Asian American Being in/as the Year of the Ox

Part 1 of 2

In memory of Dr. Rebecca Munson (1984–2021), whose contagious passion for poetry and thought endures

For the first time in the history of popular culture in the United States, it is both possible and pleasurable to fill the entirety of your discretionary hours with the products of Asian American culture. While most of us, including my fellow Asian Americans, would never limit our cultural engagement in this way, according to the logic of racial identity, it is surely a watershed moment in and for Asian American life when on your commute you can listen to a swath of artists signed to 88 Rising (not to mention vast networks of independent artists, to whom I will turn in a moment), then engage while at the office a host of Asian American social media (ranging from radical AAPI activist groups to mainstream celebrity culture), then take a break with a variety of Asian American content-creators and podcasters, and then unwind in the evening by streaming The Farewell, Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, Minari, or, most recently, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Regardless of what most contemporary academic theory would have us believe, Asian American culture is flourishing. If you include K-pop and K-drama in the mix, as you obviously should, then it becomes even easier to saturate all of your cultural exposure, even in the United States, with Asian creativity, sociality, voice, and being.

One paradox of the pandemic era’s onslaught of anti-Asian violence, as I have described recently, is that it will provide yet more opportunity for cultural representation within the American society of spectacle. Such is the logic of racial capitalism. Yet it is also the case that Asian American culture has been a crucial source of sustenance and pride for our community in this era. In my world, where academic reverence and power are currently in the hands of assimilationist Gen-Xers whose core contribution to our cultural politics has been, more or less, the eradication of the “Asian American” identity altogether, such pride is incomprehensible. As I have argued elsewhere, their generation’s expenditure of academic privilege and expertise, deployed to make younger generations of Asian American university students skeptical of their own racial selves, is directly tied to the overall Asian American professoriate’s intellectual, political, and moral failure on speaking out on anti-Asian violence during 2020–21.

As for my generation of scholars, the general tendency has been to care about the racist violence coming at us only through preset lenses and projects, such as abolition, though even in such arguments we have been repeating the tendency to erase ourselves by not even acknowledging the problem — racist hatred — for what it is. All one has to do to counter the self-erasing sham that calling hatred hatred would “individualize a structural problem” is to ruminate on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and/or Malcolm X for about ten seconds. A second such tendency is to link our lot to the logic of white feminism, in all of its constitutive racial misandry, and thus it is no surprise that an authoritative title such as “The History of Asian Representation in Film” erases an entire half of the racial-sexual abjection of Asians in the culture industry. This is why a Gen-X figure like Cathy Park Hong only decried the violence of March 16, demanding to know and say the victims’ names, after having spouted offensive nonsense regarding the murder of Vicha Ratanapakdee: the optics were suitable, at last, to speak out on behalf of racial justice, with multiple Asian women victims and white male murderer.

And what we all have in common, across generations, is a relentless insistence on intellectually punching down, as if it were Andrew Yang’s job, rather than ours, to provide studied expertise on anti-Asian racism and violence.

Yet one priceless advantage my generation of Asian American academicians retains is that we are old enough to have been affected directly, in their heyday, by the field-defining baby-boomer-gen scholars — against whom the Boba-liberal Gen-Xers rebelled by arguing that our racialization is based in and on nothingness — and during the pandemic I have found myself returning as ever to the words and examples of Helen Zia, Yến Lê Espiritu, Russell Jeong, and K. Scott Wong.

Apart from these remaining titans, my sustenance has not been from academic quarters, needless to say, but rather from the generational privilege of being a “geriatric millennial” finding solace in pop culture path-breakers — finding myself aligned, that is, with celebrity peers who take seriously, alongside their cultural production, racial pride and solidarity. The list is long, but here is a scattershot of individuals, in addition to group outfits like the OG independent YouTubers, Fung Bros and Wong Fu, who hold it down for Asian America: Anderson .Paak, Arden Cho, Justin Chon, Jamie Chung, Dumbfoundead, Himanshu, Hari Kondabolu, Jeremy Lin, Simu Liu, MC Jin, Steven Yeun, and, above all, Awkwafina. What does it mean that my generation of Asian American celebrity has transformed our visibility in the culture industry while also doing a better job than the PhDs in speaking out against anti-Asian racism? Are the professors busier than they are?

Yet the most meaningful work for me has come from a network of independent rap artists, echoing the Black indie zeitgeist of Okayplayer at the turn of this century, who have boom-bapped their way to articulating the clearest expressions of both Asian American being and AfroAsian cultural possibility that I have ever seen (and it is my job to look for them). Their mike skill is undeniable. They sound to the well-studied Hip-hop-head as emcee purists, conveying in their deliveries an access to the boom bap tradition earned through “great labour” rather than osmotic inheritance.

Such careful craft also conveys a vocational commitment to Black study, and I submit that since this coterie of artists has recently addressed anti-Asian racism and violence through a medium that has been the best cultural-political tool in the United States to delineate the interlocking racisms extant within an anti-Black world, their work represents a nexus between Asian American and Black cultures of resistance.

Consider, for instance, this brief meditation by the North Carolina emcee G Yamazawa, “Good Writtens vol. 13” (2021), set to the production of Cardi B’s “Up,” which remains, in my estimation, the best Asian American document regarding anti-Asian violence:

…that mass shooter that trauma thick

so answer to what your calling is or all this shit gone stay the same

victims look just like my mama and I can’t even say they names

Consider the ingenuity of the double meaning of the concluding phrase here, an account of the position of anti-Asian abjection wholesale: Most of us, including the Japanese American emcee, lack the cultural and linguistic fluency (Chinese and Korean) to pronounce precisely all of the victims’ names, and, moreover, we are not granted, in this civilization, the cultural-political space, unlike our Black counterparts, even to say their names in ritualistic memoriam. Yet the desire for collective mourning remains; the victims, after all, look “just like my mama.” This sense of racial identification, and the politics that emerges therefrom, occurs for G Yamazawa through an alignment with Blackness that exceeds his commitment to the form and craft of rap music. Such alignment is the stuff of racial being.

G Yamazawa

Asian American being denotes a unique racial position that the entire world, including our own intelligentsia, seems committed to ignoring or denying even as a phenomenological possibility for us, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary in these rhymes and figures that it is already here. Rather than our staking the more comfortable boundaries of lazy, white-defined discourses of cultural appropriation and performative allyship, what if it is the case that we Asian Americans, as the original stakes of Asian American held firm, have pro-Black alignment and true people-of-color consciousness already built into our collective being, inaugurated by the vulnerability to racist harm and violence in an anti-Black world? G Yamazawa suggests as much as he concludes:

we console, we consult, we combine, we get up

we revive, we get up, hold it down, we get up

Asian pride, we get up, Black and Brown, we get up

Who is the “we” here in and of G Yamazawa’s consciousness? It is a collectivity that holds “Asian pride” and “Black and Brown” simultaneously — unafraid, from the Asian American position, to claim “Black and Brown” as our own. The ontological openness of Blackness already has us gracefully included within it, which notion can only be denied if one has not studied the Black Radical Tradition. It is then our task, as embedded as we are within an anti-Black world, to enact such reciprocity with and to Blackness.

Such reciprocity is the open secret of Asian American culture. As someone whose entry into Black study also came through Hip-hop, to see Asian American peers develop voice in Black space is to find true spiritual kinship, which is to say it is to find fellow friends in Black-Asian reciprocity. During the pandemic especially, hearing their work has kept me and many others going.

Year of the Ox: Lyricks and JL

In other words, in this Year of the Ox, I have been listening, non-stop, to Year of the Ox. Comprised of Virginia-raised Korean Americans Lyricks and JL, Year of the Ox articulates in “Home” (2019) a template for what belonging looks like for second-generation Asian Americans, an exilic condition that is neither here in a white supremacist civilization nor there in our ancestral homelands but rather a way of being composed through collective moments of remembrance:

Racial belonging in a hostile environment begins from deference to the first-generation father who

was 27 when I packed up all my bags and left to fly to America

you should have seen the way they stared at us

long road ahead of us, language, money, different culture, etceteras

Against the trappings of model-minority discourse, Lyricks here acknowledges that the first generation, rather than being aloof to white supremacy, are in fact themselves survivors of it and warriors against it. He recognizes that his father “sweat everyday for your future,” “put it all on my back, opened a business up,” and “insisted school” not because of an obliviousness to American racism and xenophobia, as much of current model-minority discourse would have us believe, but rather because of a precise hipness to the extent of anti-Asian racism in the United States.

As erin Khue Ninh noted a decade ago, “Asian immigrants push their children hard because they recognize that discrimination — conscious or not — is real. That all other things being equal, the blue-eyed candidate will get the position — and so the Asian kid has to make sure other things are better, to have a shot.” The notion that the model minority is a trope primarily toggling between antiracist survival and racist imposition — rather than complicity in and performance of racist stereotype — has been lost on most Americans, including Asian American intellectuals, in the present day. Echoing Ninh, Lyricks’s verse conveys a precise recognition of and appreciation for what anti-Asian racism has looked like for his immigrant father, suggesting a second-generation filial piety with zero pathological dis-identification with the first generation.

Extending the autobiographical mode, JL’s verse outlines a Korean American alignment — a home-seeking — with Black culture, specifically in Hip-hop style and rap music:

I grew up in my pop’s store, a Hip-hop store

as a kid I started to watch more, picked up on a lot more

the customers talked different, sipped on malt liquor and walked different

the music blasting through the speakers left me awe-stricken

Can such Black cultural saturation, even in the context of a consumer relation, be reduced to the easy trappings of appropriation discourse? JL notes that such immersion began in childhood, a Hip-hop juvenilia at the feet of the ontological distinction between Black people (his father’s customers) and Blackness (music, fashion, and ways of being, i.e., “talked different,” “walked different”). Such inspiration could be said to be the foundation of the Asian American being that G Yamazawa describes during the mayhem of 2021, grounded in the strivings of Black folks but with a phenomenology all its own. That is, Asian American being is still separable, needless to say, from Blackness and is not reducible to it. JL notes that he “used to sit and watch it like it was a movie reel,” suggesting some psychic distance, which combined with the physical proximity — the literal space of AfroAsian connection — tethers Asian American being, mirroring G Yamazawa’s “we.”

Note, too, that this description of Asian American being takes shape within a Korean-owned business in a Black neighborhood, giving lie to the scandalous notion that such structures of relation are defined exclusively by antagonism. Like many Korean Americans, I myself have had close friends and family from both of these Korean immigrant business worlds — the dry cleaner and clothier — and there is even a branch of Lim’s Menswear, originating in Durham, NC, here in Columbia, SC. I grew up with the Lim family, and their eldest and I were the only Korean Americans in our grade from middle through high school. One of their clan, Karlyle, was so passionate about basketball (speaking of Black cultural practice!) that she would go on to play collegiate then pro hoops, becoming one of the handful of Korean Americans to have done so. Dry-cleaner kinfolk from our NC network includes an up-and-coming musical genius, Sangstaa, whose own Asian American being and AfroAsian consciousness are aligned with his 형s of the Year of the Ox.

For Lyricks and JL, the notion of recessive space is addressed directly in and by the music video. Lyricks and JL are indeed home, eating dinner with what we can presume to be family — dining our way, family style. (The pair in the video are Peter Kang — a.k.a. Manifest, Lyricks’s former rhyming partner and himself a legend in Asian American Hip-hop circles — and his partner, Val Kang.) The space of refuge, of an Asian American totality, held down by shared domestic duties (though ineluctably led by the maternal figure), with the iconic small dog (endemic to most Korean households) to dote on collectively after dinner. The scenes of eating deliciously, a motif shot through virtually the entire Year of the Ox corpus, are also an index of Asian American being. They are, around the table and in the kitchen, truly home.

When have we heard rap music discuss the vantage of Asian kids growing up in a Hip-hop fashion store or helping their parents at the 세탁소? When have we seen a rap music video that depicts the domestic splendor of the portable butane stovetop and the freshly prepared 삼겹살 and 불고기 from H Mart? What does it mean that such representation both expresses a studied reciprocity of Blackness in cultural form and addresses AfroAsian relationality in its content? Could it be that some of us, in our plentiful Asian American ontological totality, have found home?

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Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English, University of South Carolina https://linktr.ee/SeulgheeLee https://www.instagram.com/seulghee/

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Seulghee Lee

Seulghee Lee

Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English, University of South Carolina https://linktr.ee/SeulgheeLee https://www.instagram.com/seulghee/

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