Within the American melting pot, our culture has had an evolving relationship with Asia, particularly China, South Korea, and Japan, and our understanding of the people as well as their various cultures. Even though some would argue that the consumption of Asian media by American audiences does not elicit cultural understanding, it’s fair to say that it’s an ongoing process. Recently, I have started to notice the visibility of the “Korean Wave” in American mass media with the K-Pop super group Girls’ Generation winning the YouTube Music Awards, outranking the YouTube views of American celebrities like Miley Cyrus, One Direction, and Justin Bieber. This newfound fanaticism of Asian culture reminds me of the anime boom during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Both these Asian powerhouses exemplify America’s understanding of Asians and how it’s changed from the attack of Weeaboos to Americans embracing South Korea in its entirety.
As a 90’s baby, I grew up in the midst of this cultural storm. Most of my childhood memories are of me rushing from school to watch Toonami Monday through Friday, and, religiously, waking up at 6a.m. every Saturday morning to watch 4Kids TV and ending them with Toonami at night. My favorite anime at that time were Pokemon because it was the first time that I was exposed to non-American programming. It was also my generation’s first introduction to Asian culture besides the Disney film Mulan in 1998.
My naiveté also led me to believe that this medium would actually educate me about a culture that was foreign to me, but it didn’t and it actually made me more ignorant to Asians and their culture. One memory that has always haunted me was when in ninth grade, I was having lunch with my friend Nancy, who was Vietnamese, and she was eating rice balls and all I remember saying was “Are those donuts?” because that was what they were called on Pokemon.
Even though I was young and didn’t know any better, my blunder is a prime example of the consequences of taking cultural cues from television without any cultural context. In retrospect, one of the biggest problems with the anime boom was the Americanization of the Japanese art form. When anime is imported to the states, American companies not only translate and dub the show in English, but sometimes they also heavily alter the show by replacing all the Japanese cultural references with references to American pop culture, like the popular comedy series Shin Chan and Sgt. Frog. Also, most of the anime that were shipped to the states were originally full of blood, violence, and profanity but they removed or altered to make it suitable for a younger audience, i.e. Dragonball Z, Sonic X, Yu-Gi-Oh and One Piece. This created a discrepancy by confusing Japanese semiotics for American ones, as a result every onigiri became a donut, and names like Sakura and Yusuke became Amy and Joey. So, even though we were consuming Eastern media, the subliminal message of Westernization belittles the audiences chance to experience the Asian art of storytelling.
Another problem that resulted from the anime boom was the creation of the American otaku, a breed of overzealous fans who are disillusioned about what is authentically Japanese and sometimes come off as racist towards Asian-Americans. These are the people, who claim that they can speak Japanese from watching Japanese subtitles; who live off of Pockey sticks and Top Ramen but never been to a real Ramen house; who paint over their eyes to imitate the illusion that they have big “anime eyes” when they cosplay. Unfortunately, I am not making these examples up because these were some of the things my high school anime club did and I am ashamed that I was affiliated with them.
This is why I am grateful that I get to go to college; I have the opportunity to make friends with people who are Asian, experience their customs, and better my understanding of the Asian-American experience. However, I’m just one person, not everyone has the resources or the exposure to better themselves. Sometimes, I feel bad that my friends back home are still ignorant about how diverse Asian-Americans are, and they still are probably using these stereotypes to befriend them.
In 2013, I am witnessing society taking bigger strides to rectify the damage the golden age of anime has created as we make the transition from one cultural phenomenon to another. The “Korean Wave” has been a gateway to Korean culture, and with the rising popularity of the Korean channel Mnet America, allows American audiences to explore all aspects of Korean pop culture at the source. One reality series in particular, #mykpop depicts how the demographic of K-Pop is not only limited to Asian-Americans but to people of all ages and nationalities, especially in America. They show how the impact of K-Pop has made fans want to learn how to speak Korean, go to K-Town, and there is even an American black female group called Coco Avenue whose songs are all in Korean, due to the influence of groups such as EXO and Wonder Girls.
The “Korean Wave” is bringing everyone closer together, and I am glad to see the public’s perception of Asian culture demystified and becoming more widely accepted. Maybe in time, negative Asian stereotypes will become a thing of the past for good.