How to successfully make use of your cultural heritage

512KAEwC2zL._SL500_AA300_I first became aware of Huang when he was quoted in “Paper Tigers”—a New York Times Magazine article that has become something of a manifesto for angry Asian-Americans. In it, a succession of fairly successful second-generation Asian-Americans—lawyers, engineers, corporate executives—complained about a perceived “bamboo ceiling” that limited their ability to rise past the mid-level of American society. Huang is described as a lawyer who left his firm job and opened a restaurant after realizing that “food is one of the only places in America where we are the top dogs.”

In this memoir, he fleshes out that sketch. Hung grew up in the Orlando area as the son of a successful restaurateur—Huang implies that his father, the owner of several steakhouses, is a millionaire. And, as a child, Huang was expected to be the next link in the traditional Asian immigrant narrative: parents come to America, work hard, start a family business, and become comfortable; children get good grades, go to fine colleges, and become upper-class professionals.

But, from an early age, Huang’s experiences with racism—kids at a succession of private schools call him “chink,” make fun of his food, and assault him—put him on a different path: he starts fights, takes and deals drugs, gets arrested, and is thrown out of a number of schools.

He also adopts aspects of African-American culture; he becomes interested in basketball, sneakers, and rap music. Throughout the memoir, he yearns to be involved in the business of cultural production: he operates a t-shirt company, tries stand-up comedy, attempts to become a sportswriter, and dabbles in screenwriting.

But Asian-Americans occupy an uneasy space in the culture industry. As “Paper Tigers” described, we start at a native disadvantage. There’s something about America’s sense of aesthetics that doesn’t allow Asians—especially Asian men—to be cool: we don’t come culturally programmed to project the sense of insouciance that’s necessary to be visible in America.

But we do get one offsetting advantage: our culture.

Asian-Americans might not be cool, but Asia is cool. It’s been cool for centuries. Even back in the 19th century, artists and painters were imitating Japanese styles. In the 20s, the haiku caught on amongst influential poets like Ezra Pound and Richard Wright. Nowadays, Bollywood and K-Pop and anime and manga draw plenty of western eyes.

I’m not sure why, but it’s clear that many white Americans hunger for the sense of color that Asia provides. The cynical part of me thinks that developing an interest in further-away countries is a way for members of certain social classes to one-up peers who only choose to go as far as Europe or Latin America.

That would explain why Asian-Americans don’t really benefit from knowing about Asia. Tom seems wise because he’s read the Bhagavad Gita; but all that Ritesh gets from living his life according to the Gita is a bunch of friction with the Christian teachers at his high school. When Sally brings in a curry, she’s being adventurous; but when Aila does the same thing, she’s just stinking up the lunchroom. When white Americans exhibit Asian cultural markers, they seem sophisticated; when Asian Americans do it, we seem alien.

This double-standard gives us the kind of mixed feelings that Huang repeatedly displays. Huang has broken with the typical Asian American markers. He narrates large portions of the book in African-American slang—“Good food makes me want to hit a punching bag like, Dat’s right motherfucker. You done did it there.”—and talks about being called out as a ch*gg*r by other Asians. He doesn’t get good grades. He doesn’t care about toeing the line or obeying his elders or doing any of that other “model-minority” stuff.

For him, Asians who hew too closely to tradition are “herbs.” He particularly singles out Chinese school for scorn. Chinese schools—Sunday schools for inculcating Chinese language and culture into the children of immigrants—are associated with “small-minded, conservative Asians that couldn’t understand shit if it wasn’t in an SAT prep packet.”

But he also delights in putting down other Asian-Americans for being inauthentic. He writes: “Even if you wanted to roll with Chinese / Taiwanese kids, there were barely any around and ones that were around had lost their culture and identity. They barely spoke Chinese, resented Chinese food, and if we got picked on by white people at the basketball court, everyone just looked out for themselves” and “Even at Chinese school, there were always kids that brought hamburgers, shunned chopsticks, or didn’t get down with the funky shit. They were like faux-bootleg-Canal Street Chinamen.”

(This last sentence is even stranger in the context of the very next paragraph, where he decries competition based on authenticity: “One thing ABCs love to do is compete on ‘Chinese-ness’ i.e., who will eat the most chicken feet, pig intestines, and have the highest SAT scores.”)

But these schizophrenic attitudes make sense if one understands that Huang’s primary goal is to position himself between white America and Taiwanese culture.

If you want to enter the culture business, then you need to recognize that your audience is primarily white Americans. And the first step is to abandon immigrant culture, because immigrant culture is all about showing other immigrants that you haven’t let America assimilate you.

At the same time, losing all your cultural markers is a sucker’s game. Your appearance puts you at a perpetual disadvantage: it will always mark you out as being different from the whites around you.

But if you selectively retain just a few of your cultural markers—not enough of them to hinder your ability to interact with white people—then you can use them to both aid and hinder white attempts to profit off your culture. By repackaging your culture for white consumption, while simultaneously attacking white attempts to do the same, you make yourself useful to white people by turning yourself into a pawn in their status game.

Huang performs this maneuver like a pro. At several points, he departs from the narrative in order to attack white re-interpretations of Asian cuisine, saying, “If you like our food, great, but don’t come tell me you’re gonna clean it up, refine it, or elevate it, because it’s not necessary or possible.”

In rhapsodizing on the beauty of simple dishes prepared in traditional ways, he explains that his superior sense for his dishes comes from “thirty years of having eaten the same dishes hundreds of times”—an advantage that no white American could possibly match.

But even as he calls out white people, it’s clear that his restaurant is not geared towards a Taiwanese audience. He writes that as soon as he sees an “Asian chick” come in, he knows she’s gonna start complaining that the food is too expensive or that the restaurant is for hipsters. In contrast, he lavishes praise on whites who pay him his due, like the former ex-pat who later gives him a good review in the NYT. Huang tears down some white people for liking the wrong food, but allows others to gain status by liking his food.

Please don’t think that I’m blaming Huang for this tactic: I sometimes do the same thing, albeit with considerably less skill.

My feelings about cultural appropriation are really mixed. This tension comes from wanting to own my own culture and, at the same time, feeling like I’m not entitled to it. I don’t speak any Indian languages. I’m not a Hindu. I know more about India than most Americans, but all my knowledge is only Wikipedia-deep—I can tell you what some of the holidays mean…but I can’t tell you how people celebrate them. I can’t tell you what Indians think and feel. I can’t describe the pattern and tenor of their lives. If I wrote a novel set in India, it would be inaccurate at a very bone-deep level (and would be loudly called out as such, by a cadre of very literate Indian bloggers).

Thus, for the most part, I espouse a laid-back attitude about cultural appropriation. If some white person wants to play with Indian culture, then it’s none of my business: there are a 1.3 billion native Indians who can fight him off if they want to.

But, sometimes—when I sense a personal advantage—something in me feels compelled to lash out at white Indophiles.

Recently, I went to a party at a trendy San Francisco yoga school where a hundred white people (and a few East Asians) sang Indian songs and chanted and wore saffron and just generally had a ton of fun playing around with Indian traditions.

It made me ill. How dare they feel so comfortable with a birthright that makes me so uneasy?

For the next hour, I tried to needle the white people around me. I kept asking, “Am I the only Indian in this room?” (If there were others, I didn’t see them).

My jabs were pathetically ineffective. They shrugged and continued their chants. My blood gained me nothing. These students and teachers could sense that—despite my melanin count—they were on firmer ground than someone who’d never done a day of yoga in his life.

Huang wouldn’t have handled the situation so poorly. His genius is that he doesn’t just attack. He also redirects. He attacks white peoples’ usage of his culture, but then he also opens up a side-gate and allows them to come in and experience his culture in a way that has to be mediated by him.

With my ignorance of Indian cultural practice, I’ve largely given up the ability to win that game. Huang would probably deride me for that. But I have more respect for him. Even though there’s something about his rhetoric that feels a bit disingenuous, I admire his results: unlike most Asian-Americans, he’s found a way to profit off his culture.

2 thoughts on “How to successfully make use of your cultural heritage

  1. dinesh

    That was a really interesting post. I feel your dilemma, and I (as a reasonably westernised Indian no longer living in India) feel that way sometimes as well. Whenever I draw on some aspect of my culture in my writing I need to research it and inform myself what it’s really about as well.

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