How Asian Americans Have Influenced Popular Culture

In recent years, racism and hate targeted at Asian Americans have become more visible. At the same time, authentic and innovative portraits of the Asian American experience have been breaking into mainstream media, including movies such as the sci-fi family drama Everything Everywhere All at Once and the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians.

portrait of Tasha Oren

Understanding the way Asian Americans are seen in our country and the role they play in popular culture isn’t a simple matter, according to Tasha Oren, director of the Film and Media Studies Program at Tufts and co-editor of the anthologies East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture and Global Asian American Popular Cultures.

“As an immigrant and someone who is Jewish, Asian, and European, I’m especially attuned to how American culture repeatedly redefines what ‘Americanness’ is and how notions of identity are expressed in storytelling, both scripted and not,” says Oren, who focuses on media as an intersection of aesthetics, storytelling, politics, and industry.

“I’m also fascinated by how television—a commercial system whose advertisers, financial structures, and target audiences are completely about identity and difference—participates in how we think of these differences and make meaning out of them,” she says.

Oren spoke with Tufts Now about the many things that have gone into the label “Asian American”—historically, socially, and in pop culture—and the places it might go next.

Tufts Now: What inspired your interest in Asian American studies?

Tasha Oren: It began from thinking about this very notion of categories and identity. The label “Asian American,” to start with, is fundamentally political, born in the late 60s as a way to unite a wide group of first- and second-generation Americans with roots all over Eastern and Southern Asia and the Pacific Islands.

This self-named group was not about similarities of tradition or heritage but about a shared history of anti-Asian immigration restrictions, which barred paths to becoming an American citizen, and sparked discrimination within the U.S.

Many different specific histories, ethnicities, and cultures are folded into this broad category, but one of the unifying motifs that we see expressed in popular media is that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners—that they don’t fully belong and so exist on the periphery of American culture and imagination.

The process of coming into the foreground in media, food culture, music, art, and so on has been long. One of the ways we can tell that story—especially during Asian American month—is to work to drop the hyphen between “Asian” and “American,” and to highlight the work and contribution of Americans of Asian descent.

Having co-edited East Main Streets, what are some insights about Asian American popular culture that we should know?

As editors, we wanted to collect work that specifically claimed cultural citizenship for Asian American creators—primarily in film and media, but also music, dance, art, and digital culture—to make the point that this was American mainstream popular culture and that Asian Americans have been actively part of forming popular culture in the U.S.

We also wanted to respond to a tendency we saw to conflate Asian cultural elements that influenced American culture (sushi, anime, Iron Chef, K-pop) with Asian American cultural production. It was important to us to point out how conflating the two was a common expression of the “permanent foreigner” motif that all but structured discrimination against Asian Americans and their representation in media. 

What was the focus for your follow-up collection, Global Asian American Popular Cultures? 

The Asian American stereotype remains pernicious, but the ground has shifted so much in the past two decades—not only in terms of politics and representation, but also technology and the degree to which global connectivity has changed the pace, diversity, and reach of culture.

For Global Asian American Popular Cultures, we thought primarily about how digital media tools have opened up our sense of transnational media culture, and about how we could go beyond categories such as “immigrant” or “local.”

We wanted to think about the formation and cultural production of Asian American identity and media work in a global context, and to emphasize the many possible connections, cultural paths, and exchanges that we saw happening. So in some sense, we went from insisting on a U.S.-based single identity category, to arguing for opening up these categories and letting them flow, much like culture does. 

You mention in East Main Streets that you find Asian American identity a good lens through which to examine media culturewhy is that?

It’s particularly useful to understanding the sense of flow that is key to how culture forms and works.

Asian Americans have adapted and reworked the traditions of their parents and grandparents into contemporary American culture, and have often served as cultural agents of influence, introducing mainstream America to everything from ramen, sriracha, and boba tea to manga and Bollywood, in fields including food, health, animation, fashion, music, and more.

There’s also a history yet to be written about the rich and ongoing cultural exchange between Asian and Black American youth cultures, especially in music and dance. Culture in isolation is more ritual than alive; it’s the exchange and influence that makes a living culture.

Can you talk about the racism and hate targeting Asian Americans, and how pop culture can counter it?

It’s important to note that this kind of racism and hate have become more visible but are not, as some have suggested, a new phenomenon. Anti-Asian violence has been with us for well over a century, in the form of discriminatory legislation and presidential pronouncements, lack of representation, and brutal violence.

Much of this can be connected to the notion that Asian Americans are somehow “other” or not “real” Americans. They are often seen as foreigners and held responsible for everything from the loss of jobs in the auto industry—look at the famous case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death in 1982 by two laid-off auto workers who mistook him for Japanese—to global contagion. Before COVID, for example, there was avian flu and other outbreaks, which were linked to Asian Americans.

Culture is a major tool to counter these narratives—from the stories we tell to who gets a say in those stories, to who makes the funding decisions behind them. But, as we’ve learned, media culture isn’t a message machine. Nor is it a hypodermic needle that can instantly affect the way audiences feel and think. What it does do really well is habituate us to a sense of many different voices, stories, and subjectivities.

What does the way Asian Americans are represented on TV and in movies show us?

In television, examining Asian American representation can tell us so much about how media culture changes and engages in a feedback loop with our sense of social reality. And in some ways, it can show us what areas of the cultural imagination are less flexible than others.

For example, many of these TV representations follow the history of Asian Americans in the U.S. From the early days of television through the 1980s, Asians on American TV are foreigners—characters with heavy accents in servile positions, mainly cooks and housekeepers.

In the 90s, we finally had the first TV show featuring an Asian American family: All American Girl, starring the comedienne Margaret Cho. But the entire show was virtually premised on the notion that being both Asian and American was somehow impossible.

It has only been recently, with shows like Fresh Off the Boat and films like Minari and the recent Everything Everywhere All At Once, that we are beginning to see what we can broadly think of as the Asian American experience, written and performed by Asian American creators. And key to that experience is that it is varied and rich, and contains multitudes.