The Boring Brand of Asian

I was reading a good friend’s blog when I fell across the words “I was Chinese, which is like the boring brand of Asian.” These words struck me. I remember freshman year of college, there was a meeting of my dorm’s entryway. We were all in a circle, playing one of those annoying ice breaker games, where you had to say three (fun and fascinating) things about yourself. A lot included their ethnicity as a fact. “I’m Greek”, “I’m Japanese”, “I’m Italian.” All of these elicited an “ooo” or an “ahh.” That week, I began to notice that among the major Asian ethnicities, there is a hierarchy in American perception:  Japanese, Korean, and last, Chinese. There’s an “ooo” factor to the first two, but there’s an “eh, ok” response to the last in America.

Navid Baraty - The City vendor

Photo by Navid Baraty

We all have ideas about these different Asian brands, mostly from entertainment and stereotypes. We’ve all heard crazy things about the Japanese, like their strange porn, their wacky game shows, and their animes that have stirred questions about the proportions of eyes to overall surface area of the face. But aside from the stranger Japanese stereotypes, there is the pervading cuteness that dominates their culture, from their Hello Kitty stationary to the girls. I’ve heard a native Hong Kong boy sigh with excitement at the prospect of meeting native Japanese girls, whom he deemed more “feminine” than native Chinese girls. True, there is a heavy sexist streak in Japanese culture (most Japanese become housewives). There’s already an Asian fetish that deems the women submissive, but does the polite, cute, housewife Japanese girl take the crème de la crème for that reason?

The Korean, however, is known for Kpop and Korean Dramas. Kpop has exploded over the past few years, from “Gee” by Girl’s Generation, “Sorry, Sorry” by Super Junior, “Nobody But You” by Wonder Girls (good luck getting that melody out of your head), and of course, the most watched Youtube music video ever (1,098,711,753 and counting), “Gangnam Style.” If you really have been living under a rock, read the New Yorker’s comprehensive article that sums Kpop up. These videos help shape the image of well-sculpted, long-legged, pale girls, along with Asian boys who rock their effeminacy. Or, you know, going with PSY and their outrageously catchy horse-riding dance moves. If not for that, there’s always the Korean Dramas which catch the attention of those interested in long wrought out, rather predictable but addicting love stories.

So what are the Chinese known for? In the past, they were known as docile, yet devious and deviant – the Chinese laundry worker who will bow down to you with his thick “Ching Chong” accent. Today, the People’s Republic of China shapes the image. I always see so many articles about how corrupt the PRC is, from drowning female babies to the repressed Taiwanese and Tibetans. If that’s not bad enough, there’s the culture of the Tiger Mama, which presents Chinese parents are strict, traditional discipliners who shape their children to be piano or violin masters, who grow up to be doctors or lawyers with Ivy League diplomas. According to this stereotype, we are all the same – generic. All we do is study, and none of us are creative. And no, we don’t have any crazy, zany, or overwhelming cuteness to block our boring (if not corrupt) visage that the general populace sees.

Am I bitter toward the Japanese or Koreans? No, I very much like aspects of their culture – sushi, kimchi, yum… But I can’t help but feel upset when someone becomes excited to hear that someone is Japanese or Korean, but will only smile and nod politely when they hear I am Chinese. I am proud of my Chinese heritage, with the cultural aspects I agree and disagree with. It is just insulting sometimes when some are found interesting for being one kind of Asian, and uninteresting if you’re another. Being Asian in America has forever branded us as a perpetual foreigner, the “exotic” one, even if we were born in America and lived here all our lives. We’re never going to be blonde haired and blue-eyed. Yet, even out of the “exotic,” we are considered bland – insult piled upon insult!

Is the only way for positive reception is to play up our cute, dancing, polite feminineness? Or go the crazy route as displayed in Gangnam Style? Super cute (“kawaii!”) or batshit crazy – is that how Asians must appear to Americans to be deemed “interesting”?


9 thoughts on “The Boring Brand of Asian

  1. Victoria says:

    Hmm, yup, I’m Chinese but I’m not going to list that as an interesting fact during an icebreaker. I wonder if part of it is growing up in a city that has a large population of Chinese Americans. Oh, and that “Nobody” song is definitely stuck in my head right now. A comment about the Japanese culture is that I think there’s a bit of a transition with what seems to be more and more working Japanese women, since not all of them can be just housewives. But perception is definitely a different story form reality.


  2. There also exists separate hierarchy of Asians who are considered “below” Chinese, or at least less well known, especially in America: Vietnamese, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai… the list goes on. I’ve had good friends tell me that they wish they were Chinese, because we seem to have it easier than other “types” of Asians in America.

    On the flip side, there’s the issue of Asians being lumped together into one homogeneous group despite all of our cultural (and physical) differences. Fodder for another blog post, perhaps.


    • Alice L says:

      I absolutely agree with you. I was aware, when writing this, that there are certainly more kinds of “Asian brands” out there and that the ranking continues in different ways. For the sake of a shorter blog entry, I thought I would focus on the brands of Asian most others consider the big three. Perhaps I will write another blog posts concerning these topics. But thanks for reading and your comment!


  3. S says:

    I can’t disagree further from the statement, “Chinese is the boring brand of asians.” I understand where they’re coming from- there’s a ton of Chinese people everywhere, China doesn’t have a standout impact on modern culture (anime, kpop, dramas etc), Also, it’s true China is known for some really notorious things… but to me, all this doesn’t translate into “boring.” From language, to culture, to history, Chinese people have so many things to be proud about. And I think we all have the ability to influence others into seeing that we all have different personalities and stories- that we’re not just one homogeneous mass. One of my favorite examples: who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre? In any case, I don’t think being interesting just because of your heritage or where your parents came from is sustainable anyways, for anyone. 🙂


    • Alice L says:

      I don’t think Chinese people are boring (I should hope not because I am Chinese), but I was trying to point to how Americans perceive several groups of Asians. I do agree that being interesting isn’t dependent on race or ethnicity, but I must admit it hurts when I get the sense that some people are inherently fascinating because of their heritage, and others are boring.


      • Exactly! It’s not a self-loathing thing (as I am Chinese and I am the one who wrote that sentence about being the boring brand of Asian) so much as it is being perceived as less interesting. I wonder, though, if it has to do with the fact that 1) being Asian American in San Francisco usually means being Chinese American, so the majority is less interesting by default, 2) Chinese Americans have been in the U.S. longer than Korean or Japanese Americans, so the most familiar group is less interesting by default, 3) Chinese pop culture is less outrageous and/or commodifiable (?), so the least visible and/or marketable group is less pervasive, or 4) there are some other (probably historical) factors I have not considered. Or all of the above.


  4. I haven’t thought about the different Asian brands. Generally speaking, I think for the past few decades, it’s better to be a Chinese woman in China vs. a Japanese woman in Japan, because there are just simply more job/career choices for Chinese women and she is less bound by society expectations when she wants to realize her potential in China. Sure there are some sexist atitudes among Chinese men in China but generally speaking Chinese women are much freer to be themselves and not conform to the quiet submissive least not since Mao decreed that women hold up half of heaven.

    Methinks the brand of “China” that the West may know imperfectly of its long history (5,000 years and more), political revolutions, 21lst century manic scramble to make up for loss of capitalist practices (and polluting their own environ.), contrasting modern/rich vs. poor/rural, is a brand that is yes, messy (jeez, it has 1 billion people with 1 billion perspectives), dense cities, yelling and fast-talking, etc. …is a brand to me, that is far more dynamic, even if it’s messy at times.

    And Japan seems to exude yes, that lovely artifice of controlled artistry, mannerisms, weird kinky sex expressions (but they aren’t the only ones), more lovely looking food, etc. well, nice to live for a yr. or so, but I probably feel as if I was suffocating psychologically there, as a woman chomping at the bit.

    I don’t focus much on these Asian-brands because I am born in Canada and will be here for the rest of my life.


    • Alice L says:

      I definitely agree with you on living in Japan vs. China as a woman (though both countries have things they still need to sort out). I agree that there are many reasons that China’s brand and Japan’s brand in the West could be the way they are, and of course, none of us really know the true reason why. Part of why I like to think about these things is I’m very interested in stereotypes, identity, and perception. Maybe in Canada race isn’t as pertinent as it is in America – or maybe I’m just more sensitive about these things. At any rate, thanks for bringing up very valid points about both China and Japan, and thanks for reading!


      • Long ago prior to my cycling passion, I was involved in Asian-Canadian matters. lst 5 yrs. after university for an Asianadian magazine (on Asian-Canadian arts, literature and social issues) and then 5 yrs. later on national board on Chinese-Canadian matters on politics, immigration services, mass media perception.

        Though no longer involved, you will be amazed how advocacy skill, analysis on issues of stereotyping and marginalization can be transferred to other areas…(yea, cyclists are marginalized, misunderstood in the world of car transportation,…because we’re visibly “little”.).

        I can’t escape my here in Canada it’s what a person chooses to be alert. I’ve reached a point of not even caring whether or not others listening to me beat my own drum.

        Maybe that’s what happens when one reaches over 50… 🙂 My best wishes.


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