When I was in elementary school, my parents would gather with their Chinese friends every Friday night for a Bible Study. While the adults were upstairs, all of us kids would find a computer downstairs and crowd behind it. I have fond memories of those nights playing Club Penguin (RIP) and Runescape with my friends.
One day, running a little late, I bounded downstairs but ran into an unfamiliar scene. Instead of all my friends playing video games, they were all watching some guy making jokes into a camera.
“Hey guys, what’s this?”
“Dude, do you not know who NigaHiga is?”
Growing up, I knew I was Asian. I looked different from most of my peers and influences. My friends and teachers at school were white. The books and movies I watched featured white protagonists. They didn’t deal with or understand my family dynamics, values or even my food. During that time, I desperately wanted to fit in and do the same things other kids were doing. I begged my parents for pizza, joined a soccer camp like all my friends (I didn’t even know how soccer worked) and try to dress the same. I even used to make my video game avatars white, because that’s how I felt I wanted to be portrayed as.
What I learned much later, was that I was trying to find my identity. Broadly speaking, the dictionary defines identity as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” In other words, I wanted to discover who I was. I think that human beings are complex and their identities are made up of many different parts. A person can define their identity through the lens of sexuality, religion, culture and so much more. Personally, I think one of the biggest players in the formation of personal identity was my ethnic identity. As I said in my former piece, I did not feel strong connections to either my Asian or American side. But that day, watching NigaHiga’s “How To Be Ninja” (oh gosh this video has aged so much), I saw a person who was widely viewed and liked in popular culture who I personally could relate to. More than that, seeing the positive reception that Ryan Higa got among my friends, Asian or not, I was able to connect, explore and be proud of my ethnicity. I began to learn how to be Asian American.
I find this experience of feeling left out of mainstream culture to be common among Asian Americans, even cross generationally. Restaurateur Eddie Huang, in his memoir Fresh Off the Boat, talks about how he naturally gravitated towards African American and hip-hop culture because it was the opposite of a mainstream culture that he felt no connection towards. Professor Derek Chang, head of the Asian American Studies Department at Cornell University, talked to me about how he almost became a Professor of African American Studies for the same reason (this was before Asian American Studies existed as something people could study). For my generation, I have had countless friends who have told me how they were ashamed of their culture but could not entirely connect with their friends either. Many like me, found solace in the internet and Youtube. Others found their place in other mediums like manga/anime, k-pop or within ethnic or religious groups growing up. Yet no matter what, we all try to define our identity and find commonality within some group which we can enjoy and be proud of.
Personally, I continue to watch Asian American creators on Youtube even now. Through Asian American hip hop dance crews or body-builders and powerlifters, I know that Asian men don’t have to be less masculine than other races, as I once was ashamed of. Through creatives like Clara C and Wong Fu Productions, I know that Asians aren’t all just nerdy, but can also be incredibly creative and artistically talented. These people on Youtube were role models to me growing up; they showed what the possibilities could be for me as an Asian American. Was I only locked into certain stereotypes? Could I be proud of my traditions and values? If these people on Youtube could break those stereotypes and still proudly live out their lives in the intersection of Asia and America, why couldn’t I do the same thing?
To close, here are some of my favorite videos from great Asian American creators ranging from comedy, short films, dance and body-building. This long list is only a snippet of the Asian American community and exclusively Southeast or East Asian due to the fact that I personally have more shared cultural experiences with creators from these demographics. I am by no means saying this is representative of all Asian American creators or of the possible opportunities that are available for Asian Americans. That being said, I hope you enjoy the list!