Feng Shui America

The Asianization of popular culture.

America, alas, has been infiltrated by Asian interests. Only now are we realizing how much Asians have already influenced the system. Even as we speak, powerful forces from the East, through a network of agents, are working to ensure that life here is never the same again.

No, this isn’t a distillation of William Safire’s Chinagate rants. It’s just a statement of social fact, dressed, as is the vogue now, in the rhetoric of racial alarmism. The “Asian interests” I speak of aren’t entities like the Lippo Group or the Chinese Communists; they’re phenomena like Hong Kong cinema, chicken curry, karaoke bars–phenomena that have indeed “infiltrated” the mainstream. And the “agents” of this change aren’t spies or shadowy operatives; they’re global consumers of popular culture.

American civilization, already Asian in ways we rarely acknowledge, is becoming more Asian every day. This means we ought at last to abandon the cliché that “East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” It also means that being Asian, at least in America, isn’t just for Asians anymore: The double helix of race and culture is coming undone.

Though I’d perceived these things before, dimly, it wasn’t until I began reading a forthcoming compendium called Eastern Standard Time (Houghton Mifflin Co., 353 pages, to be published May 1997) that my vague awareness crystallized into vivid comprehension. Produced by Jeff Yang, Dina Gan, Terry Hong, and the staff of the glossy Asian-American bimonthly A. Magazine, Eastern Standard Time is a sprawling guide to Asian influences on American culture. It moves with encyclopedic reach and impious wit from Speed Racer cartoons to the Tao of Pooh, from yoga to the Kama Sutra, with hundreds of stops between.

The temptation is to read Eastern Standard Time as an Asian-American reply to canon-worshipping tracts like E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy. But EST, properly speaking, is an act of omniculturalism rather than multiculturalism. Which is to say that it is animated not by an ethnocentrist impulse to catalog colored “contributions” but by a fierce ambition to rearticulate the vernacular. This is what makes EST far more than the sum of its entries. Written for a general audience in casual, accessible tones, it preaches to the unconverted: This, too, is what it means to be American.

Eastern Standard Time raises–but, as a reference work, leaves unanswered–some interesting questions about the way the culture diversifies. Is there an anthropological equivalent to the biological process of natural selection? What tastes, philosophies, and fads survive the trip across the Pacific? Why do they survive? What niches are they filling here, or creating? And what consequences does their survival have on our social ecosystem?

In some respects, the accelerated integration of Asian ways has revived the Orientalist myth that the East and its progeny are vessels of a sensuous, otherworldly spiritualism. Consider Deepak Chopra, whose journey from endocrinologist to best-selling mind-body healer to iconic interpreter of wizards perfectly tracks today’s gold-paved path from “Western” rationalism to “Eastern” mysticism. Gurus like Chopra, however legitimate their teachings, benefit from the fact that Americans are suckers for the false-exotic.

Another example is fengshui, the ancient Chinese folk art of arranging buildings and objects to optimize the flow of the life force called qi. In recent years, the practice has boomed in the United States, spawning an industry of consultants who, for a high price, offer mysterious and detailed advice about interior decorating and landscaping. The point isn’t that fengshui is a sham, though it is more superstition than science. The point is that fengshui sells in America because it is more superstition than science. That is the essence of its “Asianness” and the seat of its authenticity.

Yet the Asianization of American culture is doing more than just rehashing colonial images of the exotic, inscrutable Orient. Orientalism, as a legacy of Western imperialism, underscored the weakness of Asia vis-à-vis the West, and of Asian-Americans vis-à-vis their white countrymen. The process of Asianization, by contrast, reflects a very different balance of power. It springs from, and shapes, a world in which color and whiteness cannot be so easily aligned with helplessness and oppression.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

For one thing, Asian-Americans are now in a strong enough cultural position to represent themselves–and, indeed, to commodify themselves. Sometimes, the results are unfortunate, as with the work of Amy Tan’s numerous imitators. But increasingly, Asian-Americans are able to subvert and reclaim their own stereotypes, as playwright David Henry Hwang did in M. Butterfly, as actor Russell Wong aims to do in a hip remake of the yellowface Charlie Chan movies, or as the Webzine Giant Robot does with its sarcastic proposal that we import foot binding from Asia and adopt it as a fad. This, the ability to make art something other than positive racial PR, is a sure sign of cultural maturity.

Yet if the yellowing of America signifies the rising self-consciousness of Asian-Americans, it also promises, paradoxically, to undermine their identity. For what becomes clear in browsing Eastern Standard Time is that many Asian cultural memes are arriving here directly from Asia, bypassing the Asian-American middleman altogether. Steadily, Asian-American culture is becoming Asian/American culture–defined less by the local experiences of immigrants and their offspring than by the churn of global capitalism and the transnational feedback loop of style and aesthetics.

This means, over time, that “acting Asian” will be a pattern of behavior that plenty of Asian-Americans won’t exhibit–and that many non-Asians will. Take two Americans: one, a devotee of John Woo films, Japanese anime, Ayurvedic healing, Zen Buddhism, and Banana Yoshimoto novels; the other, blissfully ignorant about all of the above. Which one is more Asian? Would it matter which one was “actually”–that is, phenotypically–Asian? Pigmentation is becoming an unreliable indicator of privileged knowledge. In the case of Asian America, at least, culture is breaking loose from the moorings of race.

No doubt, this can be unsettling. From some Asian-Americans there may come protests of cultural imperialism, as non-Asians attempt to “out-Asian” them. (There certainly exist white Asiaphiles who, by the manner in which they collect the East, reveal an unseemly desire to possess it.) Meanwhile, from the cloisters of cultural conservatism will come mutterings that our Western heritage has been debased not just by pop culture but by foreign pop culture.

But ultimately, the mutation of Asian-American identity, like the evolution of American culture itself, is not only inevitable but beneficial. For it reminds us that what we have long held to be basic distinctions–between East and West, colonizer and colonized, ethnic and universal–turn out, upon closer scrutiny, to be neither basic nor distinctions.

In these times of faintly yellow peril, that is a truth worth bearing in mind. As the “Asian money” scandal unfolds, as an aggrieved and mighty China awakens, and as talk of a “Pacific Century” begins to seem more ominous than auspicious, let’s all keep our heads. We have already met the East, and it is us.