Monday, November 20, 2006

The Culture Question

This Halloween, I decided to dress up as Alex DeLarge, the flamboyant young criminal made popular by Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, A Clockwork Orange. Decked out in my white pants and button-down collared shirt, black boots and fedora, brandishing a cane and huge false eyelashes on one eye (a detail that took significantly longer to apply than I had expected it to), I strutted around my living room with pride and waited for a friend to pick me up.

Upon her arrival, she looked at me wide-eyed and exclaimed, “You look hot! But…what are you?”

This seemed to be the running theme of my costume for the remainder of the evening.

My brother had invited me to an invitation-only party at his friend’s loft for the evening. I had looked at him skeptically and asked, “Is it an Asian party?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, no one’s going to know what my costume is.”

“I know what your costume is.”

“But no one else will.”

Fine, I was being unfair. I was stereotyping my own, underestimating their cultural IQ. Just because they’re Asian doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have watched A Clockwork Orange. After all, everyone knows Stanley Kubrick, right? I finally agreed to attend, and on the day of, spent hours scouring the neighborhood shops for the necessary accessories—white suspenders: check, black hat: check, black cane (after coloring it in with permanent marker): check, eyelashes: check. I then spent even more time meticulously ironing my clothes, applying layers of black eyeliner and gluing a stubborn pair of eyelashes to just my right eye. Finally, I was ready.

After congregating at another friend’s apartment, we piled into our designated rides and headed for the Greenwich Village loft. My brother, dressed as Mario from Super Mario Brothers, was immediately swamped with random solicitations for photo ops from strangers while my night consisted of several varieties of half-drunken/half-thoughtful stares and, “Oh, wait, I got it! You’re like some kinda Charlie Chaplin, right?” Thankfully, there was an unlimited supply of free beer. Oddly enough, over the course of the night I discovered that I found more success in explaining my costume to people when I told them that Bart Simpson had dressed in the same one in a Halloween episode of The Simpsons a few years back.

“Oh, now I get it.”

At the end of the night, exasperated and drunk, I told my brother that my hours of prep had been wasted and that I was going to use the costume again next year in a venue where people would actually appreciate it. Then I headed off to the Lower East Side to meet with some other friends (who happened to be white) at a small dive bar. Within minutes, people were approaching me to compliment my choice of costume.

To be fair, I was in the Lower East Side, rife with hipsters and wannabe artsy-farts, but I still couldn’t get over it—what had made me think that no one at an Asian party would recognize my costume? More importantly, what had made me right?

It’s safe to say that Asian society doesn’t put as much of an emphasis on the arts. While the majority of my Asian friends have graduated from prestigious colleges and gone on to pursue extremely successful careers in non-creative sectors, almost none of them go to the Met out of their own accord, watch independent or foreign films, or read books for leisure. While it’s ludicrous to say that all white people are cultured, the fact remains that it is much easier to find a group of “artsy” white people than it is to find “artsy” Asian people. They, in turn, expose me to communities with similar interests, few of whom are Asian—the ones who are, quickly identify themselves as “white-washed” distancing themselves from the close-minded reputation associated with Asian society.

The way I see it, the same ambition that allows Asian people to pursue the most lucrative professions also stunts their growth in many other ways. Asians, as relatively new additions to American society, can’t afford the luxury of nurturing their creative sides like other ethnic groups can. Our parents, most of whom are immigrants, have drilled it into our minds that financial stability is key and that creative jobs don’t offer this, but some of us have taken this advice too literally and abandoned our creativity altogether. And it’s a shame, really, because A Clockwork Orange is a damn good movie.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think you need to meet some more cultured asians ... as a KA from your area (flushing born) i feel like i encounter a lot of "artsy" asians

2:38 PM  
Anonymous wineward said...

That was an interesting sociological observation, I think. Of course, anonymous (above) is probably correct that you are generalizing a bit.

It might also be more a function of first and second generation immigrants (from any culture/country) focusing more on education and financial stability as the more important interpersonal goals. I imagine that each successive generation will find more time to indulge in and find greater reward in pursuing more creative endeavors.

I am curious about one thing, though. Does what you describe an "Asian" party include any guests of other ethnic persuasions? Friends, lovers, etc?

BTW, I agree it's an awesome movie!

8:45 PM  
Anonymous -L said...

I think there were two white people there. Every clique seems to include a "token" person (token white guy, token gay guy, etc.).

New York has a lot of these "Asian" parties where 99% of the attendees are Asian (not that non-Asians are barred from them). It just seems like ethnic groups flock together.

And I thought I was being clear that I was generalizing. I even acknowledged that I was being unfair, but this actually DID happen, and B can vouch that I didn't exaggerate it at all. The point I was trying to make was more along the lines of "why is it that the majority of Asian people I meet don't pursue creative endeavors?" not "Asian people are ignorant."

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my intention wasnt to suggest that you were saying "Asian people are ignorant." im just saying that as someone who probably had a very similar background (in terms of being raised in a predominately asian area from queens), i am a bit dismayed that given the many number of Asian people you have grown up with/met "almost none of them go to the Met out of their own accord, watch independent or foreign films, or read books for leisure." i guess it's because i feel like most if not all of my asian friends do those three activities regularly.

my intention wasnt to attack you on what you perceive to be a lack of interest in creative endeavors by Asians - im just saying if you find yourself coming to this conclusion based on the "majority of Asian people I meet" you should really take a closer look at the kinds of asian people you meet - lest you become one of those self-laudatory Asians who heralds herself in her ability to appreciate the finer things in life, and immediately imputes a lack of creative interest on others.

but i will agree with you on one point - those predominately asian parties arent congregations of the most intellectually-driven. but then again i dont think most people who go to clubs are looking to have stimulating conversations.

happy turkey day - if your family is anything like mine, we're having our version of a traditional thanksgiving (with sushi, bap and dwenjangjigae).

3:32 PM  
Anonymous -b said...

actually had an argument with my sis saying the same thing. that most of the people we hang around with are people who care more about money than the arts. but i guess the business/finance oriented asian american is prevalent in nyc, or at least that's what my life's experiences have shown me.

2:07 PM  

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