Don’t want no Paper Tigers

Image of New York Magazine cover from originalspin.posterous.com

Forget Lady Gaga and her less inspired stuff… did anyone actually read Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers article in New York Magazine earlier this month? I mean, I tried… but the online version was 11 freaking pages long. Also, I read so much other crap related to Asian American stuff that the opening lines of one more dude’s story (“Sometimes I’ll glimpse my reflection in a window and feel astonished by what I see. Jet-black hair. Slanted eyes. A pancake-flat surface of yellow-and-green-toned skin…”) just didn’t particularly grab me… sorry.

However, I do feel that anyone who did make it all the way through Paper Tigers should 1) give yourself a pat on the back and/or crack open a beer in celebration, and 2) take Yang’s representation of the Asian American community with a grain of salt. From the various critiques I’ve read of Yang’s article, I get the sense that he:

  • makes some pretty sweeping generalizations about Asian Americans–notably about Asian American men, and particularly that they fail to meet top-notch standards both in the workplace and in the bedroom largely due to the passive, standardized, socially awkward cultures in which they were raised;
  • draws his above-mentioned analysis primarily from his own experience and those of the few Asian American men he profiles (and apparently one woman, though he goes into much less detail about her), further dissuading us from believing that Asian American identity could really be as simple as a handful of males’ definition of it;
  • inadvertently reproduces racism, sexism, classism and probably even a couple more -isms by failing to examine the complexities of Asian American culture.

What Yang seems to do somewhat successfully is point out proof for and against a few of the group’s major stereotypes; this is good to the extent that it at least presents to a wide, mainstream audience an analysis of Asian American identity coming from an actual Asian American person. The problem is that the explanation he provides for these stereotypes (when they happen to be true) is an equally stereotypical, overly simplified and perhaps even downright racist representation of “Asian American culture.” For example, he does not take time to examine the intersection of Asian cultures with American values and how that plays a role in how Asian American parents raise their children; nor does he give any critique to the sexist framework for masculinity he uses when he emasculates himself and Asian American men at large. He acknowledges a problem in his community and just as quickly rejects the problem as being applicable to him (apparently he ends the article with a call for Asian American men to join him in “seducing women” as a solution), but he does not take a serious look at the complex reasons as to why there might be certain patterns within Asian American identity and culture. I like when critic erin Khue Ninh says that she and other Asian American academics are like “the Democrats to Chua [leader of the even more controversial “Tiger Mom” religion] and Yang’s Republicans.” I drew my own second-hand conclusions mainly from her studies response to Yang’s article, as well as from Slate.com’s critique of Yang in its Culture Blog section.

So while it’s nice to see something about Asian America featured on the cover of a bastion of news and popular culture such as New York Magazine, consumers should be aware that Yang’s mainstream audience-geared article merely scratches the surface of Asian American issues and how we are dealing with them. To be fair, it’s not easy to go deep within that realm. However, I hope that within and after the next three years in which I devote my life to studying Asian American communities and issues, I can help to inform you all much better on the topic!

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