specifically, the “Success Perm“; my biological Aunt spent much of her hey-day in the 1980’s with her hair in curlers, or splurging on bi-annual perms. When I was growing up, she would lament the lasting effect of chemical damage while styling my hair. (I have left my hair largely untouched after the mildly-traumatizing experience of growing out bleached chunks of hair when I gave up on a quick Ultra Violet Manic Panic experiment.**)
The Monica Chiu’s reading introduced the predicament of the second generation’s predicament of constrained representation while participating in new-wave bohemia’s art/popular culture occupations. Asian American and minority representation in mass media is limited into stereotyped conceptualizations of our otherness. The reality is that Fresh Off the Boat is able to exist because it fits a new model of marketing that generalizes pockets of identity into a fun, fresh, and exciting packaging.
Perhaps the answer is in collective action: Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat are advertised together, because of course they are, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Catering to demands for representation of the “Asian American identity” in context to our connection to the black community is at least coherent to historical narrative. At the very least, it’s a less offensive approach than cringy characters like Long Duk Dong‘s clueless foreign exchange student or the modern day equivalent, Dorothy Wang‘s Token Asian Betch…
[EDIT] It turns out that the real Eddie Huang disagrees, denouncing the show due to its inauthentic representation of his experience. One online commenter criticized Huang’s authenticity – he signed off on a family sitcom, and is now “upset” that a sitcom was the result. They go on to say that Huang greatly exaggerated his “authenticity” that he is a failed restauranteur and lawyer who up played the domestic abuse aspect of his childhood [yikes] in order to gain street creed. WWWKLSD?