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Rachel, who's an Asian

Korean dramas as a window into Asian identity and culture, part 1

<h6>Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Sydney Peng / The Daily Princetonian

Despite being Asian myself, even visiting Taiwan at least once a year growing up, I’ve always felt a strong aversion to watching Asian dramas. I associated them with my grandma, who could always be found watching Chinese dramas in her free time, and I thought they were cheesy and melodramatic, not much different from soap operas.

I knew this was an inaccurate generalization, I knew I had no reason to perceive them as such, never having seen one myself. But I did anyway, and because of it, I never felt any interest in trying them out either. 

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On a more personal note, a large part of my aversion to Asian dramas came from generally wanting nothing to do with any kind of Asian culture. Growing up in America, there was always a xenophobic undercurrent to products from my culture: Asian things were weird. I grew up in a predominantly white suburb, and for the most part, interacted with only white people outside of my music and church community. At school, from preschool to senior year of high school, my classmates and friends were almost always white. Combined with the lack of representation of Asians in the Western media that I grew up watching, my upbringing conditioned me to distance myself from my own culture and associate a stigma with it.

To be honest, I never really noticed the lack of Asian representation on-screen, and therefore didn’t desire it. Seeing a representation of an Asian Disney princess through Mulan didn’t mean anything to me — I actually felt like I related more to Belle than Mulan. Likewise, Asian characters in TV shows and books didn’t make me feel seen, and I didn’t identify more with them than other characters. 

I soon realized, however, that because I wasn’t seeing much Asian culture in my life outside of home, nor was I seeing it depicted in the media, I developed into a subconscious sense of shame in being Asian at a young age.

In school, I never felt outright excluded or shamed for the aspects of Asian culture I did exhibit. No one made fun of me for bringing Chinese food for lunch instead of American food — sometimes, they even wanted to try it. No one mocked my Hello Kitty backpack, no one thought it was weird that my mom didn’t chaperone field trips or arrange playdates, and no one made fun of me for playing violin and piano instead of soccer, which basically every single kid I knew had played at some point. I don’t think any of the shame I felt was due to prejudice I experienced. Instead, it was something fueled by little things based on what I saw was considered “normal” around me and was followed by the intense desire to assimilate. 

I didn’t understand why I had to eat noodles or fried rice or sushi when everyone else got to eat Lunchables and Dino Nuggets from the cafeteria — although, in retrospect, my meals were much heartier and more delicious. I was mortified by my red Hello Kitty backpack my grandma had bought me in Taiwan, even though I had asked for it and thought it was pretty. After going to school and seeing people with plain-colored Northface or Jansport backpacks, I was worried the cartoon design would cause me to be perceived as immature and uncool. 

Because my mom is a first-generation immigrant, English is not her first language, so she wasn’t comfortable having to interact with teachers and other parents in English. She also did not know much about the PTA-suburban-white-mom culture, and I was embarrassed by that. Consequently, my mom never entered the suburban mom community, and she didn’t organize playdates with my classmates.

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I couldn’t even arrange them myself since I always had to finish practicing both violin and piano before I was allowed to play and have fun, usually resulting in one playdate a year.

I never really got to interact with kids outside of school, never did extracurriculars or after-school clubs with my friends, and was never automatically on the invite list for birthday parties. Commonly, in white culture, parents tend to focus on providing support. They allow their kids to explore their interests and encourage them to have fun and make friends with the hopes that they will learn about themselves and the world, enjoy their youth, and find their passion.

Parenting style in Asian culture is quite different. There is much more structure and control exerted, and hobbies are not gravitated toward, but pushed upon their children, who are expected to intensively develop their “thing” from an early age to essentially specialize in that field, but only as an accessory to academics. Oftentimes, it seems like taking responsibility and excelling through achievement is more important than anything else. This contrast between my home life and my classmates’ made me feel alienated and feel even more of a cultural divide.

In terms of music, I felt like it really made me that stereotypical Asian kid. Even though I loved music and people thought it was cool that I played violin and piano at a high level, something about being labeled as “the girl who plays music” always bothered me. Even now, when people ask what I do outside of school, I always make a joke out of being a stereotypical Asian for playing violin because I’d rather acknowledge it and turn it into a joke first before they can make their own associations. To me, there was nothing wrong with a white girl playing piano, but because I was an Asian girl who played piano, and I already felt ostracized in many regards, that association brought me closer to being “more” Asian, which at that point, I associated with not fitting in, not being normal. I had defined my identity in relation to racial ideologies prevalent in the dominant white society around me.

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I remember happening to sit down with two of my friends during lunch in fifth grade, no one else. Suddenly, I became aware that all three of us were Asian, and I felt the sudden need to go somewhere else or somehow distance myself from them because I didn’t want to be grouped with the other Asians. I didn’t want us to be thought of as the Asian group. 

More importantly I wanted to be thought of as Rachel, not Rachel who’s an Asian.

I was so worried about being seen as different and the potentially long-lasting social consequences that might follow. At my Chinese church, all the older kids only had Asian friends in high school. At the time, my instinctive response was that that was bad, and I had to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to me. As I grew older, when I met someone Asian, that became a reason why I shouldn’t go out of my way to be friends with them, and I felt pride every time someone told me I was whitewashed or called me a “banana” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It made me feel like I had succeeded in being seen as one of “them,” as American. As if embodying white norms and dressing like an “American” would make people forget I was Asian. I know the same was true for my older brothers, and the way they interacted with Asians and talked about Asian culture probably had a significant influence on my mentality as well.

In eighth grade, I started binge-watching anime, ironically enough because of my brothers. Although I would say anime made up a third of what I watched the following years and I genuinely enjoyed watching it, I never dared to expose myself for fear of being judged, because of the stigma surrounding it. Only if someone else mentioned they watched did I then reveal my love of anime. There’s this term — weeb — that is used to label, at its most basic definition, a non-Japanese person interested in anime and Japanese culture. Many people, including myself, view it with a negative connotation, because weebs are typically thought of as weird, and the label puts them in a restricting box. I am what is known as a “closet weeb,” someone who tries to conceal their love of anime, but I guess I’m exposing myself right now. What’s weird is determined by the majority of society in Western culture, and there’s really no basis why being interested in anime makes you a weeb while being interested in, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t weird. 

By this point, Asian media and entertainment had already grown more popular in the United States, and even though I loved anime, I still distanced myself from Asian dramas. Even as some of my Asian friends in the music community expressed their profound love for them, I refused to watch them and didn’t realize at the time, I was defensively imposing my sense of Asian inferiority on other people and making them feel bad about the parts of Asian culture they were immersed in. 

I really only had this aversion to Asian media, not media from other cultures. Society had taught me that consuming Asian media was weird, and yet it was okay to watch German shows like “Dark,” or Spanish shows like “Elite” — no judgement there — which further reinforced that anti-Asian attitude in Western media and society went further than general xenophobia. 

When I entered college, the change in demographic and variety of individual experiences vastly changed my outlook.

I began to have a better understanding of what the “Asian experience” is and what it means to be Asian. At Princeton, there is a huge Asian and Asian-American community to which I feel a sense of belonging — not because we have similar physical features, but because of our shared cultural experiences: what our parents are like, how we were raised, the values that were instilled in us, our love of boba, the small quirks typical to an Asian household. 

I realized that these were the aspects of my upbringing that made me Asian and a part of this community and that I couldn’t ignore or suppress them because they’re part of my identity, what made me me. 

I could not separate the influence of my upbringing and culture from my identity. However, in a lot of ways, I still valued standards of white, Western culture above those of Asian culture.

Influenced by my continued and increasing exposure to the Asian community, and consequently, an increasing personal acceptance of Asian culture, I made a decision on impulse to watch my first ever Korean drama (or K-drama for short), “Crash Landing On You ,” at the beginning of April during quarantine. The show is over 22 hours long, but I was hooked from the very first episode and finished the entire show in two days, staying up until 6 a.m. consecutively, classes be damned. Again, I was able to relate on a cultural level as the same family dynamics, societal pressures, and personal values depicted on-screen were part of my own life experience. More than that, though, I finally realized how impactful of a tool representation is. 

Just by seeing cultural aspects I identified with and Asian people constantly on screen, my perceptions unknowingly and rapidly changed. Since I was always in my house with my family, not interacting with anyone else or going out into American society, my sense of what was considered normal and acceptable began to shift. As someone who used to always tend to find a much larger percentage of white men attractive than Asian men, most likely due to my environment, I always envisioned white male celebrities when trying to think of an attractive man. However, I found that within just a few months of watching K-dramas, I started to find Asian males increasingly more attractive over time and instead equated Korean male actors with my standard of attractiveness. Something as small as a change in my concept of physical attractiveness actually demonstrates a dramatic transformation of my perceptions in a relatively short period of time.

I don’t know if I can say I take pride in being Asian, but I do think that being exposed to a new “normal” in K-dramas made me feel less self-conscious about talking about my home life, responding in Chinese in public to my parents, having Asian friends, my appearance, less embarrassed when my parents interact with my friends, more willing to try new Asian dishes and Asian products, and less critical of Asian customs and values.

Through K-dramas, I was finally able to internalize that there is no real “normal,” or at least there shouldn’t be one that everyone feels the need to gravitate toward. There’s nothing wrong with being different, coming from different cultural backgrounds, enjoying different forms of media. 

In a predominantly white society, I still struggle everyday with the internalized racial oppression I’ve developed in reaction to the way I’ve seen Asians and Asian culture continually discounted and dismissed, but I don’t need to fit white society’s boxes to feel self-validated. My cultural identity is something that I shouldn’t try to change. It is invaluable and integral to my individual identity, and being American is not in opposition to or distinct from my Asian identity.

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