Asian America: What's Our Brand?

Today I was on a very interesting panel at the first ever National Asian American Summit on Media images, stereotypes and  represent-asian held at the center for democracy/Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles. We were the final panel, on new directions for Asian America, what's next and what's up in the arts and popular culture. My wheelhouse so to speak. And I was asked one question in particular that distills a lot of the cultural thinking we are all doing about the actual A/Pi identity in the media and in the personal realm and in terms of the community activist and otherwise. What is the Brand of Asian America and what does it mean? Is it a good one or a bad one.

I spent the last decade as a freelance brand consultant for various corporations and institutions. I also worked at a great company called Siegel and Gale which is one of Omnicom's finest branding firms in New York City for some pretty major clients. When asked why I, juilliard trained actor, stand up comedian and playwright and entertainment producer would spend so much time in the branding world my answer is simple-- I like the art side of business and the business side of art. Branding is really the art side of business. When you are building a brand you are considering what message you want out in the marketplace, what audience you are targeting and all about that audience, and the messages about your brand that already exist.

For Asian Americans this is a very complex question-- what is the brand of Asian America. At countless college summits and Asian heritage months and symposia where I have been the keynote speaker we address this question under a multitude of titles and nuanced perspectives: What is Asian America? Is there an Asian American community? What are its attributes? What is the direction of community building in Asian America? What makes you an Asian American? (that last one is literally a branding question.) 

There is no easy answer.  And here’s why. Asian America is still a term that really umbrellas a diaspora of distinct cultures under one title. Chinese Americans and Thai Americans and Japanese Americans etc are all bicultural in their inherent connection to the cultural mores of their Asian motherlands in juxtaposition with their lives as Americans. We Asian americans actually have a tri cultural experience: Our American-ness, our culturally/family specific ethnic mores and histories, AND our Asian American-ness. This last element of the triptych is the most difficult to define. And it is made more complex by the continual influx of immigrants in waves, and different waves from different countries at different times to boot. A 4th generation Japanese American is going to have a very different relationship to the words Asian American than a 2ndgeneration Cambodian. Fact. And as new people show up and become americans it’s a groundhog’s day of laying down the roots of “what is Asian America?” because the answer changes every time someone new gets here and has their experience added to the pile.

Part of brand is how we are perceived. Like I said when building or re-imagining a brand you look at what the marketplace already thinks of it—how it is perceived, what stereotypes exist, what expectations exist. So that is where Asian America, unfortunately has the strongest brand identity. In the often unflattering eyes of the media which is where stereotypes become such a hot topic of discourse. Which is why everyone is freaking out. Especially American born AP/I’s who cant relate AT ALL to the pidgin speaking noodle sucking nerd boy dragon lady sex kitten king fu master math genius wily suspicious clown like lampooned characters we see still very much alive and well in popular culture.

Obviously that is not at all our total brand package. We do have Jeremy Lins we do have Kate Riggs we do have John Chos we do have Lisa Lings. But they are still pretty few and far between.

So here’s what I said to the group today. This is America. Money talks bullshit walks. We have a duty as Asian Americans who are raising consciousness and fighting for the kids in college and high schools around the nation still paralyzed between the pressure of being Asian and the pressure to be cool, slash assimilate slash separate themselves from words like chink and geek and whatever else subtly or not so subtly makes them outsiders in their own nation. We have a duty to support the few voices that are breaking through. With cash money. That means you buy not one but two tickets the next time a movie like Better Luck Tomorrow comes out. That means you go see that play or listen to that record and pay for a download or buy a ticket to see an Asian Comedy tour. You vote with your dollars.

What are you voting for? The self esteem of millions of Americans just like you. Why is self esteem and all this academic chit chat about representation in the media important?

Because every single time without exception that I tour a college and do some oral history interviews with Asian students, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I hear a suicide attempt story. Yes that is right. A suicide story. Inspired by the thankless, voiceless, relentless experience of feeling unwelcome every where you turn. By your Asian family who want you to act more Asian. And by your non Asian colleagues who deep down don’t get it and treat you like a foreigner, or just want you to assimilate much harder than you can.

We need an Asian American brand and we need it now. So thanks Jeremy Lin and thanks Lisa Ling. But also thanks everyone who is attending summits and being brave and living with grace and joy and looking for connections to both Asians and all the other Americans. And to those who are artists and media makers who are trying to execute direct change along the chain of information we consume. Keep talking keep thinking. Our brand is under construction. But for right now at this point in history i borrow from my own motherland for our Brand tagline: Unity In Diversity.