In this op-ed, David Yi, Founder and Editor of Very Good Light, explains why pop culture has a problem perpetuating a stereotypical image of Asian culture, and why the latest example to surface is so much more than a viral video trend.
Growing up, I couldn’t find many Asian American pop culture figures to look up to. As a child, I’ll never forget constantly being asked if I was Chinese or Japanese (I’m neither), as if Asia — a vast, diverse continent — had only two groups of people. Then, there were more obvious instances of racism that came in the form of children slanting their eyes and bowing in my direction. Years later, I continue to see the same, problematic situations occur.
You may have come across a recent social media challenge inspired by Nicki Minaj’s newest single, “Chun-Li,” which is named after a popular female character from the video game Street Fighter II. While the song’s lyrics suggest an empowering message, encouraging men and women to celebrate their own superheroes like Chun-Li, (Lara Croft and Storm from X-Men are also name-checked) it sadly has created an environment for Asians to be stereotyped.
On the surface, the social media challenge is innocent enough: Users simply film themselves lip-synching verses from Nicki's new song, usually with some dancing involved. Videos range from selfie-style clips filmed in cars and bedrooms to videos involving slick choreography. However, some users have taken it as an opportunity to stereotype Asian culture, by way of styling hair in double buns to subtly mimic Chun-Li. While the character wears a similar hairstyle in the game, double buns have long been one of the most commonly appropriated ways to style hair in an “Asian” way, as popularized by many anime characters such as Kagura from Gintama, as well as Miaka Yuuki from Fushigi Yuugi. (In addition to anime hair imitations, “ox horn buns,” a similar style worn by Chinese children on traditional holidays, have also been the subject of appropriated dress.) The bottom line? People should know better by now.
One instance of the now-trending #ChunLiChallenge features emerging rapper Asian Doll (who doesn't appear to be of Asian descent) dancing with chopsticks in her hair — a problematic beauty motif that's she's worn several times before. In a seemingly tone-deaf act, Nicki regrammed the video to her own account on Sunday.
At the heart of the issue is the subject of cultural appropriation, which seems to happen regularly enough regarding various Asian cultures. Just last month, Bella Hadid seemed to casually appropriate Japanese culture with an alter ego named Rebekka Harajuku. During Coachella, people wore vaguely Asian-inspired parasols and kimonos readily and in the open. The way people are interpreting the #ChunLiChallenge with signifiers like double buns and chopsticks as hair accessories is yet another instance of people co-opting another culture with impunity. Chopsticks, as it goes without saying, are not hair accessories; they are utensils with which we eat food. What’s more, is that proper chopstick etiquette when putting them aside also involves never crossing them in an “X” shape, or standing them up vertically into rice. (In Japanese culture, the latter is considered extremely offensive and disrespectful to the dead.) Other signifiers pertaining to Japanese hair culture that are often appropriated also include Kanzashi, the ornamental flower hairpins and accessories worn in special occasions and ceremonies — and no, Coachella is not one of them.
It might seem acceptable for non-Asian people to wear a piece of what is deemed as "Asian culture” to recreate a social media video, but it speaks to a larger issue about how social media commodifies groups and cultural identities. The #ChunLiChallenge only further highlights how easy it is to flatten an identity to certain stereotypes or cultural markers. In this case, it allows mistreatment of Asian culture to flourish.
The song itself isn’t without its own problematic references. It opens with the clang of a gong, and one lyric from the track reads,"I went and copped the chopsticks / put it in my bun just to pop sh*t," — possibly a reference to a look Nicki wore earlier in her career, which was also the subject of her 2007 song “Sticks In My Bun” off her first mixtape.) Another "Chun-Li" lyric refers to "Chinese ink on" — a tattoo on Nicki's left arm reads, “上帝與你常在.” Translation: “God is always with you.”
It's been nothing short of disheartening to see Nicki continue to present a reductive version of Japanese culture, which she’s been accused of in the past, too; in 2017, there was her H&M collaboration with emblazoned sweatshirts and tees with Kanji characters and Japanese motifs like cherry blossoms and paper fans. Previous tracks have included references to geisha and samurai, and she’s also cosplayed as a “Harajuku Barbie” persona. (She isn’t the only rapper to have problematic lyrics referring to Asian people; the usage of harmful rhetoric is well-documented by other prominent rappers including Drake, Childish Gambino, and Chingy, as BuzzFeed News reported.)
However, this isn’t unique to the hip-hop and rap genres. Gwen Stefani spent the early years of her solo career with a coterie of “Harajuku Girls,” who were also the subject of one her biggest hits off Love. Angel. Music. Baby. In 2013, pop star Katy Perry was called out for her live performance at the American Music Awards, and in 2014, Avril Lavigne released her “Hello Kitty” music video, in which she gallavanted around Tokyo dancing in a candy shop and enjoying sushi while Japanese women acted as silent members of her crew. (She responded to people accusing her online on Twitter, writing, “RACIST??? LOLOLOL!!! I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video…”)
None of this is to say that there aren’t positive ways to highlight Asian culture. Just look at the casting of Crazy Rich Asians for an example of how to talk about Asian culture while also properly reflecting that that in the film’s casting.
It's dangerous to steal someone's culture without acknowledging the many struggles experienced by that group; Asian Americans have been referred to as the "model minority," a term that originated in the ‘60s and applied to immigrants of Chinese and Japanese descent, according to a 2017 story by NBC News. And according to Pew Research Center data presented by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), AAPIs had the highest share of long-term unemployment from 2007 to 2010 of any racial group. And within the Southeast Asian community, 35-40% of the Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian youth do not graduate high school.
Obviously, we are in a particularly fraught epoch when it comes to the topic of cultural appropriation. However, a silver lining to glean from that is that people are talking about why representation matters, and standing up for what’s right. One way to do that is by supporting the positive ways people are highlighting Asian culture. Just look at the upcoming movie *Crazy Rich Asians*, whose inclusive cast is a first for a major Hollywood studio production. Obviously, Asian filmmakers have made movies that accurately reflect their stories for decades; it’s about time that the American film industry catch up after multiple whitewashing failures.
It’s crucial that social media users keep this in mind when it comes to paying homage to their favorite artists, no matter how catchy a song may be. There will always be another hashtag to go viral, but you don’t need to jump on the bandwagon every time. After all, culture is so much more than a hashtag.