March 2, 2002    East vs. WestRace

Speech at the Harvard Law School for Asian Pacific American Conference

Before I discuss the future of the Internet, I’d like to briefly talk about how I ended up here. Although I have lived in America much of my life, I’m not a typical Asian American because I was not born here. Psychologically, I don’t feel like an American any more than I feel like I’m Japanese. I was born and raised in Japan until I was 17, then moved by myself to California through an exchange program. In retrospect, my high school years were very interesting. I was a typical Asian nerd, much like Long Duk Dong in the movie “Sixteen Candles.” Though there were many Asian Americans in my high school, none of them bothered to talk to me. It’s quite obvious now why they didn’t. After all, I was contributing to the stereotype of Asians being nerdy. Perhaps, some of them even had a feeling of anger towards me. Remember, this is the mid-Eighties: there was no Chow Yun-Fat or Jet Li. Our only representative who wasn’t a nerd was Bruce Lee. So, since most of the Asian-Americans I met did not want to be seen as nerds, I was alienated from my own people. In fact, I’ve never felt Asian Americans to be “my” people. This lack of sense of belonging is something that continues to this day.

I finished junior and senior years of high school in Los Angeles, and after a brief return to Japan, I came back to the States to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. At the time, SVA had very few Asian students. I met one Japanese student in my senior year, but other than him, all my friends were non-Asians. In the East Village, where I have lived for the last 12 years, there have always been a large population of Asians, especially Japanese, but I never got to know any of them. I would often see a group of Asians sitting at a table in a restaurant, and I would wonder what their world was like, and how they came to know each other. It is still puzzling for me to see a large group of Asians who speak perfect English to be hanging out exclusively with one another. Especially when my English skills were very poor, I would look at them and think, “With their command of the English language, they could make friends with anyone. So why do they just hang out with each other?” I was envious of their skills, but I couldn’t relate to what they did with them. This is not a criticism; I’m simply curious as to what binds them so exclusively to each other.

I remember one Asian-American guy in college who was intensely bitter about racial issues. Honestly, I was shocked to see his expression of bitterness as he talked about racial discrimination. Obviously he has experienced something that I haven’t. Personally, I can’t recall any racial discrimination incidents that were substantial enough for me to feel any bitterness of that magnitude. As the foreigner that I literally was, I expected to be discriminated against, that is, to be treated differently, especially coming from a country of near-perfect homogeneity, where treating foreigners equally would not be part of any ethical construct. On that account, the connotation of one being born here as an Asian American and that of one coming here as an immigrant, are fundamentally different. In this sense, I am speaking from a very different point of view, not as an Asian American that most of you would expect, but as an outsider, both to Americans in general and to Asian Americans. I often share my sentiments more with foreigners in general than I do with Asian Americans. I could imagine the frustration of being born an American, yet being perceived as a foreigner, but that is a sentiment that I can only guess at. In other words, I’m fine with being perceived a foreigner, since I am one in many ways. That is, I have an excuse not to have to belong to any particular group. This is both a blessing and a curse. I have a sense of freedom from a stifling aspect of being part of a culture and a tradition, but at the same time feel homeless and lonely from time to time.

That said, I’d like to discuss my view of Asian communities on the Internet. Honestly speaking, I don’t belong to any of them. In fact, I’m hardly aware of such things. I created a site called where you can test your ability to distinguish between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese faces. At first, it was just a joke between my girlfriend and I, but it turned out to be a very controversial site, enough for some people to take a notice and invite me to this panel discussion. Our site can’t really be called a community though it became a place where people seriously discussed Asian American issues. Many of the visitors to our site are non-Asians, and even among Asians, there is a clear split between those who are for it and against it. Personally, I am not interested in building an Asian community on the Internet. The more you think about what the word “Asian” means, the more it appears arbitrary. It does not seem to me that there are enough binding issues in the word “Asian” that call for building of a community. Living day to day in this country, we do share similar experiences. And, those who share similar experiences tend to come together and unite, but what bothers me about this particular binding factor called “Asians” is that the reason why we end up sharing similar experiences is superficial. Since what causes us to unite is a very superficial aspect of us humans, I feel that any product of it is just as superficial. If there were no racial prejudice, being an Asian would not be a legitimate binding factor. It’s like making a community of blonde people.

But the problems that we face are real, though they may be created by something superficial. Prejudice is part of human nature. No one can be absolutely free of prejudice. I am always the first to admit my own prejudices. Wittgenstein used an example of two words that are different in spelling but same in pronunciation to illustrate how deeply rooted our prejudices are. If you look at the spellings of the two words as you pronounce them, you almost feel as though the pronunciations are also different. In a sense, he spent his whole life fighting against the prejudices formed by our own language. It would be naive for us to pretend that prejudice is a problem only for ignorant people, and it is equally naive to assume that we can do away with it entirely.

Accepting this fact, how do we deal with it? That is the question. Problems that are superficial in nature call for solutions that are also superficial in nature. For instance, for the problem of Long Duk Dong, we have the solution of Chow Yun-Fat. I truly believe that since the emergence of Chow Yun-Fat in Hollywood, Asian men’s status in the market place of mating has gone up a bit. 10 years ago, I hardly ever saw a couple consisting of an Asian male and a non-Asian female. About 4 years ago, I suddenly noticed an increase in this combination, which coincides with the release of the movie “The Replacement Killers.” I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Chow Yun-Fat, but we all know well that, at the end of the day, this is very superficial.

I am a graphic designer by trade and I deal mainly with the advertising business. Contrary to what most people would say about advertising, I honestly love it. When I watch TV, I’m usually just watching commercials. Advertising can be seen as an applied science of human prejudice. It requires an insight into how prejudice works. Let me tell you are a little story of my childhood that can be seen as a premonition of my future career.

When I was in my 8th grade, my home class decided to publish a journal. The whole class was brainstorming for the name of it. Many suggestions came up. The moderator wrote down about 40 of them on the blackboard. My suggestion was one of them. We started arguing over which one was the best. To my disappointment, no one was talking about mine. Then we took a 10 minute break, during which I went up to the board, erased mine, and rewrote it nice and neatly. After the break, when we resumed the discussion, suddenly everyone was talking about mine. And guess what? Mine was chosen in the end.

This experience forever changed my view of people. I actually had no idea that it would turn out this way, at least not consciously. A little change in presentation changed the perceptions of the entire class. People unconsciously value presentation more than they do its message. That is why objects of pure presentation can be sold without any substance, but the reverse is not true. This is where advertising gets its bad rap. Advertising offends people because they often feel tricked, fooled, or suckered, and that hurts their egos. I don’t mind being suckered. When Starbucks came into New York City, I was happy as a clam. I used to insist on buying Apple Macintosh computers just because they looked cool, not because they were better. While I try to be aware of my own prejudices as much as possible, I also enjoy them as long as they are reasonably harmless. In other words, I embrace my own vanity and superficiality. So, I’m in the perfect business.

Advertising is everywhere. Even things that do not appear on the surface to be advertising are still functioning with the same basic mechanism. The word “Asian” is a brand just like SONY, Nike, or AT&T. It connotes certain images and values in the eyes of the American public, which in turn directly affects our lives as Asian Americans. We saw this happen to Arab Americans after 9-11, and to Andersen Consulting after the Enron scandal. From a brand manager’s point of view, Long Duk Dong was a disaster in advertising, and Chow Yun-Fat, a monumental success. Although no one is consciously managing the brand, “Asian”, it is still operating under the same mechanism. Therefore, if you want to bring about a better public image of “Asians”, the best solution, in my opinion, would be to approach it like you do with advertising. This will no doubt raise the quality of our lives as Asian Americans.

But I ask myself, “Why?” This is all superficial. Though I like superficial things, superficiality applied to something that should not be superficial bothers me. Perhaps, I would enjoy managing the brand, “Apple” or “IBM”, because in the end it’s just business. It’s supposed to be superficial. The idea of managing the brand “Asian” would be very confusing, and I would not enjoy it. Honestly speaking, the only way it would be interesting for me is if I made fun of it. That is, to illustrate and laugh about the fact that this problem of racism, in the end, is just another problem in advertising.

For the purpose of voicing my opinions, the Internet has proven to me to be very effective. Though I don’t plan on becoming an authority on Asian American issues, I’m happy that raised some good questions, and allowed me to communicate with some interesting people; Asians and non-Asians. What I love about the Web especially is that it is a “pull” medium, as opposed to “push” like emails. The people who are interested in your ideas and expressions will seek you out. And I can also do the same in reverse. The significance of the Internet for me isn’t so much its power to form communities, but simply to allow effective and efficient two-way mass communications. The mass communication is no longer a privilege left to the select few. Also, one of the beauties of the Internet is that race is invisible, and that it can effectively make it irrelevant. Certainly other types of prejudice can manifest themselves in it, but at least it gives us an alternative method of communication without the prejudices of the so-called “real” world. Behind every communication, there is a binding factor. Often this binding factor is as arbitrary as race. Every world has its own way of categorizing its components. In the “real” world, race is a category. On the Internet it does not have to be. This allows for different kinds of binding factors to form among its citizens. So, I prefer to take advantage of these binding factors that are not available in the “real” world.

As for the problems of the real world with respect to race, I’ve always held the same stance. Though we Asians are often criticized for being too passive, there are proper places for passivity, and I feel that racism is one of them. I do not mean to say that we should do nothing about it. Rather, we should shift our focus to something of a positive nature. The fundamental idea of Western medicine is to directly attack the evil. Because of this, while it is very effective in many ways, if the evildoer cannot be identified, or if something prevents it from directly dealing with it, or if there is no weapon to attack it with, then Western medicine is often helpless. Eastern medicine, on the other hand, adopts a very different philosophy. Instead of attacking the evil directly, it makes the body stronger so that it can fight the evil better. It is like making the economy stronger, in order to reduce the number of crimes. I believe that it is more effective to take the approach of Eastern medicine when it comes to the problem of racism. If every one of us focused on doing what we do best, and if we succeed at it, doesn’t that in the end help solve the problem? If you are a lawyer, try to be the best lawyer that you can be. If you are a doctor, try to be the best doctor that you can be. And, if you are a graphic designer, then you try to be the best graphic designer that you can be. I feel that the only thing that you accomplish by uniting to fight the problem would be to realize that you are fighting human nature. Just as our bodies are full of little problems, human nature too has problems. Rather than focusing on specific health problems by applying creams or taking pills, why not do something that makes our bodies healthier as a whole? One of the advantages of being an Asian American is that we can see both the good and the bad aspects of the East and the West, and we can take appropriate actions based on those insights. I see this to be a tremendous advantage. On the Internet where the color of our skin is irrelevant, that is what we are: a hybrid of the Eastern and the Western wisdom. Not the little East inside of the big West as the word “Asian American” implies in the eyes of the American public. But, as I said before, that is just another problem in advertising.