“You only like them for their looks!”
“Yeah, because I buy their album to listen to their face.”
Seeing an Internet meme with the above dialogue made my day—the latter phrase has now become my go-to retort. Yes, I admit I’m a huge fangirl. And I only operate under two states of mind regarding people in the public eye: I’m either apathetic or utterly obsessed. When it comes to a select few Asian American entertainers, it’s usually the latter for me . . . and for good reason.
My obsession with Asian American entertainers started when I was five years old. My Dad took me to see Mulan and it all snowballed from there. Sure, Mulan isn’t an Asian American entertainer, but I identified so strongly with her character as she was one of the first people I remember seeing onscreen that looked like me. Having grown up in Butte, Montana, there weren’t many Asian Americans in my life, much less visible in mainstream forms of media.
Despite moving to Hong Kong when I was in elementary school, I didn’t stop yearning to see Asian Americans on TV. Although I loved, and still love Mulan, I didn’t find someone to look up to (in real life) until I stumbled upon an article on Chinese-American rapper MC Jin, who is best known for winning seven rap battles on the BET network’s flagship show 106 & Park. I had never heard of an Asian American rapper before MC Jin. Seeing someone I could identify with who was accepted by the media and deemed “cool” by so many media outlets changed the way I viewed the media, and in turn, myself.
I immediately connected to a song by MC Jin titled “ABC” (short for American-born Chinese) in which he addressed his Asian American identity outright and showed that he was not ashamed to be part of both cultures. In the song, rapped mostly in Cantonese, MC Jin calls out his experiences with internalized racism, when people would doubt his cultural heritage because of his American influences. Roughly translated, Jin raps: “You say I’m not officially Chinese. Who are you? In the eyes of foreigners I am yellow skinned, just like you. Even though we come from two different worlds. But it’s pretty much the same, so don’t treat me otherwise (literally, ‘don’t step on me’).”
Listening to someone rap about the same feelings I had about my identity was pivotal toward my gradual acceptance of belonging to both cultures.
As a freelance journalist in Hong Kong, I was able to meet MC Jin and other Asian American entertainers such as Far East Movement, Ryan Higa, Kina Grannis, and David Choi. Being a fan has changed my life in more ways than one. These Asian American faces are partly the reason why I’m double-majoring in Journalism and American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington.
I identify with Asian Americans in the media not only because they look like me, but because their journeys to find a place in the entertainment industry remind me of my own journey to find my place in the world (not just as an Asian American, but as someone who is simply “growing up”). I wouldn’t be as comfortable with my identify as I am today without these people to look up to.
With the visibility of Asian American artists and entertainers emerging from platforms like YouTube, I can finally say with conviction that I am far from alone. I sometimes wish I would have understood that much earlier in my life. But if I did, I doubt I would have bothered to seek out newer forms of media. These feelings have allowed me to observe Asian Americans taking great strides in both traditional and new forms of media and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Candace Kwan is a sophomore at the University of Washington majoring in journalism and Asian American studies. She writes a column for South China Morning Post’s Young Post.