This past weekend I went to Gainesville to attend SERCAAL, the South East Regional Conference for Asian American Leaders at the University of Florida. What I took back to Tallahassee was several interesting observations and some re-opened questions for myself. First I want to point out that I am not an Asian American, hell, I even struggle with the concept of being American. I went to this conference because I am an officer in FSU’s Asian American Student Union and I am president of our Chinese Language and Culture Association. So I guess that makes me a leader in organizations that involve Asian Americans, not to mention I traveled with some great people to take part in the conference.
Two of the workshops I attended were given by the same lecturer, a Ryan Takemiya who discussed Asian American popular culture, and the lack thereof. He made very interesting points about identity by looking at the popular culture (the culture of the majority, not necessarily ‘corporate pop’) of other races in America, and of various ethnicities in Asia. He explored how hip-hop has become incredibly popular throughout Asia, and looked at its popularity inside the US. What he illustrated is the way many ethnic groups have unique ways of expressing their culture that they ‘own’. He argued that black people ‘own’ hip-hop in the way that white people ‘own’ alternative rock. That isn’t to say other ethnicities are excluded, but that those forms of expression are manifestations of the identity of each culture. Therefor while members of other cultures may enjoy the art, they won’t truly be able to identify with it. His major point was that Asian Americans are lacking this kind of popular culture. They are missing a shared identity that they ‘own’. There are Asian Americans who are talented at hip-hop or breakdancing or guitar, but there still aren’t any artists, or forms of expression that they can call their own.
His lecture made me think about myself. As a white male who grew up in a generally suburban atmosphere in America one would think I could just identify and fit in with white American culture. Strangely, I have found myself always at odds with it. The fact that I was born in the Netherlands, and was raised speaking a second language at home is probably my first break. I was always taught from an international perspective by my parents, and have visited my motherland every other year since we moved to the U.S. when I was 2 years old. Of course I look like every other white American, so these things were never thrown in my face by the ignorant. I can’t and won’t ever be able to understand what its like to be oppressed for my heritage. In fact the only thing thats been thrown in my face is my heritage of being an oppressor, since Europeans (and the Dutch) were the slave traders. So I can’t be nationalistic, or ‘Patriotic’ to one country due to my ties to the other. What about my popular culture? Since I could afford CDs I’ve bought hip-hop/rap. At first mostly mainstream, but with the explosion of the internet my tastes gradually widened. I find it strange that I’ve always chosen to listen to music that I can’t identify with and I’ve never enjoyed music that I might have been able to identify with. Now I’m learning a language spoken by a billion people who will always know I’m not a native speaker upon site.
Being at SERCAAL opened my eyes a little bit, outwardly to progress, yet also inwardly to emptiness. I was watching the energy of the other students around me. I saw the way they were flirting with each other, nervously discussing their experiences, excitedly predicting the future, smiling and greeting everyone around them. All brought together, united, by the fact that they were Asian Americans. The conference members were in a place where they could identify with everyone else around them. I could feel the comfort around me, the ease with which otherwise shy people were able to relax and communicate. It was truly beautiful to witness, I can imagine how wonderful it feels to experience.
So what is my popular culture? What do I identify with? I won’t claim to have any struggles, I hardly know suffering. I do not wish to be anybody other than myself. I just feel like I’m missing something, something that I can pull strength from. I suppose this something would be a source of pride, something I can share with others, that people who don’t have it would respect, and people who do would know exactly what it was. I need something to call my own.