Pop! It’s Time to Break the East Asian Pop Culture Stigma.
February 21, 2022 / Hayle Chen
While my Chinese and Vietnamese childhood was bursting with ethnic pop culture, I exclusively raved about the latest boy-bands and Disney shows at school.
Pop culture makes me want to spill my guts out (like, you know, in that Conan Gray song). From the iconic disco era of the 70s with its strobe lights, disc jockeys, and boisterous nightclubs to revered cult classics like Mean Girls and The Devil Wears Prada released in the early 2000s — it’s clear that pop culture grips a society until new trends and fads loosen the old’s grasp. With advancements in technology and the evolution of mass media, the reach of new movies, toys, literature, and music became prolific through globalization. As Western values and lifestyles disseminated and pervaded the world at large, so did American pop culture.
Growing up as an East Asian in the United States, I’ve always clearly delineated the pop culture I discussed at school and the type I embraced at home. While my multi-ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese childhood was bursting with Chinese action movies, endearingly off-tune Vietnamese karaoke at family parties, and a constant stream of Paris by Night (a Vietnamese musical variety show whose memories lie hidden deeply in the recesses of my siblings’, my cousins’, and my own minds), I exclusively raved about the latest boy-bands and Disney shows at school.
I avoided sharing Asian pop culture during my childhood not because I was aware of the stigma, rather, I somehow subconsciously knew that those two facets of my life were to remain separate. To be cool and acceptable to my peers, Western culture had to prevail. Anime watchers, K-pop stans, and anyone who immersed themselves in Asian pop culture were seen as embarrassingly obsessive. Why would I want to be involved with that? At least, that was the message fed to me in the predominantly white spaces I navigated. Still, on the weekends, I unabashedly consumed K-dramas with my family with rapt attention, fully invested in the plot.
In high school, when my friends derisively noted that somebody we knew or met was an anime kid, all respect was seemingly lost. Don’t be like that was the clear message that I accepted for years. And it stuck. Today, I’ll still be the first to admit that I don’t watch anime. I’ve never been one to take a study break by indulging in a quick episode of Crash Landing on You, and I’ve never cranked up the volume in my car to blare the newest BTS album. I’ve scoured the pages of dozens during my childhood, but if I were to flip through the skillfully drawn graphics and intriguing narration of a manga now, turning the pages from right to left would feel as foreign to me as written Japanese characters themselves.
I soon realized not being like “that” meant being “Asian”. It meant stopping myself from proudly embracing the extremely popular and successful forms of media and culture created by the people of my race and ethnic background. It meant embracing Western culture because it’s “better.” Assimilate. Be an “American”. If you want to listen to a C-pop, K-pop, or J-pop band in secret, that's fine, but sure as hell don’t be proud of it.
The stigma Western culture created against East Asian pop culture as it spread and gained prominence throughout the world left those loyal to the literature, shows, music, and general culture seen as cringey and tainted; it frames those who had nothing to do with it as superior. Even worse, oftentimes this sense of superiority is exchanged for a disturbing fetishization by those who feign innocence and coyly deem their Asian obsession as a “preference.”
Realizing this dichotomous reality, my childhood inclination to keep my cultural identity separate from my public persona seemed almost inevitable. Except, as I’ve matured and become more confident in my identity after graduating high school, I’ve made strides in openly advocating for more Asian representation in the media: when I see an Asian actor or actress in a role in Hollywood I feel ecstatic, and reading about protagonists that share my heritage feels like a dream. Still, when I look at how I would continuously shy away from most forms of East-Asian pop culture in my life, I’m horrified. Every eye roll, sneer, and emotion that indicated I was looking down upon those who, God forbid, watched anime now feels like a punch to the gut. However, I rest a little easier when I reinforce my self-awareness and openly confront that for every step forward in expanding Asian representation, I drag my efforts backwards — kicking and screaming — when I allow myself to feel shame towards my own culture.
When you really look at it pop culture is only a small—though still extremely important—facet of East Asian culture. Though Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine is seemingly revered by my peers, I’m hard pressed to find people who know many dishes past phở and Chinese take-out options like orange chicken and lo mein. Almost everybody knows about the Lunar New Year, but I’ve rarely seen any real education and history shared before this important information is drowned out by the deafening sound of drums that accompany a lion dance. It’s clear that Asian culture is more than the surface-level and Americanized lens people often view it through — it’s not a monolith in any way, and “Asian” isn’t even an adequate word to describe the various ethnicities that are shoved under this umbrella term. It’s incredibly important that these cultures are shared and properly represented.
That starts with destigmatizing the most prolific concept we have: pop culture.
So, today, while advocating for our representation, I attempt to undo the years of Western superiority rhetoric that I’ve been entrenched in my whole life. I change my approach to Asian pop culture: when my sister tells me she once again bought another new BTS album, I reframe my conditioned aversion to K-pop and recognize the band’s staggering accomplishments.
As a proud Asian-American, I won’t sneer at my peers for embracing our culture. I’ll continue to learn to embrace it more myself. ■
by: Hayle Chen
graphics by: Diana Perez