The Asian Gaze
The Lens of Western Fetishization of the East
I remember watching Migo's video for Stir Fry back in junior year of high school, and my immediate reaction was something along the lines of:
“Yeah, there's something that isn't right about this.”
Obviously, there were a few elements of the video I found problematic. The title already exhibits an American tendency to associate Chinese culture with the “stir-fry” phenomenon. The recurring images of kung-fu were presented in a manner that could have been more tasteful. Of course, these critiques were self-explanatory.
But what else? Was it the multitude of Chinese people given background roles to emphasize the presence of the Americans? Perhaps.
But then, Quavo bests the Chinese gangster in his own area of expertise in the field of martial arts. This scene was perhaps the most vital component to what made the video so troublesome.
I realized that it was the combination of all of the previously stated elements - the commodification of Chinese culture into popularized images - and how they consolidated into the expression of the overall theme for the video:
America wins, always.
The video displays the idea that America dominates the cultural landscape - deciding what elements of Asian culture are to be presented - all for them to simply exert their dominance even further, by making themselves the master of these elements.
Through this video, a sad but true reality presents itself:
The world’s dominant perception of the East is from a Western view, not an Eastern one.
One of the great cultural tragedies of human history has been the centuries-long, ongoing, problem with Orientalism, and the internalization of prejudices that arise from it.
The concept of Orientalism is credited to the Arab-American philosopher Edward Said, who essentially described it as the West’s underlying belief that Eastern cultures, be it the Middle East or Asia, are inferior and therefore must be changed to become more similar to the West. If Western cultures continue to hold this intrinsic belief, all attempts to ‘understand’ and appreciate a foreign culture will be deeply rooted in latent xenophobic assumptions.
What are these assumptions?
The Occident (western culture) prioritizes values of industrialization and material wealth, which leads to a “civilized” society of leisure and refinement.
Any culture that does not share the priorities of The Occident is barbaric and purely exotic.
Since The Occident boasts their contributions to the advancement of technology and commerce, they believe their ideology that has led to such a complex societal system to be correct - and therefore should be spread to others.
Perhaps originally well-intentioned, the epidemic of colonization began, as Europe began to impose its ideologies onto the rest of the world.
As a result, perception of the East in Western media reflects this stance towards Eastern cultures.
The extremely entrenched, and at times extremely subtle, commodification of Asian cultural elements in the West, primarily from Europe and America, has been a cultural genocide for a genuine representation of Asian culture, untainted by Western perception.
In Orientalism, “the Oriental'' becomes an abstracted novelty instead of a representation of the original version of their culture, one of a diverse patchwork of ideas and history that have been developing as long as, if not longer than, their Occidental counterparts.
Cultures with millennia's worth of history have become flattened into recurring images, frozen in time, and can only be characterized by the elements in their culture that are adopted by the West.
The reason for this Asian commodification originates simply from a mercenary standpoint, where selling goods is the priority.
Marketable to whom?
Western, primarily white, non-Asians. The soccer mom who does yoga, owning a Buddha statue. The anime-fetishizer, whose perception and understanding of Japan stems solely from selective media consumption. White Westerners are the market — most Asians would not be attracted to a watered-down version of their own culture.
But why are Western non-Asians in such a rush to consume Asian media and goods?
To seem different, of course. Almost every colonialist empire has been guilty of such commodification – collecting “the Other” to stand out among other white people.
Hence, ‘attractive’ Asian cultural elements are abstracted, and their components become objectified, reified into images of exoticism.
Recurring images appear across various Asian cultures. Ninjas, dragons, pandas, kimonos, martial arts are perhaps the most predominant images that the Occident thinks of when envisioning the Orient.
The images that prevail in western culture are the most marketable because of how different they are from Western images.
As a result, any exotic image can become mystified in the eyes of the West, reflecting the West’s desire to commodify everything as a way to express its cultural dominance. However, the standards of beauty and aesthetics of the West define what are the marketable images. In regards to the images that are deemed unmarketable, they are elements of the culture that are viewed as “grotesque” or “ugly.”
However, the true tragedy lies not in cultural appropriation, but rather cultural revision.
From these examples alone, the West remains culturally dominant — another prime example can be found in the current version of Chinese food in America. When Chinese immigrants arrived in America in the early 20th century, most chefs needed to make an income. As a result, they had to alter their dishes to appeal to the popular taste, which resulted in fried dishes with a sweet syrupy sauce.
The new form of Chinese cuisine continued to increase in popularity as it kept on selling. Eventually, the dishes, originally designed to cater to Americans, found their way into mainland China. Here we are, in postmodernity, where Chinese food is now defined by American consumption and is perceived by the world as the“sweet and sour” flavor of the American palette.
This cultural rewriting is a reflection of Western ideals dominating the market, and as a result, dominating everyone else’s ideas. These ideals are the underlying belief that Western civilization believes itself to be culturally superior to the rest. These assumptions have manifested themselves in media, such as film, advertisements, and artworks for over a century.
But how do we escape this cultural dominance?
Better yet, what would breaking free from Orientalism even entail?
I believe the escape from Western cultural dominance would require a revolutionary upending of the colonialist ideology that brought about the fetishization of Asian culture. Unfortunately, that would not happen without extreme negative backlash from most of the world, since the dominators of media are from the West.
Additionally, capitalism, a western mode of thought, has entrenched itself in almost every country on the planet; therefore a socioeconomic revision, wherein the industries that commodified Asian images as means for profit are destroyed, is impossible.
However, I think a solution lies in the original problem I stated in the Migos video…
The concept of beating one at their own game.
Asian cultures can take advantage of the capitalist media industry, using authentic voices to express genuine content. South Korean cinema has proven this (remember Parasite won Best Picture of 2019). In this case, the Western prioritization of media and entertainment has been adopted by Asian culture and has been executed in an extremely original fashion (and perhaps of greater quality).
Such is the case for Japan as well, which adopted the American consumerist sentiment but imbued it with their own cultural values to create a far more complex and efficient system of commerce.
This approach then becomes the new association with the East - exporters of high-quality media and goods, signifying an eventual shift in cultural dominance.
If this pattern of gradual cultural awareness of Asia’s potential continues to increase, non-Western cultures and values may finally become the cultural dominator, allowing for more authentic voices to be heard without the fear of an omnipresent Orientalist influence.
To further decolonize our minds:
Asia Society | The Evolution of Chinese Food as a ‘Cultural Ambassador’
NBC News | White Women Co-Opted Pandemic Yoga. Now, South Asian Instructors Are Taking It Back
FilipiKnow | A Brief History of Filipino’s Obsession With White Skin
Do you recognize something from your culture that has been commodified? Or have an idea of how to move past Orientalism? Let us know!
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