A reader sent me a link to a recent article from the Seattle Weekly that follows and describes in detail the late-night activities of young Asian American hip-hop club goers in the Seattle area. The article itself is relatively long and to understand the debate that I’m going to discuss below, you should read it in its entirety. Here are just a few excerpts:
Pham is Vietnamese. He’s invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd. . . .
“I have some white friends who won’t even go [to Venom],” [22 year old Cambodian American Somealear] Mom says, laughing. “It’s too Asian for them. For us, it’s like family. Everybody knows each other there.”
That’s exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within “two to three degrees of separation,” according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. . . .
“Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools,” Truong says. “You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth.”
The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle’s Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene.
“A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don’t go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into,” Ho explains. “They aren’t going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they’re incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans.”
It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers. . . .
“Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That’s why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We’re constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there’s no tomorrow because we’re playing catch-up,” [Truong says].
As I said, the article includes many more details about the activities of these young Asian Americans, which as the article’s author writes, includes using the stereotype that all Asians look alike to get underage patrons into a club. Overall, the article spends a lot of time implicitly and explicitly focused on this “neon tetra fish” analogy — how young Asian Americans clustering together during the weekends has developed into this emerging trendy club scene in the Seattle area.
Therein lies the controversy. As illustrated by the readers’ comments at the end of it, this article seems to have unleashed a debate about whether it promotes racial/ethnic diversity by publicizing the real-life activities of an institutionally underrepresented ethnic group such as Asian Americans (particularly Vietnamese Americans) who have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream media, or whether the article promotes cultural stereotypes and a one-sided view of Asian Americans as clannish and materialistic alcoholics?
As a Vietnamese American myself who is also a sociologist specializing in Asian American Studies, I will first say that, at the risk of copping out, the answer is quite complicated and that ultimately, it does both.
On the one hand, I have to give the Seattle Weekly credit for doing a story that specifically profiles Asian Americans. It is indeed true that even in areas where Asian Americans are increasingly becoming more prominent demographically, politically, economically, and culturally, they are still frequently ignored by the mainstream media and other social institutions.
In other words, sadly we are still the “invisible minority” in a lot of areas of American society. With that in mind, articles like this at least show the rest of American society that in many ways, Asian Americans are just like everybody else — after a week of working hard at their jobs, we want to cut loose on the weekends, have a good time with our friends, and from time to time, indulge in some drinking and partying.
I also credit the article’s author for quoting the Vietnamese American party promoters and their observations that in many areas of mainstream American social life, Asian Americans have felt left out, unwelcomed, and even excluded. With that in mind, the party-goers in this article have sought to develop their own sense of community. In fact, their actions continue the long history of Asian Americans reacting to systematic discrimination by forging their own communities and institutions.
However, creating their own communities have paradoxically led to and perpetuated the stereotype that Asians are insular and cliquish and only want to hang out with “their own kind.” What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge however, is that Asian Americans had to associate within their own group because they were directly excluded from participating in mainstream American society in many cases. In other words, they had to choice but to cluster together.
Fast forward to today and we can recognize that almost all examples of direct, systematic segregation against Asian Americans are a thing of the past (although not entirely, at least when it comes to other groups of color). Nonetheless, in many instances where Asian Americans congregate together, we are still accused of being cliquish. The other point to consider is that in almost all cases, these young Asian Americans spend their entire workweek completely integrated and assimilated into mainstream American society. Nonetheless and sadly, old stereotypes are hard to kill.
So, like I said, I think that this article can serve a positive purpose in promoting the wider inclusion of Asian Americans in mainstream American society and to make other Americans think hard about this sociological question of what it means to hang out within your own ethnic/cultural group.
On the other hand, the picture that this particular article promotes may not be a positive one for the Asian American community. Specifically, a casual reader might read this article and come away with reinforced stereotypes that Asian Americans are like cliquish “neon tetra fish” as I just discussed, but also that we’re superficial and materialistic, closet alcoholics who can’t hold their liquor and like to relieve ourselves in parking lots, and/or that we all look alike.
That is exactly the drawback of this particular article — it presents only one picture, one example of Asian American life. In other words, it is only one set of observations about the Asian American community. But in its defense, it was not meant to be anything more than that — it was not intended to be a comprehensive portrayal of all Asian Americans, young Asian Americans, or even young Asian Americans in the Seattle area.
Nonetheless, the danger that some Americans will see this as representative of all Asian Americans is real.
In other words, the potential that this article will perpetuate stereotypes is especially pronounced precisely because Asian Americans have been and continue to be ignored by mainstream American media. Because of this exclusion, many Americans do not have a diverse picture of who Asian Americans are and therefore, are more likely to rely on the few images and portrayals that do exist, many of whom are rather biased or, at least with this particular article, unrepresentative of Asian Americans as a whole.
Like many portrayals of Asian American experiences, this article is a double-edge sword that can both help and harm our community.