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What K-Pop Taught Me About Xenophobia

The rise in popularity of the K-pop genre served as a stark reminder of the work we still need to do to defend and support Asian communities in the U.S.
Conversations after Sunday's screening of MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. Photo credit: Marion Aguas

They're everywhere. It's 2018 and I'm walking down the hallway of my public high school.

Between the crowds, I catch glimpses of hoodies, bracelets, phone cases and just about every piece of merchandise you can imagine, printed with the name of K-pop groups familiar to many today. SEVENTEEN, BTS, BLACKPINK.

Perhaps the greater American public would have been indifferent to these names if the seven-member South Korean boy band BTS didn't become the first Asian winner of the Top Social Artist award at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017, breaking Justin Bieber's six-year streak.

From that point on, it seemed like K-pop became a phenomenon.

My initial realization that K-pop was everywhere brought great joy to me. I had lived my childhood exposed to media dominated by men and women who didn't share my racial/ethnic background.  It made me wonder whether it was because our stories were too insignificant to be on screen. As a K-pop enthusiast, I was not only glad there were many others that shared my enjoyment of K-pop music, but also proud that people were finally open to exploring the richness of Asian cultures.

From the all-Asian cast of "Crazy Rich Asians" to "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" starring Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor, the opening up of the American entertainment industry piqued an important question: Had the time finally come where young women like me could wash away the subtle shame of being "Asian?"

The answer wasn't as easy as I thought.

Following the popularity of K-pop bands, I began bonding with new friends over our shared music interest, but as Asians became more seen in pop culture, the attacks against them seemed to become more common, louder and direct. I started hearing criticisms like "feminine" and "ugly" being levied at male artists, and "whore" or "cringy" at female artists. I believe those remarks exposed deeper truths.

Conversation leads to revelations

"I guess… they just seem so... weird. Like, the guys put on makeup and dress in flashy outfits... They're just different from what I'm used to seeing," W, a longtime friend of mine who is Asian, said.

We were sitting shoulder to shoulder on a park bench, having a discussion. I contemplated my question of what really made her uneasy about K-pop artists, and saw the answer in the latter part of her response. They're just different from what I'm used to seeing.

Like many of my friends, my family hailed from a foreign country while I was born on American soil and educated in Western institutions. To my family whose culture emphasized Confucian ideals, I was a free spirited disappointment.

Too straightforward. Too dreamy. Too American. This disdain was reciprocal, however. Unconsciously, we try to escape the cocoons of Asian culture that our families were trying so hard to preserve. W's reaction was normal. We have grown up into a world saturated with white men and women and have internalized an American culture, consequently becoming strangers to our own. W's unease reminded me that being American wasn't just about a passport or Green Card; we needed to feel accepted.

Commonly, Asians are stereotyped as being only book-smart and are bland in character, it all works to label the Asian male as unattractive. Is the only way for them to not be seen as so is to become more "American/White?" The same pressure holds true for women.

It's even harder for Asian women in America to break the glass ceiling as Asian cultures place greater restrictions on gender roles, leading women to believe that a docile and submissive personality is best. But they tend to be seen as "easy targets" and "weak" by American society, often even fetishized as a result.

Then, all of a sudden, you have Asian men and women standing on a stage and cheered on by a diverse crowd of fans. This was unprecedented. The American audience was buying into a music genre that once served niche Asian audiences. Seeing these people on a stage that was rarely theirs, I couldn't help but think Wow, we can also be this. In a way, the popularity of K-pop has broken a stereotype, forcing everyone to question the typical Asian narrative.

But the fact that they didn't give off the same machismo vibes of most popular American male celebrities made their presence even more uncomfortable, especially to people accustomed to certain portrayals of strong male figures in entertainment.

Like my friend said, people are not used to seeing Asian faces being approved of by a vast public. I wondered, why can't we recognize that Asian culture can be appreciated and Asian men and women can be loved, no matter their appearance, just like their Western counterparts?

"The Model Minority" = Asian Success?

Asians are more than a "model minority," yet this is the most common stereotype directed towards Asian Americans.

Today, because of this myth, Asians are regarded as a successful minority group motivated by a desire to achieve mobility. On the surface, it sounds like a compliment, but in reality, it exacerbates a flawed perception.

Not only does it invalidate the effort of Asian Americans, who have worked just as hard as other ethnicities to achieve similar heights, it suggests a privilege that many Asians are not privy to.

In the United States, Asians have historically benefited from proximity to white communities. White people tend to associate the focus of education in Asian culture to their mobility, which neglects to consider that Asians have benefited from better societal perception.

However, Asians have never had much power over the system — we conform and concede to it. Asians also have extremely limited political representation. We don't control policy nor are used to speaking up to authority. Submissiveness was once a characteristic that served us well as laborers, but today, not so much.

Now, the rise of Asian xenophobia has reached new heights, forcing us to reconsider the idea of race, stereotypes, and how voices should be recognized.

Once virtues that were highly praised have also become targets of attack, mockery and hatred. To stereotype is to deny the nuances of an individual's narrative and box them into a singular identity. It hurts more than you think. The pandemic is a testament to our societal character and in that process, we saw Asian lives being violated.

Amidst the push for greater racial equality and a raging pandemic, there is now an even more urgent need for Asian communities to stand up for ourselves.

Asian American leaders such as previous presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, Representative Grace Meng and Representative Judy Chu have all made tremendous efforts to combat anti-Asian xenophobia while documenting their own vulnerabilities during this time.

We need more voices to defend our communities. I believe in the progress we have made, and we can continue to sustain it.


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