Back in high school, and throughout the first year of university, I had a brief (let's call it an intense) interest in Asian dramas and pop artists. It’s a bit out of character. I generally shy away from TV shows, celebrities, and the whole tinsel town experience. I’m usually the last to know when a personality gets into a scandal. I’m not even entirely sure I can get through an entire r&b song without changing the station. The scene is not something I’m attracted to. So, to have a brief history of watching rather predictable love stories, listening to Asian rap, and googling Asian names just to see what they were up to is something unexpected. In fact, it’s become a bit of an embarrassing joke for me.
Looking back, my attraction to the Asian scene had little to do with compelling Korean lyrics (I can’t understand Korean),or interesting plot lines (Taiwanese dramas are notorious for being predictable). Subconsciously, I think I was looking for someone to identify with, and I found that in Asian pop culture.
When I was younger, my favorite characters in TV shows, or comics, or movies would be the Asian girl. There weren’t many of them. Many articles suggest that children have a hard time delineating TV with reality, but I never felt like TV was real. No one looked like me, my family or my classmates. Everyone on screen had sharp noses and yellow hair. Everyone wore casual clothes to school. They went out to the mall after class hours. Everyone I knew had dark hair. And we all wore uniforms to school. We had to ask permission from our parents before going out even on a weekend. The culture was very different. But I think my longing for relatable figures extended beyond seeing non-Asians on screen. Even in the Philippines, my friends and I are considered exotic. Most of us have Chinese parents, and look extremely East Asian. I barely speak my mother’s Filipino tongue. In college, the most common question I got when meeting someone new was “so, where are you from?” or something along the lines of “you must speak fluent Chinese.” In many, many ways, I felt very other. I was unable to identify with local celebrities, and foreign celebrities. I was unable to identify with people outside the culture I grew up with.
Late into high school, suddenly, just as I was becoming an angsty teenager, my class got a young Chinese teacher who introduced us to modern songs, my dad took the family to Taiwan for the first time, and the k-pop scene boomed. All at once, I had so many things I could identify to. In a way, it felt like there was a subgroup I had an affinity to—a part of global society where people didn’t ask me if I was attracted to people outside my race, or a part of society where people also found it culturally uncomfortable to talk about sex or deep seeded feelings in general but completely comfortable to talk about diarrhea or some other “embarrassing” medical condition. I’m sure this isn’t the case across the board, but the point is the feeling of belonging to a sub group. Being exposed to different cultures is great, but when you’re always seen as the one from the exotic culture, it is nice to find a space where you don’t have to explain yourself.
And my experience with Asian pop culture has been overall enjoyable. In high school, we used to sing along to 光良’s 童話 after Chinese class. My cousin, a few years above me in school, first introduced me to Jay Chou. My Korean classmate and I bonded over K-pop back in the beginning of college. I’ve been back to Taiwan every year (sometimes more frequently) since I first went. If I remember correctly, Japanese anime heavily influenced the way I dressed throughout high school.
I think, in some ways, I fell out of the pop culture habit because, obviously, the experience of being Asian is not homogenous. As I grew older, I realized that I didn't identify with the Korean or the Japanese culture--mostly because I am neither Korean nor Japanese. But my stint with their pop cultures have, in some ways, given me a greater appreciation of the culture they hold. And, in some ways, I can see the overlap of my culture and their culture. If only for this purpose, I'm grateful for my short obsession with K-pop and Japanese anime. It's broadened my horizons, and helped me appreciate my own heritage so much more.
I also think there's value to obsessing over something closer to home. However odd that sounds. It makes you lean into your culture instead of away from it. I never felt ashamed of looking Chinese, or felt like I would be prettier if I had western features. I think part of that is because I was more enamored with Asian personalities than Western ones. If that makes any sense.
Earlier this year, an old friend sent me a link to Big Bang’s new song. The title was shamelessly suggestive—something unheard of in K-pop when we were in our late teens. It’s interesting, we both thought, how things have changed. Still, watching a pink haired young man sing about sex seems more identifiable than watching a blonde sing about an ex-lover. My friend and I have not talked since, but this is the way things go. You remember each other fondly, then allow the memory to stay in the past.
As a closing statement to my long ramble, I’d say I’m pretty much done with my K-pop and Japanese anime phase. My connection with it was, to be honest, on a rather superficial level rather than a deep, cultural one. I am still inclined to put on Jay Chou once in a while—and I mostly understand the lyrics now so I don’t have to feel so embarrassed. Now that I'm older, especially, I get touched by his song about filial piety. I think it’s important for anyone and everyone to feel like they can identify with what goes on in the media. I suppose it’s partly the point of entertainment—we’re supposed to feel a degree of fondness with personalities. The goal is to make us (the audience) feel something, and that draws heavily on how we were raised, what we value, what we aspire towards, etc. But at the same time, I think it’s important that minorities are represented. I think it’s important that our stories are told. It’s bad enough that we feel as though some people fetishize our culture. What’s worse is seeing its value diminished and its essence misrepresented just because there are people who aren’t better exposed.