By Marina Sano
CW: Racism, discussions of hate crimes
I came of age in the 2010s – so I’m old enough to have seen my cultural background transition from being ‘weird’ and something I felt I had to hide, to all of a sudden being trendy. But when East Asians are attacked in the streets, the public silence from so many who participate in objects from our cultures has been resounding.
What non-Asians don’t seem to realise is that you can’t just celebrate and appropriate our cultures when you think it’s fun – if you’re going to commodify us, at least help us when we’re being attacked. Our recent forays into the popular consciousness doesn’t erase the racial traumas inflicted on us before this sudden popularity and it definitely isn’t protecting us from hate crimes.
Globally, in 2020 and 2021 we’ve seen an exponential rise in anti-Asian hate (with violent hate crimes rising particularly in the United States). This has followed a pattern of the media scapegoating China about the COVID-19 pandemic. In practice, such xenophobic speech has extended anti-Asian rhetoric and violence towards East and South-East Asians who fit the perceived image of a Chinese person (which isn’t even the monolith that western media assumes).
Growing up Japanese, I was regularly exposed to Japanese foods, media and language. When I wasn’t in Japan, I was in Singapore. Yet still, despite growing up in Asia, I lived in an expat bubble of predominantly white Australians. In this community, these were all things that my predominantly white surroundings deemed ‘other’ and ‘uncool’ to the point where I internalised such thinking and steered clear of these cultural objects in public spaces. Out of a fear of exclusion that I’ve only recently been able to understand, I avoided everything that seemed outwardly Asian from food, media and people in an effort to prevent my peers from seeing me as ‘too Asian’.
I was forced into feeling that I couldn’t celebrate, or even express, my own culture. But now, I see people enjoying their selected portions of our cultures and feeling content in their contribution to a ‘globalised society’. Yet, these same people fail to speak up when atrocities are committed towards the Asian community, or even interrogate their own internalised racism. Partaking in our trending exports, but ignoring the history behind our mistreatment, is just salt to a gaping wound.
Asian cultural objects have recently gained popularity in the food scene. To me, one of the most ironic things to have gained popularity is sushi. While raw seafood is a mainstay in Japanese cuisine, it’s not as common in white cultures. The overwhelming understanding I had as a child was that fish was gross and I shouldn’t eat it around people outside of my family – especially if it was raw. So, after moving to Australia, I was baffled when I realised that sushi is continually gaining popularity here. Notably, the sushi is distinctly Australian-ised in its massive roll shape and use of salad ingredients (why are there carrots, avocado and lettuce in my sushi?) – and the businesses are largely unrelated to Japanese people.
In recent years, matcha green tea has also gained enormous popularity in the western world – and Melbourne is no exception. You’ll find it at most cafés, trending for its health benefits while its cultural history is ignored. However, before its meteoric rise as a health food, I would watch as people turned up their noses at the matcha-green foods that came out of Japanese stores, such as matcha cakes and ice creams. Now, even the matcha green colour itself has become wildly popular.
These are only two examples (and both originating in Japan) of the numerous cultural objects that have been commodified by western media and white populations. There are countless other foods, styles and hobbies of assorted Asian origin that have been popularised in recent years. But in our time of need, where is the support for these communities?
Even in the media, we’ve seen western audiences applaud Asian creators for creating popular films featuring Asian casts, such as Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell and Parasite, yet they continue to snub their cultural contributions. The controversy surrounding Minari’s Golden Globes nomination for best ‘foreign film’ is a perfect example of the inherent anti-Asian sentiment regarding how non-white identities aren’t ‘American enough’ to be considered local. Actions like these, by predominantly white tastemakers, continue to ‘other’ the experiences of non-white Americans in a way that is similarly harmful to other Asian diasporic communities.
Australia might not have seen the same level of violent crimes against Asians, but that doesn’t mean we’re safe from anti-Asian sentiment. Othering non-white Australians has a long legacy that has not been erased by the global commodification of Asian cultural exports. Australia still enforces this sentiment through microaggressions (and straight up aggressions).
Well before the pandemic, a white man followed me for a block just to yell, ‘stupid Asian b*tch!’ My Japanese mum and I are often ignored in stores and if I don’t speak up, I’ve often faced the assumption that I may not speak English well, if at all. While these incidents haven’t physically harmed me, they weigh on me emotionally and make me feel unsafe and unwelcome in predominantly white spaces.
When the masses who enjoy things from our cultures don’t stand up for us, we’re left wondering if they actually like us at all. If you like matcha so much, if you like ‘oriental prints’ on your clothes, then consider the impact it has when you don’t stand up for Asians and how your inaction is just another way you commodify us. You’re treating us as objects of production instead of individual people with unique backgrounds. So, as we continue to fight the Asian hate that was so easy to bring out in people and that makes us feel so unsafe, we’re left wondering if we’ll just have to take our cultures back into hiding as soon as they stop being ‘trendy’.
Marina Sano is a writer, editor and owner of Amplify Bookstore. As a Japanese and Australian writer, her writing reflects ideas of being in-between cultures and people, with a passion to expand the range of experiences that we see represented in publishing.
Cover photo by Victoria Pickering, Rally to stop Asian hate, McPherson Square, D. C. 3/21/21.