American Pop Culture has embraced Asian things in a big way.

by Pat Sugimoto


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America Goes Far East

inch me because I must be dreaming. Or have we been sucked into a parallel universe in which Americans blindly embrace everything once ridiculed in this universe as being too patently Asian? Looking around at American pop culture, this Asian American feels trapped in a kind of infinite déjà vu loop with one difference: the faces that should be Asian aren't.
     Remember when Asians were accused of slavishly embracing all things American? It's payback time! Some signs that the tables have turned:

Geek Chic
     Everyone used to make fun of Asian techies for wearing black-rimmed glasses, odd-colored polyester shirts buttoned to the top button, ankle-length pants, white socks and sneakers with big goofy logos. Today an ensemble like that will set you back a week's wages at trendy malls. The next time you feel sartorially out of it, know that you're really a fashion visionary.

Anime Hair
     I spent half my life trying to keep my hair from spiking. And my American friends and I used to pity the guys in Asia forced to get buzzcuts to comply with school or company regulations. Now all the cool guys have buzzcuts or spiky hair. Since white guys generally have the kind of fine, manageable hair I used to envy, I assume the spiky look is inspired by Asian hair as caricatured by manga and anime artists. Trendy hair stylists even simulate the two-tone effect used to suggest highlights and shadows in a two-dimensional world. Today's hair styles are a case of American life imitating Asian art imitating Asian life.

Asian Food
     Remember when standup comics got easy laughs by talking about sushi or Chinese food? Today every food court in the country has at least two or three types of Asian cuisine. In the better zip codes visits to authentic Asian restaurants are seen as proving grounds for sophistication the way French and Italian restaurants once were. Even supermarkets like Ralphs and Albertsons have extensive Asian sections stocked with kimchi, tofu, dried seaweed and more. Could Asian food be the next comfort food?

Reality Game Shows
     The concept of grabbing audiences by focusing on the reactions of ordinary people subjected to unscripted terror, revulsion, pain and degradation have made runaway hits of shows like Fear Factor, Road Rules and Survivor. That's funny because in the 70s and 80s Americans expressed revulsion and disdain for sadistic, infantile Japanese shows like Endurance and It's a Knockout in which hapless contestants were terrorized, tortured and humiliated. Now pale imitations introduced to our shores by a European producer have Americans glued to their TVs.


Martial Arts
     Remember when the sight of an Asian male would never fail to provoke some joker to make mock martial arts cries? Remember how the boys on the playgrounds would tell each other that only girls kick? Today you can't find a Hollywood movie without both genders emitting nasty yells while sending leaping roundhouse kicks at each others' heads. And when was the last time you've been to a minimall that didn't have a Taekwondo studio? They are the new Arthur Murray studios.

Secular Spirituality
     A few decades ago American spirituality was pretty much classified as either Chrisitian reverence or devil worship. The average American didn't openly meditate on their relationships with the universe except while nodding off in church on Sunday morning. Any other form of introspection raised whispered suspicions of suicidal depression, schizophrenia or onanistic overindulgence.

     The hippy movement provided some spiritual relief for the fringes, but what really put mainstream America in touch with weekday spirituality was the Kung Fu series. The stoic Kwai Chang Caine -- practicing meditation, badass fighting techniques and enigmatic one-liners ("What is more powerful than water?") -- suggested a hip alternative to Christianity. Millions of Americans took up meditation, zen buddhism, kung fu, yoga and various Chinese philosophies. Suddenly Americans began reading into a reserved, contemplative demeanor the possibility of awesome powers held in reserve. Acting Asian began taking on an underground caché.

Chinese Lettering
     Chinese characters now decorate rockers, athletes, bikers and even the S&M/bondage crowd, suggesting that the Asian image has taken on an air of mystery, subversion, danger and potency reminiscent of artifacts of British urban culture during the 60s and 70s. Whatever the origin of this new fascination, it elevates the Asian image a couple levels above the cultural bargain basement to which it had been relegated in the days when "Made in Japan" was a joke.

Kiddie Shows
     The future of Asian culture in America? That's easy. American gradeschoolers are shunning Mickey Mouse & Co to spend afternoons with Pokemon, Digimon, Hello Kitty, Sailor Moon and other creations of the Asian imagination. Taekwondo teachers are brainwashing young Americans into pledging undying loyalty to the Corean flag. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are conditioning new images of how authentic action figures should look. All the MSG they're consuming may even be adding a golden hue to their skin. I can already see the next generation of young adults, going under the knife to get cheekbone implants and lose those uncool folds on their eyelids.

     So the next time you feel Asians are underappreciated, just remember -- what goes around comes around.

"The Asian image has taken on an air of mystery, subversion, danger and potency."