How I envy you bicultural Asian Americans!
I bump into you everywhere, sipping chai outside of coffeeshops, reading legal documents on the metro, in YouTube Harvard commencement footage. There you all are, with your effortlessly fluent Hindi and Mandarin, chatting away on sliver-thin phones to your “A-ma” while I try to tune out your subtly superior bi-culturalness.
Hmm, “Bi-culturalness.” Is that a word? I don’t think it is in English, but I’m sure that you lot, with your multilingual, nation-hopping brains have at this point made up several for it, alternatives that are most likely Latin-rooted with Romance inflection and Dravidian subjunctive. Most probably some smarty-pants symbol of your tremendous new-Century intellects.
Yes, go ahead and laugh at the self-deprecating, oh-so-colonial Victorian-aping tone of my words, Asian-America. Whilst you clink your glasses to another year of self-actualization, your brother’s new position at Apple and your girlfriend’s new Classical South Indian-meets-hip hop dance opus, I will be dreaming, unsurprisingly, of escape. To where I am not even remotely sure. Most recently I have favored visions of somewhere warm and Latin, but prior to that it was Anglophone East Africa and booming coastal China. Anywhere to which I could possibly settle in and launch my own Asian white-bread cultural renaissance.
The point is, of course, that you have won. For you, Ms. Asian-America (the ones I encounter are more often women), are kicking my little Australian-flag adorned behind. The personal stats: omni-single, non-profit salary, narrow row house in Shaw, and unflattering yet growing love handles, just cannot match up with your own: MBA, summer house in Goa, business-travel boyfriend and flat abs—regardless of the cultural lens we measure our successes by. (And besides, I’m tired of living in a city where I can’t even find a single bar at which to watch the Ashes. Why are Washington pubs so oblivious to the needs of their cricket-loving diasporic customers?)
But it wasn’t always such smooth sailing, was it, Asian-America? Now that you’ve made it, perhaps you can afford a laugh at some of the more transgressional points during that rather prominent “transition period.” Because even though I might be kowtowing to your sophisticated brilliance today, you and I both know it wasn’t always so. Like most everybody else in your standard multicultural American high school, I’ve snickered and shaken my head at some of your most inexplicable, indefensible missteps.
Take, for example, Korean rap music. Rap, as part of the larger hip hop movement which currently dominates global youth culture, is a fine tool for self-expression. And young people have taken up the emcee mantle with aplomb, rapping about their short-lived crushes and social injustices in every tongue imaginable, from Turkish to Turkmeni. But there are some languages for which hip hop music was simply never meant to be uttered: like spicy curry to an Englishman’s sweat pores, rhymes spat in particular tongues leave nothing but tragically comic results. Korean is one such language.
As ham-fisted on the ears as Korean rap can be, it only begins to speak to similar sensory assaults—this time upon the eyes–courtesy of the Korean 11th grade boy hairstyle. Is it spiked or is it fringed, perhaps as some adolescent metaphor for the oppositional cultural forces that pull young men growing up Asian in America? Is it supposed to be dyed red-black or auburn-brown? It was only with only the utmost trepidation that I approached one such unfortunately-coiffed fellow during band, such was my fear for the harm that might befall my eyes: either blindness, through accidental incision-by-spike, or blackening, through an inability to cease any impending laughter.
And for every one of you immaculately well-adjusted young flashes, there must have been some of the classic Asian-FOB moves in previous incarnations: the classic (though not missed) Target-sneakers-plus-Daddy’s-dress-pants combo, the oversized glasses and floral sweat pants, the trips to the library where mother would bicker over late fees in accented English as you clicked through levels of “Math-Champion ’89.” I’m sure many of you have been there, cringing and gritting your teeth in expectant fear of Grandma picking you up, then talking to you in front of the other kids, in her mother tongue!
But you did it, and reached the other side in one particularly stylish piece. Having passed the stages during which speaking several languages and being academically-inclined was as far from coolness as your father’s dress sense, you’re now at the top of the sophisticates food chain. Bi-cultural is the new jet-set; tri-cultural will be the standard before long (if its not already here). In a wonderful inversion of the old immigration route, Bangalore and Hong Kong are now seen as lifestyle opportunities for the white corporate suit, his tail between his legs as he shops his marketing consultant CV around to various Asian firms.
I, on the other hand, remain most disappointingly monolingual, dragging along the faux-exotic nationality of a people I do not resemble, and floating along the cultural-identity sphere like an albino window-shopping outside of a beauty salon. But, be that as it may, I do have one small request, Asian-America:
Years from now, as you stride past my hostel, in some small town somewhere away from here, watching me change sheets for dirty backpackers with bad reggae music blaring from an old sound system, do not glower over my pathetic lost-boy form for too long. For though it was long ago that you found your creative niche in the world, one upon which you’re undoubtedly now well on the way to reshaping, remember that I, too, am your Asian brother.
I’m just playing catch-up.