Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Asian Americans and Eyelid Surgery

As this article points out, many Asian American Aktivists (spelling copyright Marc Miyake) like to blame Evil Whitey for the fact that among Asians in Asia and Asian-Americans alike, cosmetic surgery to create a double-folded eyelid exploded in popularity during the late 90s and continues to remain very much in style. They assert, without proof, that the standards of beauty in largely non-English speaking East Asia, such as the preference for light skin, a somewhat prominent nose, and double-folded eyelids, were imposed on us helpless FOBs by the White media, while it is the job of the Aktivists, English-monolingual Asians living in America who can't even understand the language of the Asian media, let alone be influenced it to the extent that they would understand what Asian beauty standards are, to save us:

Authors Maxine Hong Kingston and David Mura are uncomfortable with the popularity of the surgery, and believe that altering eyes, features by which Asians are so easily identified, is an attempt to conceal or deny Asian heritage and conform to mainstream American beauty ideals.
"It's evidence of internalized racism," says Mura. "It really indicates something about the way in which Asians in America are indoctrinated by white standards of beauty. They feel less beautiful than those who fit the Caucasian standard of beauty." The main reason for that, Mura says, is the low representation of Asians in the media. "People grow up watching the media, which is where people are beautiful and powerful. You see very few Asian faces. The message is: the way you look is not beautiful, or doesn't count, or doesn't even exist," he says. He believes the American media also account for much of the surgery's popularity in Asia.
"The power of the American media and American culture stretches all over the globe, and can cause people to devalue their own culture," says Mura.

So, two English-monolingual Asian-Americans married to white people are trying to speak for Asians in Asia and interpreting our desire to follow our own culture's beauty standards as blind attempts to imitate white people. (In psychology this phenomenon is known as projection). Cultural imperialism at its worst. Fortunately, some people seem to get it:

"The desire for double eyelids has taken on a strange idea in the U.S. that Asian women want to look like Caucasians and that they desire [moon-shaped] eyes," says Shi Kagy, editor of AsiaMs, an online Asian beauty magazine (www.AsiaMs.net). "In truth, Asian women want double eyelid folds that look like natural Asian type folds, and dislike the Caucasian type," she says.
For ten years, Dr. Jeffrey Ahn, Director of Facial Plastic Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, has performed about 200 Asian blepharoplasties a year. He dispels the idea that his patients have tried to obscure their racial identity. "I don't get a single patient asking to be 'Westernized,'" he says. "A lot of doctors still call it Westernization of the eyelid, which proves they have little understanding of the Asian patients." He stresses the importance of going to a surgeon who is accustomed to operating on Asian eyelids, because of the fundamental differences in facial anatomy.

The article goes on to point out that in Southern China, as many as 70% of all people already have double-folded eyelids anyway.

Wai Yoo No Speeka Asian-Ameleekan?

Hello to all the loyal readers of MixedAsian (hello? anyone?). This post unfortunately does not mark my return to regular participation in the blogosphere; it will likely be several months before that. However, I've just seen a piece of writing so wrong-headed and misinformed that I felt compelled to take it on. (Thanks to Shanti for the link). It consists of a long complaint that it is a bad thing that Asian-Americans (AAs) possess no racial language and as a result are forced to use Black Vernacular English or worse, the evil Ice People Standard English, in order to express all our "cultural" thoughts.

Actually, this rant I'm about to commence has a lot to do with one of my favorite pet academic topics, linguistics, but it also relates to issues of integration and cultural identity, so bear with me. Since fellow Asian Anti-Aktivist Marc Miyake seems to be on hiatus, I hope I can take on this task without making too many errors that would be obvious to any linguistics graduate student.

Anyway, Mr. Hoyt Sze first decries the AA tendency to overuse black street language in an effort to distinguish themselves from white people:

This campus's Asian American literary set fails to understand a simple concept: When we Asian Americans appropriate African American language for our own, we sound ridiculous. Using another people's street language is both a joke and a corruption. Sporting a traditionally "black" attitude results in cheap imitation, not expression.

So far, I can agree with him. AAs have a tendency to ape poor urban blacks in an effort to earn respect and fear from white people, as can be seen in the populariza tion of basketball among AAs. They fail to realize the essential absurdity of middle class suburban kids wearing $100 Banana Republic sweaters trying to talk and act like they po' oppress-ed foke up outta dah ghett-toe.

Towards the middle of the article, though, Mr. Sze starts to veer wildly into dogma:

But let's not fool ourselves. Jazz and rap are culturally ours as much as Bach and Brahms.

Though Mr. Sze means this quote in a negative sense, I've chosen to take it the other way. Black Jazz artists of the 1930s hardly intended their musical talent to be a gift solely to black Americans. Americans of all races and even Australians of all races enjoy jazz music today. As an American I'm heir to all the great musicians and poets of Western civilization and of America itself. As a Chinese-speaking overseas Chinese, I'm heir to the civilization which produced the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and all those cool TVB wu xia dramas. Why would I want to be an "Asian-American?" I don't wanna inherit a bunch of crazy political platforms, whiny books, and racial cliquishness.

An Asian American sensibility must be unique. We must find our own tongue with minimal influence from the white mainstream or the African American alternative.

So, all you AAs are trying to find such a tongue? That's great, I know this language called Chinese, heard of it? In its history of thousands of years it has received no taint of loanwords from the heartless colonial tongues of Evil Whitey (though we stole some words about horsemanship from the Mongols). If you're worried about your cultural discourse being overheard by oppressors who by some miracle have learned to speak the national common tongue of China, why not pick a more obscure member of the Chinese family, such as Fukkienese, or my very own beloved Hakka? Oh, excuse my Sinocentricity. Non-Chinese Asians also have the many languages and dialects of their own ancestral countries from which to choose. We're confronted by a wealth of options.

No wait, lemme guess, you all don't want it, it's too hard to learn, and you got embarassed when your parents spoke it to you in public when you were a kid. You want a dialect which is easy for a AA native speaker of English to put on as a flashy badge of his identity, and which all of the Proud Yellow People (or at least the ones you're interested in hooking up with) can speak to each other while none of the Evil Ice People have a hope of understanding (or breaking in on your pick-up attempt), right? Okay, let's see how this might come about ...

A dialect of a language begins to develop when a subcommunity of users of a language need to talk about ideas, objects, or actions in their daily experience, for which the base language (e.g. English) has no words. The subcommunity invents words to fill the gap in their expressive capabilities. We can see this process at work to a small extent in the AA community, with loanwords such as "desi," "gyopo¡M" or "jook sing," or new English phrases such as "parachute kids" or "overseas Chinese." Standard English has been taking loanwords from the AA lexicon for as long as there have been AAs, leading to "chop suey" (Taishan Âø¸H meaning "miscellaneous"), "coolie" (could originate from Tamil "kuli" meaning payment for menial work, or from the Hakka reading "koo liet" of ­W¤O, Mandarin "ku3 li4," meaning hard labor), "dim sum," (Cantonese ÂI¤ß literally meaning to touch the heart), "wok" (Cantonese ÷i), "kimono," (Japanese µÛª«), and the like. Indeed, the word "Asian-American" itself was invented by AAs.

That's usually called something like jargonization (there's a real word for this; my Linguistics TAs would be marking me down at this point), but it's not a sufficient condition to make a dialect. At this point, it's just English with a few funny words. In general, a full-fledged dialect only develops if the life experiences of the subcommunity are so different from that of mainstream language users that the lexicon becomes filled to bursting with new words, and if the subcommunity in the process of dialect formation is so segregated from mainstream language users that standard grammatical features are not reinforced and new ones develop. The classic example of this kind of segregation is long distance, as occured in the colonization of Latin America by temporally and regionally separated groups of Spanish explorers. Their differing origins and interactions with locals led to various regional dialects of a single Spanish language, most of which, for example, lost the second-person plural informal "vosotros" and associated verb forms.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sze, AAs are not segregated to anywhere near the extent that black Americans were during their 300 years of Anglophone history that led to the development of Black Vernacular English, or to the extent that Australians were from Mother England in the 200 years which led to the unique Aussie accent. We grow up among, work with, and date speakers of standard English, and share their life experiences and cultural referents. And as can be seen from the examples of specific Asian-American words above, most of our invented jargon concerns either peculiarities of life as a child of immigrants, or customs of old-country cultures in which the vast majority of AAs cannot participate without assistance from relatives due to linguistic deficiency and are rapidly leaving behind due to lack of concern. Thus these words will likely fall out of use as AAs pass into adulthood, rather than becoming a stronger component of the spoken language.

Searching for our own identity and language is not any easy process. But once we discover our true collective voice, it will mean the [blank] to our days of silence and self-hatred and the birth of a new Asian American.

Sorry, Mr. Sze, you've got it backwards. A dialect isn't the beginning of a new, separate identity; it's the result of it. If an AA dialect has not already developed by 2003, the centennial of Korean immigration and long past the sesquicentennial of Chinese immigration, maybe that's a sign that even 2nd-generation AAs are already just mainstream kids little different than the white and black suburbanites who surround them.

Is this the fault of white people for forcing AAs to forget their old culture? Well let's see, in San Francisco Bay Area alone, there are 3 broadcast television stations (in addition to I don't know how many cable and satellite channels) which every evening from 6PM until midnight run shows in a total of 3 different Chinese dialects (nightly news, soap operas, music, and talk shows in Cantonese and Mandarin in addition to a weekly cooking show and the occasional movie in Fukkienese or something close to it), in addition to Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Every public university offers Chinese language courses; community colleges and religious associations offer courses in Japanese, Korean, and Thai, among others. Chinese bookshops and Korean video rental stores abound.

And there are tens of thousands of immigrant students who would love to teach AAs their native languages and take them around to all these places and watch TV shows with them; that's how I, a Malaysian-Chinese Hakka speaker who was born in America and has lived here on and off (about 75% on) all my life, learned to speak Hong Kong-accented Cantonese while attending an American high school.

But do AAs take advantage? No, all they have is a lowered Civic with some pearl milktea in the drink holder, as Eminem blasts on the stereo and they drive home to watch The Simpsons. And they're trying to convince us that the shape of their taillights and the flavor of their drinks says more about their cultural identity than the language in their heads and in their entertainment.

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