Smiles, No Bite
took a slew of courses on Asian-American issues when I was in college, where
celebrating individuality and racial identity seemed the thing to do. It
was in these classes that I first learned of aMagazine: Inside Asian America.
Students would saunter into class with the magazine in their hands or tucked
under their arms, the cover clearly visible, as if to flaunt their cultural
pride and awareness. The glossy bimonthly was like a badge of honor that
said, "Look how in touch I am with my culture and myself."
I remember a certain group of girls (for some reason, it was mostly girls) who would "ooh" and "aah" over the latest issue and pass it around in class. I always glanced at the bold cover, with its staple portrait of a well-known, smiling Asian-American, but never particularly cared to look through the magazine’s pages. The smiling cover photo irritated me — the magazine seemed fluffy and artificial.
Almost two years later, I profiled a young writer who had written a small feature piece for the latest issue of aMagazine. I picked the magazine up, and I had to laugh. There was comedienne Margaret Cho, smiling, on the cover. Seemed like nothing had changed.
I’ve been reading magazines practically my entire life. Growing up as an Asian American, surrounded by images of white society, I seldom gave much thought to the glaring fact that people like me were rarely portrayed. Unless popular magazines were celebrating diversity, exploring an ethnic issue, or covering a trend, Asian-American issues were absent. But so what? It was a problem I ignored, perhaps because I hadn’t thought of it as a problem.
aMagazine is an exception. It features more than 80 pages of Asian-American advertisements, Asian-American products, and Asian-American-themed articles written by Asian-American writers. It’s overwhelming. The magazine is its own separate, isolated world. Upon first reading it, I was astonished by all the news, the hot topics, and the abundance of Asian-American talent — I hadn’t even known it existed, because it had rarely, if ever, been covered so thoroughly.
The news in the front of the magazine is news that involves or affects Asian Americans, such as how Mattel’s "President 2000" Barbie line, created to promote the importance of women in politics, included Caucasian, African-American, and Latina dolls, but no Asian-American doll. Or how the Welch’s company’s new model is the first Asian-American child to carry a national advertising campaign. Or how the café franchise Starbucks is being driven out of China because the government views it as a sign of cultural imperialism.
Most interesting are quotes from the various media outlets featured in the front of the magazine, clearly hand-picked for their provocative messages on Asian America. The outright ignorance in the quotes is unnerving. Jimmy Pop, lead singer of the Bloodhound Gang, for example, talks about how fan letters are answered by one of the band’s first fans, who happens to be Asian: "I forward the letters to her, she answers them, and she can say, ‘Shut up, you dumb Chink,’ cause coming from her, it’s OK." I immediately think that, in this day and age, it’s disgusting that stuff like this still gets said. It seems like this is precisely what the magazine wants from me, a reaction of some sort. It forces me to look at – and reconnect with — my racial identity.
The body articles are inconsistent with the newsier front pieces. Features such as "Homeland Politics: Should We Care?" or, even better, "The 50 Best Colleges for Asian Americans" dally in the world of the asinine. What makes a college especially good for Asian Americans, and why is it necessary to make this distinction? Apparently, the best college is one with lots of diversity, a very large Asian-American population and a variety of Asian-American Studies courses. Then there’s the issue featuring the results of a "sex survey," as if the sexual practices of Asian Americans are particularly interesting or different from those of the rest of America. It seems like the magazine is purposely grouping Asian Americans together, herding them away from other groups.
Many Asian Americans have probably yearned for this type of magazine, because it speaks directly to them. But aMagazine promotes a form of voluntary segregation, a distancing of the Asian-American community from the rest of society. In the process, the magazine generally blends the entire Asian-American community into one pool of "Asian American-ness."
As an Asian American, I guess I should say that the reason aMagazine feels so detached from the rest of life is because it is uniquely meant to explore Asian America. It is attempting to do what has never been done before, which is an admirable goal. I should probably also say it’s a start in the right direction, giving voice to an ethnic group long overlooked by the media. But aMagazine has no voice to give.
It presents provocative subjects but doesn’t take a stand on most of them. Every issue is like an encyclopedia of Asian-American topics, and it gets frustrating after awhile. All the celebration is great, but what is the point of all this information? Rather than sugarcoat and celebrate identity like some drawn-out Oprah show, aMagazine should get real and find its voice. If it’s going to speak for Asian America, it’s about time it stopped smiling and did.